Much has changed in the region’s tourism landscape since the ASEAN community was established 50 years ago. Industry players take us on a trip down memory lane, sharing their most remarkable South-east Asian travel experiences, then and now.
Clockwise from top left: Asian Trails’ Laurent Kuenzle; Diethelm Travel Group’s Lisa Fitzell; Morning Star Travel Service’s Wilson Yeung; Khiri Travel’s Edwin Briels; Exo Travel’s Hamish Keith; and Luxury Travel Vietnam’s Pham Ha
1. Albert Lee
Senior business development director, CYTS M.I.C.E. Service, China
THEN My first trip to South-east Asia was to Medan in the 1980s. I visited Lake Toba and the Berastagi Highlands. I like nature so the peaceful surroundings were a true joy to behold. I also enjoyed the Batak culture and meeting the locals.
NOW My most recent trip to South-east Asia was to Penang over the Chinese New Year in 2015. Penang is now much cleaner, more organised and with many more attractions in George Town. The beach, food, hotels and sights were pleasant too.
2. Alicia Yao
General manager, IME Consulting, China
THEN It was more than 20 years ago when I visited Bali for an incentive trip. I arrived from the winter in China, so being among the greenery, tropical climate and fresh air was really nice. I enjoyed the culture, food and value-for-money experience.
NOW My most recent ASEAN trip was to attend ITB Asia 2015 in Singapore. I was impressed how well Suntec Singapore’s joint marketing alliance with nearby hotels to bid for international events was working. Singapore may not offer many venues for gala events, but always creates something special with top-notch service.
3. Andre van der Marck
Asia DMC Thailand
THEN It was Bangkok in September 1993. The rain was so heavy on the way to Siam Beverly Hotel (now Bangkok Cha-Da Hotel) that the taxi got flooded. The taxi driver apologised to me for getting my feet wet and I was stupefied why he did so when it was his taxi being flooded. Amazing Thailand indeed at the time.
NOW The amazing friendliness I encountered while cruising Halong Bay on the Au Co ship last summer. The staff was so natural in their services; nothing was pushy, it just came with the right touch and flow. And the food with the views were simply amazing.
4. Anthony Chan
Group managing director,
Chan Brothers Travel, Singapore
THEN It was in Bali about 10 years ago. The hotels and food there were good and I really enjoyed the resort vibe.
NOW I was in Bangkok in early 2016 and enjoyed the food there. The hotel and golfing facilities were great too.
5. Ashwani Sharma
CEO, Sheraton Travels, India
THEN One of my earlier memories was Bangkok in the late ’90s, when I had an enjoyable stay at Crowne Plaza in Silom. On the second day, I was about to set off for a floating market tour in the morning without having breakfast. To my surprise, the hotel staff had breakfast packed for me.
NOW The staff at Mayfair, Bangkok - Marriott Executive Apartments made me feel at home during my stay. The breakfast was sumptuous and I had a nice time sipping drinks by the rooftop pool at night.
6. Bernadette Arnaiz
Rajah Travel Corp, Philippines
THEN My first ASEAN experience was in Malaysia. Where Kuala Lumpur was cosmopolitan, Penang provided a nice contrast as a laid-back destination teeming with cultural and heritage sites. I enjoyed the street food and tasted durian for the first time – I’ve made it a point since to taste and compare the different durian varieties in other ASEAN countries.
NOW In Bagan, I marvelled at the magnificent temples and scenery after a steep climb of the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It was a sight to behold as the sun rose and revealed the beautiful landscape.
7. Caroline Ang
Executive director, Bonasia Holiday, Brunei
THEN Seven years ago, I visited Mulu Caves in Sarawak. It was a memorable experience with a long walk through the jungle to get to the caves. Watching the bat exodus in Deer Cave was a sight I will never forget.
NOW Last year, I visited Laos and stayed in a tree house owned by a friend. I had to travel by zipline to get there – the experience was truly special.
8. Cindy Young
Sunflowers Travel Service, Hong Kong
THEN It would be Luang Prabang. There were few tourists back then so the land felt untouched – it really reminded me of Hong Kong in the 1950s. I had my hair washed and a massage in the streets at only US$1.
