Told through the eyes of a young man named Kim who ventures out on a quest across Asia to both discover new experiences as well as his own history, we hope our story encourages you to journey on your own.
“ I have no culture, no country. I belong
to them all” my father used to say
Kim, the discoverer.
After his impromptu demise, I was raised by my uncle, an adventurous soul and avid antiques connoisseur. He made me a man of the world, laden with a humanistic culture. From the vast plains of Africa to the museums in Florence, he taught me to be attentive to all walks of life. My education comprised everything from joining the stars to form constellations with my finger pointed at the night sky, to listening to music composed by Franz Liszt on the Danube to understanding world history through archaeology.
Our journey together ended one beautiful, peaceful evening at the foot of Mount Athos, whilst gazing at sun’s final rays setting over the Aegean Sea in Macedonia. My mentor was leaving in search of a more meditative life. Just before he departed, he placed a medallion around my neck and handed me a slightly sallow letter written years before by my father, encouraging me to explore the temples of Angkor Wat, revealing that there I would discover the emblem’s mystical secret.
At the address indicated in my letter, I meet up with one of my father’s dearest friends. The soft-spoken sage meticulously inspects my heirloom, then proceeds to draw me a mysterious and intriguing itinerary with his beautiful calligraphy brush, which he inks onto a thin sheet of rice paper. Upon presenting it to me, he slowly and quietly says: “Follow this route, my dear Kim, and along the way you shall meet men and women that will welcome you in unconventional and wondrous ways. Perhaps they can help you in your quest to identify the meaning behind your precious medallion. Each of these masterful creators, in their own individual and unique manner, is passionate about the arts, antiques, cuisine and the indigenous culture that surrounds them. Shunning traditional hospitality experiences, they prefer instead to offer intimate, experiential opportunities, which reflect the pure essence of their domain. Often secluded and at times evoking a feeling akin to being on the edge of the world, discretion in these private domains mirrors exceptional beauty and tranquillity. These hosts will speak with you about the programs they are involved in to help their local community. They will tell you how they are trying to help save the planet with their sustainability and eco-friendly methods. They know how to give because it is their first and foremost vocation.”
Amid early dawn’s pale aura and its misty foggy ribbons, a mysterious temple unveils herself. Sated, I abandon my view of the dancers frozen in eternity in the bas-reliefs etched before me, and return back to a haven for the senses, Heritage Suites. Located near to the gate of Angkor Wat just outside of town, I take a late morning nap in my colonial style room overlooking the main swimming pool. Over an aromatic Royal Khmer lunch, my hosts help me to map out tomorrow’s plans for discovering the ancient kingdom of Angkor’s most magical spots. After our meal, I delight in this hotel’s secluded alcoves, old prints, silver objects, fine woodcarvings, teapots shaped like birds, lacquer chests, and mythical maps. Heritage Suites is truly a place for romantic dreamers like me.
For dinner, we dine at The Embassy Restaurant and savour delectable signature dishes including noum pao style seafood and sausage pancakes, and sticky black rice porridge with crispy duck.
After reaching Pakse in Laos, I board the boutique-style hotel riverboat Vat Phou for a 3-day cruise down the Mekong River. Here in southern Laos, I pass through stunning landscapes, and witness the mythical UNESCO World Heritage site, Vat Phou.
Mount Phousi projects herself proudly over the small, historic village of Luang Prabang. My radiant hostess greets me at Satri House. Sitting amid exquisite Lao silk pillows and throws in the place that once belonged to the “Red Prince”, she tells me about the ancient art of silk weaving by women who still adorn their hair with elaborate hair combs and headdresses inherited from their ancestors. She encourages me to explore paddy fields and watch the elephants at work in the nearby jungle. After a delicious lunch, and a rest in my canopy bed adorned with sweeping long swags of silk, I spend some time alone in the quiet garden to soak in the spirit of place that embodies refinement and calm. Here at Satri House, I feel regal.
My next stop takes me to Muang La Resort, another exceptional place owned by a man who dreamt of owning a lodge that was surrounded by rainforest in the heart of northern Laos. Over a delightful lunch facing the river, he tells me about local animist tribes with whom he has woven a profound relationship. The pleasure continues with my Laotian massage. I unwind further in the river’s medicinal hot springs. Surrounded by nature and a rural ambience, my stay at Muang La is akin to being somewhere between heaven and earth. Unable to discover anything new regarding my medallion, I make my way over to the Land of Smiles in Thailand.
