25 Inspired Weekend Getaways in Asia
April 2, 2014
Asia's cities are some of the most madcap and electric in the world, making them both energizing and, we admit it, exhausting. Luckily, you needn't travel more than four hours from so many of our metropolises to find fresh air, sea breeze, portals to time-past and great gathering spots for groups for friends. Here are some of our favorites.
Published on Apr 2, 2014
1. MANDALAY, BURMA
Rudyard Kipling's poem The Road to Mandalay etched the eastern town into the Western psyche, but the city's sleepy charm requires a bit of legwork today. Hop the direct flight from Bangkok in the afternoon and arrive in time for that emblematic Burma photo at U Bien Bridge with its iconic silhouettes of monks at dusk. Hotel Red Canal is a sanctuary in the city, but in dry season, escape the dust bowl and trace the colonial ghost of George Orwell to Maymyo, a hill station an hour's drive east that, under British rule, was a retreat for top brass escaping Rangoon’s humidity and heat. For a simulacrum of their high-brow getaways, check in to Hotel Pyin Oo Lwin. And if you really want to follow historic footsteps, return by train to Mandalay—part of a journey romanticized by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia.
2. KANCHANABURI, THAILAND
A sleepy nook a few hours' drive west of Bangkok—and clear of the beeline most travelers make for either the southern beaches or the northern mountains—harbors an unadulterated tranquility. With a drier climate, Kanchanaburi is set on the historic Kwai River Bridge, a shrine for World War II history buffs. To really immerse yourself in the area's serenity, take a long-tail boat ride upriver to the Float House River Kwai. Be serenaded to sleep by the gurgling river beneath you, and, come daytime, let it carry away your city stresses while you lounge with a book in your hand.
Kwai River Bridge
3. PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN, THAILAND
No matter how much we love the islands, we'll let you in on a secret: the mainland of Thailand boasts some of the country's best coastline. You couldn't conceive of a better pedigree than Prachuap Khiri Khan, whose powdery sands were first put on the map by the Thai Royal family. The expansive shoreline provides space and solitude for a range of coastal activities from navel contemplation, for the lethargic, to kite surfing, for the more ambitious. Many ex-urbanites have made the seaside stretch of coast their new home, opening up venues such as La a Natu Bed & Bakery Resort. Bringing design sensibility and big-city sophistication to the area is X2 Kui Buri, whose pool villas are perfect self-contained pamper pods for a weekend... or longer. —R I C H A R D M C L E I S H
Well-pedigreed Prachuab Khiri Khan
4. DOI SAKET, THAILAND
Chiang Mai is known for ambling atmosphere and ethnic diversity, but its true treasures lie in the nearby surrounds. One trove of culture and beauty is Doi Saket. Getting there requires a 70-minute flight to Chiang Mai plus a smidge of a drive, but you’ll be rewarded with dense jungle and sweeping landscapes that impose a total timeout. Thais flock to Wat Doi Saket, built in 1112, for its elaborate murals; after your culture fix, head for the hot springs or go hot-air ballooning. Get among the foliage Tarzan-and-Jane-style at Rabeang Pasak Tree House Resort, which is suspended in the canopy of remote protected forest. Or, unwind at Soulmates Retreat —it's perched over a verdant-season vista of the electric-green rolling hills just north of town, and lets you do nothing but relax.
Rabeang Pasak Tree House Resort
From HONG KONG
5. GUILIN, CHINA
Roaming water buffalo, emerald rice paddies and drifting bamboo rafts… the rustic river scenes back-dropped by the dramatic limestone karsts of Guilin are reached by a 90-minute flight from Hong Kong. Take in vistas that have inspired artists for centuries on-board the Li River Cruise from Guilin to lovely Yangshuo; there, at the rustic Yangshuo Li River Retreat, you can take a dip in the Li, or choose the more remote Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. After refueling at one of the many cafés in and around Yangshuo's West Street—try Cloud 9 for local delicacies such as beer fish, or the Mood Food Energy Café for sourdough bread and homemade jams—escape the backpacker crowd by pedaling out to the surrounding villages (bikeasia.com one-day tours for RMB152, or self-hire for around RMB30) and say ni hao to the locals. Keep the adrenalin pumping by scaling the karsts, Krabi-style (karstclimber.com). —H E L E N D A L L E Y
Drifting at dawn down the Li River
From KUALA LUMPUR
6. LANGKAWI, MALAYSIA
For stressed-out city slickers, this laid-back island an hour's flight from Kuala Lumpur and at the periphery of Peninsular Malaysia's northwestern coast is fast-becoming a popular place to relocate. Case in point: former radio executive turned resort owner Karen Bahrin and her sister Karina, whose 12-room property La Pari-Pari melds their cosmopolitan outlook with the island's demand for chic, minimalist and affordable places to stay. Besides hanging out at the beach, which is a 10-minute stroll away, guests are encouraged to explore the island on bicycle—the excellent roads are a breeze to pedal. Take a day trip to the mangrove forests in the Kilim Nature Park, where you'll encounter a cast of local inhabitants including lively macaques, stealthy monitor lizards and the soaring brown eagles from which the island gained its name.
