Valerie Wilson Travel

Southeast Asia

with Tyler Branco

Last month, my partner and I embarked on a journey that unfolded as an 18-day voyage through the heart of Southeast Asia, seamlessly weaving through the vibrant urban tapestries of Bangkok and Hanoi, discovering the spirituality of Luang Prabang, and finding solace in the idyllic haven of Vinh Hy Bay.

Starting from JFK airport, we began our journey to Southeast Asia aboard All Nippon Airways business class offering, “The Room,” a very comfortable means of reaching Asia. The seats were impressively spacious, setting the tone for the journey ahead. Whether it is through Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or Qatar Airways, many premium options are available to make the relatively long flight entertaining and comfortable. Connecting via Tokyo was an excellent choice as it connects numerous cities across Asia, including Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.

 The Jewel of the Chao Phraya: The Siam

Stepping foot in Bangkok, the spotlight was on The Siam – an exquisite masterpiece resting on the majestic waters of the Chao Phraya River. Imagined by celebrated designer and hotelier Bill Bensley, this unique treasure trove hosts only 39 rooms, a sharp contrast to the city’s towering hotel giants. Its distinction lies in the harmonious fusion of art-deco sophistication and authentic Thai heritage, expertly woven into every nook of its design. 

Under the ownership of the Sukosol family, the property’s dedicated proprietors embed their deep affection for Thailand, music, and culture into the very heart of the establishment. This commitment is brought to life through carefully selected art displays and aged collections that reflect Thailand’s abundant heritage. As a result, visitors are embraced by the captivating charm of a time long past.

Guided by The Siam’s attentive butlers (a signature service available 24/7), relaxation became an inevitable indulgence. With our bags unpacked on our behalf and a light meal pre-prepped and awaiting us in our suite, we were given the precious present of time. With the convenience of The Siam’s shuttle boat, guests can explore the main sights with ease.

 Immersed in the lively street markets of Bangkok, we were enticed by the scent of Jasmine and Thai curries that wove a sensory narrative amidst the bustling stalls. The magnificence of the Grand Palace and the impressive architecture of Wat Arun linked us to Thailand’s opulent past. At the same time, an essential gastronomic destination at the renowned street food eatery of Jay Fai, as featured on Netflix, made an unforgettable impression on our taste buds. Undoubtedly, the finest Tom Yum and Pad See Ew we’ve ever savored, not to overlook her renowned crab omelet.

 Perhaps not widely known, Bangkok is a gastronomic playground with the best-in-class chefs starting their own concepts and achieving Michelin-star status left and right. One of our favorite dinners was at Sawaan, a One MICHELIN Star Thai restaurant, where Chefs Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn and Arisar orchestrated an exquisite 11-course tasting menu. Equally impressive, Suhring, a double Michelin-starred German restaurant, takes German cuisine dining to new heights through culinary innovation and pure artistry.

A Spiritual Heartland: Luang Prabang

On the third day, we ventured to Laos, where the tranquil charm of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, warmly embraced us. Arriving via Bangkok Airways, a swift 8-minute drive brought us to the heart of Luang Prabang, where the iconic Amantaka Hotel resides. Its central location within the town was unmatched, immersing us in its essence from the start. To our delight, an unexpected double upgrade to a Mekong Pool Suite awaited. We attributed this gesture to our loyalty to Aman and our savvy choice of traveling during the shoulder season.

 The Mekong Pool Suite presented us with a distinct living space, a separate bathroom complete with a clawfoot tub, a private yard, and a pool. With a refreshing tamarind juice reception as a welcome, fresh roses, and candied coconut treats, we swiftly acclimatized to our newfound, tranquil reality.

Amantaka’s General Manager Norbu, a humble and knowledgeable patron from Amankora in Bhutan, brings a warm and thoughtful sense of hospitality to the property. During our time here, he became a friend, and we were made to feel like guests in a private home rather than a hotel. He informed us that the property turned 100 this year and was formerly a French colonial hospital. In 2009, the building was converted by the legendary hotelier and original founder of Aman, Adrian Zecha, into a vision of peace and hospitality in which to explore the town of Luang Prabang — Amantaka in Sanskrit means Peace: The Teaching of Buddha, we found this very fitting.

