Rivers, Buddhas and temples: SE Asia minus the beaches

SOUTH East Asia is intimidatingly rich in temptations, fascinations and possibilities. As someone who had never been, and had ten days for the inaugural journey, I had to make some tough decisions.

The first one was to steer clear of the beaches and focus on culture and rivers. This may sound a bit unsexy. But in Asia, these two things are about as unsexy as Megan Fox in a see-through shift. Instead of the same white sand and turquoise water that you can find in Mauritius, Florida or Hawaii, I fancied golden Buddhas, fabulous temples and the most beautiful waterway on earth: the Mekong.

Geography was important, too. I wanted my route to flow, not to be hopping about madly on cheap flights and long bus rides.

Bangkok is known for many things, not all of them savoury. I chose to prioritise days over nights, and instead of staying out till all hours in seedy bars, I went hell for leather on temples, street food and massages.

The first morning we took a bus tour to Ayutthaya, one of the region’s old capitals, and home to a breathtaking, Angkor-Wat style temple complex. Founded in 1350, the city was destroyed in 1767 by the Burmese army. Its remains are what tourists like us bus in to see – eerie mountainous temples (with a strange resemblance to wet sand sculptures), and magnificent rows of Buddhas in crumbling stone and gold.

Back in Bangkok that afternoon (Ayutthaa is only an hour away by car, though we returned by boat), we got soaked in a violent rainstorm. After warming up with a bath, we hit a local massage joint and my two friends and I reclined in a row, blissfully taking in our hour-long foot massage (about $4).

Later, we cabbed what felt like a long way to a street-food joint we’d heard good things about, called Chote Chitr on Praeng Phuton Rd. The cab driver got lost. We asked some guys in a Baskin Robbins. No clue. We drew maps. Bangkok, it turns out, is rather enormous and confusing and people’s English is very limited. Eventually we got there and it was empty, save for the sullen manageress. Well, we took a chance, and it was all delicious. Peanuty, limey, cocunutty and sometimes fried – but always fragrant – dish after dish came out. Prawns, crab, chicken. All good. All under $10. Not one upset stomach.

We wanted street food only from then on, and the next evening headed to Yaowarat Road in the Chinatown for the best ginger steamed sea bass any of us could have ever wished for.

Next day at Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok’s biggest, I purchased a real vintage, very beaten up Gucci bag (£8; but honestly, real), some bad fake Dior shades and numerous little donuts vendors were making fresh. Delicious.

A long, windy tuk tuk ride across the city took us to the Grand Palace, the most gobsmacking show of religious finery I have ever seen. Turns out that acres of gold, intricate tiled mosaics and Buddhas the size of small buildings are just my taste.

People visit Chiang Mai as a base for trekking, elephant riding and cooking classes. However, we found the city a bit tired and – in terms of food and temples and massages (by now my favourite three aspects of Thailand) – a mere shadow of Bangkok. After getting a cab to the base of an impressive hilltop temple, Wat Phra Thart Doi Suthep, whose steps we mounted sweatily, we scurried back to our hotel. And basically tried not to leave it.

If you are feeling flush, or looking for a real treat, Mandarin Oriental’s Dhara Dhevi, just outside Chiang Mai, is a sensational retreat. It’s a bit like Disney Land meets an ancient Thai palace complex – but it works, and how. There are working rice paddies throughout the estate – the two story villa rooms are ranged around paddies, their private plunge pools in full view of farmers working on them. One of Dhara Dhevi’s two swimming pools is an infinity pool spilling onto an undulating paddy. Rather than seeming odd or forced, it lends a real agricultural beauty to this luxurious assemblage.

The other main feature of Dhara Dhevi is the spa, a conglomeration of temple-style buildings, luxuriously appointed, where ferociously good massages and skin treatments are dispensed (though bear in mind they are about 20 times more expensive than the going rate in Thailand). To get around the sprawling estate – pool to spa; spa to villa – one is taken by buggy. Heaven. (Rates at Dhara Dhevi start from £359 per night on a B&B basis. mandarin oriental.com/chiangmai)

Next we flew over the mountains of northern Thailand and Laos, landing in the startlingly bright beauty of Luang Prabang, a peninsula between two rivers: the Mekong and the Nam Khan. After paying for a visa (about £30 – by far the most expensive single purchase of the trip), we made our way along quiet roads to the centre of the town, where our hotel – a colonial wood house called 3 Nagas – graced the main promenade.

Along the way we passed monks in orange robes and people on bicycles with umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. There were white picket fences, magenta bougainvillea, palm trees, quiet cafes advertising espresso and free wifi, dusty side streets full of playing children – we’d landed in Martha’s Vineyard on the Mekong.

