Three must-visit spots in Indonesia, Thailand and Laos, all with beautiful and ancient temples, luxe new resorts and fascinating food.
Central Java, Indonesia
BY JAMES OSELAND
When I was 19 and on my first trip to Asia, Indonesia changed my palate forever: It was my Italy and France rolled into one. In Java, an island about the size of England, I discovered ancient monuments like Borobudur, an immense ninth-century Buddhist sanctuary rivaling Cambodia's Angkor Wat in grandeur, and the mystical Dieng Plateau, hundreds of small stone temples scattered on a vast volcanic plain. I also discovered amazing food with a soulful interplay of sweet and savory: salads seasoned with kaffir lime leaves, richly flavored curries (a legacy of Java's history as a center of the global spice trade) and juicy, smoky chicken satay.
I've returned to Indonesia more than 20 times since that trip; my forthcoming cookbook, Cradle of Flavor: Classic Home Cooking from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, due out next year, celebrates my travels there. But I hadn't been back to Central Java before last spring.
In the bustling city of Yogyakarta, I wandered Jalan Tirtodipuran, a leafy street now filled with chic antique shops, stopping at a smart art gallery and café called the Kedai Kebun Forum (3 Jalan Tirtodipuran; 011-62-274-376-114). In quieter Surakarta (also known as Solo), the cultural heart of Java, I was tempted by the batik in the fabric bazaar off the alun-alun (town square) and by the dishes sold by the street-food vendors on Jalan Sudirman. I ate nasi liwet (ginger-scented coconut rice) on a banana leaf and gudeg (young jackfruit braised with palm sugar), nibbling lemon basil leaves between bites.
I spent my last two days traveling to Borobudur. An hour's drive from it is Losari Coffee Plantation Resort & Spa, a grand property on an organic farm built during the Dutch colonial occupation (doubles from $275; 011-62-298-596-333 or losaricoffeeplantation.com). Directly facing Borobudur is Amanjiwo, an elegant resort constructed out of limestone in a crescent that evokes Borobudur's curves (doubles from $650; 800-477-9180 or amanresorts.com). When I finally mounted the dozens of steep steps leading to the top of Borobudur itself, the views of terraced rice paddies extending to the horizon were even better than I remembered.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
BY PETER JON LINDBERG
Returning to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai was like reconnecting with an old college friend who'd gotten fat and rich. I thought: This isn't the place I knew. The Chiang Mai I discovered as a backpacker more than a decade ago was an outsize village. In its place is now a full-blown metropolis, ringed by expressways. That said, its new incarnation is a lot more exciting; dare I say I like it even better?
On my last trip, in 1993, Chiang Mai abounded in $10-a-night guesthouses, but it possessed no respectable full-service hotels. Now these places are sprouting everywhere. The Chedi (doubles from $180; 800-337-4685 or ghmhotels.com) and the Rachamankha (doubles from $315; 011-66-53-904-111 or rachamankha.com) are two new boutique properties, both with chic modern-Thai design; resorts from Shangri-La and Banyan Tree will follow in the next two years. Yet even as it has grown, the city has maintained its old-world character. Chiang Mai's historic quarter endures, its walled moat enclosing beautiful 14th-century temples, redbrick bungalows and traditional teakwood houses.
The most luxe of the city's new resorts is the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi (doubles from $295; 800-526-6566 or mandarinoriental.com), a 60-acre, 47-villa mega-complex that looks like a fantasy version of an old Thai village, with a cooking school and a spa. Le Grand Lanna, the restaurant at Dhara Dhevi, is the city's most elegant and also its best, serving impeccable northern Thai cuisine, which has more bitter-sour than spicy-sweet flavors and is quite different from what Westerners know as Thai food. On the restaurant's torchlit teakwood terrace, my wife and I feasted on khao soi (noodles in a mild yellow curry broth) and fried pumpkin leaves.
My favorite place to stay, though, is the pioneering Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (doubles from $375; 800-332-3442 or fourseasons.com), which opened in 1995 and is set around breeze-rippled rice paddies in the mountains north of town. We took advantage of the resort's excellent Thai cooking school, a standout among the many culinary programs offered in Chiang Mai. Classes are held in a gorgeous open-walled pavilion outfitted with massive stone smoke hoods. After leading us on morning excursions to a local market, affable chef Pitak Srichan guided us through preparations of khao soi, stir-fried morning glory (an Asian green), and the terrific hang le, a dry pork curry infused with pickled garlic.
There's fantastic food all over Chiang Mai, not just at the fancy resorts. At Food for You (28 Moo 5, Chiang MaiDoi Saket Rd., Sansai; 011-39-66-53-491-604), a modest family home open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 29-year-old head chef Prapatfforn Chalernvattananord works alongside his mother in the kitchen. We had an outstanding dinner of piquant seafood curries and fragrant soups spiked with acacia, a slightly bitter herb.