Pantai Cenang beach, Langkawi
7. IPOH, MALAYSIA
Former tin-mining hub Ipoh, a two-hour trip from the capital by road or rail (ktmb.com. my), is showing new polish—particularly in Old Town, where late-19th century shophouses like converted flash-packer residence Sekeping Kong Heng, the town's first shiny haven of hipness, line the broad streets. Previously a ramshackle boarding house, the property accommodated Chinese opera troupes back in the 1950's and 1960's, and still looks as if it hasn't quite shrugged off its bohemian past. Amble down the adjacent alley, and you'll find Thean Chun coffee shop (73 Jln. Bandar Bijih Timah). Join the lunch crowds that come here for bowls of flat rice noodles in a tasty chicken and prawn broth; Chinese-style pork skewers; and Hokkien delicacy popiah, fresh and deep-fried rice-flour spring rolls. At The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, a luxury resort neighboring a cluster of ancient limestone hills, you can relax and take the cure in Ipoh's famed hot springs. Or if you prefer aquatic adventure, the sleepy town of Gopeng, a 16-kilometer drive away, attracts whitewater rafting and kayaking enthusiasts (nomadadventure.com) to the Kampar River, flowing with 22 Grade Two and Three rapids.
Rafting the Kampar River
8. KUCHING, MALAYSIA
The Chinese immigrant heritage of melting pot Kuching is best displayed at The Junk (+60 82 259 450; dinner for two RM200) a restaurant/exhibition space for antiques and curios, located on one of the city's oldest thoroughfares, Wayang Street. After your 90-minute flight, the Pullman Kuching, near the historic Sarawak River, is a plush base for your East Malaysian adventure: On one day, hit the beaches at Santubong, a 45-minute drive from town, and go porpoise- and dolphin-spotting; on another, head inland to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre—accessible by bus and taxi from the city center—a sanctuary for orangutans and other injured and orphaned animals. Plan your visit during the twice-daily feeding times, when rehabilitated orangutans return from the wild for their bounties of fruits and bottled milk. —M A R K L E A N
9. TAAL LAKE, PHILIPPINES
With a spectacular view of Taal Volcano floating on the glassy lake, a multitude of farm-totable restaurants, boutique hotels and inns, Tagaytay, only 90 minutes by car (manilastay.com; packaged roundtrip rates inclusive of car, driver and fuel from P6,500), is Manila's No. 1 getaway spot. Go sailing on the flat waters or, for the more adventurous, rent a boat to wakeboard (sailing.org.ph). Have lunch and a dreamy afternoon massage at Sonya's Garden, a shabby-chic haven of flowers and organic herbs, then melt into the evening with cocktails and dinner at Antonio's. Soft lighting, old-world charm, vintage furniture and cutlery all nestled amid overgrown greenery make the perfect backdrop for the excellent classic gourmet cuisine. Snuggle in at the English cottage-style Discovery Country Suites or, for the modern and glam, The Boutique Bed & Breakfast.
10. CALATAGAN, PHILIPPINES
Gentle rolling hills, mango groves, sprawling ranches and a seaside with the setting sun: Calatagan can be best described as part-Hamptons, part-Santa Barbara. It's a spot where Manila's upper crust have spectacular weekend homes that put many local resorts to shame. You can play that game too, by taking the two-hour drive from the capital, renting your own serviced villa for a weekend with friends, barbecuing by the pool and sipping some cold rosé. Along with 12 of your favorites, take over Puesto del Sol, and enjoy its 25-meter lap pool, giant Jacuzzi and spa services—though the three villas are available separately as well. Arm yourself with some great music, books and board games, then pass by Säntis Delicatessen en route on the highway in Cavite to purchase some prosciutto, Brie and wine, plus some fine steaks and sausages to slap on the grill.