Indeed, Luang Prabang’s growing reputation as a chic retreat – one Thai person we spoke to whistfully called it the “new Bali” (a bit of an exaggeration) – does create a tension with the local authenticity that charmed tourists in the first place. But as its all a UNESCO site, there is no brash building, and most hotels inhabit old buildings.

The first two nights at 3 Nagas provided the ideal vantage point for experiencing all the delights of Luang Prabang’s enchanting centre. This a monks’ town and there are numerous temples all a short distance from one another – I visited half a dozen at least, basking in their musky aroma, gold embellishment, stately Buddhas and atmosphere of hushed but intense sanctity. I rose at ten to six the first morning and headed out to my street-side balcony to watch the orange-clad boy monks process past collecting alms, which they do daily.

Breakfast and café breaks are uniquely pleasurable in Luang Prabang, where delicious pastries rule. The (ambivalent at best) French influence here has, at least, left a legacy of delicious banana chocolate croissants. But we dined well too: the restaurant at 3 Nagas was refined and exciting, serving Mekong fish, seaweed and buffalo, a local specialty. Tamarind and Couleur Café were also excellent and less expensive (about $15 each without wine).

We took several sunset rides on the Mekong, finding the river particularly exquisite under a pink sky. Wooden boats cruise up and down, monks cavort on sand bars. There must be no better place or time for a beer in all Asia.

Other interesting and highly manageable excursions include a half-hour tuk tuk ride through lush green farmland and very poor villages (think wooden roadside lean-tos, women squatting and peeling big buckets of vegetables) to some pale turquoise waterfalls which are great for swimming and jumping (if you’re daring).

Another must-do is the boat-journey an hour up the Mekong to the caves. You hike up a steep flights of steps and enter an extraordinary network of caverns, with treasures deep within – shrines, Buddhas and flowers, some of which are in pitch darkness.

Our last few days we cycled in and out of town (about 5 minutes) from The Hotel de la Paix, a beautifully renovated former prison. But mostly we laid low. With its private swimming pools, outdoor baths, large black tiled infinity pool and sunken shade beds, where better to sip margaritas all day under an umbrella? The hotel is framed by mountains and palms so that it really is an intoxicating mixture of the sinister (watch towers remain from its prison days) and the stunningly hip and gorgeous.

In the airport en route to Bangkok we ran into Albert Alvarez, creative director of Lanvin. You know you’re on the right track when you choose the same tiny Laotian town to holiday in as one of the world’s most sought after haute couture designers.

Back in Bangkok, my final night was spent in COMO’s minimalist outpost of urban chic (chalk to the Mandarin’s cheese) whose main claim to fame is the restaurant Nahm. Here we feasted on chilli-spiked watermelon, sensational curries and strange desserts. I had the best cocktail of my life: a savoury mix of gin, cucumber, spring onion, mint and ice. (metropolitan.bangkok.como.bz)

On the plane home the next day, I breathed a deep sigh of satisfaction. South East Asia has infinite boxes to tick, but I felt I’d ticked some of the best.

A holiday paradise in an extremely poor country, this exquisite Mekong town has been attracting the cream of holidaymakers for a while now and it’s only becoming more chi-chi. If you want to go five star, there is the Hotel de la Paix (hoteldelapaixlaos.com; pictured), where I stayed very happily, luxuriating in its cool minimalism and scoffing its great breakfasts. Staff were charming. Amantaka (amanresorts.com/amantakais) is the Aman group’s spectacular outpost in the town – a sprawling colonial hotel with a state-of-the-art spa. La Residence Phou Vao (residencephouvao.com) is another wonderful, expensive spot: it has divine views of the mountains (ask for a mountain view suite), excellent food and of course, a tip-top spa.

In town, 3 Nagas is chic and friendly, if a little pricey (3-nagas.com).

The Apsara (theapsara.com), a former rice warehouse, is also a supremely tasteful hotel on the banks of the the banks of the Nam Khan. Its restaurant is also one of the town’s best – we liked stir fried chicken with chilli jam, cashew nuts and basil leaves.

The Mekong River View (mekongriverview.com) is central and – as the name suggests – provides a great waterside vantage.

This is one of Mandarin’s flagships, whose claim to fame is its prime spot on the Chao Phraya River. There are other hotels along the river but none have quite the refinement of the Mandarin’s bar, restaurant or swimming pools.

The spa is another claim to fame. It’s a whole house of vigorous wellbeing. Massages are athletic and often painful. In a city of cheap and good massage, you’d expect the very best for Western prices and this is it.

Our room, a deluxe, was small but well-formed, with killer views of the river and a sumptuous, nautical bathroom. Service was incredible – the concierge particularly impressive. Breakfast was middling, as were the cocktails. Room rates start from £245 per night on a B&B basis. www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok