We’re the type of travelers who want to get to know a place, and the goal isn’t to check off a country and say I’ve seen it when I’ve only seen the airport and the Hyatt. So my experience isn’t a couple layovers in Phuket, but Carrie and I have spent well over 3 months in Thailand alone, probably 6 weeks on the island of Bali, 3+ weeks in Kuala Lumpur, etc…
All that is to say, we know the area well. We’ve never been to Laos (not in my plans either), or the Philippines. But that being said, here’s my “write up” on SE Asia in general.
I’ll go over: why I love SE Asia, my favorite places, the best points hotels in those spots, and then at the end go over the best miles to use to get to SE Asia and how to get around
Why I Love Southeast Asia?
The other day we were landing in another Central American city and we circled the city a few times, which was super cool. It was interesting largely because it’s a third world country and homes were built on cliffs… makes me worry when it rains.
But I love it because it’s different.
But a lot of the look, feel, and cuisine is not all that different.
When you land in Bali though,… you see buildings and temples with strange spirals and decor, dragons and lions guarding bridges, and strange (to us) alters even in the airport. This isn’t contrived; it’s because they do this to bless every building or grounds.
Even in the crappy tourist area of Kuta, here was our view from the Holiday Inn.
Then combine this with the most beautiful beaches, the best snorkeling, and the most wonderful and kind people… SE Asia is the best. Oh, and it’s cheap and incredibly easy to travel and get around.
Best Places to Visit in SE Asia
Some of my favorite areas are the following:
- Bali, Indonesia
- Southern Thai Islands
- Angkor Wat, Cambodia
- Langkawi, Malaysia
- Northern Thailand
- Hong Kong & Southern China (is that SE Asia?)
Every time I go to Bali, my few weeks are up before I blink. The ceremonies are incredible. Actually, just look at pictures of ceremonies we’ve been to, all in Amed, Bali:
The water is perfect, the food is great, the views are phenomenal. There are many bays with coral walls protecting the area so amazing snorkeling is right off the beach. In “tulamben”, there is a shipwreck right near the beach and a “coral garden” near that. We swam with a national-geographic-like school of fish there, and a black tipped shark, and other cool things.
However, I’m going to go with the unpopular miles & points advise and say the best side of the island is the north. If you’ve never been to the north coast, you’ve never been to Bali, you’ve been to some kind of tourist amusement-park. It’s like the kids’ ride at Disney, “it’s a small world”. I can see how this looks like the real culture.
The problem is two fold. 1) The airport is in the south. And 2) The 5 star hotels are in the south. Athough, I’ve written about Bali quite a bit. Read, Where Should I go in Bali.
Points hotels in Bali?
It’s hard for me to justify because 1) I don’t even want to be in southern Bali, and 2) it’s a super cheap place elsewhere and it can cost a lot of points.
The Grand Hyatt Bali for 12,000 points or a category 4 cert may be the best deal. Maybe. I’d probably just stay in Amed and do some voodoo BRG stuff with booking OTAs, use the Arrival Plus to reimburse a hotel, or pick a cheap homestay for $10-$15 a night.
Some of the most amazing beaches for super cheap. I mean, my favorite beaches might be in some remote place like the Yasawas, in Fiji, but you pay for it. Yet, Thailand has some of the most amazing beaches, and Thailand is one of the cheapest countries to travel.
Phi Phi Island
Phi Phi can be gotten to via ferry from Phuket or Krabi. I’m telling you, it’s a phenomenally gorgeous island. My friends Andy and LeAnna spent the night on a boat looking at the glowing plankton. But we had a bungalow on the beach at the Holiday Inn. We went during Thailand’s Martial Law, and the rates were super low (under $100). But in peak times it can be $200 – $300 and thus the 35,000 points is actually a great decision. Phi Phi has a cheap back packer area, but the beach there is crap and full of big boats. Being on the north side is paradise.
Either way, being here is so much better than Phuket. Trust me.
We’ve visited Phuket a few times and it’s total hit or miss. Patong beach, which is kind of the center of Phuket, is my personal hell, although if I was pro-prostitution it would be a great place to stay. The next beach up is Kamala, which you would assume to be very nice as that is where the Hyatt Regency is built. Personally, I can not figure out why in the world anyone would build a hotel where they did. You walk out of the resort, across the road, and into water that’s full of giant rocks and completely murky. Total skip.
There are two beaches I like or love.
I love the beach north of the airport at Mai Khao beach. The Holiday Inn there is 15,000 points and we had a room that led to a pool. There is also a Renaissance and Marriott for 30,000 – 35,000 points, in probably a slightly better location. The downside is the upside: you’re in the middle of nowhere. The beach was completely empty while we were there, and it’s a beautiful big white sand beach.
