In the Fall 2012 issue of BESPOKE Magazine, Ker & Downey explores experiences beyond the typical in Southeast Asia. We’re whetting your appetite for the history, color, and culture of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia with our handpicked selection of the best of Southeast Asia’s experiences – some out-of-the-ordinary exclusives that only Ker & Downey can deliver, others simply new ways of experiencing the region’s timeless treasures.
Thailand’s capital is a city of contrasts, with towering skyscrapers next to the pointed peaks of wats and flashing neon reflecting off the gilded roofs of ancient temples. There is no better way to take in Bangkok’s many faces and facades than from the air. By helicopter, explore the city that sprawls around the banks of the Chao Phraya River. View the intricate series of bridges that cross the river, including the “Mega” Dipangkorn Rasmijoti Bridge and the first cabled bridge in Bangkok, the Rama IX Bridge. The flyover also includes the historic Phra Samut Chedi district, the Temple of Dawn, and the colorful Royal Grand Palace complex – its grand scale is perhaps even more stunning from above.
Four Seasons’ Chiang Mai resort has long been considered one of the top in the world, making an appearance on almost every “must stay” list in Asia. A collection of individual pavilions are scattered on the 20 acres of teak forests and terraced rice fields, offering an inviting and relaxing retreat in the heart of northern Thailand. Exploring the area is an enriching experience, and a cooking class on a local organic farm is a must for foodies and novices alike. Soak up the secrets of a local chef who takes you shopping at the Ruamchook market and escorts you through his expansive garden stocked with Thai herbs and tropical fruits. Start from scratch on your meal, with the chef guiding you from pounding the curry paste all the way to firing up your creation. Dessert is topped by fruit straight from the garden’s trees – it doesn’t get much more fresh or fun than this.
The endangered Asian elephant is one of Indochina’s most recognized symbols and has played an important role in the development of the region since antiquity. Located a few miles outside Luang Prabang on the site where the royal service elephants of the 19th century were trained and housed, the Elephant Village celebrates these gentle giants and provides them and their mahout caretakers with a safe occupation. Instead of being trained for intense manual labor, the privileged elephants that live at the camp are trained to work with visitors, navigating the jungle landscape to reach isolated locations like the stunning Tad Sae Waterfall. Spend the morning in the village watching the elephants in their daily routine before a trek through the dense jungle punctuated by limestone cascades.
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is a testament to culture and craftsmanship that stretch back to the country’s first civilizations. Khmer heritage has endured through the centuries, and while the stunning Angkor Wat preserves the past, the Artisans d’Angkor ensures the future of the culture for the next generation. Most of the young adult artisans hail from rural backgrounds and have gone without schooling, but through the organization they learn to create the region’s traditional handicrafts – beautiful silk paintings, wood and stone carvings, and lacquer and gilt work. By participating in the revival of these arts, the students can provide for themselves and their families while discovering their own heritage, and learning skills for their future. A meeting with the artistic director of this program at his home workshop offers further insight into the incredible arts and the creative journey behind each piece.
Often called “The Pearl of Asia”, Cambodia’s capital is home to a mixture of Khmer and French-colonial influences, exhibiting the country’s full history in the heart of one city. Bygone splendor is celebrated at the Royal Palace, a complex of colorful 19th-century buildings with sloping mustard-yellow roofs. Among these is the opulent Silver Pagoda, boasting a floor of more than 5,000 silver tiles and unimaginable gilded and bejeweled artifacts. A multitude of Buddhas reside within the pagoda’s marble walls, including a small Baccarat crystal statue and a life-size Maitreya Buddha encrusted with nearly 10,000 diamonds. The city clings to other, more chilling pasts, paying tribute to the 17,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge regime who were murdered at Tuol Seng prison just outside the city. Fewer than 40 years have passed since the brutal reign of Pol Pot, and though the museum and memorial are purposely macabre, there exists a sense of hope and healing in the peaceful stretch of green fields.
The mighty Mekong River is a common thread winding through Southeast Asia, and its delta that spills out where Cambodia meets Vietnam is a cultural and biological haven. The delta’s newest floating boutique accommodations are found aboard the Jahan Cruise, whose 26 cabins with private balconies are touted as the largest of all the Mekong’s river cruises. Decked with British-Indian colonial splendor inside and a lavish pool deck outside, the Jahan is your luxury vehicle to the rural melting pot of the delta. Venture ashore into Chau Doc, a sleepy town that just happens to be the basa catfish capital of Vietnam, visit a village for local tea with honey in a modest rural home, or float through the canals in Binh Thanh Island and browse the Cai Be floating market in a traditional flat-bottomed sampan. Activities abound on the Jahan too, including Cambodian and Vietnamese cooking classes that celebrate the blend of the two cultures so prevalent in delta villages.
Accessibility is a challenge in this less-traveled section of Cambodia, and its isolation and obscurity have been the best defenses for the verdant rain forests of the Cardamom Mountains that remain mostly unexplored and blissfully undeveloped. By boat is the only way to reach the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, a collection of 12 villas that really do float – while securely tethered – in the Tatai River. Tented en suite accommodations act as their own little islands, fanning out from the main lounge and restaurant area, all connected by decking made from composite materials instead of spoils from the local forests. The ecolodge exists in complete harmony with the pristine river and the small surrounding communities, using environmentally conscious building materials and state-of-the-art systems to ensure no impact on the river. Navigating the Tatai provides unforgettable sights – the Javan rhino, Indochinese tiger, and Asian forest elephant share the tropical habitat with more than 500 species of birds. The Tatai Waterfall is the river’s crowning jewel, created by the shifting elevations to form a series of beautiful waterfalls and tranquil pools, perfect for swimming and relaxing in the untouched environment.
The name of the twin islands of Song Saa is Khmer for “The Sweethearts” – fitting, as the Song Saa Resort is just about as romantic as you can get. This private island sanctuary is bordered by white sands and endless turquoise waters, two among the handful of forested islands in the Gulf of Thailand that retain their wild beauty. A footbridge over the waters of a marine reserve connects the two islands and their unique treasures of the rain forest and the watery reefs. Villas are scattered in the jungle, on the beach, and even over the water, surrounding guests with pristine nature at every turn. Colorful coral, seahorses, and tropical fish are standards in the reserve, visible from atop a sea kayak but best seen through a snorkel mask. Set out with the resort conservation team to explore the rain forest and mangroves, or speed off to Koh Tang, a private coral island ideal for a gourmet picnic. Beyond the natural activities the islands provide, the resort offers a variety of unique experiences to enjoy from the comfort of your suite. Ask for your own private in-villa movie theater and the staff will provide a large screen and the movie of your choice, popcorn included. Partake in yoga on the banks of the island at sunrise, and celebrate the full moon with cocktails and music beside the pool.
For more information about customizing your own journey with Ker & Downey to Southeast Asia or any other destination, contact your travel professional.