Standing in the main courtyard in Chiang Mai at Rachamankha, soft golden rays envelop the palm trees around me. A door to a bygone world of this elegant home anchored in time opens. Amid exotic scents that permeate the air, the owner tells me: “Four centuries of Buddhist history can be found here. But the biggest secret here at Rachamankha lies in its balance, which respects the law of ancient builders: divine proportion, like the one Leonardo Da Vinci illustrated.”
I delight in discovering Thailand’s second largest city. Its rich traditions, vibrant art scene and artisanal handicrafts are a pure delight. Together with its hilltribes and various adventure activities, Chiang Mai captivates.
Just before I depart, my host takes me to dine at Terra & the Farmer’s bar. Set in a beautiful garden with a greenhouse, we indulge in modern Provencal cuisine with a Thai twist on the terrace. Delightful.
In northern Thailand, near the border of Myanmar, where the tops of golden pagodas glitter, the small, artsy town of Pai offers an idyllic adventure escape. Celebrating the heady days of romance, exploration and elegance from the early 20th century, Reverie Siam feels like a dream. After a quiet stroll along the riverbank to absorb the picturesque views of the Pai River and surrounding mountains, and a delicious Mediterranean dinner, I return to my sumptuous villa and instantly fall into a deep slumber. During my stay at this hippy-chic boutique, filled with European antiques and traditional handicrafts, I trek around the national park to glimpse at the abundant wildlife and beautiful landscapes. I soak in the nearby hot springs, wander around the countryside, and spend an uplifting afternoon riding on an elephant.
In Myanmar, once known as Burma, I gain a completely different perspective on Asia. From its cities to its rural countryside, this country’s spirit and charm of yesteryear moves my soul. Without any more hints about my father’s emblem, I push east into the heart of China.
In Yunnan, where white clouds float softly above tall mountainous peaks, I reach the tea plantations in Puer. I am introduced to the tea ceremony, gōngfū. Porcelain cup in hand, my black Puer tea has more aroma than a rose garden. I visit other areas, each with their own individual charms—Dali, Kunming...
I stop to discover “the Land of Milk and Honey”, regaling in the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu’s rich history, spicy Sichuan cuisine, and traditional Sichuan Opera. At an old pedestrian, two elderly coin collectors amuse themselves with my mysterious heirloom.
At the foothills of Tibet lies the majestic area known as Shangri La. Home to three great rivers, the Yangtze, Makong and the Salween, the sacred region and snowy white Himalayan peaks is a refuge for my soul. I find myself at the Tibetan Gedan Songzanglin Monastery. Monks are busy painting a thangka, but stop to pay attention to my medallion, making a vague reference to Sakyamuni Buddha: “To witness it is about touching the ground lightly with your right hand.” That said, they point west and proceed to go back to their artwork. Though beguiling clues, the road to discovering my father’s secret will seemingly be a long one.
Filled with unique culture and traditions, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan is spectacular. I trek through the Himalayas, then explore monasteries and ancient fortresses known as dzongs dotted throughout the country’s pristine landscapes.
Nepal’s capital Kathmandu delights my senses. I marvel at its wonderful handicrafts, delightful Nepalese cuisine and lively ambience. Formidable trekking, river rafting, kayaking, and paragliding amid nature all add to my seducing voyage.
India’s Kashmir Valley, the gateway to the Himalayas, is steeped in legend and myth. I head to Srinagar’s most prominent landmark Dal Lake to stay on the fully restored vintage Sukoon Houseboat. Strategically moored with views of the Zabarwan mountain range and a few of the city’s architectural splendours, it presents legendary Kashmiri hospitality. My hosts take me out on their ornate shikara (gondola) to explore the sites in and around the lake, and join me on numerous excursions to experience the region’s wonders.
Eager to discover more, I end my journey in northern India by soaking in the natural beauty in the “land of high passes” in Ladakh.
A launching point for discovering medieval India’s royal Rajput palaces, forts and other architectural wonders, the “Pink City” Jaipur’s colourful bazaars, Palace of Winds, City Palace, and Amber Fort entice me.
