Taru Villas, Bentota, Sri Lanka
A completely private getaway by the sea, on a beach with
perfect weather – it’s an archetypal dream destination. If it
also happens to be inspiringly stylish and blessed with great
service, it becomes somewhere you’re tempted not to tell your
friends about. Taru Villas is exactly that. Located just
outside the town of Bentota and a three-hour drive from
Colombo’s international airport, it’s the kind of place you can
imagine staying for long enough to write a book.
Apart from the very tangible benefit of being affordable,
Taru’s convincing combination of style, sand and service make
it worth the flight to Sri Lanka. But Taru Villas was
discovered not by visiting sunseekers but by a cosmopolitan
crowd from Colombo.
Nayantara Fonseka (better known as Taru) is a flamboyant
creative figure in the Sri Lankan fashion world. For years, she
and a few carloads of friends would make the
two-and-a-half-hour trek from the city on a Friday evening to
spend a relaxed, idyllic weekend on the coast. This became such
a fixture in Taru’s life that she pledged to take any
opportunity she could to pursue her passion for the property
and its location. One day it went up for lease – and that’s how
Taru got into the hotel business.
Even though the site itself was awkwardly long and narrow, the
original architect had been clever with the use of space, and
the buildings were arranged to avoid giving the impression of
being in a tunnel. The villas, set along a single wall, are
subtly oriented so that all of them face different directions.
This ensures total privacy, and for guests it’s like having
your own house.
To this already successful establishment, Taru has brought her
sense of style and hospitality. Taru Villas now has the colour,
warmth and character that is so often lacking from an
architect’s disciplined vision. Walls painted a musty shade of
pink are juxtaposed with plenty of white, and bright saffron
yellow is combined with black and white (a traditional colonial
Portuguese combination). More than anything, though, Taru
Villas is a triumph of simplicity. It’s not easy to make a
place look good with very little, but that’s exactly what Taru
has done to distinguish this little bolthole on the beach. It’s
a blend of good choice of colour, interesting selection of
furniture and the omnipresent avoidance of clutter.
The beach here reminded me more of Australia than Asia – it goes on for miles, and the water is
wild and woolly enough for some decent bodysurfing; the hotel
can even lend you a boogie-board. At Taru Villas you can escape
to one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches. And at this price, you can
go barefoot in the sand for as long as you like.
· Taru Villas, Bentota, Sri Lanka (tel: +94
034 2275618; email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Room rates from
Ibrik, Bangkok, Thailand
An ibrik is a small container for pouring coffee. It’s also the
smallest urban Hip Hotel in Asia, with three rooms and a café
on the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. Three rooms hardly
seem worth the effort – for the proprietor, that is. But for
the guest it’s a fantastic opportunity to experience the hustle
and bustle of Bangkok without feeling like one of thousands of
farang (foreign) tourists.
Ibrik’s guestrooms are spacious and decorated in a modern,
“look what I managed to do with my family hand- me-downs” kind
of way. They are also immaculately tidy and contemporary,
especially in the bathroom department. It’s like staying with a
cool friend on the river. The only other accommodation options
on the Chao Phraya consist of expensive institutional hotels
such as the Oriental; these may indulge you with four-star
luxury but cannot match Ibrik for raw, full-on authenticity.
The sheer magic of Ibrik is you can sit on your terrace, which
is literally hanging over the river, and watch this fascinating
city go by – without the claustrophobic feeling of being
trapped in your hotel room.
As might be expected of such an original inn, Ibrik is not a
product of hotel culture. It was the idea of three young,
like-minded creative types who could see a complete lack of
smaller, more colourful places to stay in this Asian
metropolis. Gobe Bunnag is a professional photographer, and the
house that is now Ibrik used to belong to friends of hers. When
the building came on the market, she and her partners saw their
window of opportunity. The interesting thing is that Ibrik
doesn’t feel like a three-room hotel at all. Perhaps it’s the
professional way it’s run, or the fact that the rooms are so
far apart, or the manner in which the café co-exists seamlessly
with the accommodation. In fact, it feels more like a hotel
with 20 rooms, and yet you have the distinct advantage of
knowing that you’ll never have to share the common areas with
more than five other people.
· Ibrik Resort, Bangkoknoi, Bangkok, Thailand
(+66 02 848 9220, email: email@example.com). Room rates from Baht
The Apsara, Luang Prabang, Laos
From a traveller’s point of view, it’s hard to think of a
destination with more to offer. Flanked by mountainous
limestone cliffs shrouded in mist, Luang Prabang is built on a
peninsula defined by the Mekong River on one side and its
tributary, the Khan River, on the other. The surrounding area
is still pristine in its sparsely inhabited agrarian purity,
and just outside of town you will come across Lao hill tribes.
For those with enough time on their hands, the journey by car
to Vientiane takes you through a slice of Asia most people will
never see: a countryside of waterfalls, rice paddies and
customs unchanged by the march of modernity. It was by way of
such a drive that Ivan Scholte first ended up in Luang Prabang.
A British expat who has been living in Asia for almost two
decades, his ambition was to own a hotel and restaurant, and it
was his discovery of Luang Prabang in 2000 that finally
cemented his resolve.
