Escape Artistry: Quick Breaks Across the Border
Kek Lok Si Temple on the hills of Penang is the biggest buddhist temple complex in South East Asia. It is beautifully ornamented and you can easily spend a full afternoon wandering around admiring the statues, the praying halls, feeding the carpes and the holy turtles and enjoying the breezy mountain view over George Town.
Sometimes living the Thailand dream can be too much of a good thing. Need a week away? Then jump the fence to one of these escapes just across the border
"It is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world," wrote English traveller, Ralph Fitch in 1586 when he first saw Yangon’s crowning glory, the Shwedagon’s pagoda. Hot on Ralph’s heels - even if 429 years later you can still bathe in the golden glow of the great spire with its 72 shrines and 99-metre, diamond-encrusted tip.
Despite Myanmar’s dalliance with trainer wheels democracy and the near-beatification of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is still the fiefdom of entrepreneurs in epaulettes. Regardless, it is today’s hot button destination in Asian travel and, as tourism has taken-off, room demand in Yangon has outstripped supply. Consequently, you’ll find hotel rates higher than in Thailand.
But it’s worth it. Downtown’s Yangon is a mix of modern busyness and glorious decrepitude. Its stupendous colonial architecture covers city blocks, although much of it, tragically, has been left to decay. Look for Pansodan Street’s Colonial Heritage Trail, the Supreme Court, Scott Market and the Strand Hotel, for starters.
It’s easy for a farang to get around in Yangon. Just stand still and, genii-like, a honking taxi will appear beside you in a puff of exhaust smoke, piloted by a (usually) cheerful Burmese bloke.
To pinch a line from Dr Johnson: “Whoever is tired of Penang is tired of life”. And probably of food, music and laughter, too. With its 1.7 million citizens of Chinese, Indian and Malay blood, Penang (off Malaysia’s north-west coast) is an intriguing place, especially in its UNESCO-listed capital, George Town.
The colonnaded shop-houses and bazaars echo with distant dialects or old tales of traders in tin, rubber and spice. Colonial-era Chinese mansions, some crumbling, some reborn, recall stories of wastrel sons who blew the family fortune on fast women and slow horses.
It's a walking, talking town that invites you to prowl through places like Little India Bazaar where Hindi "fillum" music wails (the chanteuses can sound Minnie Mouse trapped in a tin-can) and fogs of incense waft from temples or shops that sell saris, shirts and kitchen sinks.
Hungry? Sample some Mutton Mysore or a vegetarian murtabak snack, sluiced down with a coffee tarek. The hawker pours his brew between two cups held wide apart, with the stream arcing, airborne, between them. First comes showtime, then the flavour.
At every turn George Town's traditional architecture can astound although, sadly, some of its modern cousins — condos, malls and the monstrous KOMTAR tower - cry out for the wrecking ball. Take a three-hour drive around the 280 sq km island. The east coast is full-on Factorystan but the west — still green and villaged — has been less mauled (and malled) by the pit bulls of progress.
Malaysia’s relatively prim version of a tropical resort is the string of hotels and bars around Batu Ferringhi (meaning Foreigner’s Rock) on the north coast, but for most travellers the heart of Penang is “old town” George Town with its famous street art and colonial architecture.
Luang Prabang Laos
“Luang Prabang - twang! It sounds like a rubber band," says my pal Louise as we step ashore in this city on a river peninsula in upcountry Lao. Some 200 km north of Vientiane, and with the Mekong and Nam Khan waters as its moat, Luang Prabang feels like a Buddhist Brigadoon — with airport, hotels and WiFi.
This World Heritage-listed enclave of exquisite temples was the retreat of the Lao royal family until their demise at communist hands in 1975. It still bristles with the gilded roofs of some 30 wats, the most elaborate one being the 450-year old, royal Wat Xieng Thong,
The former Royal Palace, now the National Museum, is home to a 2000-year old, 54-kg golden Buddha statue, Pha Bang (or Prabang), from which the city takes its name. Also on display is a chunk of moon rock presented to the Kingdom by Richard Nixon, who then bombed the smithereens out of the country.
Boutique hotels and restaurants have given a new lease of life to the town’s French colonial villas and shop-houses, but marigold-robed monks still drift through the morning streets — you can donate alms or food to them at dawn. Be sure to hike up Phu Si ("Sacred Hill") overlooking the town and to let your thoughts drift off on the slow-boat tides of the Mekong.
Yangon in Myanmar
Bangkok Airways flys Suvarnabhumi-Yangon daily. Apply early for your Myanmar electronic visa: evisa.moip.gov.mm/index.aspx. Or see myanmarembassybkk.com. Accommodation options include the five-star Chatrium Hotel and, downtown, the moderately priced New Aye Yar Hotel.
Fly Don Muang - Penang with Air Asia X. Malaysia has a generous 90-day tourist visa. George Town offers plenty of accommodation, including the historic E & O Hotel and the new, upmarket boutique, Muntri Mews.
Luang Prabang Laos
Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways fly Suvarnabhumi - Luang Prabang, while Lao Aviation connects from Vientiane. Visa-on-Arrival is available at airports (and Thai-Lao land borders) for around US$35. (Bring two passport pics and US cash.) Dry season is October - April; May - September is monsoon; it's hot year-round. Quality accommodation includes Phou Si Hotel in the heart of town and historic Hotel Villa Santi.