Although, if you’re going for the nowhere effect, I’d go to Phi Phi. Also, Phuket and other parts of southern Thailand (like Pattaya I hear) are dominated by the “taxi Mafia”. These folks are bad news and ruin your chance of getting a cheap taxi. In Bangkok you can be in a taxi for 30 minutes and spend $5. In Phuket, you can spend 5 minutes in a taxi and spend $30. And they even bully the hotels… it’s insane… Wait! I just googled it and found a news report that says Phuket is cracking down on the taxi mafia! OMG, this is the best news for Phuket. I like this regime change!
Anyways, the other beach I really like is Nai Harn and that area. It’s still a little crowded, but the beaches here are so scenic.
(I just noticed that the hotel there says “Le Royal Meridien”. Is that new and SPG?)
I figured I’d mention Krabi since we’ve been there a couple times. There is a Holiday Inn in Krabi for 10,000 points, where we snapped these pictures:
So, it has that going for it. Otherwise, it’s largely a party area. Not my thing, but there are incredible beaches with incredible views. When we were there in 2012, we walked to “Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Krabi” and spent the day at that wonderful private beach. There are super cool beaches with great views. Finding hotels like this, nestled in the rocky areas, helps me feel like I’m not in Patong.
Last thing I’ll mention is that I’ve heard great things about Koh Lanta, an island south of there. Great snorkeling and feel, but I’ve never made it down there.
Going over to the east side of Thailand’s other southern islands, is Koh Samui and it’s little siblings. There is a ferry to other islands, and I’ve heard amazing things about Koh Tao… but all the points hotels are on Koh Samui.
The down side is that Koh Samui is probably the most expensive area in Thailand. The good news is that there are half a dozen points hotels.
The InterContinental Koh Samui is the cheapest level of points redemptions for InterContinental brand hotels, for 25,000 points a night. It’s an absolute steal. The hotel is amazing (and so is the soft-shell crab).
The best part about the hotel is the views, by far, the views.
Here’s a video that showcases the views:
The other hotel with similar views (as it’s also in the beautiful and remote southwest side) is the Conrad. This is a popular hotel to take your “two free weekend nights” from the Hilton Reserve credit card, as it often goes for $1,000+ a night! I’d love to visit that hotel too.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
One of my favorite “ancient ruins” in the world is Angkor Wat. Also, I recently wrote about Starwood Category 1 & 2 hotels, and the Le Meridien in Siem Reap is only 3,000 – 4,000 points a night. Would love to go back.
Cambodia has an impoverished feel I can’t describe. It’s like being in the middle of China in a poor town, but it’s really hot, and there are actually tourists there. It’s an odd aura and I can’t say I’m in love with Pnom Phen; the Tuol Leng Genocide museum is incredibly sad, terrible, and explains a lot.
To me, this is one of the most important museums I’ve been to given how recent this genocide was. It’s a terrible thing that I don’t remember learning about in school. There’s also the “killing fields”. And the museum is on the S21 cite which is the prison where they tortured its prisoners.
Speaking of terrible museums, if you want a more humbling but also heavy hitting museum, cross the border and head to Saigon. The Vietnam War Museum… Well, I couldn’t even finish. On the third floor, I just had to leave.
Vietnam isn’t just known for their absolutely crazy traffic, but I think that’s their biggest draw. But really, it’s an interesting culture, and a slightly less touristy feel than Thailand.
We have yet to explore their beaches though. Most notably would be Ha Long Bay, and the rice terraces in the north. Also, the InterContinental Danang looks phenomenal and is also only 25,000 IHG points. However, the water looks better in Koh Samui.
Langkawi & Malaysia
I love Malaysia’s food, diversity, and touches of oddness. In Kuala Lumpur, we were once there on a Hindu holiday and it made a super interesting visit to the Batu Caves. If you’re in KL the DoubleTree is a category 2 (for only 10,000 HHonors points), and there’s an Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral (for 3,000 – 4,000 SPG points). But my favorite hotel there is the Grand Hyatt. It is incredible, has incredible views of the Petronas Towers and one of the best Hyatt lounges I’ve seen. A great use of a category 4 cert.
But the most fun I’ve had in Malaysia was exploring all the corners of Langkawi. Got like a $10 flight on Air Asia and four of us (two friends we met while traveling) drove around the island swimming in rivers and waterfalls, and what not. A total blast. And yet, the island still has that odd feel.
Points hotels in Langkawi? Yes, if you have Starwood points. There are 4 SPG properties. One of them is only 3,000 – 4,000 points, the Four Points. However, the hotel has a remarkable 37% rating on TA. One of the worst SPG ratings I’ve ever seen, but I actually kayaked around the islands near there and had a great time. Big beach, beautiful area. But the water was not clear like other beaches in Langkawi. Here’s a review of all 3 of the nicer properties.