At the time there were no direct flights, and visitors
consisted mainly of backpackers. There were only two upmarket
hotels in town and just one upmarket restaurant (serving French
cuisine). Attracted by Luang Prabang’s size, sensuality and
sophistication, Scholte took over an existing guesthouse and
proceeded to transform it into a hotel to match his vision. The
result is The Apsara, named after the heavenly maidens carved
into the gallery walls of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The hotel has
introduced a simple but street-wise sophistication to the
town’s accommodation options. Scholte brought interior designer
Niki Fairchild in from Bangkok to assist him with the design,
and what they’ve come up with ranks as the most chic place in
town. Both the restaurant and the rooms reflect a refined sense
of taste. The restaurant, for instance, features a polished
concrete floor, Chinese-style lanterns hung in multicoloured
clusters, a pair of sculptural Burmese offering boxes and a
handful of specially commissioned Thai paintings.
The rooms all have views of the river below from their colonial
terraces and it’s extremely affordable, but the best thing
about the Apsara is that it is smack bang in the middle of
town. All the cafès, temples and shops are within easy walking
distance, and if you’re up at 6am you can witness Luang
Prabang’s monks form a snaking, mile-long, saffron-coloured
queue as they go about collecting their daily alms. It’s one of
the few places in Asia, if not the world, where the town in
which you’re staying is the reason for spending time there.
· The Aspara, Luang Prabang, Laos (+856 071
212 420, email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Room rates from US$55
FCC, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Now is the time to travel to Cambodia to experience Angkor Wat.
The adjacent town of Siem Reap is still small, pretty and
unspoilt, the nearby international airport is only an hour’s
flight from Bangkok and, better still, the monuments are not
yet overwhelmed by tourists. Plus, just as importantly,
visitors have some interesting choices of accommodation.
FCC is for travellers who like their colonial atmosphere pared
down and contemporary. Set in the grounds of a former French
governer’s holiday home, it combines a shuttered two-storey
structure typical of French Indochina with modern bungalows
that face either the park or the pool. Polished con crete
floors, the odd fifties- inspired rattan chair, open-plan
bathrooms and splashes of Cambodian silk constitute the
decorative picture. Simple and coolly confident, FCC’s
interiors and bold geometric architecture make for an
unexpectedly attractive package. Central to the hotel is the
original French colonial building, which now houses a
restaurant, a shop and a couple of bars.
For travellers, the most tangible benefit of the new,
politically stable Cambodia is that the complex of Angkor is
once again open to visitors. It’s evident from the building
activity on the outskirts of Siem Reap that the government is
confident that Angkor will flourish as a destination. While
that’s good news for the Cambodian economy, it spells the end
of any chance of having the ruins to yourself. At the moment,
though, it’s still possible to wander around some of the
temples in relative peace. Consider, for instance, Ta Prohm,
the site that for many visitors leaves the strongest
impression. It’s a place of fantasy that brings out the Indiana
Jones in us all: overgrown by forest and entangled with the
gigantic, octopus-like roots of the kapok tree, Ta Prohm
provides an insight into what Frenchman Henri Mouhot and other
explorers must have felt when they first stumbled on to the
remains of the capital of what was once the mightiest empire in
Southeast Asia. Here you are free to discover the ruins on your
own, without guides, cassettes or roped-off areas.
At night, the scene transfers back to town. Aside from FCC’s
colonial charm and avant- garde architecture, it’s one of the
best hangouts in Siem Reap. There’s an outdoor bar with a
collection of art deco armchairs of the kind that used to
furnish every hall of commerce in the time of Chairman Mao; and
upstairs there are two restaurants under a formidable
installation of ceiling fans, where you can eat while watching
the town’s traffic of motorised rickshaws going back and forth.
From a historical, psychological and financial point of view,
FCC is an interesting approach to a hotel. The atmosphere
recalls a colonial setting, the style is confidently
contemporary and the prices belong to a forgotten era.
· FCC Angkor, Siem Reap (tel: +855 063 760
280; email: email@example.com). Room rates from $90
Cheong Fatt Tze, Penang, Malaysia
When Cheong Fatt Tze arrived in the Straits from Guandong
province in China in 1856, he was barely 16 and penniless. By
the time he passed away in 1916 at the age of 76, he had
amassed one of the greatest fortunes in the Orient.
With great wealth came great spoils. Cheong had eight wives and
many more houses, but his favourite residence was the mansion
he built on the island of Penang, in the bustling trading port
of George Town.
The so-called Blue House (due to its distinctive indigo-painted
exterior) was purpose-built to show off his financial prowess.
It was flamboyantly extravagant, with 38 rooms, five
courtyards, seven stair cases and – to counter the heat – 220
windows. It also reflected Cheong’s multicultural personality.
The layout was essentially Chinese, with strict adherence to
the discipline of feng shui; but the detail was engagingly
eclectic, with ceramic floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent,
Scottish cast-iron balustrading, French Art Nouveau stained
glass windows, Chinese cut-and-paste porcelain, and Gothic
louvred teak windows.
But by the time local architect Laurence Loh and his wife Lim
discovered it, a total of 35 different families were living in
the once magnificent mansion. Six decades after the Rockefeller
of the East had passed away, Cheong Fatt Tze’s beautiful house
had become a lowly tenement.
Luckily for Penang, the story of the Blue House has a happy
ending. When the last of Cheong’s sons passed away, Loh and a
small syndicate were able to buy what was left of the house,
and set about the monumental task of restoring it to its former
But the best thing about the restoration is that, as a guest,
you can once more admire the flair and extravagance of one of
the Orient’s most flamboyant houses, and you don’t need an
invitation to stay here. Better still, you pay a lot less than
Cheong Fatt Tze would have been happy with.
· Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, George Town,
Penang, Malaysia (tel: +60 4262 5006; email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Room rates form Ringgit 250
· This is an edited extract from Hip Hotels:
Orient by Herbert Ypma, published by Thames & Hudson on
April 11 at £18.95.
Bangkok’s original hip hotel