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Published on November 9, 2017

Belmond Phou Vao spa in Laos. Image courtesy of the Belmond Phou Vao.

You might think the luxury travel experience in Southeast Asia revolves around nice beaches, exotic food and cushy suites. And you wouldn’t be wrong – you just haven’t seen the complete picture.

A little extra spending money in Southeast Asia opens different avenues for the traveler: opportunities to see some of the region’s most ancient cities and UNESCO World Heritage sites in a new light. Just ask travel bloggers Chris Wiersma, Edwina Dendler and Mike Aquino: we asked them to share their luxury experiences in the region, and they obliged.

View of Angkor Wat from helicopter. Peter Garnhum/Creative Commons

View from Above: Angkor Wat by Helicopter

Why join the crush of backpackers and tourists viewing Angkor Wat at ground level, when you can see the entire temple complex from the sky? For Chris Wiersma, an aerial tour of the late Angkor Empire’s temples was too good an opportunity to miss.

“I didn’t knew about any helicopter flight being possible over Angkor Wat until I arrived at my hotel downtown Siem Reap,” Chris tells us. “When I found out, I decided to go for the full package of almost an hour flight.”

Siem Reap’s main helicopter tour providers (Helistar CambodiaHelicopters Cambodia) offer various tour options – the cheapest, Chris tells us, lasts no longer than 14 minutes – but Chris recommends you pay up for the full hour.

“This cost about US$ 900, for the full helicopter – as I was alone I had to pay it all by myself,” Chris recalls. “If you’re with friends you can share with four… It’s not cheap but it’s well worth the money!”

US$ 900 pays for more than just an unbeatable view: you get a sense of scale that you won’t apprehend as a ground-level tourist. “On the ground you don’t see how big the complex actually is,” Chris confides. “The area is so huge, only from the air you get the impression how big this city was in ancient time.”

Belmond Phou Vao spa in Laos. Image courtesy of the Belmond Phou Vao.

Historic Retreat: Belmond Phou Vao in Laos

Luang Prabang was a royal capital of successive kingdoms in the area from 1353 to 1975, when the monarchy was abolished. But echoes of royal rule still remain, from the former Royal Palace that now serves as Laos’ National Museum, to a former retreat for Lao royals that now serves as a luxury hotel. 

“The hill [the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao] is located on, Phou Vao, literally translates to ‘hill of kites’, where Lao princes would come to fly kites,” explains Edwina Dendler, who spent a few days enjoying the Belmond Phou Vao as a guest. “The history is very visible in today’s style of the hotel, mixing French architecture with traditional Lao materials.”

The Belmond is designed to welcome only the privileged few. “With only about 30 suites in the hotel, the staff to guest ratio seemed quite high, so there was always someone there making sure we had everything we needed, giving personal recommendations and making us feel like royalty, without being overwhelming,” Edwina marvels.

Guests can choose to while their days away in their suites, but Edwina suggests you take advantage of the Belmond’s cultural connections. “The hotel also invited a local group of young musicians to perform one evening during a cocktail hour,” Edwina says.

“Aside from that, the hotel offers cooking classes, has a private boat for tours of the Nam Ou river and famous caves and offers stylish orange bicycles which we used extensively to discover the town of Luang Prabang.”

Majestic Malacca’s lobby in Malaysia. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.

Live Like a 19th Century Millionaire: The Majestic Malacca

The ancient trading post of Malacca has seen fortunes rise and fall; this tumultuous history can be seen on any day wandering through its Chinatown, but for an immersive experience of Malacca’s gilded age, it’s hard to beat a stay at the Majestic Hotel Malacca.

“The Majestic Hotel was formerly a mansion built by a rich rubber planter, Leong Long Man, who lavished money into building a home rich in both European and Asian styles,” explains Mike Aquino, who stayed awhile at the former Leong home-turned-hotel in Malacca. “Given that the present owners restored it to close to its original condition, the Majestic allows guests to imagine what it must have been like to be Mr. Leong!”

The original 1920s mansion now serves as the Majestic’s hotel lobby, its library and its restaurant. “There are Peranakan touches everywhere,” Mike says. “The rich, wooden furniture; antique-looking fixtures; and the intricate tilework wouldn’t look out of place in a Peranakan mansion.”

Mike loves the hands-on experiences that connect the Majestic’s visitors with Malacca’s vibrant past. “Guests can book a cooking class that familiarizes its guests with Peranakan home-cooking recipes,” Mike recalls. “But it paled next to the free walking tour of the old city that the Majestic offers to guests.”

Yacht off Phuket, Thailand. Image © Tourism Authority of Thailand

More Luxury in Singapore and Thailand

If these luxury experiences still leave you hanging, consider these other activities in the rest of the region:

Singapore’s five-star attractions run the gamut from hotels to art galleries to dining experiences. From the iconic luxury hotels around Orchard Road, Marina Bay and the Business District (the Raffles Hotel and Marina Bay Sands among them), travelers can explore Singapore’s luxurious diversions at leisure, including a Singapore Luxury Michelin Experience Food Tour by Wok and Stroll that visits three Michelin-guide-listed celebrity chef restaurants.

Patrons won’t just be passively eating at a table: they’ll get behind-the-scenes access to the inner works of the kitchens, with personal interactions with the chefs.

Read about wining and dining in Marina Bay, Singapore for an extra glimpse at the city’s luxury-travel possibilities.

Thailand’s largest island Phuket is a luxury-lover’s dream. From here, you can explore sun-dappled islands on Andaman Sea by a number of ways. Yacht charters leisurely wind their way to beaches and diving spots of Phang Nga Bay and the Phi Phi islands at your leisure, and a unique Detox Retreat Cruise from Senses Phuket lets you “cleanse” with fresh air and sunlight.

But nothing beats the view of these islands from the sky, courtesy of a four-hour helicopter tour of Phuket that includes stops at Koh Lanta and Promthep Cape. Read about Phuket’s once-in-a-lifetime luxury tours for a closer look.

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Chris Wiersma blogs at CTB Global; you can follow his adventures on his social media channels:  FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Google Plus

Check out Edwina Dendler’s luxury travel and adventure experiences at her blog Traveling German, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Mike Aquino blogs for Tripsavvy, and for his new blog Southeast Asia Time Traveler. Follow his adventures on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google Plus.