Outside the city, I head to the beautifully restored historic Talabgaon Castle to meet up my father’s old friends whom are descendents of the Royal Radjputs. After a round of polo on the castle’s grounds, we sit to dine and watch a lively Rajasthani puppetry performance. The next day, they take me on an adventurous tiger safari at Ranthambore Tiger National Park. Thrilling.
Adventure is never far away in Rajasthan and my last two stops in Jodphur and Udaipur prove as much. Each city has its own unique charms, complemented by delicious Rajasthani cuisine.
In Madhya Pradesh, I meet up with the son of the last Maharajah at his fort in Indore that overlooks the sacred Narmada River. Arriving to Bandhavgarh National Park, I take an early morning game drive to glimpse at the tigers, then cross the plains in and around Jabalpur.
Besides its lovely beaches and distinctive Portuguese heritage, I stop to view Goa’s colonial buildings, forts, Hindu temples, churches, spice plantations, wildlife sanctuaries, colourful markets, and busy nightlife.
Tranquillity permeates the air in Kerala. Celebrating life with myriad rituals and colourful annual festivals, a true essence of authentic India shimmers here.
I climb aboard the Lotus Houseboat for a leisurely cruise through the backwaters, drinking in the lakes, forests and local village life. Afterwards, I sit in my luxurious bungalow at Neeleshwar Hermitage, amid miles of pristine beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. Wearing my thin white cotton outfit made by the in-house tailor as I sip my cup of tchai (black tea, milk, sugar and cardamom), I discover the art of living for the return.
Bound with newfound harmony, I head to the historic port city Cochin, where Portuguese, Dutch, British, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Catholics all once had homes. I view Fort Cochin, St. Francis Church, where the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was originally buried and watch the locals fishing just as the Chinese did over 600 years ago.
I end my pilgrimage in India in Tamil Nadu. Bordering the Indian Ocean, I pass through Pondicherry to glimpse at the sublime old French colonial homes and experience the region’s culinary traditions.
Reflecting back on my journey across India, I delight in all the men and women that I met along the way, truly passionate, people that have imagined, dreamt and built their own little sanctuaries that only diverse India is capable of offering. Their villas, lodges and restored palaces, and undying love for this vast country unify them all.
Pushing South, I trek through Sri Lanka’s highlands laden with rolling hill tea plantations. I also delight in its lovely beaches, ancient kingdoms and national parks: each is an unexpected wonder.
Further west, diving and in The Maldives’ pristine turquoise waters filled with marine life is paradise on earth. Watching a magical sunset with a sundowner in hand, I am fully relaxed but have no further insight into my father’s medallion. Perhaps the capital of Thailand might shed some light?
In Bangkok, my chauffeur stops the car and drops me off in front of Cabochon Hotel & Residence. There, I am met by my host who is wearing linen clothing and a Panama hat that reminds me of the ones Shanghai’s bankers used to wear during the 1920s. He leads me to my elegantly adorned room. Sitting down with a cup of tea on my private balcony, I cannot help but to relish in the elegance found at this discreet address. After an evening cocktail next to the rooftop swimming pool, he takes me out for a memorable dinner at Supanniga Eating Room to taste authentic 80-year-old Thai recipes passed down from the owner’s grandmother.
Like its sister city Venice, Bangkok is nestled along canals known as klongs. My host at Cabochon Hotel & Residence takes me to temples and palaces, and introduces me to vibrant Bangkok’s markets and street food. That evening, amid a fading golden sky, he waves farewell as puts me on a fast boat that will take me down the river to the heart of Old Bangkok.
Arriving to Chakrabongse Villas, along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, I am warmly greeted by my hostess. The daughter of a prince, she has fully refurbished this early 20th century jewel. “Up until the end of the 19th century, the sovereigns of Thailand took their lustral baths in this river,” she explains. My private terrace offers up panoramic views of the city’s architectural marvels. Offering a celebration of all the good things in life, my guestroom is fit for a prince, and if one listens carefully, even the walls seem to whisper historic tales.
After a day of exploring an orchid farm, palaces and museums, I retreat back to my newfound place of solace. Like a bridge suspended between two worlds, as soon as I enter through the door, Bangkok’s frenzy fades. Here in the heart of the city, this hidden gem is a place of quiet and peace.