NOW For my 60th birthday, my daughter planned a surprise party for me in Singapore and we stayed at the Ambassador Suite in the Four Seasons Hotel. I was moved to tears when my other two daughters showed up from Melbourne.
9. Cindy Zhang
CEO, Faces of China, China
THEN I have been to Thailand many times over the years as it’s such an easy destination to visit, the food is good and the culture is interesting.
NOW I spent six days in Phuket during the Chinese New Year period in 2015. I usually stay in a resort where my children can enjoy the on-site facilities. Phuket is now very Chinese-friendly and there’s a lot to do like bike rides, diving, boat excursions and island hopping to Koh Phi Phi.
10. Charlotte Harris
Business development manager,
Charlotte Travel, Hong Kong
THEN I have been to Bali as a solo traveller, then as a couple and finally as a family, and it has been perfect every time.
NOW My current favourite is Amankila, hidden away from the hustle and bustle of Bali. The private beach, food and best of all, three-tiered swimming pool, quite easily beats a lot of properties in Bali.
11. Clifford Neo
Dynasty Travel, Singapore
THEN Ten years ago, when I travelled without a kid to Penang, the local coffee-shop culture of years past still existed. It was quieter and the pace of life was slower.
NOW Travelling to Penang with a kid a decade later, I discovered that the island has gone through tremendous development, especially the new compounds on the hillside towards Batu Ferringhi. There are many child-friendly beach resorts with kids’ clubs and buffet breakfasts.
12. C P Foo
Century Travel Centre, Brunei
THEN A memorable experience was staying at Westin Siray Bay Phuket, outside of the main tourist strip. I cycled around, enjoyed street food and durian, played table tennis and had relaxing massages.
NOW A relaxing beach break at Sofitel Bali Nusa Dua Resort, where the combination of massages and Bali exploration is absolutely heavenly.
13. Edwin Briels
General manager, Khiri Travel Myanmar
THEN My first memorable ASEAN experience was as a tour leader in the Golden Triangle in 1995. While enjoying the boat ride close to Myanmar, I was fascinated by the mystique of the then-closed
country. A few months later I visited Yangon and joined the water festival celebrations. From that first experience, I knew that Myanmar would be my home one day.
NOW I’ve been working and living in Myanmar for over 15 years. The recently developed three-day trips following the Old Opium Trails deep into the Golden Triangle is now one of my favourite. Staying in traditional bamboo longhouses is an amazing experience, as are the Palaung and Shan village walks.
14. Francis Cheong
Apxara Travel & Events, Malaysia
THEN I had such a great time visiting Genting Higlands with my family. I enjoyed the boat rides, theme park and most of all the cool weather.
NOW I took up a friend’s offer and re-visited Phuket Banyan Tree, an all-villa enclave in Laguna Phuket and boy was I
glad! Set among swaying casuarinas and palms, my one-bedroom pool villa offered the ultimate serenity for my three-day sojourn.
15. Fred Seow
Senior vice president,
THEN A decade ago, Bali and Phuket were my favourite destinations for short family getaways. The kids loved these destinations, which had nice beaches and diverse activities to keep a day fully packed.
NOW In recent years, we started visiting destinations like Kuala Lumpur and
Ho Chi Minh City, which I found to have developed with better and more varied facilities and activities. Not only are all modern creature comforts available, we also get to experience culture and heritage.
16. Gracie Geikie
Director/Principal consultant, Planet Borneo Group of Companies, Malaysia
THEN I loved the rich heritage and culture in Siem Reap. The experienced tour guide we had made our temple tours that much more special and meaningful.
NOW My last visit to Singapore in April 2016 showed me a quaint side of the city I had not seen before. I stayed in Clover 33, where cafes and bars were within walking distance. I loved the mix of Arabic, Chinese, Malay cultures in that area – it was great walking around taking in the sights and aromas.
17. Guldeep Singh Sahni
Weldon Tours & Travels, India
THEN The white sand beaches of Boracay provided a pleasant setting for my vacation. Besides the beach resorts, the sunset, live music, colourful parasails and fire dancers were huge attractions as well.
