Valerie Wilson Travel

Tropical Asia In Depth

Malaysia, Thailand, The Maldives, & Sri Lanka

Having had the opportunity to plan multiple family visits to Southeast and South Asia over the years, I was excited to plan a more languid journey with just Alice, my wife, this winter. We spent five weeks in Thailand, a country we were eager to explore in more depth, with one week stops in Malaysia, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Most photos captured below can be credited to Alice.

The Tokyo Edition – Ginza, Japan

For those of you who collect frequent flier miles, you may know that 24-hour stopovers are permitted en route. These stopovers can facilitate a quick visit to a new city, a hot shower, an epic meal, and a few hours of sleep. On our way to Langkawi, Malaysia, we had the good fortune of laying over in Tokyo after a nonstop flight from Chicago on Japan Airlines.

I’m a fan of Marriot’s EDITION brand, with its stylish architecture, vibrant locations, and energetic team. Given a great stay the previous year at the Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon, I was eager to check out the new Tokyo EDITION, Ginza, located in the middle of Ginza’s premier shopping neighborhood, a half block also from Alice’s favorite stationery store, the six story Ginza Itoya. Well before our arrival, I knew our stay was going to be too short. The affable concierge had previously secured us two sought-after seats at Tempura Kondo, a Michelin Two Star temple of tempura omakase hidden up in a nondescript office building (no sign in English) a few minutes walk from the EDITION. The hotel team’s friendly greeting and arrival cocktail were particularly welcoming. We also appreciated the clean, elegant lines of our spacious room – and what I believe to be an EDITION trademark that should be copied by every hotel chain – a long counter with enough space for two suitcases to be hastily unpacked and repacked before heading back to the airport.

The Datai – Langkawi, Malaysia

I’m not a fan of transferring from international to domestic flights at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (especially as its people mover was under construction), but we made it just in time to our short flight to Langkawi, Malaysia. By the time we finally got to the iconic Datai, the restaurants were closing, but they graciously accommodated us at The Pavilion, their outstanding open-air Thai restaurant, dramatically located in the rainforest canopy. The Datai opened back in the 1990s (the year Alice and I got engaged), and it emerged just before COVID after an extensive refurbishment, which included the addition of some spectacular villas and a new beach club. While we were at the Datai, a crew from BBC was filming their popular series “Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby.” I will be curious to see if Alice and I make it as extras to the final cut.

Given its impressive and distinctive architecture, the Datai had been on my radar for decades, and it was a worthy place for us to spend our week in Malaysia. One of the unexpected highlights was the unusually warm and accommodating staff, some of whom had been with the hotel since its opening. We ended up moving rooms from the main building to one of the new villas, after a friendly encounter with a monkey on our balcony, that resulted in my being photographed (in a bathrobe) by several of our curious European neighbors. The hotel’s dramatic location is smack dab in the middle of a living jungle, and with that situation, you are going to encounter nature in many forms. Monkey sightings such as that on our balcony are common. The butterfly and bird varieties are numerous, and I was told that the hundreds of small bats we saw each evening are largely responsible for the mosquito free setting.

After lavish breakfasts, I got into a routine of working out every other day in the beachfront gym, or more accurately, moving some weights around, mesmerized by the views, on an outdoor platform just in front of the gym. Some days the wind picked up a bit, and in a pinch, the water sports team quickly delivered one of their windsurfers to the water’s edge, and I was off, out in glorious Datai Bay. The food program is outstanding, whatever the venue, and I lost track of how many times Alice and I strolled up and down the 1.5 km long white sand beach, which we had almost all to ourselves. Our jet lag quickly passed, and before we knew it, it was time to go to Thailand.

Six Senses – Yao Noi, Thailand

Langkawi is less than 200 miles from Phuket, and I was unable to find an efficient way to go by sea, so we took a flight back down over KLIA before heading back up to Phuket. When we arrived there, we were greeted by a sedan sent by the Six Senses Yao Noi that delivered us to a pier where a Six Senses boat was waiting to ferry just the two of us over to the island of Yao Noi, a little over an hour away. The boat ride was stunning. In this part of Thailand, there are hundreds of small islands jutting up seemingly hundreds of feet from the aquamarine sea. We entered this otherworldly landscape just as the Thai skies greeted with a warm welcoming downpour, the last precipitation we would see for weeks on end.

From the age and relative condition of the Six Senses, we assumed that it was one of the earlier locations of this Robinson Crusoesque hotel chain that is now part of IHG. Here our “rustic” thatched roof villa, hidden amongst the jungle foliage, had a private pool and outdoor shower. Should we return to the Six Senses, I will splurge for an ocean view room as those vistas out over the islands are incomparable to anything we have ever seen. Aside from another exemplary food program (that included free homemade ice cream scoops all day long) and terrific personalized service, the hotel offers a number of interesting excursions around that glorious landscape surrounding the hotel. We opted for the private longboat tour of the islands, which delivered us to some otherworldly swimming coves.

