Saturday, June 21, 2008

Altitude slickness.

Because most of them started as ports, Asia’s big cities are generally low-lying affairs, situated near sea level. But the region has plenty of opportunities for elevation to loftier climes.

From the equatorial highlands of Java to the celestial mountains of China and everywhere in between, more and more of Asia’s high-altitude areas are being developed for tourism – some rough and ready, but some with levels of luxury as lofty as their geography. All you have to ask yourself is: how high do you want to go?

1,140 METRES

Phonsavan, Laos

At just over a kilometre above sea level, Phonsavan doesn’t exactly qualify as truly alpine, but the higher altitude does give a fresh feel to the morning air in contrast to the plains below. The town itself is charming enough, with ample opportunities for alfresco Beer Lao consumption. Nearby, the Plain of Jars is one of Asia’s last unsolved mysteries, with hundreds of ancient pots scattered through the landscape.

Where to Stay

The French-run Phu Pha Daeng (Tel: +856 61 312 044), otherwise known as Auberge de Plaine des Jarres, is Phonsavan’s best option in the style stakes, with lovely stone and wooden cabins just outside the centre of town.

1,460 METRES

Puncak, Indonesia

On the road between Bogor and Bandung, Puncak is a picturesque village in the Javanese highlands, sitting between two spectacular mountains. The scents of coffee and cinnamon drift on the air from the many surrounding plantations, and the air has a distinctly fresh feel, helped along by the fact that the sun disappears behind the mountain early in the afternoon. Puncak itself is quiet and charming, but for day trips, Bogor’s world-famous botanical gardens are nearby, as is the incredible Taman Safari Indonesia.

Where to Stay

The quirky Puncak Pass Resort ( is a property in the ‘if it’s in the mountains, build it Swiss-style’-school. Authentically Helvetian cottages with sloped roofs overlook the valley below, and all that’s lacking is the fondue.

1,620 METRES

Sapa, Vietnam

North from Hanoi, on the last stop of the train line before it hits China, Sapa is one of Vietnam’s highest points. Its altitude means temperatures can approach freezing, with a blanket of fog descending every evening to create a mysterious, otherworldly feel. The brick-and-tile houses are straight out of Tuscany, the minority hilltribe treks are fascinating, and the steaming Vietnamese coffee never tasted as good as it does in the thin mountain air here.

Where to Stay

The Victoria Sapa Resort ( is a gorgeous spot. Sip mulled wine by roaring log fires, sit in the open air with a hot chocolate around a big bonfire, or stay in the comfort of your room and watch the mists swirling over the valley.

1,650 METRES

Baguio, Philippines

The garden city of the Philippines, with more public parks and gardens than the rest of the country put together, Baguio makes the most of its out-of-the-way location. Pine-scented air, darling little inns and restaurants overlooking forested valleys, and an outdoorsy, back-to-nature vibe makes this a lovely spot to get away from the sensory overload that is Manila.

Where to Stay

Historical Camp John Hay Manor ( is perhaps Baguio’s most stylish place to stay, and also its most environmentally friendly, with numerous good governance awards to its name. Built on a mountain on top of another mountain, the Manor boasts spectacular views; the feeling of being above it all is palpable.

1,782 METRES

Doi Ang Khang, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The areas in far north Thailand abutting the Burmese and Laotian borders are a mountain-lovers’ paradise. Peaks soar to over two km above sea level, nighttime temperatures plum-met to low single figures, and rosy-cheeked ethnic minorities give the area an exotic, unfamiliar feel. Perfect for motoring trips whether on four wheels or two, the winding mountain roads north of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai offer some of Asia’s most accessible and enjoyable high-altitude holidays.

Where to Stay

The Angkhang Nature Resort, ( run by the Amari group, offers individual villas on the side of a mountain, wedged into a valley less than a kilometre from the Burmese border. If the modern fare on offer at the restaurants doesn’t appeal, you can always walk down to the market and snack on Burmese and Chinese cuisine in one of the many restaurants set up by migrants from over the border.

1,829 METRES

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Malaysia’s airy Cameron Highlands started life as a retreat for the British escaping the heat of the capital, and even now the feel of the place reflects it colonial origins. Mock-Tudor houses, strawberries and cream, and steaming pots of tea still define the atmosphere of this hill station. But there are many more modern delights too. Rolling golf courses, jungle walks and luxurious spas will all fill some time in during daylight hours while you wait for nightfall and the chance to sit around the fireplace sipping red wine.

Where to Stay

Built in the 1930s, The Smokehouse Hotel & Restaurant By The Golf Course ( captures the essence of the High-lands, with gorgeously twee rooms and a lovely rose garden where you can sit outside and take tea. If you’re feeling homesick, you can always call home from the red British telephone box outside.

1,923 METRES

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

There’s not much that Nuwara Eliya doesn’t offer: culture, history, and physical activity in the national park trails surrounding the area. A highlight is the St Clair tea centre: a fascinating interactive museum where you can learn the history of the area and about life on the tea plantations. When you’ve had enough education for one day, retire to the terrace and have a cup of the steaming brew while watching the sun set over the plains below.

Where to Stay

The Tea Factory, ( a tasteful hotel built from – you guessed it – a former tea factory, offers the coolest and most stylish accommodation in the hill country. Nice touches in the rooms remind you of the building’s provenance, and the location in the middle of a tea estate is simply gorgeous.

2,370 METRES

Ayubia, Pakistan

Only 90 km north of Islamabad, Ayubia is one of many popular holiday resorts in the mountains of northern Pakistan. Snowbound in winter, fresh and pine-scented in summer, nearby attractions include Khanspur, the beautiful small town where many of Pakistan’s elite have their country homes, and Murree, the hill resort famous for being the only town still in possession of a working brewery in overwhelmingly dry Pakistan.

Where to Stay

The Ayubia Motel (Tel: +92 (0) 992 359 004) is much more salubrious than its name suggests; ‘motel’ is simply the word Pakistanis use for any hotel out of major towns is a great base from which to explore the surrounding mountain district, or to use as a stopover point for further exploration north.

2,134 METRES

Darjeeling, India

Backed up against the Himalayas, India’s northern border is one long mountain range. There are dozens of charming resorts; but the queen of them all is Darjeeling, the town where the famous tea industry is centred. Flowering gardens, elegant tea estates, strolls along the stately Mall in the middle of town, and the views of Mt Everest in the distance are enough to detain most people for a few days. For the more adventurous, mountain biking, hot-air ballooning and elephant rides along mountain trails are also on the list of options.

Where to Stay

The Windermere Hotel, (Tel: +91 354 54041) created from an old gentleman’s lodge formerly used to house tea planters, epitomises the genteel atmos-phere of the hill station. Cosy rooms protect you against the chilly mountain mist and hearty breakfasts set you up for a day of trekking, strolling or comfy lounging.

5,600 METRES

Lijiang, China

Lijiang is serious alpine territory, with the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain soaring over five kilometres above sea level. Inhabited by the colourful and horse-loving Naxi people, the wide open plains of Lijiang and the nearly-Tibetan style temples dotted throughout the area make for a culturally satisfying trip, while the nascent Chinese ski resort offers some respectable slopes.

Where to Stay

Zen Garden Hotel, ( situated in the old town section of Lijiang, will give you the best feel for the history and culture of the area. In an old Naxi lanehouse, but renovated beautifully and with lovely staff, the Zen Garden is a gem.

This article first appeared in Lifestyle + Travel magazine.
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