That evening, I step out to meet the chef at Le Du. He invites me to sample his marinated oysters, ant larvae, prawns cooked on a hot stone, corned venison pork tongue and pork blood pudding. Divine.
Today, I travel north to discover Thailand’s mostly untouched province, Isan. Here, amid the scenic countryside’s lush paddy fields, farms and unspoilt terrains, I make a short stopover in a Dansai village at Phunacome Resort, a place set in a valley and where water buffaloes roam freely.
I unlock more of Isan’s treasures, a land where Buddhism still exists in its purest form, at Supanniga Home. Whilst feasting on wondrous spicy regional cuisine, I become further enlightened on local traditions and customs. My stay here is a meditative voyage of true inner peace.
Meeting up with newfound friends for the weekend, Mekong Villas and its panoramic views overlooking the Mekong River and Laos in Pakchom is a magical retreat.
Departing Isan, I move south for a short stay at the popular retreat for Bangkok residents and home to the Summer Palace built by King Rama VII at the famous beach town, Hua Hin. Tomorrow, it is time to for me to seek out Thailand’s tropical islands.
Set on a serene beachfront location, Villa Ayundra instantly relaxes me. I am here as I have been invited to attend a birthday party. Meeting up with old friends, this intimate retreat, enhanced by Koh Samui’s gorgeous sunsets, is idyllic.
I spend a few days exploring Thailand’s third largest island. Here in Koh Samui, nature abounds with its white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters, lush green vegetation, and warm and friendly people.
It is my last evening on the “Coconut Island”, and I have a wedding to go that that is being held at Thailand’s largest beachside villa, YL Residence. Overlooking Natien Beach on the southern coast, it is a wondrous and exclusive spot, perfect for special occasions.
Remote without being lost, yet right near Krabi’s must-see spots, I take some time to reflect on my father’s medallion on the beach at the rustic gem, Le Passe Temps. Here along the Andaman Sea, I soak in Krabi’s incredibly beautiful tall limestone peaks, eye-catching landscapes, and lush mangrove forests, delighting in its palm fringed islands and gorgeous beaches.
In Phuket, Thailand’s most visited resort destination, I soak in the lovely golden sand beaches and turquoise blue waters. Myriad watersports and land activities add to my enticing journey in the “Pearl of the Andaman”. Edging towards Malaysia, I make a last stop in Thailand to enjoy Koh Lipe’s beautiful white sand beaches and wonderful diving.
Evoking a unique vibe, the most memorable part of my journey to multicultural Penang is its world-renowned food. Everywhere I turn there is a special dish to savour: char kway teow, laksa asam, rojak, cendol, and lots of fresh seafood. Tantalising.
I delight in the capital of Malaysia’s skyscrapers, which interlace with old British colonial buildings and Moorish architecture. I glimpse at markets, and bustling night scenes, feasting along the way on KL’s varied cuisine.
Further south, I wander around Malacca admiring its Portuguese colonial heritage, then sit to savour chicken satay served with peanut sauce and cold cucumber slices. Still, my medallion stays mute...
I make my way to Sarawak in Borneo. After a short stay in lively Kuching, I delve further to experience stunning national parks and rainforests filled with wildlife. Sarawak’s indigenous people and vibrant traditions are equally enriching.
Set in the foothills of the legendary Mount Santubong, and exuding a distinctive Borneo style and local ethnic artefacts, The Village House is an oasis of calm. As the first capital of the Kingdom of Sarawak, today Santubong remains a quaint Malay Village filled with friendly people. This area’s world-famous and exceptionally rich bio-diversity, which features 15,000 plant species, and more than 1,400 amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and insects is a haven for nature lovers and adventure seekers.
Pushing south, I ride along the Singapore River in a bumboat to soak in the Lion City’s modern skyline, quays and colonial architecture, and then join in with the locals to sample delicious hawker food.
After a short ferry ride from Singapore, my host at The Sanchaya warmly greets me in Indonesia’s Bintan Island. Facing the sea along a coconut grove, this Dutch colonial beach estate is a relaxing retreat. I swim in the sea, enjoy watersports, play a round of golf and trek through tropical rainforests, ending my days with a massage and wonderful seafood dinners.