Although Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, the island of Yao Noi is Muslim, and some of the simple, local restaurants don’t allow you to BYOB. That should not prevent you from taking the open-air pickup truck “taxi” to Koh Yao Tha Ton Do Seafood, a simple Mom and Pop restaurant on stilts where you sit barefoot and eat local crab deep fried with heaps of caramelized garlic. Back at the Six Senses our favorite restaurant was their fancy Thai spot, Nithan. Make sure to book Nithan in advance, as there are very few tables, and the fish pad kra pao is revelatory.

Amanpuri – Phuket, Thailand

After seven fleeting days, we took the Six Senses boat back to Phuket for the piece de resistance of our trip, a twelve-night return visit to the Amanpuri, perhaps our favorite resort in the world. I struggle to summarize why it is so exceptional, but some highlights include the most friendly people, many of whom recognized us upon our return, the spectacular Thai architecture high above one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand, a swimming platform far out in the sea stocked with chilled water and towels, recently refurbished villas that are both elegant and timeless, breathtaking sunsets, breakfast with a cheerful team that’s been there for decades and includes daily rotating Thai breakfast specials, a Japanese restaurant also just renovated to feel like a sleek bar in Ginza, tomato carpaccio and chicken souvlaki for lunch at the new beachfront Mediterranean restaurant, that yellow Southern Thai crab curry that the Aman nails, Phil the French tennis pro who fixed my forehand, one of the best outfitted hotel gyms in the world, afternoon tea with the most delicious Thai treats, an off-menu specialty of pizza pad kra pao (I’m obviously obsessed with pad kra pao). Each night at turndown, the magical housekeeping team delivered a thoughtful gift to us. Who knew that the Amanpuri-branded sweatbands that appeared after my first tennis lesson would actually help my grip in the tropical heat? It is a truly special place and even if you can only go for a couple of nights, it will forever redefine your expectations for what heaven on earth can be.

Olivia, Amanpuri’s delightful Guest Services manager suggested an outing to the Jampa Farm Experience, available only on Saturdays. While we were reluctant to leave paradise, this Michelin recommended restaurant delivered with an interesting farm tour, followed by lunch in their simple “pop up” farm restaurant where the kitchen crew in plain sight, helmed by an expatriate Dutch chef, prepared the most delicious four course lunch, cooked over a simple binchotan grill and in a wood fired brick oven. We wondered how we could be the only diners there given how memorable an experience it was.

137 Pillars – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Our oasis in Chiang Mai was 137 Pillars across the river from the old town in a quieter, more residential enclave. When planning and upon arrival, it struck me as the more unique of the city’s luxury hotel options, and I liked that it was a short tuk tuk ride from the action. It’s built around a historic wooden house that could have been the home to a relative of the King and I, surrounded by lush gardens and a dreamy urban pool, where a four story green wall becomes a waterfall at irrigation times. Our East Borneo Suite was furnished in attractive, traditional tones, and we loved our hidden outdoor shower with its First World water pressure. Speaking of design, we enjoyed walking through the atmospheric old town of Chiang Mai to visit Kalm Village, an interesting new destination that showcases primarily residential contemporary Thai arts and crafts.

A fellow traveler back at the Six Senses had raved about a private food tour in Chiang Mai led by Andy Ricker. I believe Andy received the first Michelin star awarded to a Thai restaurant in the U.S. for his (now closed) Portland, Oregon restaurant, Pok Pok. Andy developed a decades long love affair with Thailand, and northern Thai food in particular, and his food tour is part of this legacy. Always planning the next stop, I had Googled him from the Amanpuri and within an hour or so, we were confirmed. We had a fascinating day with Andy around Chiang Mai markets and in the surrounding countryside, and a highlight was visiting the village where they make their own rice whiskey. We learned a new term from Andy, struggle food, to describe how conditions in this part of the world influence some of the more exotic offerings to be found: wasps, bamboo larvae and all types of organs… He was kind to not push us too hard on the crazy stuff, and afterward, I was happy to get back to delicious rotisserie gai yang chicken, papaya salad, and sticky rice at Chiang Mai’s semi-famous hole in the wall chicken joint, SP Chicken

The Standard – Hua Hin, Thailand

We always have a blast at Standard Hotels, the fun, hyper cool hotel chain founded by Andre Balzas. The Standard has recently expanded to Thailand with The Standard Bangkok, located in the tallest skyscraper in the city, and The Standard Hua Hin, which was our next destination. Hua Hin is less than a three hour drive from Bangkok and has traditionally been the playground of wealthy Bangkok residents. It is a messy Thai city on an endless stretch of white sand beach, with truly awesome restaurants and an anything goes vibe. I don’t believe there are (or will be) super luxury hotels from the likes of Belmond, Four Seasons, or Rosewood in the city here, but the Standard, with its sexy architecture, lush gardens, wonderful Thai service, and whimsical standalone villas that could have been designed by Dr. Seuss (“Oh the things you can find” with a disco ball over the bathtub) deserved a big krub thank you from me.