Morning in Calatagan
11. BACOLOD, PHILIPPINES
Deliciously languid Bacolod is a one-hour flight and a step back in time, into a world of sugar farmers and plantation living, where nothing is more important than good food, good friends and good rum. Have coffee by The Ruins, a beautiful garden where the bones of an old mansion stand majestic. Hotel choices are slim but L'Fisher is tried and trusted. Stay at their new Chalet wing for fresher, more modern rooms. Standing proud amid the rustling sugarcane is Balay Negrense, the Gaston Family Ancestral Home left just as it was, with the dishes still set for a decadent banquet. Speaking of dining, Negrense food is a rich mix of Filipino and Spanish heritage; Bacolodians are proud of it and will consistently offer you things to eat—an offer rude to refuse, so do not come on a diet. Instead, treat yourself to sweet rich snacks like napoleones or piaya (virgieshomemade.com) in the afternoon, then for dinner, indulge in the local specialties, much of which is inspiringly fresh seafood. Have some grilled diwal (angel wing clams) or kilawin (local ceviche). For a heartier meal, don't miss the charcoal-grilled, bright at suete-painted Chicken Inasal. Dip it in some tangy, sweet sinamak (sugarcane vinegar). Most importantly: eat with your hands.—S T E P H A N I E Z U B I R I
The Ruins stand majestic in Bacolod
From PHNOM PENH
12. KEP, CAMBODIA
Until history intervened, Kep was once the halcyon playground sandpit of the elite. Nowadays, the sleepy seaside town nestled on Cambodia's coastal border with Vietnam is littered with colonial remnants of decadence that hint at the country's checkered past. Once-grand villas lie in decay among new buildings—such as the modernist, minimalist Knai Bang Chatt resort, filled with natural, local and antique furnishings—that cater to the revamped interest in the town. The sweeping sunsets and fresh seafood (available in heaps at the crab market and elsewhere) are enough of a reason to make the three-hour drive from the capital, but we suggest day-tripping to Rabbit Island to find the best of the beaches, or dropping by the abandoned King Sihanouk's Palace that overlooks Kep Beach. Kampot pepper was for a time the most prized variant of the seasoning in the world and present on every Parisian restaurant table—shipped all the way from places like the picturesque pepper plantations at Phnom Voir (free tours offered by The Vine Retreat), a 20-minute drive from town. —R. M.
Kep's coastal sunset
13. MALANG, INDONESIA
Five hundred meters above sea level and a 90-minute flight from Jakarta, this city was once the coolclimate getaway for Dutch colonials longing for reprieve from the stifling urban density. In keeping with that moneyed tradition, tycoon Anhar Setjadibrata houses 44 guest rooms, as well as an astounding collection of Javanese antiques such as Chinese street theater puppets, in his Hotel Tugu Malang. Besides boasting a military museum, colonial architecture and a botanical garden, Malang also looks out on the dramatic Mount Bromo volcano, which you can visit via a twohour trip by car. However, if you prefer more laid-back sightseeing, just hire a driver to take you around Malang's hills, which are peppered with apple orchards, tea plantations and dairy farms.
Mount Bromo at sunrise
14. SEMARANG, INDONESIA
The enchanting capital of Central Java, Semarang, has a mix of Dutch colonial buildings, kampongs (small village houses) and Chinese shophouses. However, its most compelling holiday hotspot comes in the form of the mountainside MesaStila Resort, the former Losari Spa Retreat and Coffee Plantation 90 minutes outside of town. Not only is it surrounded by eight stunning volcanoes, lush tropical jungle and a coffee plantation, this resort also offers specialized health retreats to rejuvenate your body with organic local cuisine, authentic Turkish Hammam baths, and an array of recreational activities including mountain biking, Javanese dance and pencak silat (Indonesian martial arts). Since Semarang is just an hour's flight from Jakarta, you should be able to fit in a short road trip to the impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site Borobudur, a 9th-century temple that is also the world's largest Buddhist archaeological site with more than 500 images of Buddha. —M E L A N I E L E E
15. CON DAO, VIETNAM
A ghost town, this wee islet in the South China Sea once housed a notorious French-colonial then Vietnamese-Communist penal colony; the spirit of Nguyen Thi Sau, a teenage girl martyred on the altar of national liberation is said to still roam the rural lands. Jittery fliers might get a different kind of fright landing on the super-short oceanbounded runway after the quick prop-plane flight from Saigon—but it's worth it for the somber look at this powerful history, as well as the more uplifting activities of snorkeling, Hobie Cat sailing and fresh-seafood gorging. The knockout, rustic-chic, all-pool villa Six Senses Con Dao sprawls a seemingly interminable flat beach and, at low-tide, you can wade into the crazy-clear, bathwater-warm ocean calf-deep for half a kilometer.
