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Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008

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Morning glory: Dawn breaks over the wondrous Devi Garh hotel, a lovingly restored 18th-century Rajput palace outside Udaipur in Rajastan, India. COURTESY OF DEVI GARH HOTEL

Gems of Asia: hotels worth the splurge


Special to The Japan Times

I admit to an incurable travel addiction, which I have been lucky enough to feed by journeying around Asia since 1980, driven by an abiding interest in the wonders and troubles of the region.

Mostly my travels in the last 25 years — 22 of them spent living here — have been fieldwork for my academic activities, currently as Director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Japan Campus in Tokyo. Consequently, many trips have consisted of interviews, data collection and firsthand observations that inform and inspire my writing. There is also the odd conference to attend, but sometimes my travels are nothing more (or less) than a recharging of the batteries.

In between trips I grow restless, and one of my hobbies is trip planning, researching destinations that I may visit, chasing down contacts and figuring out logistics. But, truth be told, not always in that order.

My travels have included mishaps and thrills of many varieties: meticulously planned trips that sputtered, and inadvertent encounters that morphed into incredible experiences. I have been accorded astounding generosity, got malaria, done stupid things, met nice and nasty fellow travelers, and stumbled into scary situations — but those are tales for another day. However, just a word to the wise — steer clear of boars in Sumatra, poppy growers in Burma, gangs at night in Dili, the capital of East Timor — and land mines anywhere.

Asia offers so much that is stunning and rewards the intrepid while cosseting those seeking escape and relaxation. The following is a sampling of what I consider some of the most appealing destinations and hotels — gems of Asia — places of respite and reflection for the peripatetic. Naturally I keep a few baubles up my sleeve. I have left out many interesting sites and not focused on some of the more challenging journeys, figuring that readers seeking such will have no problem getting into trouble or discomfort on their own. These are splurge places best enjoyed while sharing a romantic getaway.

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Stupandous: Chedi Pond at the Sukhotai Hotel in Bangkok COURTESY OF THE SUKHOTAI HOTEL

Sukhotai Hotel, Bangkok

Bangkok is (normally) the coolest city in Asia, with a pleasing blend of old and new, lovely canals and temples, superb dining and a happening vibe.

The Sukhotai Hotel is not the glitziest or most venerable — the Peninsula and Oriental win on those grounds — but it is a captivating urban oasis set in luxurious and spacious gardens. Its staff, moreover, redefine "service" — always willing, often anticipating but never intrusive. The interior's wood and stone carvings add a pleasing warmth to the contemporary decor, and delightfully remind guests that this is truly Thailand.

The rooms are large and comfortable, overlooking gardens and ponds. With a pool, tennis court and a superb spa to knead out any aches or stresses, the only warning note here is to not overindulge in the handmade chocolates placed in the room every day — and to avoid probably the best breakfast buffet anywhere. They're both tasty memories I am still wearing.

The Celadon, the onsite Thai restaurant, has garnered many awards and is one of the city's finest, while the bar serves the best Mojitos in Asia. Nearby, too, you can ascend to the Vertigo bar/restaurant atop the Banyan Tree Hotel for an outdoor, panoramic view over glittering Bangkok.

Cruising the canals, meandering through the temples and shopping is convenient because the nearby metro provides easy access, while escapes to the ancient, beguiling ruins of ancient Ayutthaya 90 minutes away by car to the north are easily arranged.

Guests can also wander over to pleasant Lumpini Park for a morning constitutional, surrounded by hordes of exercising locals, and in the evening the night market, only a five-minute walk away, is a great place to pull up a plastic chair and eat like a king for a pittance at one of the many food stalls, surrounded by locals who know where to grab good grub with an unforgettably welcoming ambience.

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Revolving door: A courtyard entrance at the serene and intimate Aman Summer Palace hotel in Beijing JEFF KINGSTON

Aman Summer Palace, Beijing

Images of Olympic Beijing linger, and the stunning new arenas such as the Bird's Nest stadium and the Cube, along with the spectacular new Opera are well worth visiting. But Beijing has much else on offer as a capital city that has changed remarkably over the past decade, yet still offers glimpses of imperial splendor and back-alley funk and chic.

The folks from Aman Resorts — the ultimate brand in luxury boutique hotels — have overseen the painstaking restoration of the Summer Palace guesthouses formerly used by high-ranking officials awaiting an audience with the Empress Dowager at the end of the last dynasty in the early 20th century.

This intimate complex of rooms opening onto courtyards exudes tranquillity and serenity, with lovely open-air pavilions overlooking the gardens and pond. The single-story buildings are painted a lush vermilion with gold accents and beautiful ceiling frescoes depicting scenes of classical China.

Entering the compounds is to be transported back in time in this spacious and sumptuous residence to where airy, large common spaces offer comfortable places to peruse and relax, well away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Beijing.

In the back, there is a door that gives access to a secret garden, in this case the magnificent, verdant grounds and lake of the Summer Palace. This is an enchanting place for ambling, where the rich imperial legacy is on display and a stroll into the wonderfully maintained gardens laid out in classical style invites you to sit and linger. In the morning, droves of residents come out for their exercise, and there's nothing more memorable than ballroom dancing to "Jingle Bells"!