Prior to our arrival, I received one of the most informative restaurant recommendation lists that I’ve ever gotten from a hotel. Recommendations were classified with helpful labels like “Local Thai Gems”, and there were many more options than our short week would allow. It was the Lunar New Year while we were in Hua Hin, so the restaurants, as well as pool area (and expansive breakfast buffet) of the hotel were slammed, but we otherwise had the most blissful stay, going on long beach walks past all the kite surfers to the new Italian seaside restaurant run by Roberto, the Italian husband of Vanessa, proprietor of beautifully hidden Little Spain. Little Spain allowed us to shift gears for a night, with earthy iberico ham, pan con tamate and paella, while enjoying the intimate villa setting and chatting the night away with her. Ko Mark, Som’s Table and Tanya’s redefined Thai dining for us as we downed yellow crab curry or deep-fried pork alongside multigenerational families celebrating together over amazing food. You will need to preorder at Tanya’s. Find someone who knows good food and speaks Thai, like Princess, one of the friendly, young concierges at The Standard who made our stay a joy.

Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya River

Before we knew it, the drive to Bangkok was over, and we were back at our favorite urban resort in the world, the Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya River. The Four Seasons is part of a stunning newer development along Bangkok’s iconic river that includes several terrific dining venues across a number of cuisines, multiple pools, an expansive spa and gym, the towering Four Seasons Residences Bangkok at Chao Phraya River and the neighboring Capella Bangkok. The glamourous compound is interlaced inside and out with calming black water features that seem to mimic rice paddies at night, stepping down from right inside the lobby all the way to the infinity pools and river below. While Bangkok is a foodies paradise, and though I typically eschew hotel dining in cities, this oasis is a world class dining destination of its own, so we took advantage of our privileged location to double down.

On our first night, we had luxurious sushi omakase at Sushi Saito, the Thai outpost of the famous sushi counter in Tokyo that is tucked under the Four Seasons Residences. There is spectacularly glazed bbq on offer at dim sum at the hotel’s Cantonse restaurant, Au Ting Yuan, and we were lucky to stumble into the Capella’s Thai restaurant, Phara Nakhon, during a delicious Sunday lunch service that was bustling with another group of large, boisterous and contented families seated between the restaurant’s stylish open kitchen on one side and the Chao Phraya on the other. The lavish five star dining experiences on campus were in sharp contrast to the simple atmosphere of Yum Rod Sab, a tiny multigenerational family affair reached by public water taxi that operates from a small pier next to the Mandarin Oriental. Each time we’re in Bangkok, we make a pilgrimage here for perfectly fried chicken that comes buried under a golden pile of caramelized lemongrass slivers, sticky rice and spicy nam jim jaew on the side. Back on the main side of the river, the artsy Warehouse 30, a brief stroll from the MO pier, is a great place to look around, soak up the air conditioning, and have a decadent Thai iced coffee.

Samlor was a fitting end for our last dinner in Thailand: fun, young, irreverent, entrepreneurial, utterly delicious. We relished our good fortune as we rode, open air in the tuk tuk, back to our home at the Four Seasons. Although we had an early flight in the morning, how could we miss one last drink at the BKK Social Club? I recall staying at Four Seasons hotels on business trips a young investment banker in the ‘90s. At the time, Four Seasons was ushering in a new level of hotel luxury in the Americas, but it seemed a bit formal to me. In my view, BKK Social Club is the new Four Seasons, Version 4.0. The “club” is opulent as a Four Seasons should be, but the friendly mixologists are hip, the drinks innovative, the smart locals are partying here, and I caught myself shazaming the vibey soundtracks more than once. One night the bar’s gregarious Irish manager checked in with us, and we ended up speaking for some time. He extolled the restorative virtues of the hotel’s cryo ice baths and offered to set up a chilling 3.5 minute plunge for us the next day, with Richard, the hotel’s visiting wellness practitioner. I have to admit I was very relieved when he sent me a WhatsApp that next morning saying that Richard was (un) fortunately not available to dip with us.

One & Only Reethi Rah – Malé, Maldives

It’s about a four-hour flight from Bangkok to Male, the unusual looking capital of the Maldives. There wasn’t a seat open on our all economy flight, and the jockeying to get off the plane was perhaps the most aggressive we’ve seen. I had previously requested our hotel, the One & Only Reethi Rah, to organize fast-track services for us to clear immigration. Upon landing, we stepped into a chill black Mercedes E Class that was waiting for us on the runway, while the rest of the passengers crowded into a transport bus. We sat briefly in the (dry) fast-track lounge while someone took care of our paperwork, then we were whisked off to the O&O boat for our private transfer to the island.