Traditional fishing on Con Dao island
16. HO TRAM, VIETNAM
Now usurping kite-surfing capital Mui Ne's grip on the hearts of Saigon-dwellers needing a road-trippable beach, Ho Tram (a three-hour drive away) has so far managed to stay rustic and under-the-radar—no small feat considering the opening this year of The Grand, the country's first Vegas-style casino and resort. After a bit of glitz and gambling—and, with a Greg Norman-designed course set to open in January, golfing—overload, head back to the stunning Southern Californiastyle four-bedroom manse you and 10 pals rented for the weekend. Never has Vietnam seen a more aptly named private community than The Sanctuary, which sits on a long, clean, hawker-free beach. The front walls of all the villas accordion open onto their private pools, so everyone can do their thing and still stay together: rock out or relax to the sea breezes, jetski or banana boat out on the ocean, grill up steaks you brought from Saigon and seafood you bought in the village market. What better way to bond with your besties?
Beach style at The Sanctuary
17. DALAT, VIETNAM
This beyond-green, chill (in both senses of the word) mountain town 1,500 meters above sea level and a 60-minute flight from Saigon is the quintessential colonial hill station: centered on a lake and surrounded by mountains of fir trees, vineyards, orchards and farms, all of which you can admire from above in the lengthy cable-car gondolas. Check-in old school to Ana Mandara Villas, a smattering of turreted mini-chateaux with claw-foot tubs and fireplaces for those cool nights. The grande dame Dalat Palace serves spoton high-tea and is smack in the center of town, giving you easy access to the eccentric Gaudi-esque Crazy House tree house/jungle gym, the adorable lake-top swan pedal-boats, and the Dalat Palace Golf Club, Vietnam's oldest and loveliest 18 holes. —J E N I N N E L E E - S T. J O H N
18. HANGZHOU, CHINA
Just after sunrise, with elderly Chinese doing their tai chi and couples ballroom dancing beneath willow trees, the sound of a Chinese flute fills the calm air. This is China, so it must be a recording. But no, an anonymous flautist plays, the music echoing out from a lakeside pagoda through stands of bamboo, and plum and peach trees. West Lake on a summer's morning is a scene straight out of a Chinese scroll. The timelessness and tranquility of the setting are perfect antidotes to the rush of modern life—just 45 minutes away by high-speed train (ctrip.com). Arched stone bridges, tea plantations and leafy strolls here on the western end of the lake transport you to another era. So too do the classic, comfortable stylings of the Four Seasons Hangzhou, where the menu at Jin Sha restaurant covers Shanghainese, Cantonese and local cuisine, as well as dynamite fusion fare such as smoked egg with sturgeon caviar, mint crystal tofu, and braised pork with black truffle in soya sauce, and sautéed peas with olive oil.
Six Harmonies pagoda towers over West Lake
19. MOGANSHAN, CHINA
A favored getaway for Shanghai's expat residents acentury ago, the mountain retreat of Moganshan has come back into its own in the past decade. See China Cuckoo, by British author Mark Kitto, for more on the outpost's history and his experience reinvigorating a stately old home on the mountain. Today, three stone manors that he and his wife renovated serve as the anachronistic Moganshan Houses 23, 25 and 2. Meanwhile, eco-resort Naked Stables Private Reserve is the address attracting wealthy weekend guests. Its villas feature everything you wouldn't expect from China: energy efficiency, eco-friendly construction and a sustainability-education program. Moganshan is an outdoorsy destination worthy of an Instagram gallery—hiking and biking trails through bamboo and pine forests, the distant hills clothed in dense woodlands, and tea plantations making this as different from Shanghai, a three-hour train and car ride away, as any visitor could ever imagine. —C H R I S T O P H E R K U C W A Y
Tea fields of Moganshan
20. BATAM, INDONESIA
Ignore its common misperception as Bintan's poorer island-resort cousin; Batam, just a 45-minute ferry ride from Singapore, has plenty of luxury and recreation, as well as a fascinating historical footnote. The sparkling white, upscale Montigo Resort has plush villas offering uninterrupted panoramic views of the South China Sea. It also houses the hippest party spot in the island—Tiggo, a bar with private poolside enclaves, open-air gazebos and creative cocktails. If you're looking for sea sports, outlet shopping and nature trails, Batam will not disappoint. But a unique perspective can be had at the striking Barelang Bridge, which is actually six suspension bridges connecting the isles of Batam, Rempang and Galang. The last was a Vietnamese refugee camp from 1979 to 1996, and makes for a haunting tourist stop: see the former detention room and UN refugee agency, along with household artifacts left behind by the boatpeople.