Many travelers to China complain about brusque service, but the young and eager staff at this cozy resort are as cheerful and helpful as could be imagined, and the guides know how to show you all the best of Beijing in a city that is easier to navigate than expected.

This is the place to stay for those who enjoy city life and its attractions, but also savor quietude — a rare commodity in Beijing. The Chinese food here is superb, too, and there is a large indoor pool and a spa that's all you could ever wish for.

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Reflected glory: The pool at the splendid Amanjiwo Hotel in Java COURTESY OF AMAN RESORTS

Amanjiwo Hotel, Java

This is my favorite hotel in the world, a timeless place in an enchanting rural setting. The Amanjiwo is built in harmony with the mystical soul of sacred Java, facing the 8th-century Buddhist sanctuary of Borobodur and surrounded by four volcanoes that intermittently smoke in violation of their supposed dormant status.

Yogyakarta and Solo, lively cities once home to the Javanese court, are less than an hour's drive away, while the spiritual center of Java in the Dieng Plateau is close at hand, as are the 8th- to 10th-century Hindu temple ruins of Prambanan.

The hotel is built of local limestone and resembles a palace complex with stunning views — most spectacularly the exquisite Borobodur seemingly floating on the horizon as it rises from the rice fields and jungle like a mirage. This breathtakingly beautiful wonder, with its intricately carved bas-relief stone panels, is best viewed at dawn before the crowds descend and the rising sun chases the mists away.

As at all Aman resorts, the staff are friendly, attentive, well-informed . . . and make you feel delightfully welcome. Rooms are palatial, private and offer magnificent views and all the amenities. The 40-meter pool has views of Mount Merapi, while superb massages are to be had at the spa; Sutarjo's hands are magic.

Then, to be eating local dishes fit for a rajah on the terrace, and listening to the gamelan under the stars over Java, is about as romantic as it gets.

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Masked ball: A Balinese dancer performs in Ubud on the Indonesian island. JEFF KINGSTON

Chedi Club, Ubud, Bali

Perhaps it was the mesmerizing, torchlit kecak (monkey-chant performance) extravaganza in the lovely gardens adorned with classical Balinese sculptures — or maybe it was the serene breakfasts overlooking rice paddies — but here at this intimate resort I rediscovered the Ubud that I thought had disappeared over the past two decades.

Large, single-story suites scattered over the spacious and glorious gardens offer privacy, while the friendly and professional staff take care of the pampering.

This is a place where an unhurried pace inevitably envelops and soothes guests. The lush and blooming gardens and beautiful ponds attract a rich variety of birds, while aviaries house many other exotic species.

One morning the staff informed me that a funeral ceremony would be held that afternoon in a nearby village, and they offered to show me the way over narrow paths through the rice paddies. It was an enthralling sight, with dozens of gorgeously decorated papier-ma^che cows, garudas (mythical birds) and other animals, some 3 meters high, set on fire to commemorate the deaths of loved ones. The atmosphere was more celebratory than funereal.

On the way back I wandered through a craft village renowned for woodcarvings, and then went over to the famous Elephant Cave complex nearby and at last managed to find the three lingams (phallic symbols used in Hindu worship) that had eluded me on my first visit in 1985.

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Smoke symbols: A resplendent funeral pyre in a village near Ubud in Bali JEFF KINGSTON

Staying here is a lovely respite — and then there are the attractions of Ubud, including Ibu Oka's mouthwatering spit-roast pork served on picnic tables across from the palace, Naughty Nuri's ever-delicious BBQ, Cafe Indah's chocolate cake . . . and the Mosaic, a fabled gourmet stop that keeps garnering well-deserved food awards.

To top it all, the Chedi boasts a lovely pool flanked by fountains and a spa overlooking shimmering rice paddies where the deft ministrations invite balmy, sublime repose.

Devi Garh, Rajastan, India

This hotel is a lovingly restored 18th-century Rajput palace not far from Udaipur, one of the jewels of Rajastan that featured in the unspectacular James Bond movie "Octopussy."

This city with its famed lake palace and many nearby temples makes the Devi Garh an ideal base for exploring the region; the temples of Ranakpur and Eklingji are well worth visiting for their sensuous and intricate stone carvings. The stunning fortress of Devi Garh is often used as a Bollywood set, precisely because it is so gorgeous and enjoys a breathtaking location astride one of the three main passes into the valley, surrounded by the enchanting Aravalli hills.

It is a day-dreamer's paradise. While the exterior is faithful to the original — indeed, this is one of the most lavish heritage restorations in India, and took 15 years to complete — the interiors show modern design at its sleek best, featuring spacious suites with white marble and dazzling modern decor inspired by traditional craftsmanship.

The service is intimate and discreet, while the spa features soothing Ayurvedic treatments by young women from the hills of Manipur who look more Burmese than Indian. The large, green-marble pool offers stunning bird's-eye views over the local village and farms, as do the restaurants serving various cuisines including local Rajastan specialities.

This is a spectacular place for lingering far longer than you planned — and be sure to visit the ghats in Udaipur, where colorful saris and cavorting youngsters make a stunning spectacle.



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