I love the people in northern Thailand and I’d love to explore it more, although we did spend a month in Chiang Mai. Again, in the Best SPG Category 1 & 2 Hotels, the Le Méridien Chiang Mai & Le Méridien Chiang Rai Resort hotels are no doubt on there as they are known for being two great redemptions for only 3,000 – 4,000 SPG points.
Hong Kong & Southern China
At least according to United and AA Hong Kong is indeed in SE Asia. And if we’re going from Vietnam to Hong Kong you should stop by Yangshuo, China. It’s pretty amazing and weird. Well, a lot of China is weird to me, but the landscape and the town is just so different. And the travel around and near this area has some incredible views.
There aren’t any points hotels in Yangshuo itself, (but in the nearest city Guilin there’s a category 2 Sheraton), but it’s super cheap.
Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities simply for the view. I’m not sure I could spend a month there like I would love to in Vienna, Budapest, Sydney, etc… But the view is incredible. The view both from the top of the mountain on the Hong Kong side, and the view of the Hong Kong side. My favorite view is actually from the InterContinental Hong Kong.
If you’re doing the IHG Into The Nights promo then I would totally recommend this hotel for your two free nights.
Places I still want to go:
- Sumatra, Indonesia
- Borneo, Malaysia & Indonesia
- explore Burma (specifically Bagan)
- visit Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Flights to SE Asia with Miles
There are obviously a ton of ways to get there, but here are a few popular ideas:
|Economy Class||Business Class||First Class||Earning/Transfers||Fuel Surcharges?|
|American Airlines||70k||110k||135k||AA cards, SPG 1:1||No|
|US Airways||80k||120k||160k||USA card, SPG 1:1||No|
|United||80k||160k||260k||UA card, Chase UR 1:1||No|
|Air Canada||75k – 90k||150k – 155k||210k – 215k||Amex MR, SPG||See list here|
|Delta||80k – 170k||140k – 325k||n/a||Amex MR, Citi TY, SPG||Yes|
Now there are a few United stopover tricks one could do, but the most popular for United, US Airways, and Air Canada miles is to stopover in Europe on the way to Asia. Very sweet trip at no extra costs.
Getting Around SE Asia
I’ll mention the absurd thing that some people still use. The bus. You can bus your way across most of SE Asia. Places like Sumatra don’t have the same infrastructure. But if you’re going from Malaysia to Thailand, or mostly anywhere, the bus is easy.
One thing we often use to get around is British Airways Avios (there’s a BA card with 50,000 points, and you can transfer from Amex MR and Chase UR). Flights within SE Asia typically cost 4,500 – 7,500 Avios.
To steal Kenny’s idea (sorry dude), I decided to make a little picture of routes in SE Asia that can be had for different prices.
For 4,500 Avios:
KUL-KUA, KUL-TGG, KUL-KBR, KUL-SIN, KUL-PEN, KUL-AOR, KUL-LGK, KUL-KNO, KUL-KBV, KUL-HKT, KUL-KCH, KUL-PNH, HKG-HAN, HKG-DAD, HKG-SYX, HKG-HAK, HKG-KWL
For 7,500 Avios:
KUL-BWN, KUL-BKK, KUL-BTU, KUL-SGN, KUL-CGK, KUL-BKI, KUL-LBU, KUL-MYY, KUL-SDK, KUL-SBW, KUL-REP, KUL-TWU, KUL-RGN, BKK-SIN, HKG-MNL, HKG-CRK, HKG-SGN, HKG-REP, HKG-PNH, HKG-BKK, HKG-CNX, HKG-CEB, HKG-BKI, HKG-KMG
There are a few discount airliners in SE Asia, but AirAsia seems to have the best network and great sales. Really, sometimes it’s worth saving your miles if you can get a $30 flight to Phuket or something on Air Asia instead.
Of course, I’ve left off many hotels we’ve been to. We’ve tried a ton of points hotels in Bangkok alone. For example: The JW Marriott, Renaissance, Grand Hyatt, Crowne Plaza, Courtyard, and a few others.
They are all great hotels (well the Courtyard is good) and you really can’t go wrong with any of them (although you have to see the club lounge at the JW!).
Anyways, there are so many amazing places to see and visit that we still haven’t seen. And for the most part we don’t return to the same spots. Obviously Amed Bali begs multiple returns. But you can spend a lifetime exploring just that region of the world. Heck, it could take a lifetime if you wanted to see all of Indonesia’s islands.
Guess I better get started.
Anyone have any suggestions for a return visit? Should we be in the Phillipines, Borneo, or where?