Turi Beach, Batam
21. LOMBOK, INDONESIA
"Unspoiled Bali" is a frequent and apt description for Lombok, a relatively untouched island a three-hour flight from Singapore. Heading out to the gorgeous, powder-white beaches of Gili Islands, where no cars or motorbikes are allowed, provides plenty of opportunities to wind down (it's always a good sign when wild sea turtles choose to lay their eggs here). The Lombok Lodge is all about stylish discretion with just nine luxury lodges designed in soothing shades of gray and cream by famous Italian architect Vittorio Simoni. However, if you prefer to rough it for a few days, then trekking to Mount Rinjani (lombokoutdoors.com), Indonesia's second-highest volcano, will provide a scenic respite with caves, sulfur lakes and, of course, that glorious mountaintop view to invigorate the soul.
22. MALACCA, MALAYSIA
With its hybrid influence of Portuguese, British, Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures, the center of Malaysia's colorful heritage town of Malacca—a three-hour bus ride from Singapore (easibook.com)—has been marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Soak in its history by staying at The Majestic, a 54-room boutique hotel in a restored 1920's Chinese mansion with retro mosaic flooring, 1960’s standalone bathtubs and complimentary historical tours. Of course, there's a mélange of mouthwatering food in Malacca, and the best way to sample its local delicacies such as chicken rice balls, pineapple tarts and gula melaka chendol (shaved ice with palm sugar syrup and coconut milk) is to saunter down the Jonker Walk Night Market (Jln. Heng Jebat, Chinatown). Even gluttony gets you a heritage fix: the quaint shophouses that line Jonker Walk date all the back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. —M. L.
Central Malacca is a UNESCO World Heritage site
23. IZU PENINSULA, JAPAN
A rugged protrusion of earthquake-riddled rock that plunges into the Pacific Ocean below central Honshu, Izu Peninsula is just far enough away from Tokyo—two hours by train —to thwart most of the weekend hoards fleeing the city. It brags a craggy coastline that's an inspiring setting for a sunset onsen. While there is plenty of fresh seafood from nearby fisheries on offer, and scuba diving for the super keen, the main draw of the peninsula is its volcanic water flow sourced from the depths of the fiery earth below. Stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse such as Arcana Izu, for the full onsen experience and learn how to unlock and engage this ancient Japanese form of relaxation, socialization and seduction.
Izu's craggy coast
24. MATSUMOTO, JAPAN
The breakneck neon-infused circuitry of Tokyo offers a lifetime of entertainment, but Matsumoto in central Honshu rewards visitors with an experience closer to Japan's cultural core. Set at the eastern end of the Japanese Alps, accessible by fast-train or bus, its mild climate lets you comfortably enjoy the ink-painting mountain-scape and take in sites like Matsumoto Castle, the majestic Myojin wooden bridge, and Daoi Wasabi Farm, the country's largest. But most visitors venture further afield to blaze the spectacular hiking trails at the Kamikochi highland or the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which shows off its scenery via cable cars, funiculars and several other modes of transport. Take to the waters drawn from the nearby Asama hot springs at the Kai Matsumoto resort. Or: a stay in the The Shining-esque Ougatou Hotel completes any visit to this remote and mystic town. —R. M.
The Azusagawa River flows through the Kamikochi highlands
25. SUN MOON LAKE, TAIWAN
Chiang Kai-shek used to mix it up with heads of state at Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan's largest body of fresh water, in the foothills of the island's lush central mountains. His bastion of gnashing civility has been turned into The Lalu, a minimalist charcoal granite, iron, steel and teakwood hotel that walks a fine line between hip modernism and rich Taiwanese design. Clamber through Chinese fir forests and a tea plantation to the summit of Jiji Dashan. The view of the Jiufen'er and Houjian Mountains will make you feel a world—not just a three-hour drive (private car arranged by The Lalu, T$220; public bus T$9)—away from Taipei. So too will the excellent Thao aboriginal restaurants on the lake, where fatty wild pork with bamboo shoots and braised wild deer are the best bets. —C A I N N U N N S
Overlooking Sun Moon Lake