My journey around the world’s largest archipelago continues. I cross over Nias Island’s famous waves and white sandy beaches to Sumatra to witness the birthplace of Batak culture. My climb up the volcano to see Lake Toba is exhilarating. Further south, the unspoilt island Belitung also delights.
I cross the Sunda Straight near the Krakatoa volcano, then traverse over to experience Indonesia’s frenetic capital, Jakarta. From there, Yogyakarta seems calm. I wander around ancient Borobudur and Prambanan, then leave to find serenity not far away at Mesastila. Surrounded by eight mountains, and set in the middle of a coffee plantation, my spacious Javanese house and hotel’s imposing Hamman Spa renews me.
In East Java, I delight in the ancient city, Malang. Filled with priceless antiques, my stay at Tugu Malang, located in the heart of the old town is a dream. I hop on a pedicab to tour the beautiful city’s cultural highlights. My host teaches me that according to legend wayang (puppetry theatre) helps to restore peace on earth. Indeed, in this part of world it does. He introduces a few of the other local arts—native dancing, batik, traditional medicinal potions called djamoe... Excursions to the age-old Hindu remains known as candi, a tea plantation, and a sunrise trek at Mount Bromo National Park are equally splendid.
On my last evening at Tugu Malang, I tell my host that my map shows that my next stop will take me to Bali. Smiling he, pats me on the shoulder, smiles and utters these few simple words: “My friend, even after just one visit one truly never leaves Bali.”
He is right of course. Moulded to the image of the Gods, Bali is a place like no other. Even before reaching Villa Mathis, I hear the Vedic incantations emanating from the temple Pura Taman Ayun as I pass by. Everything in Bali is sensual. Blending old and new in perfect harmony, my delightful hosts have created a poetic haven. Immersed in the beauty of my surroundings, I wander around the large and varied villas set amid gorgeous gardens. Banners float in the wind. Buddhist statues, paintings, woodcarvings, sculptured doors and stone carvings can be seen with each turn. My spacious and uniquely appointed room oozes soft blue fabrics, peace and serenity. After a sumptuous candlelit dinner in the garden, I linger to listen to the sounds of the gamelan playing.
After a morning of introducing me to charming Legian and Seminyak, my hosts take me to lunch on the southern part of Bali at Sangsaka Restaurant. Set in a coconut grove, we delight in savoury dishes made with fresh ingredients sourced from artisanal producers in Indonesia.
Just north of Seminyak, I arrive near the Tanah Lot Temple to a place that prolongs the pleasure of offering the same spirit as Java. Facing the sea on Canggu Beach, and filled with over 1000 antiques that retrace Indonesia’s rich history, Tugu Bali captivates. The vast and ornate lobby, lined with towering teak columns and swaying colourful drapes makes me feel as if I have walked into a museum. My uniquely appointed guestroom is equally artistic. A treasured spot, here at this heavenly beachside retreat, my soul soothes.
Artists have always had an affinity for Sanur. Set on the beach, with bungalows akin to the ones famous stars used to stay at when tourism first began in Bali, Tandjung Sari is serene and ageless. Evoking a mystical spirituality, Sanur Beach’s first boutique hotel continues to enchant. I snorkel around the coral house reef and swim in the sea, relishing this peaceful and dreamy experience.
Moving inland, how can I resist the opportunity to join friends for the weekend at Villa Idanna? Overlooking Sidemen Valley’s rice terraces and forested hills that lead up to the sacred volcano Gunung Agung, this quiet refuge delights.
Nestled on the edge of a typical Balinese village, just 15 minutes by car from the heart of Bali’s artistic town of Ubud in the centre of the island, I immerse in tranquillity in my private Balinese style villa at Mathis Retreat. That evening, I thoroughly enjoy an interactive dining experience showcasing contemporary European cuisine using local produce in Ubud at Locavore.
I finish my tour of Bali, a place where vivid dreams shimmer in colour, yet I am still in the company of a medallion that remains enigmatic.
