May 19, 2009
Rediscovering South-east Asia
Short flight to paradise
Be prepared for a little bumpy road and head off to unexplored areas and a bit of adventure
By cheryl tan
In the first of this three-part Rediscovering South-east Asia series last week, we sniffed out hidden gems in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
This week, we check out some forgotten beautiful beaches in Malaysia, highlight yummy seafood joints along the coast of Myanmar and explore a historical region of Thailand.
For about $4,000, which will cover three nights' accommodation and return air tickets for a family of four, your holiday pictures will not turn out looking similar to those of your less adventurous colleagues.
The places featured are all less than four hours away by plane. But a few require at least four more hours on the road to get there.
But hey, what is a little bumpy road trip if you can find paradise at the end?
Wild at sea and on land
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia
On the north-eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia lies the Perhentian islands, which have idyllic beaches and unspoilt wilderness.
Both the bigger Pulau Perhentian Besar and smaller Pulau Perhentian Kecil boast gorgeous turquoise waters and chalk-white sandy shores. The islands are a refreshing and quieter change from the tourist-infested waters of the more popular island Redang.
But watch out for strong currents as you admire clownfish dart in and out of sea anemone. The islands are not protected by a bay and lead directly to the open sea.
Go during the monsoon season from November to January when the winds are stronger if you are into windsurfing or sailing. Tourism Malaysia's marketing executive Diyana Jumat, 27, says the strong winds guarantee a good run in the water.
She also recommends that travellers go on trekking tours through the largely unexplored and pristine forest on the hilly islands where there is wildlife such as monitor lizards, monkeys and flying squirrels.
Both islands have no-frills, chalet-type accommodation, although Perhentian Besar has more options. Carry cash as few places accept credit cards.
Getting there: Fly to Kuala Lumpur via Singapore Airlines ($332), then transfer to a 55-minute Air Asia flight (RM191 or S$79) to Kota Baru in Kelantan. Hop onto a taxi for an hour's ride to Kota Besut jetty (RM50, a two-way ride). Take a half-hour boat ride (RM60) to Perhentian Island.
Where to stay: Bubu Long Beach Resort (from RM250 a night) is the only deluxe resort hotel on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. Rooms are air-conditioned and come with attached bathroom and 24-hour power supply.
Coral View Island Resort (from RM100 a night) on Pulau Perhentian Besar is on one of the best beaches in the area. Rooms are basic but come with attached bathrooms. Electricity is available for only 18 hours daily.
Cost: About $516.50 per person
Pulau Pangkor, Malaysia
The Pangkor islands are a group of nine atolls on the western coast of Perak.
But only two, Pulau Pangkor and the adjacent smaller Pangkor Laut island, are inhabited. The rest are just sandy beaches and rocks.
Like the Perhentian islands, they are not overcrowded due to a lack of publicity. Even better, the friendly locals there will put you right at home.
Dotted with temples and historical monuments, the place will give you a beach holiday with a touch of local heritage. If you do visit, you must buy salted fish, ikan bilis, dried shrimps and shrimp paste, all of which the islands are famous for.
Golfers, bring along your clubs for a swing at the Damai Laut Golf & Country Club or Teluk Rubiah. These two international-standard golf courses are just 20 minutes away.
Marketing executive Nicholas Sarasta, who vacationed there last month, recommends the islands as a honeymoon destination.
He says: 'It's a great place to just relax and read a book.'
Getting there: Take a Singapore Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, followed by a three-hour bus ride (RM18.70) from Hentian Puduraya main bus terminal to Lumut, where the ferry ride (RM19, return trip) to Pulau Pangkor takes 40 minutes.
Where to stay: Vikri Beach Resort has beach-facing chalets (from RM95 a night) with air-conditioning, cable TV and hot showers.
The cosy Nipah Bay Villa is located a two-minute walk from the beach. The chalets (from RM80 a night) are great for families and couples alike. Air-conditioning, attached bathrooms and satellite television are available.
Cost: About $397.10 a person
Head for the countryside
Skip the congested city of Bangkok. Head north-east to the soothing rural countryside of Isan.
RealHome XP Travel, a travel agency that specialises in unconventional tours, has put together a five-day, four-night tour to the area.
'A large part of the tour is in natural surroundings,' says its director, Mr Fred Seow, who went on a test run of the package with his family last month. He says that the trip gave his two children an opportunity to visit mushroom farms, vineyards and a dairy farm.
For sightseeing, there is Phanom Ruang, one of Thailand's oldest temples. The big white marble statue of Buddha at the lower ridges of the Khao Yai mountains is not to be missed too.
For authentic Thai food, there are stops where you can try pork or beef ball noodle soup at a village stall.
Accommodation on the tour starts with a one-night stay at the Supalai Pasak Resort & Spa, followed by a village homestay for the rest of your trip.
