WHEN Aussies daydream about getting away it’s destinations around Asia that often provide the backdrop for holiday fantasies.
Empty beaches, ancient temples, bustling cities, lush rainforests, hectic markets and serene islands promise something to satisfy every appetite, but where to go when new resorts, tours, experiences and destinations pop up every day?
Escape chats with industry insiders to reveal the destinations that deserve attention in 2018.
Looking to Laos
First it was Vietnam, then Cambodia, and now it’s Laos’ time to shine with the landlocked country straddling the Mekong River attracting intrepid travellers willing to pay big and small.
Newcomer Mekong Kingdoms is offering two and three-night voyages between Luang Prabang and Chiang Khong on the “boutique barge’’ Boheme; Pandaw is building a new boat to join the Mekong River flotilla in 2019, and hotels the Rosewood Luang Prabang and Pullman Luang Prabang will launch soon.
Insider Journeys’ Indo-China product manager Aaron Edgington says travellers keen on exploring Laos should see the country’s south, including the Mekong’s 4000 islands, with the “laid back and largely unvisited area’’ offering experiences from temples and coffee plantations to waterfalls and isolated hamlets (below).
“Take part in a cooking class in a village, meet locals over a game of petanque, which is the national pastime, enjoy a traditional breakfast with French coffee, and receive a traditional blessing at a ‘baci’ ceremony in a family’s home,’’ the regional expert recommends.
Sri Lanka by sail
Sri Lanka continues to sizzle – tour companies report demand doubling and even tripling in the past year with the trend set to continue after SriLankan Airlines began direct flights between Melbourne and Colombo on October 29 – and G Adventures offers another touring option with the introduction of a waterborne discovery (below).
“After seeing such growth in the past year, offering a sailing trip was the next natural step and it’s a fantastic destination with plenty to do and see,’’ reports G’s sailing manager, Vince Donnelly.
“Travellers will experience the local culture and flavours as they explore the coastline. Highlights of the new itinerary include Galle which is a magnificent fort city on the southwest coast founded by the Portuguese that feels like a small European town.’’
Affordable island stays
It’s easy to spend big bucks on an island vacation but TravelManagers personal travel manager Aileen Collins says there are “under-the-radar gems’’ for holiday makers seeking “destinations offering local flavour and style’’.
“Cambodia is associated with temples but that’s fast changing and Koh Rong Sanloem is an island preserving its natural beauty and I recommend the quirky Moonlight Resort, featuring unique domed bungalows for those after a no-news no-shoes holiday,’’ the Asia specialist explains.
“Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island is being fast-tracked into five star but Mango Bay Resort (below) is the antithesis with back-to-nature simplicity and sophistication.’’
Bound for Borneo
“Borneo is less visited than a lot of other Asian destinations, offers unique wildlife and cultural experiences, and is close to Australia so easy to reach,’’ explains Adventure Destinations’ Karryn Papenfus.
“Seeing orang-utans (below) at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre and in the wild on the Kinabatangan River, spending a night at an Iban longhouse, going to the Mulu World Heritage Area with its pinnacles and caves, and visiting the Sandakan memorial are things travellers should experience.”
Bali by boat
Viking Cruises is promising a fresh approach to Bali in 2018 with two new voyages – the 13-day Bangkok, Bali and Beyond, and 17-day Komodo & the Australian Coast – and extension packages created to offer new perspectives on a familiar address.
“Exploring Bali as part of an ocean cruise is the perfect way to rediscover the destination and Viking is offering something different with the launch of pre and post-cruise extensions that mean more time to discover,’’ the company product manager Lubica Sibikova explains.
“Anyone choosing our five-day extension Bali & Yogyakarta can explore the main island of Java by delving deeper into the culture with visits to ancient temples, sampling typical Javanese food and travelling by ox cart to Bugisan village where local artisans showcase their trade.’’
Wandering into wilderness
Asia has long been the premier destination for beach holidays but the debut of luxury jungle camps – Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia’s southeast corner, Bali’s Capella Ubud, Wild Coast Tented Lodge (below) beside Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park – sees it becoming a spot to appreciate the wilderness.
Beyond Travel India & Beyond sales manager Bryce Crampton says Sri Lanka is the closest “true safari destination’’ to Australia. Yala and Udawalawe national parks offer “real wildlife experiences at a fraction of the cost of heading to Africa’’.
“For anyone with an interest in wildlife, Sri Lanka has the premier national parks for seeing leopards and elephants – especially Asian elephants – in the wild,’’ he says.
The mighty Mekong
Seeing the Mekong River from a riverboat is as popular as ever with Luke Nguyen ready to rejoin APT expeditions in 2018, Scenic will add a three-night stay in Siem Reap at the beginning or end of its voyages, and Aqua Expeditions (below) is combining with Soneva Kiri and The Siam Hotel to launch the Secrets of Indo-China tour.
“We have seen continued growth in the popularity of river cruises in Southeast Asia, however the key is offering authentic experiences and travellers want to discover the language, local heritage, culture and customs, and history of the destinations we visit,’’ says Cruiseco national marketing manager Carolyn Mackley.
“We only employ crew members from the regions our cruises visit and guests can add extensions to provide further exploration into the countries our luxury vessels explore.’’
Heshan Peiris, executive chef at Vietnam’s Banyan Tree Lang Co, says South-East Asia’s chefs are noticing food lovers abandoning big cities to sample regional flavours with hotels featuring less-known dishes made from local ingredients on menus.
“Our guests are inquisitive about those other dishes and, just like Australia is more than meat pies, Vietnam is more than pho and spring rolls, and Thailand is more than tom yum and Thai green curry,’’ the Melbourne-born chef notes.
Thailand’s six Sala resorts present dishes capturing the culinary character of each location in the Taste of Place program, Centara Grand Ladprao Bangkok imports rice from the country’s north to perfect a menu celebrating the national food story, and Cape Kudu Hotel serves roti at breakfast to honour the traditional food of Koh Yao Noi.
World Expeditions will lead a special Vietnamese circuit for food lovers with the journey set to depart in September 2018 including cooking classes, walking tours, markets, meals and unique neighbourhood eateries.
Skyscanner reports a 40 per cent jump in Australians searching for flights to Singapore and adds the Lion Nation is 13 per cent cheaper to visit this year compared to 2016.
A swag of new hotels are launching before Christmas – Andaz Singapore, Sofitel Singapore City Centre, InterContinental Robertson Quay, Courtyard Marriott Novena, Duxton Club, Yotel Singapore – with Raffles (below) reopening in 2018 after a restoration program sympathetically modernises the classic address.
Trafalgar will add 12-day Colonial Singapore & Malaysia to its stable in 2018 with the small-group journey – that also visits Malacca and George Town – created to unlock the rich heritage and cultural influences that shaped the destinations.