Across the sea, time seems to stand still in Lombok. I take a horse drawn cidomo cart around Mataram. Like its sister hotels in Bali and Lombok, Tugu Lombok is a pure beauty. Overlooking Mount Rinjani and facing the sea on Canggu Beach, it too is filled with antiques that retrace Indonesia’s history. My host takes me out to nearby villages to witness Sasak Life, traditional weaving and learn how local red sugar palm tree wine known as tuak is made. Together we climb Indonesia’s second highest volcano and go diving at the famous Gili Islands just nearby. Back at the hotel, I immerse in the spa’s sweet smelling oils and dine under the stars at its restored ancient temple before falling into a deep slumber in my uniquely designed beachside bungalow.
I slowly traverse the island to Slow Private Pool Villas. Surrounded by a preserved rainforest, these few pool villas and gardens caress my soul.
Built in the traditional style of a phinisi, as was once used by the Bugis seafarers from south Sulawesi, and featuring all of today’s modern comforts, my voyage onboard Alila Purnama to discover Komodo National Park enchants. I spot ferocious Komodo dragons, dive amid rich marine life in the crystal blue sea, and bask in the sun on a secluded pink sand beach. Heavenly. Next, I pass by other islands ending up near Timor to Pulau Rote, a little known island that is known for its surfing.
Back up in Borneo, I cruise down the Rungan River in Kalimantan on the traditional barge, Spirit of Kalimantan. My guide takes me to see the orangutans at the rehabilitation centre. Along the way, we stop at the local villages, so I can learn about Dayak culture. At the black water lake systems, I wave to the honeymoon couple onboard Spirit of Kalimantan’s sister vessel, Sekonyer as she passes by.
Pushing east, once again I take to the sea. Favourable winds blow from Flores as we sail past islands bearing names I have never heard of... Banda, Neira, Ambon... towards the Spice Islands. Paying homage to the traditional Indonesian phinisi boats of yesteryear, Silolona is exceptionally luxurious. Like her sister ship with red sails Si Datu Bua, her black sails are a happy omen. Along the way, we stop to explore diverse landscapes, pristine deserted islands, further enhanced by magical sunsets and transparent turquoise waters.
In the Raja Ampat archipelago, the fragrant odour of cinnamon and fresh pepper fills the air. It is here where the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean unite.
Set at the epicentre of marine biodiversity, I arrive to the private resort island Misool Eco Resort. Built entirely out of driftwood, the footprint of this eco-tourist resort is slight. In this region known as the Coral Triangle, the owner helps to preserve the environment and specialises in the exploration of seabeds. At the fully equipped dive centre, I meet up with the on-site marine biologist. Together we dive in the aqua blue sea amid pristine coral reefs as pygmy seahorses and slender sharks frisk about.
I make my last stop in Indonesia in the northernmost part of Manado to dive and get closer to Minahasa culture. In leaving this archipelago, I think of all these owners in Indonesia, each in their own manner showcasing their country’s most precious gifts, its singular diversity. These islands could well have been the end of my journey, but my medallion had still not unveiled herself.
My mission continues. Not far from Manado I arrive to the Philippines to soak in the sun and palm fringes beaches in Cebu, Bohol and Boracay.
Further west, I discover the Philippines’ last frontier, Palawan. Passing through its crystal green-blue waters, I arrive to Flower Island. A quiet escape, I trek along the nature trail that meanders around the island, stopping along the way to soak in the panoramic views at the peak. My host takes to visit to his pearl farm. I dive in the island’s protected reefs and spot green turtles, pygmy seahorses, and tropical fish.
Still unable to learn more about my medallion, I depart for a new land and cultivate a true art de vivre in scenic Taiwan. Filled with affable people, diverse culture, and unique charm, I sample endless street food in Taipei’s sprawling night markets, and soak in the nearby sulphur hot springs in Beitou. National parks, rugged mountains, and jagged coastlines all add to my unforgettable Taiwan sojourn.
Map in hand, I proceed onto Japan, a country’s whose flag pays tribute to the sun. I delight in Osaka’s unique food, the historic sites of Kyoto, the clean mountain air in Hakone, and vibrant Tokyo showcasing Japan’s symbolic Mount Fuji as a backdrop. I embrace onsen (hot springs), gorgeously presented seasonal kaiseki cuisine, ikebana (Japanese flora arrangement) and the art of traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Along the way, I slowly begin to grasp, and understand a few snippets of Japan’s chaste and engaging culture full of nuances.