NOW JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa, located in Phang Nga province near Phuket, gave me total relaxation by the Andaman Sea. Khao Lak offers lush tropical greenery and stunning waterfalls.
18. Hamish Keith
Group managing director,
Exo Travel, Thailand
THEN I moved to Thailand 25 years ago and started my travel career as a tour leader, hence being fortunate enough to have visited many of Asia’s top sites before they became packed with tourists. My favourite early experiences include wandering around the Angkor complex in 1992 where the only tourists I encountered were a group of NGOs with armed escorts.
NOW My favourite experiences are mostly cycling related as I find this the best way to get off the beaten track. I recently rode from Yangon to Hpa-An and Mawlamyine in Myanmar, where I was able to experience the Asian roads less travelled.
19. Henry Ong
Head business development,
Holiday Tours, Malaysia
THEN My favourite experience was in Yangon in the late 1970s for a Buddhist pilgrimage. Myanmar stood out from other ASEAN destinations as it was relatively undeveloped.
NOW Myanmar is still memorable. During my latest visit a few years back, I could see its transformation for the better. There was a vast change in culture, the way people dressed and their openness to embrace modernity.
20. Hiran Cooray
Chairman, Jetwing Hotels Group, Sri Lanka
THEN In 1990, I was a rookie in the trade and attended a PATA meeting in Penang, which brought me to Malaysia for the first time. I was newly married and took my wife along – this gave us kind of a second honeymoon! We had a wonderful time at Genting Highlands after the meeting.
NOW In 2002, we took a family trip to Sabah and Sarawak with my three sons. I remember my eldest boy (then nine years old) was so attached to the tour guide that he cried when it was time to leave. It was an emotional moment for all of us.
21. Jackie Wong
Managing director, Hong Thai Travel Services, Hong Kong
THEN I paid my first visit to Pattaya 40 years ago. The Coral Island was stunning and I was impressed by the area’s tranquillity as well as the sunshine and beaches. At that time, Hongkongers seldom went overseas, so it was a perfect escape for city dwellers from Hong Kong.
NOW Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay gets a thumbs up for its creative and modern facilities which have drawn me there several times. It’s exciting to stroll indoors and admire the supertrees and vast array of plants in a big glasshouse. Hong Kong doesn’t offer that!
22. John Paul Cabalza
Cencorp Travel, Philippines
THEN My best ASEAN experience was in Bali. My visit to Ubud was complemented by relaxing times at the beach in Kuta and Nusa Dua. Seeing and exploring the luxurious Bulgari Resort Bali was another one for the books.
NOW A recent best experience was in Ho Chi Minh City. The museum tour stood out as it took us through lessons of war, its aftermath, and wounds inflicted for generations. My family went away with a greater appreciation of peace and a reminder to pursue the life we envision.
23. Joyce Jocson
Nexus Travel, Philippines
THEN My trip to Genting Highlands seven years ago remains firmly etched in my memory. The destination was a novelty as the weather was cool and we enjoyed the cable car ride to the mountaintop. Also, there were many rides and hotels
to choose from within the integrated resort.
NOW Last July, I visited Thailand with my mother, aunt and four-year-old daughter. Thai food is so yummy and inexpensive whether it’s at the floating market or hotel breakfast. I love the seasonal fruits especially mangosteens, and my family was thrilled by their first elephant ride and sightseeing at the temples.
24. Juergen Gallistl
COO, Tripfez, Malaysia
THEN My best ASEAN travel experience was a visit to Borobudur five years ago. It was like stepping back in time and seeing an ancient culture and civilisation. The Buddhist monuments were impressive.
NOW Penang, because it a melting pot of cultures and home to well-preserved heritage buildings and houses. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to Kek Lok Si Temple.
25. Julie Maballo
New Era Travel and Tours, Philippines
THEN My family took a trip to Hong Kong and my kids really enjoyed Disneyland and other theme parks. We’ve been to Hong Kong several times since and the enjoyment never ceases.
NOW On a recent trip to Singapore, I was bowled over by the Gardens by the Bay. The way they used creativity, ingenuity and imagination to make flowers the main attraction is unsurpassed.