 The Amantaka experience is expertly curated to enable effortless exploration of Luang Prabang. They’ve thoughtfully provided complimentary transportation options, including tuk-tuks, bicycles, and cars, making navigating the charming cobblestone streets a breeze. Even when you’re at the property, you don’t feel challenged by what lies beyond its walls because it is so well integrated into the action of the historic town.

The town emanates a charming and peaceful atmosphere reminiscent of the idyllic river towns we’ve explored in Europe. Amid its streets, we encountered treasures like Le Pavillon De Jade, a store owned by the Lao-French couple Patrice Bleton and his wife. Patrice’s skill is crafting silk through natural dyeing and scarf design, a craft he oversees. Waterside eateries with open doors invited us to savor the town’s ambiance as we relished a rejuvenating ice coconut milk latte at Mademoiselle Ny Café.

 In a mildly athletic endeavor, we embarked on a trek up Mount Phousi, expertly guided by a knowledgeable local guide arranged by Aman. The uphill journey rewarded us with sweeping panoramas that beautifully encapsulated the town’s essence. Venturing even further, we immersed ourselves in the centuries-old spiritual artifacts within the Royal Palace. This rhythm of exploration became the defining theme of our days, offering us glimpses into the intricate history and cultural tapestry that defines Luang Prabang.

One early morning, we set out on a 45-minute drive into the countryside and discovered the enchanting Kaung Si waterfalls—an ethereal marvel adorned with tiered turquoise pools and lush tropical flora. To our delight, Aman orchestrated a private breakfast beside the waterfall—an experience of pure enchantment.

By midday, we set sail aboard a sunset cruise organized by Amantaka, which was perhaps the highlight of our experience. As the sun met the horizon, the Mekong River transformed into a canvas of shimmering gold, casting a spellbinding reflection on the water’s surface. The cruise was a tranquil journey, guiding us along the river’s gentle currents. As we cruised northeast along the Mekong, we marveled at the untouched forested mountains of the Annamite range before a docking for a private tour of the spiritually revered Pak Ou Cave. Stepping into its ancient chambers, we were greeted by countless Buddha statues, each emanating a sense of quiet devotion. The soft twilight enhanced their serene presence, creating a moment of introspection and awe. Against the backdrop of the Mekong’s enchanting sunset, this experience etched itself into my memory as a truly unforgettable encounter.

Our final day began with an early morning, pre-dawn alms offering ceremony, a profound act that facilitated a deep and meaningful connection with the local community. This sacred ritual bridged cultures and traditions, allowing us to authentically engage with the devoted monks and be a part of a centuries-old ritual that defines the daily life of the Laotian people.

The Crescendo: Capella Hanoi’s Charms

Transitioning from the serene landscapes of Laos to the vibrant pulse of Hanoi, a city where history intertwines with modernity, we were welcomed to Capella Hanoi. This distinguished newcomer in the city’s hospitality scene graces the street just across from the iconic Metropole Hotel. Capella Hanoi sets itself apart with its intimate scale, housing only 47 rooms—an enchanting contrast to its neighboring establishment, which boasts nearly 300 more rooms. The hotel’s service remained exceptional throughout our stay, offering a modern maximalist take on colonial influences. Each floor had a theme, and each room was storyline with narratives of icons like Coco Chanel, Madame Butterfly, and Henri Matisse.

A true highlight of the hotel is the Diva’s Lounge, an exclusive space that adds a unique facet to the guest experience. Stepping into this lounge transported us to a time of fashionable elegance. Capella’s in-house diva and live vocalists charmed us with captivating cabaret-style performances during enchanting evenings, adding character and entertainment to our stay.

During our unforgettable time at Capella Hanoi, we had the privilege of residing in the Deluxe Suite. Notably, the suite features a small balcony that extends the room into the city’s rhythm and a separate bedroom that ensures privacy and comfort. The layout of the suite was both spacious and thoughtfully arranged.