Covered in a blanket of snow, the road to Kanaya, built as a tribute to the owner’s grandfather, marks my soul. My guestroom at this ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) overlooking the river in Kinugawa is simply adorned, yet it features all of the essential modern comforts I could ever ask for. Overlooking the mountains, river and forest, I step out onto my private balcony for a long soak in my hot onsen bath. My host indulges me with gastronomic delights and shows me the magnificent nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites at Nikkō. There, he teaches me a Japanese proverb: “Do not say ‘kekkō’ (magnificent) until you’ve seen Nikkō.”
Faithful to my map, I proceed north to Hokkaido to ski on Niseko’s soft powdery slopes. Tantalising Hokkaido produce abounds here. Everything in Hokkaido, from its crabs, salmon and scallops to its butter, pork, beef, cheese and local wine is sensational.
Leaving northern Japan, I move towards South Korea, and find myself in Hahoe, a UNESCO World Heritage site folk village that still to this day preserves its over 600 year old traditions. Set amid wood and water, RakKoJae Hahoe is an oasis of calm. Alongside the famous cliff Buyongdae’s stunning panoramic views, a short ferryboat ride allows me to admire the Taebaek Mountain Range. This stunning area also abounds with Buddhist temples, old mansions, pottery, and origami arts. Transfixed by the harmonious beauty felt in the simplest of ways, at RakKoJae Hahoe I momentarily leave my stresses and worries behind.
Heading to the Land of the Morning Calm’s capital, my host from RakKoJae Hahoe has invited me to stay at his traditional hanok Korean guesthouse set in one of Seoul’s old districts. At RakKoJae Seoul, I am presented with the opportunity to embrace the Korean culture of yesteryear. This place is akin to an aristocratic home from the Chosun Dynasty. Simply adorned, my room is divine, and I relish with a soak in the traditional yellow-mud sauna heated with firewood. Here, I embrace the city’s palaces, temples, and Korean cuisine. Indeed, RakKoJae has delivered me a poetic message, but sadly my medallion still refuses to reveal itself.
Moving onwards, I head to Beijing, a city laden with some of the world’s best historical treasures. I marvel at the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, and then take an excursion to see The Great Wall. Each of these UNESCO World Heritage sites is unique. Wandering through the city’s ancient, narrow lanes known as hutongs, stopping to feast on succulent Peking duck. This too adds to my culturally enriching experience in this marvellous ancient city.
Alighting by train from Beijing to Shanxi Province, I arrive to Pingyao. Dating back over 2700 years and UNESCO World Culture Heritage site, this small town is brimming with rich history. I wander around the maze of cobbled streets to see the well-preserved buildings, sites and ancient ruins in Pingyao Ancient City. My host at the meticulously restored Jing’s Residence takes me to an exhilarating traditional Shanxi Opera performance showcasing acrobatics and other visual delights. He introduces me to Pigyao’s famous noodles that come in hundreds of shapes and sizes and local handicrafts. After a long day of exploring, I admire the spirit of his exclusive reprieve, for it truly is a voyage back in time.
I make a quick stop in Xian to marvel at the world-renowned Terracotta Warriors in Xian, and then take a boat around Suzhou to glimpse at its traditional waterside architecture. Both are equally majestic.
Also filled with history and culture, Shanghai is equally fascinating. The skyline views from The Bund is just one of its highlights. From fashionable Xin Tian Di’s old stone residences, to the famous French Concession, to the popular area Tianzifang, this huge metropolis is bursting with charm.
A historic inspiration for Chinese poets and artists, Hangzhou’s stunning West Lake and its Longjing tea plantations delight. Further south, a journey down beautiful Guilin’s winding rivers, replete with its large karsts projecting into the backdrop, perfectly enhances my last Mainland China experience.
Fascinating Hong Kong is a voyage in itself. I take the short ferry ride across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon and soak in HK’s spectacular skyline. I witness one of the world’s busiest ports from the top of Victoria Peak and wander around narrow old streets to enjoy the markets and lively nightlife.
Like a refined dish waiting to be savoured, I commence my journey to Vietnam starting with a cruise in Halong Bay on a junk. Along the way, we stop at a floating village to buy fresh crabs, which we cook onboard.
