Five enchanting Asian escapes
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Travel news every morning.
A pillar of old-world style in Chiang Mai
137 Pillars House opened in Chiang Mai 10 years ago, built around a splendidly pretty, immaculately restored 19th-century building that was once the residence of the East Borneo Company director (historically, in central Thailand the number of pillars supporting a house correlated directly to the wealth and status of the owner; clearly a bigwig here, then). The hotel’s 30 suites extend out and around the main building across manicured gardens, evincing a variety of configurations and palettes, but all of them plush with silks and rattan, ornate Thai encaustic floor tiles and wood doors lacquered turquoise, red and lime green.
The bar and restaurants are in the original house, with its unvarnished walls and original carved ceilings. Frangipani scents the whole place, and the Ping river is a five-minute walk, as are galleries, temples and a couple of very good coffee houses. Feel-good bonus: the owners are a year into a fundraising partnership with the Elephant Nature Park rescue-rehabilitation sanctuary, which has to date generated almost $45,000 in support, mostly in donations from hotel guests. 137pillarshotels.com, from about £300
A house of enchantment in Luang Prabang
Whether because it’s on a tiny peninsula whose geography has prevented sprawling expansion or because the much-touted fast train from China’s Yunnan province has only just launched, Luang Prabang in Laos has retained a magic that’s a rare commodity in the region today. It’s tiny and eminently walkable. It’s sleepy – right now, in monsoon season, you might sit for half an hour at Le Banneton Café, stretching out your café crème and croissant (both of which are so perfect you could be in Paris’s sixth arrondissement), and see one, maybe two tuk-tuks or cars pass. And this far north, the Mekong is its most fast-flowing, beautiful self. Luang Prabang is also home to Satri House, a little guest house that’s a wonder of atmosphere.
A maze of stairwells and corridors, garden passageways and verandas, it spreads over a large private plot at the edge of the historic town. The rooms are full of antiques and framed Laotian textiles; several have private balconies; locally produced silks cover the beds. The pool, lined in jade-green tiles, is shaded by fan palms in the late afternoons; drinks are served in the covered terrace bar next to it, with its groovy 1930s chairs and tables. The library is an immaculately preserved bit of Indochina – original editions, tall windows, spinning dust motes and all. “Enchanting” is a big promise, but please take my word for it: like Luang Prabang itself, this place utterly enchants. satrihouse.com, from about £100
Bhutan’s little lodge with big atmosphere
Asia’s big news for September is that on the 23rd, Bhutan re-opens to foreign visitors. The increased tourism fee has begotten quite the kerfuffle: now a flat $200 per person per day, which is around a 300 per cent increase over pre-pandemic levies, it’s steep. But also justified – all of it goes to building the sector sustainably, which means protecting living culture and heritage, as well as investing in projects that will help maintain Bhutan’s carbon-negative status. Close to the country’s centre, overlooking the Phobjikha Valley, is Gangtey Lodge, which next year celebrates its 10th anniversary. Owners Brett Melzer and Khin Omar Win first came to Bhutan almost 20 years ago, ostensibly to set up a satellite operation of Balloons Over Bagan, the experiential-travel outfit they have long run in Myanmar. But they fell in love with what they found and spent three years building their 12-room house, extending the same ambition they’d realised in Myanmar to create opportunities – training, upskilling – for the local community.
It mixes farmhouse suites (like spacious studios, with roll-top tubs flush up against picture windows and views over the valley) and rooms in the main lodge that have access to its wide terrace (more sweeping views). You canhave a private blessing ceremony with a monk from Gangtey monastery or go birding – aim for October or November, when thousands of black-necked cranes arrive from the Tibetan plateau and settle in the valley for their mating season, a natural spectacle matched by few others in this part of the world. gangteylodge.com, from $600 full board
Singapore’s hidden gem in the rainforest
Singapore is a city that loves the vertical and the new. Out at its western edge, however – beyond Sentosa Island, hidden away in the Labrador Nature Reserve – there’s a little piece of throwback charm. While plenty of locals will be familiar with Tamarind Hill, the sweet (and quite delicious) Thai destination restaurant housed in a genteel black-and-white mansion in the rainforest here, fewer might know Villa Samadhi, the 20-room boutique hotel in the colonial garrison next door (the Reserve was a British Military enclave until after the second world war).
As befits a 120-year-old building, no one room’s layout is quite like another’s; likewise the design, for which the owners spent years sourcing period four-posters and trunks, maps and prints (what they couldn’t find scouring dealers and markets has been custom designed). It’s one of the more unique places, and situations, in town – not for the businessperson in need of easy CBD access, perhaps, but with a character all its own (and 100 Thai and Shan recipes at Tamarind Hill, effectively the hotel’s restaurant, next door). villasamadhi.com.sg, from about £198
Eastern Bali’s stealth all-star resort
On the southeast coast of Bali, near Candidasa, is Alila Manggis. It’s neither the most overtly authentic of the hotels here (that, I suppose, would be Hotel Tugu, with its raised heritage houses and to-the-letter faithful designs), nor the oldest (that’s probably Tandjung Sari, opened in 1962 and famously patronised by David Bowie, Mick Jagger and multiple Suhartos). But Alila Manggis is a staunch favourite of lots of people who know this island well, for several reasons. The seaside location, for starters, in a part of Bali that has somehow retained a lot of its character (black magic is still around, as is royal architectural heritage at Puri Agung Garangasem Palace, in nearby Amlapura).
The hotel’s pedigree, too: it was designed by the late great Australian architect Kerry Hill, with its enormous square pool, low-slung bungalow rooms and open-air restaurant (where the food is historically excellent). The spa consists of two alfresco suites, extending out over the water so you hear the waves kissing the rocks beneath you while your massage therapist lomi-lomi’s you into a state of bliss. It’s a beautiful thing when service, food, ambience and culture merge so nimbly, to the tune of about £130 a night. alilahotels.com, from about £130