Over the past few years I’ve visited Southeast Asia—a collection of countries south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea, and north of Australia—on almost all of my international trips. With each visit, I discover more exotic sights: elephants in Thailand, multi-mile beaches in Bali, and mega-structures in Malaysia. I wonder why I didn’t put this region at the top of my vacation list WAY sooner in life.
The never-a-dull-moment destination swathed in palm trees and rimmed in sand is as lively or as lax as you want it to be. Major international hub cities with cloud-cresting skyscrapers offer in-transit travelers a dose of cosmopolitan life, while resorts and bungalow hotels lingering between farming and fishing villages invite calm.
From city to country, here are four splurge-worthy destinations sure to put Southeast Asia at the top of your travel A-list.
Viewfinder Tip: Of all the carriers I’ve flown to Southeast Asia, Cathay Pacific Airways is a cut above the rest for its class and all-Asia connectivity.
This nation is filled to the brim with everything I love—gracious people, gorgeous beaches, and high-design hotels. If I wrote a love letter to Thailand, it would turn into a book with one chapter (or five) devoted to the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle.
Nudging the edge of Thailand where the border meets Myanmar and Laos, the property effortlessly combines high-end sensibilities such as Michelin-worthy meals with the approachability of an industry veteran. Put differently, I like to think of the property as haute couture model when she’s off-duty.
Part hideaway and part nature reserve, the 15-tent retreat’s raison d’être is elephant education. In addition to waking up with a view of the gentle giants’ roaming grounds, you can learn how to be a mahout (elephant handler) as you trek along Northern Thailand’s soil.
When you’re done riding elephants bareback, exotic elegance awaits in the form of an included treatment at the treehouse spa and a cellar-worthy wine program courtesy of the camp’s all-inclusive nature—a first and only in the Four Seasons resort portfolio.
This past year I took it upon myself to indulge in my lifelong goal of exploring Bali’s beaches and benchlands. With one visit to Southeast Asia’s tourism darling, it became abundantly clear why Bali’s towering cliffs, surf-friendly shores, and boho beach boutiques are constantly plastered across the pages of travel magazines—it’s that fetching.
Two splurge-worthy hotels in this country are the ultra-modern and easy-on-the-wallet RIMBA Jimbaran Bali, and the all-villa, all-plunge-pool Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, both located in the island’s poshest ZIP code (which has been coined the “Beverly Hills of Bali”).
At RIMBA, pool-hop between six pools arranged in a cascading rice paddy formation, dip your toes into the Indian Ocean at the private beach, or score front-of-the-line access to Bali’s famous Rock Bar at the nearby AYANA Resort. At the Four Seasons, wander the celeb-status property like you’re an A-lister and spend your days migrating between the beachfront infinity pool or the sandy stretches of Jimbaran Beach.
The multicultural nation of Malaysia is often overlooked as exotic because of hotshot neighbors such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Still, the tropical escape boasts beautiful shores and lush jungles just like its nearby companion countries.
Before you start searching for idyllic beach retreats, start with a few days in the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, for a taste of what makes Malaysia tick.
Beyond the city, head North to Pangkor Laut, an island boasting Malay treasures: a 2 million-year-old rainforest, and an exclusive resort with villas built over the sea. Here, at Pangkor Laut Resort, roam the private white-sand beach or spend your day in far-flung bliss at the resort’s four-acre Spa Village. Therapists specialize in treatments that mirror the country’s Chinese, Indian, and Malay traditions.
Only a four-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore is an avant-garde city-state where historic influences merge with future-mindedness. One apropos example of this is SkyPark at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Stretching across three towers in a surfboard formation, SkyPark’s 57th-story perch takes hotel amenities to the next level (quite literally), offering guests a 492-foot infinity pool overlooking the Singapore skyline.
It doesn’t get more luxurious than that.
How would you spend a dream vacation in Southeast Asia?