Before we left, we bought gifts for friends at the superbly curated Living Space (276278 Thapae Rd.; 011-39-66-53-874-156), which sells exceptional celadon and lacquerware, and at Wit's Collection (1 Nimmanhaeminda Rd.; 011-39-66-53-217-544), whose mod, whimsical ceramics make it a favorite of stylish expats.
There's so much happening in Chiang Mai these days that I wonder if the city is growing too fast. For now, it's still a thrilling mix of grit and polish, authenticity and pretense, the classic and the cosmopolitan; my advice is to get there soon, before the balance tips.
Luang Prabang, Laos
BY PATRICIA UNTERMAN
I can't believe I almost skipped Laos on a recent visit to Southeast Asia. The few days I spent in this small landlocked country—which shares long borders with Thailand and Vietnam and shorter ones with Cambodia, China and Myanmar—turned out to be my favorite part of the trip. Even though it's at the center of Southeast Asia, Laos still somehow feels isolated, slow-paced and peaceful. And the food is remarkable.
I spent most of my time in Luang Prabang, a town in the northern highlands that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its mix of traditional Lao buildings—including dozens of Buddhist temples, some of them dating back to the 16th century—and European colonial architecture. There's a long and tricky asphalt road that leads from Laos's capital, Vientiane, to Luang Prabang, but the best way to reach the town is by air. Until recently, Luang Prabang has been popular mainly with Asian arts connoisseurs, Buddhists and intrepid travelers, but this little hideaway is changing fast, especially with the recent opening of two resorts just outside town, the Grand Luang Prabang (doubles from $85; 011-856-71-253-851 or grandluangprabang.com) and the Villa Santi Resort (doubles from $60; 011-856-71-252-157 or villasantihotel.com), and the renovation of the 13-year-old Villa Santi Hotel (doubles from $65; 011-856-71-252-151 or villasantihotel.com).
Bordered by the Mekong River and a tributary on three sides, Luang Prabang has about 50,000 residents, who live in colonial houses along the town's narrow streets and in the surrounding hills. Visitors can stay in guesthouses—converted French-colonial mansions with river views—for about $50 a night. I stayed at Le Résidence Phou Vao, a small, exquisite hotel about a 20-minute walk from the town center (doubles from $125; 011-856-71-212-194 or pansea.com).
The stroll away from the hotel down Phou Vao Road took me past the best noodle place in Luang Prabang, an open-fronted café without a sign, located across the street from the office of the Economic Arbitration Organization and known around town as Mrs. Chansook's (Phou Vao Rd., Ban Phabaht; 011-856-71-212-213). I had a bowl of wonderful, rich-tasting beef broth dotted with meatballs, slices of raw water buffalo, rice noodles and fresh dill.
My favorite place in town was L'Eléphant (Ban Wat Nong; 011-856-71-252-482), a lyrical French restaurant that drew me in every day for aromatic coffee, a glass of good French wine or an accomplished bistro-style dinner. Yannick Upravan, the shy chef and co-owner, grew up in Luang Prabang and attended culinary school in Switzerland. He emigrated to France (where he met his partner, Gilles Vautrin) during Laos's Communist revolution in the mid-1970s, then cooked all over Europe before returning to Luang five years ago. L'Eléphant is in his 95-year-old grandmother's house, which has been renovated into a gracious restaurant. Upravan uses tons of local ingredients and wild game—we had superb rare venison and wild boar with chanterelles—brought in by women whose husbands go hunting and foraging in the nearby forests. The chef also serves pâtés of wild game, accompanied by his homemade cornichons. We could have been in Paris, but Paris by way of a subtropical paradise.
Upravan also owns the excellent 3 Nagas Lao (Sakkaline Rd., Ban Wat Nong; 011-856-71-253-888), where I sat on a patio on chairs that looked as though they were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Here, the chef serves authentic Lao cuisine—his grandmother's recipes—but doesn't use any MSG, which cooks all over Southeast Asia rely on. This is where I found the most exciting cuisine of my trip. I dipped fried chips of pressed river weed into jaew bong, a paste of dried shrimp, water-buffalo skin and sticky rice that was smoky and smoldering. And I tried the searing minced meat salad called larb, made with raw water buffalo, and a lemongrass-scented sour fish soup.
A visit to the morning market made me see why the food is so vibrant here. The land on the banks of the Mekong is planted with all kinds of lettuces and herbs, and farmers bring in gorgeous greens, vegetables and river weed by boat. But wake up early or miss out: Most of the vendors disappear by 8 a.m.