26. Keller Mak
General manager and chief distribution officer, Lotus Tours, Hong Kong
THEN My best experience was visiting Bangkok during the Songkran period, playing with water guns and painting our faces with clay. Knowing we were foreigners, the Thai people asked our permission to bless us with waters. What good fun!
NOW It’s the boat ride down the Singapore River, which took me past old shophouses along Boat Quay, the Merlion Park, Singapore Flyer and Marina Bay Sands.
27. Khirul Zainie
MegaBorneo Tour Planner, Brunei
THEN Most memorable was my first visit to Thailand 30 years ago. I visited Hat Yai and the smiles of the Thai people were so warm and genuine. The food was also great.
NOW I recently visited Jakarta and was impressed by the Indonesians. They are hospitable even to each other. The traffic was hellish, but people kept their cool, even during minor accidents.
28. Kousik Bhattacharya
Head of marketing and B2C business,
THEN My favourite ASEAN experience was in Bangkok. There is so much history intertwined with modernity there. What fascinated me were the floating market, Chinatown, palaces and temples. The city also has a great nightlife.
NOW Today, my favourite is Langkawi. I particularly like the cable car to the summit of Mount Mat Cincang, Langkawi’s second highest mountain, which gives unrivalled views of the island and beyond. The boat tours to Tasik Dayang Bunting and Gua Cerita are great too. I also like trekking through the pristine rainforest that covers most of Langkawi.
29. Larry Lo
Westminster Travel, Hong Kong
THEN My second trip to Bali was truly memorable. I was invited to the wedding of my clients’ daughter. It gave me an opportunity to meet new friends and gain insight into their culture. The passion and hospitality was palpable.
NOW When I first attempted scuba diving on a one-day programme in Kota Kinabalu, it enticed me to explore a new underwater world and learn what the
other 70 per cent of this planet is all about. I am planning my next dive trip in Sipadan, which is reputed to be one of the world’s top diving sites.
30. Laurent Kuenzle
CEO, Asian Trails, Thailand
THEN The full solar eclipse in Angkor in 1995 is a moment I will never forget. The memory of being surrounded by majestic temples, the chanting of Buddhist monks, and watching the sky suddenly turn pitch black still makes my hair stand.
NOW I love sailing and there’s no better way to discover island life than to be on a catamaran in the Andaman Sea. This is paradise, every journey is unique and everyone connects in his own way to the magnificent natural surroundings.
31. Leslie Chiang
Manager, BorneoGuide, Brunei
THEN Visiting Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. I found the place very relaxing, and there were many species of marine life which made snorkelling fantastic.
NOW Singapore, as it is very easy to get around with its efficient public transportation. I visited a variety of attractions in the city and enjoyed myself very much.
32. Lisa Fitzell
Group managing director,
Diethelm Travel Group, Thailand
THEN I travelled to Bali as a 19-year-old and visited Candidasa, Mas, Ubud, Sanur, Kuta and Legion. I loved the smells, sights and people. One of my clearest memories is waking up in Ubud to a funeral procession outside.
NOW My favourite part of travelling in the region, where I now live, is getting close to local life, such as by cycling through the rural areas. I’m also a massive fan of wellness holidays; Asia does them so well and I believe this segment will continue to grow.
33. Mary Ann Ong
General manager, Luxus Pacific Travel and Tours, Philippines
THEN My happiest ASEAN travel memory was in Boracay. Then, I knew by memory the resorts and restaurants from Stations 1 to 3. This is no longer possible with so many new hotels, resorts, and malls sprouting up all over the island.
NOW My best travel experience would be El Nido, Palawan. There is something mystical about taking a kayak ride
around the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. Against a serene backdrop, I took in the peaceful sea and magnificent limestone cliffs.
34. Minoru Sato
President, Blue Ground Japan
THEN Twenty years ago, I visited the Philippines for the first time and was stunned by the beauty of the islands of Boracay and Palawan. The friendly locals made the experience even more special. I’ve not been there recently but I know Boracay has become very popular so maybe it’s better I keep my memories of the place rather than make a return trip.
NOW The beaches and resort towns within a couple of hours by car of Danang are spectacular. Many areas of central Vietnam are still relatively unknown to Japanese tourists. Numerous beachfront properties have excellent hotels, casinos and restaurants. I would recommend that people visit this new destination soon before the secret gets out.