In Sapa, I trek in the mountains and visit minority tribe villages to learn their customs and traditions. Filled with old French colonial homes, in Hanoi I meditate in a Confucius temple set on a lake, then spend an evening attending an opera performance.
Once home to Vietnam’s emperors, and filled with royal tombs and pagodas, I marvel at the citadel in the ancient imperial city of Hue. Heading down to Hoi An, the old harbour and red bridge are equally intriguing.
Full of mystery and intrigue, vibrant Saigon is a magnetic whirl of colour and old world charm. I stroll along its wide streets and small alleys lined with art galleries, intimate boutiques selling wonderful handicrafts, coffee shops, and restaurants. After a quick stop to look at the city’s Emperor Jade (Tortoise) Pagoda and Ben Than Market, I am eager to stop for a rest at Villa Song. Overlooking the river, just a few minutes by speedboat from Saigon’s city centre, it is a welcoming and peaceful sanctuary.
In the Mekong Delta southwest of Saigon, I take a boat ride along the My Tho River. An astute woman catches me staring in perplexity over my heirloom. She stops and whispers to me something along these lines: “Your medallion is telling you a story that you are not even listening to.”
Taking her words to heart, I depart for the quiet, small seaside town, Kep in Cambodia. I glimpse at old French colonial villas and visit the bustling crab market to sample some of its famous crabs.
Arriving to Samanea, I spend the afternoon on its private beach staring out at the narrow jetty that inches out towards the Gulf of Thailand and nearby islands, while listening to the wild parrots chirping in the distance. Set in a lovely garden and surrounded by a mangrove, my beautiful Khmer style villa and the resort’s delicious cuisine adds to the relaxing atmosphere. My host takes me trekking around Kep National park’s where we experience mysterious caves and serene pagodas. Later, I wander through rice paddy fields, sea salt marshes, and visit a Kampot pepper plantation.
Wandering around Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace’s well-manicured gardens, I stop to stare at the top of the golden Chan Chaya Pavilion glistening upwards in the clear blue sky.
After a tuk tuk ride to immerse in the capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s atmosphere, I arrive to a residential area. A throwback to the late 1800s, Governor’s House is a colonial gem. Filled with antiques and precious objects d’art, each of the guestrooms has its own décor and a story to tell. Sitting on my private balcony, I feel like I have found a new place to call home here.
Named after a butterfly, my host invites me to dine at The Common Tiger where we feast on memorable contemporary new world cuisine using local Cambodian produce.
My next stop takes me to Four Rivers Floating Lodge, a peaceful sanctuary overlooking the Cardamon Mountains near the border of Thailand. Set along the Tatai River, and built using only eco-friendly materials, I cocoon in comfort in my floating tent. Filled with animals and birds, I capture the beauty of one of the world’s largest rainforests, and meet the local people that live in the mountains and forest, and learn about their beliefs and natural cures. I Kayak down the river through the mangrove waterways that reach back into the jungle, swim in the river, fish and relax on my private terrace.
After a short stopover to see Battambang’s ancient temples, Buddhist shrines and the famed bamboo railway, I head back to Angkor Wat on a quaint and charming sampan. Donning a white alpaca suit, I lean against the boat’s railing to reflect upon my extensive Asian journey. Touching lightly upon the yellowish water, the cranes create silver arrows in the sky. One wishes to never arrive.
Meeting up with my father’s friend once again at Mie Café just outside of centre of town in Siem Reap over a meal showcasing the chef’s version of traditional Khmer cuisine, he hands me the last letter that my father ever wrote to me. Penned in jade coloured ink, I read his final cryptic words:
At that precise moment everything seems clear to me. My father had orchestrated and put together this scenario about the medallion and confided in me a most beautiful mission—to be the trustee of these passionate places. All these owners of these out of the ordinary locations are artisans of life. They each know how to extract the most marvellous things from it and make them accessible to others.
Fully enriched in mind, body and soul, all these etched experiences showcasing the true and indelible spirit of Asia are now—and will forever be—the essence of my life...
Travel Asia with Secret Retreats
Secret Retreats is a curated community of independent boutique hotel, villas, yachts and river boats keen to share their Asian Homes with travelers, sustainably and responsibly.
Conservation of the environment, culture and traditions of Asia is of paramount importance to all in Secret Retreats.
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