Irrawaddy (Burma) & Mekong River Cruising (Cambodia/Laos)
The Ananda plying the Irrawaddy River
With stopovers at various villages along the way, plying the Mekong or Irrawaddy Rivers on a small luxury river vessel is a relaxed, compelling way to experience the local culture while enjoying high-touch service along the way.
Among our favorite Mekong River luxury river vessels are the 27-Suite Jayavarmanand the 20-Suite AQUA Mekong (Phnom Penh to Siem Reap). For those wishing a more spartan, though still comfortable, cruise experience, we recommend the 2 Day/1 Night Luang Say cruise from Luang Prabang to Huai Say, Laos, gateway to Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Along Burma’s less traveled, more pristine Irrawaddy River Bagan Mandalay, we recommend the 21-Suite Sanctuary Ananda and the newly-launched 22-Suite Heritage Anawrahta. Another high-value option is the 4-Star RV Paukan. Having experienced the Paukan before the inauguration of the Ananda and Anawrahta, we found the service and overall quality very good, without sacrificing a great deal on the luxury side.
Mahout Elephant Training (Thailand)
Mahout Elephant training is unique to the northern Thailand areas of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Our two favorite hands-on elephant camps are the Patara Elephant Farm (full day/group basis) and The Maesa Elephant Camp (half day/private basis)
The Maesa Mahout Elephant Camp is among the unique highlights of our Southeast Asia private tours. What AMAN are to luxury hotel accommodations, the Maesa Elephant camp is to very personal, hands-on, high touch elephant training. Bev, Zen her cousins and I have very much enjoyed our visits here! Your private elephant camp experience includes a brief training of elephant commands, riding the elephants on your own (no worries with trainers close by), personally bathing the elephants in the river (so much fun!), ending with a painting session with our elephants. Yes, with directions, these elephants can actually paint and draw!
A third elephant training option is a stay at the Chiang Rai/Golder Triangle luxury hotels of the Four Seasons Tented Camp or the Anantara Elephant Camp/Resort. Both 5-Star properties offer fun, comprehensive elephant training, while enjoying the amenities of a uniquely beautiful property.
Giving Back Opportunities (Cambodia/Laos/Burma)
Our various trips to Cambodia, Burma and Laos have been instructional in terms of the tangible ways we can improve the everyday lives of underprivileged children. We have discovered countless ways to give back, including orphanages, schools (always in need of supplies) and much-needed water well projects. Many of our clients, particularly the younger ones, find these activities eye-opening and heartwarming, a real-world contrast to their privileged life back in the U.S. The genuine kindness and heartfelt gratefulness you see in the children’s faces and beaming smiles makes these experiences incomparably gratifying.
Buddhism and it’s Intrinsic Service Culture
Buddhism fully embraces the concept of altruism, kindness/empathy to others, and service. Think of Buddhism as The Golden Rule or Japan’s “omotenashi” (squared!). It is no coincidence that the Buddhist-based cultures of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and parts of India, represent the highest level of service and hospitality that you will find anywhere.
AMAN Southeast Asia
AMANPURI in Phuket, Thailand
A Lynch family favorite and well-known by many of our clients and friends, Singapore-based AMAN represents the pinnacle of world-class luxury hotel/resort hospitality. While Peninsula, Four Seasons, and Mandarin may rule the 5-Star deluxe hotel category, AMAN alone occupies the elite level; small, remarkably high-touch, singular, and personal. Initially based in just the Southeast Asia region, each resort is characterized by a small number of rooms (typically less than 40) and minimalist architecture designed to complement the location’s natural setting/local culture. We have been fortunate to have stayed at most of AMAN’s amazing Southeast Asia and China properties, including AMANPURI (Phuket), AMANDARI-AMANKILA (Bali), AMANTAKA (Luang Prabang), AMANSARA (Siem Reap), AMANOI (Vietnam), AMAN Summer Palace and AMANFAYUN (Hangzhou). Kudos to AMAN in Southeast Asia!
Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
We feel the various temples of Angkor represent the most amazing and enduring architectural achievement of any religious site in Asia. The temples, built between the 8th and 13th centuries, when the Khmer civilization was at the height of its development, are spread out over approximately 40 miles around the village of Siem Reap. We particularly love Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, and, of course, Angkor Wat! (Added bonus – staying at Grand Hotel D’Angkor or Amansara!) Our dear friend, Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, generously provided us with a fun 2-day private tutorial in explaining the detailed images of the various temples.
The French Cultural Legacy in Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos
Raffles Hotel le Royal, Phnom Penh
Despite France’s checkered history in its colonial rule of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, there is no doubt its French language, architecture, and culinary tastes have had a lasting imprint on these Southeast Asia countries. Being confessed Francophiles, we very much embrace the early 20th French colonial architecture in Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Luang Prabang. Among our favorite buildings are three hotels (Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, Raffles Hotel le Royal Phnom Penh and the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor), also Hanoi, Dalat, Phnom Penh Railway Stations, and the Hanoi Opera House.
Of course, French cuisine can be found throughout Southeast Asia wonderfully mixed with the local tastes of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. A few of our recent visits include Cuc Gach/Saigon, Seasons of Hanoi, Sugar Palm and Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, too many to list!
Phnom Penh Railway Station
The Oriental, Bangkok
Founded in 1876, the 393-room 5-Star Oriental really sets the standard for subtle, understated luxury – the service here is legendary. The State Rooms, Author’s Suite, and River Wing are our favorites – decorated in traditional Thai style with dark teakwood and bright Thai silk. Another plus is their amazing spa (accessible via ferryboat directly across the Chao Phraya River from the hotel). Other features include two pools, tennis and squash courts, and it’s renowned Thai Cooking School. Though we are not keen on 200+room size hotels, we will happily make an exception for this iconic Bangkok property.
Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi represents all that is most compelling about Vietnam; the resourceful/ entrepreneurial spirit of its people (do not miss “36 Streets”), its rich French traditions as reflected in its charming French-colonial architecture (think Sofitel Metropole) and French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine (“Seasons” and so many other wonderful restaurants), and of course, its symbol as Vietnam’s cultural/political capital. The legacy of Ho Chi Minh is ubiquitous – his mausoleum is at once spell-bounding and abominable. And, of course, staying at the Sofitel Metropole is a real treat. Our favorite hotel in all of Vietnam, the early 20th century-built French-colonial Sofitel Metropole is truly a national treasure. You feel the grandeur and grace of a by-gone era, coupled with the comforts/amenities of a contemporary 5-Star luxury hotel.
Buddhist monks outside Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay, Burma
Due in part to Burma’s self-imposed isolation, Western influence, particularly the grittier commercial aspects, are not to be found here. You will see few Burmese dressed in Western garb and you will see no Starbucks or McDonalds here (yet!) 100 years ago, Rudyard Kipling visited Burma and thought it “quite unlike an land you know about!” We totally agree! Based on the recent political reforms, including the release and ascendancy of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma has opened up dramatically. Based on the various international sanctions imposed on the country over the past three decades, please be respectfully reminded that even the highest rated 5-Star hotels throughout Burma are quite dated and may not offer the luxury amenities of other 5-Star properties in Asia.