35. Mint Leong
Sunflower Holidays, Malaysia
THEN I was in Cambodia about 10 years ago for a travel trade show. A dinner was arranged for us with Angkor Wat as a backdrop, leaving me with memories of the beautiful and well-maintained site.
NOW Bali is my favourite destination for rest and relaxation. It has many good properties at reasonable rates. I love Balinese massages and walks by the beach.
36. Nigel Wong
Director, Urban Rhythms Tour
Adventures & Travel, Malaysia
THEN My first ASEAN experience, after 10 years living abroad, was scuba diving off Tenggol Island, Terengganu, Malaysia. It sparked my appreciation of the beauty and infinite sense of adventure that the region has to offer.
NOW My latest and best ASEAN experience is standing at the edge of the crater
of Mount Bromo in East Java, an active
volcano. It was then I knew deep down that my ASEAN adventures had only just begun.
37. Peggie Chung
Outbound deputy general manager,
Hong Thai Travel Singapore
THEN Thailand remains one of my favourite ASEAN countries because of the warm service, quality accommodation at affordable prices, value-for-money food, and shopping. Thailand has lots to offer in terms of history, culture, sporting activities, beaches and more.
NOW I visited central Vietnam in 2014 and was won over by the picturesque beaches and French colonial influence in Danang. Hoi An also left a deep impression with its mix of Chinese, French, Vietnamese and Japanese influences.
38. Pham Ha
CEO, Luxury Travel Vietnam
THEN Ten years ago, I visited Bali and Lombok for the first time. It was an experience of a lifetime with a Buddhist temple visit, street food tasting, volcano and coffee field tours, nature walks, and a visit to the rice fields in Ubud.
NOW In April 2016, my friends and I revisited Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand. I visited safaris, did cooking classes, encountered local tribes and visited a rice field. A private jet took us from Bangkok to Phuket, where we took a private yacht down Phang Nga Bay.
39. Pornthip Hirunkate
Destination Asia Thailand
THEN My first trip to Phuket 35 years ago was love at first sight! Patong Beach was a far cry from today with pristine beaches and basic infrastructure. I also travelled to Phang Nga Bay by road and the indigenous fishermen at Koh Panyi caught me lobsters by hand, a wonderful memory I hold close to heart to this day.
NOW On a trip to Myanmar, I visited the temples of Bagan and was treated to a leisurely ride on a horse and cart and sat atop one of the majestic pagodas, which offered amazing views of the entire landscape. I tried to imagine how the place looked a hundred years ago with all the golden spires twinkling in the sunlight.
40. Pranowo Gumulia
Bayu Buana Travel, Indonesia
THEN Riding a bicycle in total darkness in early morning at 04.00 from Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort to catch the sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple was one for the books.
NOW My most desired experience would include playing a round of golf at Phokeethra Country Club in Angkor Wat while watching the sunrise!
41. Ravi Gusain
Managing director, Erco Travels, India
THEN My best ASEAN travel experience was to Halong Bay in Vietnam. It was one of the most picturesque sites I have seen. The Thien Cung Cave was exceptional.
NOW I visited Gardens by the Bay in Singapore and was blown away by its world-class design concept based on environmental sustainability.
42. Seki Kato
President, Green Travel, Japan
THEN When I visited Cambodia in 1992, I felt that Phnom Penh was such a small town that left me profoundly affected by its poverty and dark history. But Angkor Wat was a paradise, and this was before it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
NOW I returned to Cambodia earlier this year and was impressed by how much
has changed. Phnom Penh has developed politically, socially, culturally and economically. I’ve been to Cambodia more than 80 times now and every time I return, I feel like a time traveller there.
43. Soontarut Wattanahongsiri
Abercrombie & Kent Thailand
THEN My very first memorable experience was a trip to Cambodia back in 2004 when I first started my career, and I’ve returned over 10 times.
NOW Since I was inspired by my first climb to the summit of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia a few years ago, mountain climbing has become part of my travels. I love every aspect of the natural wonders from base to summit.