Although it rained a bit during our time in the city, we did our best to explore Hanoi’s bustling markets and surrendered to the city’s distinct culinary symphony. With each street corner, a new narrative unfolded, allowing us to wholeheartedly embrace Vietnamese flavors and traditions in their unadulterated essence. Our time inside the hotel allowed us to explore all the restaurants in-house. Our favorite was the Japanese restaurant Koki, where we enjoyed Michelin-starred Japanese chef Junichi Yoshida’s Teppanyaki.

A Serene Finale: Amanoi’s Paradise in Vinh Hy Bay

The culmination of our journey led us to an ethereal gem, an experience unto itself: Amanoi. Crafted by the visionary Jean-Michel Gathy, Amanoi is a resplendent wellness retreat nestled within the embrace of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Its location is exceptional—intimately secluded, uninterrupted, and endowed with sweeping vistas of forested hills and majestic rock formations. Opting for the expansive Amanoi Ocean Pool Villa room #1, this accommodation became our sanctuary. The villa bestowed panoramic views of Vinh Hy Bay, where an elongated infinity pool seamlessly merged into the horizon. In this haven, we discovered tranquility, savoring leisurely sunrise breakfasts and immersing ourselves in novels, accompanied by the harmonious symphony of diverse birds and caressed by a gentle, soothing breeze.

Days at Amanoi harmoniously blended rejuvenation and exploration, often on foot. Mornings were dedicated to invigorating hikes through the hills, followed by delectable gastronomic journeys throughout the day and serene tea sessions at sunset.

However, the apex of each day was the holistic pampering experienced at Amanoi’s spa during the twilight hours—a soothing balm for the soul. The pristine beaches offered a serene haven, a fitting finale to an odyssey that deftly intertwined diverse cultures, architectural grandeur, and unadulterated luxury into a captivating tapestry.

Guiding this extraordinary establishment is Joy Arpornrat, star general manager. Her presence surpasses mere administrative duties; she radiates the warmth of a dear friend on the property. Her stylish and hospitable approach is intuitive, and her foremost concern is ensuring guests’ comfort. She surprised us by one night by personally preparing a three-course Thai meal after we casually mentioned missing the flavors of Thailand. This gesture left us both overjoyed and deeply moved. The dinner, featuring Papaya Salad with Thai Chilis, Laarb, and Green Prawn Curry, was extraordinary. Thank you, Joy, for your heartfelt generosity.

Beyond Joy’s culinary prowess, Chef Pip, a recent addition, has astoundingly transformed the menu in just six months, offering an array of Western and Asian specialties. Each dish was an unequivocal culinary triumph, skillfully balancing authenticity, and innovation.

Embracing the spirit of wellness, we sought solace in the spa, nestled beside a picturesque lake adorned with a stunning yoga pavilion. Here, we indulged in the Hammam half-day spa—an experience rooted in the Turkish Hammam tradition. For half a day, we surrendered to Aman’s Hammam suite, indulging in a body scrub, wash, moisturizing ritual, and a soothing massage—a slice of heaven.

On our final day, Amanoi added a touch of romance to our journey. They arranged a private dinner for us in their rock studio, an elevated spot overlooking the bay. With the stars and full moon above, we watched our chef prepare a delightful barbeque dinner. Under this enchanting setting, we enjoyed a meal that blended exquisite flavors with the beauty of the natural surroundings. It was a fitting and memorable end to our Southeast Asian odyssey.

From the opulent urban expanse of Bangkok to the tranquil paradise of Amanoi, each chapter of our journey unfurled like petals of a lotus, revealing new realms of experience, cultural immersion, and sensory delight. As we journeyed through the tapestry of Southeast Asia, we didn’t merely arrive at destinations; instead, we encountered profound experiences that whispered of the teachings of Buddha—each moment an opportunity for mindful engagement and a deeper connection with the essence of existence.

JULY 2023