Getting there: Take a two hour and 25 minute Singapore Airlines flight to Bangkok ($340), followed by a 21/2-hour bus ride (price unavailable) to Isan.
Where to stay: Supalai Pasak Resort & Spa (from $90) and village homestay (price unavailable)
Cost: About $839 a person
Home of the famous World War II Death Railway Bridge, the province gives visitors a rich lesson in history.
Kanchaaburi is known for floating karaoke barges.
The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (100 baht or S$4) and Death War museum (30 baht) tell stories of life during the war. The Hellfire Pass Memorial (admission by donation) offers walking trails along the original railbed.
If you go in the last week of November or the first week of December, there will be a burst of light and sound as the locals stage a show to commemorate the Allied attack on the bridge in 1945. Book early as it draws many visitors.
Hotel receptionist San Saneec, 29, says the historical River Kwai bridge is the best part of the central Thai province, which is 128km west of Bangkok.
'The beautiful old bridge,' she says, 'holds a lot of memories in Thai history.'
For activities, she recommends elephant trekking, bamboo rafting, kayaking and visiting the waterfalls. But her favourite pastime is karaoke for Kanchanaburi is known for its floating karaoke barges that ply the river.
Getting there: Catch a Singapore Airlines flight to Bangkok, followed by an hour's taxi ride to the Southern Bus Terminal. Book a two-hour bus journey to Kanchanaburi (95 baht, one way).
Where to stay: River Kwai Hotel in the heart of the city has rooms (from 1,100 baht) with air-conditioning and free Internet access. Inchantree Resort has Balinese-style rooms (from 811 baht) with open-air private showers.
Cost: About $395 a person
Beautiful beaches, fresh seafood
Chaungtha Beach, Myanmar
Ask local tour manager Kyaw Nyein Aung why Chaungtha Beach is worth visiting and he cannot stop singing praises of the place.
'The village and beach are so beautiful and the seafood is so fresh,' he says over the phone.
The 35-year-old, who is also known as George, works at the Shwe Hin Tha Hotel and organises tours in Myanmar.
Chaungtha Beach, which is also popular among the Burmese middle-class as a holiday destination, is his speciality. Located about 248km west of the capital Yangon, it is known for its wide beaches, though these are slightly muddy.
But for seafood lovers, it is a haven. According to Mr Kyaw, the seafood restaurants there offer a wide variety that is fresh and cheap. A lobster dish starts from 15,000 kyats (S$19) and scallops and prawns cost 41,000 kyats a plate.
All these are freshly caught by the local fishermen.
For a glimpse into the local fishing industry, Mr Kyaw urges travellers to visit the fish market, which is open from 6 to 9am daily.
For activities, there are snorkelling and boating trips to explore the offshore The' Phyu Island (White Sand Island) and Pho Kalar Island, where visitors can wade in the shallow waters and spot scuttling red and green crabs.
Boats leave at 8am and return at 5pm daily.
Getting there: Take a three-hour SilkAir flight to Yangon ($398). Then take a 45-minute taxi ride (about 3,000 kyats) to Hlaing Thar Yar bus station where you can book a five- to seven-hour bus ride (5,000 to 6,000 kyats) to Chaungtha. Note: Not all bus operators offer air-conditioned vehicles with comfortable seats.
Where to stay: Rooms from US$40 (S$58) at Golden Beach Resort Hotel are air-conditioned and come with complimentary buffet breakfast.
Hotel Max Chaungtha Beach will be a luxe choice for travellers not on a tight budget. Rooms start from US$70 a night and include breakfast. Massage and spa facilities are available.
Cost: About $495 a person
Ngwe Saung, Myanmar
Locals say the 14.5km beach at Ngwe Saung, which faces the Bay of Bengal, is ideal for a romantic getaway. It is known for its quiet and uber-chill lifestyle.
Located 232km west of the capital Yangon, this is a little-known paradise, says Sunny Paradise Resort room division manager Tun Zaw Oo.
He adds: 'The water is clear, there is hardly any pollution and the beach is clean.'
The 33-year-old also recommends the quaint village to retirees who just want a relaxing holiday.
Also known as the Silver Beach, Ngwe Saung boasts unspoilt white sandy beaches, blue waters and privacy.
Apart from just lazing about and getting a tan on the beach, visitors can also go fishing, scuba diving and surfing.
Getting there: Take a SilkAir flight to Yangon. Then take a taxi to Hlaing Thar Yar bus station. Book a five- to seven-hour bus ride (5,000 kyats) to Ngwe Saung. Departures are between 7am and 2pm daily.
Where to stay: Yuzana Resort Hotel offers rooms (from US$50) with sea-facing balconies, air-conditioning and attached toilets. Massage and laundry services are available.
Sunny Paradise Resort is located right on the beach and has bungalows that cater to families. It is marketed as a top-notch resort with room rates starting from US$130 for a three-person family room.
Cost: About $516.50 a person