44. Starry Wong
Deputy manager, outbound, Century Holiday International Travel Group, China
THEN I visited Ho Chi Minh City with friends in 2009. We enjoyed the fresh seafood and had a good time exploring the many small streets in the city to see how the locals live and work. One of my favourite places is the Ho Chi Minh City Central Post Office for its architecture, lovely smell of stamps and quaint interior with music in the background.
NOW I took a 12-day trip to Chiang Mai and Hua Hin in October 2015. My interest in discovering the peaceful local lifestyles is what has brought me back to Thailand time and again.
45. Tedjo Iskandar
Founder, TTC Travel Network, Indonesia
THEN Singapore was one of the only destinations in ASEAN I used to visit, and I recall shopping in Orchard Road.
NOW Happy hour in Siem Reap while watching the sunset; tasting a glass of beer and half-cooked chicken eggs from roadside stalls in Hanoi’s Old Quarter; and hunting for Hard Rock Cafe souvenirs in Phuket and Ho Chi Minh City are some activities I enjoy.
46. Tobias Fischer
Director of business development,
Go Vacation Thailand
THEN My first visit to Koh Samui was 15 years ago, when the airport had just opened and the Chaweng Beach Road was partially still a dirt road. A trip by bus and ferry to the shopping centre in Surat Thani town was a monthly highlight then. Over time, small stalls had made way for concrete shopping arcades, big supermarket chains arrived and bungalow resorts became hotels.
Despite this modernisation, I feel that Samui hasn’t lost its charm. I appreciate the mix of good infrastructure and local touch and get the island feeling every time I return to my favourite destination.
NOW In 2007, I did an overland tour from Hanoi to Luang Prabang with my parents. The border between Vietnam and Laos at Dien Bien Phu was just
open for international tourists. We enjoyed the scenic mountainous road
from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, and meeting the locals hill tribes was a great cultural experience.
47. Umberto Cadamuro
COO Inbound, Pacto, Indonesia
THEN I did not fall in love with ASEAN countries until 1986, when I visited Lake Toba in Indonesia. In the rainy season the lake changes colour through the day, and watching it from the balcony of a cottage in Samosir was well worth the bumpy ride. Somehow, the lack of infrastructural development remains part of its charm to this day. This holiday kept me in Indonesia for the past 26 years.
NOW I have a preference of putting up at local accommodation chains to see how they measure up to international standards. I had a wonderful stay last year at the Victoria Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap, a colonial gem in the centre of town serving exquisite Cambodian food. However, I left feeling that much effort is needed to maintain the splendour of Angkor Wat.
48. Violet Wang
Destination manager, Pacific World, China
THEN My first time in South-east Asia was in 2006/07, when I visited Bangkok and Pattaya on a company incentive trip. Teambuilding at the Royal Cliff Beach Hotel was particularly memorable.
NOW My most recent trip to South-east Asia was to Singapore. Compared with
10 years ago when I visited for the first time, so much has changed. There are many more restaurants, more attractions on Sentosa, and many international and boutique hotels to choose from.
49. Wilson Yeung
Director of marketing,
Morning Star Travel Service, Hong Kong
THEN My first ASEAN experience was a trip to Bangkok. The taste of food was so much different from Hong Kong – yummy! The place provided a carefree room for relaxation. I tried the famous Thai massage which was incredibly awesome.
NOW My best ASEAN visit was a sailing to Danang. When I got on the cruise, my trip began. The travel time to Danang is fully utilised. I could enjoy the cruise facilities, dinning in world-class restaurants, and visit my favourite city at the same time.
50. Zerny Packeer
Asian Exotica, Sri Lanka
THEN About nine years ago, I had an interesting experience in Myanmar when I travelled in a 1960 model car with the door tied shut by rope. Food was cheap and just by changing a US$100 note, I was treated like a millionaire!
NOW Having visited Myanmar in recent times, I believe this country is one of the few unspoiled countries.
S Puvaneswary, Rosa Ocampo, Paige Lee Pei Qi, Mimi Hudoyo, Prudence Lui, Xinyi Liang-Pholsena, Caroline Boey, Rohit Kaul, Feizal Samath and Julian Ryall contributed to this feature.
This article was first published in TTG Asia January 2017 issue. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.