I understand that the original island, located in the middle of a beautiful aquamarine atoll, was a fraction of the size of the now 20-year-old resort. The process of reclamation continues today, with neat rows of boulders protecting the impossibly perfect crescents of the white beaches which surround the island, and a sand mining operation visible from the swank beach club (which sports daily DJ sets and a pop-up Missoni store). As you would expect, some of the luxury villas are built on stilts in the sea. The others – including ours – are scattered along private beaches luxuriously set apart from each other for idyllic bliss. The overall sense of privacy is enhanced by twenty years of vegetation growth, as a dense jungle with towering palm trees now exists where once was only a few feet of water. I’m fascinated by the perfection of it all and am surprised that we don’t bump into Mr. and Mrs. Howell III as we bike along white sand paths to our elegant, over-the-top thatched roof hut on Gilligan’s Island.

The resort sports multiple excellent dining venues. Our favorite is dinner open to the stars above at Botanica, a romantic farm-to-plate restaurant with a wood fired oven set within the resort’s expansive herb and vegetable garden. A surprising close second for us was the Indian menu at Earth, a pan Asian restaurant built on stilts above the sea that doubles as the venue for the hotel’s amazing and expansive buffet breakfast. For lunches we alternated between world class pizza, pasta and risotto at Rabarbaro, or the upbeat vibes at the Beach Club. There were so many delicious food experiences that we were unable to try them all. Next season will debut an upgraded Japanese dining restaurant, complete with (what I will venture to predict) a Wagyu Beef Teppanyaki Grill Experience.

I was actually surprised by the number of families at this most romantic of settings, many of whom hailed from Russia. The beach club had every water sport available, and there was always someone from the O&O team available to play ping pong, pool, volleyball, whatever with the younger guests. I got into the habit of lifting weights in the very well outfitted beachfront gym, before detoxing in the steam rooms, saunas, experience showers and plunge pools of the most expansive men’s spa I have ever experienced.

One day we had reserved a private boat excursion to do some leisurely sightseeing. We saw several seemingly large reef sharks as we departed the island’s small marina. (“Oh, don’t worry, they won’t bother you”). The chop was also noticeable as we went out onto the open seas, so we were a bit surprised when our athletic guide told the captain to stop the boat, that it was time for us to go snorkeling. Engine off, the boat lurched back and forth as we struggled to get our flippers on, and then we were overboard in deep dark blue seas. The guide told us to stay within visibility of her, and if we were lucky, we’d see sharks, sting rays, moray eels et. al. in the expansive reef ahead. We did, all that and more, before back in the boat, the captain steered us to a stunning sand bar, which now at high tide was under a couple feet of swirling, crystal clear water. I will never forget the feeling of taking my flippers off and standing barefoot on the sandbar in the most luminescent of natural pools, Alice alongside me, somewhere in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean.

Ahu Bay – Ahungalle, Sri Lanka

It’s about a 90-minute puddle jump from Male to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Our family had been twice to Sri Lanka before COVID, and we had to cancel two subsequent trips (due both to COVID and general considerations) to this beautifully tropical country, that sits on the map like an emerald earring off the southern tip of India. For this visit we were staying at Ahu Bay, the newest property of Resplendent Ceylon, a Sri Lankan hospitality company operating several Relais & Chateaux hotels, that together with Aman’s two outstanding Sri Lankan properties, the historical Amangalla and beachfront Amanwella (where my kids learned to surf) dominate Sri Lanka’s luxury hotel market. Ahu Bay is a small 13 room boutique property on a gorgeous, swimmable cove, with modern décor, a friendly young staff, and a talented kitchen. It is decidedly less full service than its sister properties mentioned above, and perhaps as such, it was a zen place for us to let our hair down before the long trek back to Chicago.

Nonetheless, between beach walks and lazy days, we organized a visit to Lunuganga, the spectacular “tropical modernist” estate of late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, and also, a return visit to the UNESCO Heritage fort town of Galle for some sightseeing, shopping and delicious Italian food at AQUA Forte. We also visited Thalpe, a fishing village turned into a somewhat frenetic beachside neighborhood, with numerous small hotels, restaurants, and beach clubs strung out along the main coastal road. Here we had sunset cocktails at the hip, beachfront Shanti Shanti, run by some hospitable young Sri Lankan surfers who grew up in the village. They cheered me on as I blissfully swung out over a wild seascape now turning from gold to pinkish purple from Rasta Rope Swing, a fun little enterprise next door, consisting of a rope swing tied to the highest coconut tree around. I wholeheartedly agree with the historically beleaguered Sri Lankan Ministry of Tourism’s new motto: “You will come back for more”.

Ready to plan your next getaway?