// September 30, 2015
// Posted in Asia, Holly Monahan, News, Travel Experts
Holly’s creds come from a year living in Bangkok’s trendiest neighborhood and months traveling across Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Sri Lanka, scoping out the best new hotels and off-the-radar experiences. She is always on the ground discovering what makes Southeast Asia special, day-in and day-out—the gems impossible to uncover on a two-week trip. It’s no wonder Travel+Leisure named her top travel specialist for Thailand on their highly competitive A-List.
While living in Bangkok, Holly spent weekends island hopping, afternoons cycling to stunning temples too remote to be listed in guidebooks, and evenings checking-out the latest nightlife offerings and gallery openings. Her wealth of firsthand destination knowledge means she has access to insider experiences typically reserved for well-connected locals: she has arranged for travelers to enjoy candlelit dinners in Cambodia’s untouched countryside, private storytelling sessions amidst Sri Lanka’s ancient Galle Fort with beloved author Juliet Combe, and aerial flights over Kathmandu for panoramic vistas of the Himalayas.
Read on for the rare experiences and top hotels she loves right now, and discover how her insider’s approach and super-savvy tips will change the way you travel in Southeast Asia.
What are you particularly excited about sharing with your travelers?
Activities after dark! I like to keep the day going into the night with unique experiences. We have a “One Night in Bangkok” tour which can include night markets, delicious street food, jazz clubs, rooftop bars, or even a Muay Thai match.
I have a favorite secret villa outside Siem Reap perfect for quiet nighttime views of rice paddy fields and an authentic candle-lit al fresco dinner prepared by your own private chef, accompanied by local musicians.
In Saigon, you can hop on the back of Vespas for a night-time tasting tour of the city’s best street food. Don’t miss bowls of banh canh, thick noodles cooked in a coconut-based broth and served with fresh crab and pork or banh mi, a sandwich of pate, cucumber, sliced meats, and cilantro stuffed inside freshly baked, French-style baguettes.
What’s trending now in Southeast Asia?
Bangkok is becoming Brooklynized! Craft beers are now rivaling mainstays like Singha. The Veganerie Vegan Bakery opened earlier this year, and young chefs are championing the slow-food movement.
Someone wants to begin planning their Southeast-Asia trip with you. How do they begin?
Let’s hop on the phone! The best way to create a bespoke journey is for you to share your interests, passions, likes and dislikes with me so we can brainstorm what your ideal trip would look like. Then, I’ll prepare a customized itinerary based on our discussion, and together we’ll tailor and fine tune it until it’s the perfect fit—at your pace, with hotels that match your style, enriching cultural encounters, and sumptuous dining experiences.
I’ve arranged for clients to go on a private behind-the-scenes tour of Bangkok with noted historian and author Joe Cummings, chartered flights between India’s national parks for the best sightings of tigers in the wild, and even arranged walking tours through Ubud with Balinese nobility.
I’ll make personalized recommendations on everything from the best local delicacies to try (even if you’re vegan!), to picks for gay and lesbian-friendly destinations, and even how to interact with elephants in the most meaningful way.
Let’s talk about elephants. Spending time with elephants is high on the wish-lists of most visitors to Southeast Asia. What are some of your favorite ways to hang with these loveable giants?
It’s a priority for Absolute Travel, and me, personally, to only work with programs that are humanely and responsibly run, like those at the Anantara and Four Seasons Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, or the Patara Elephant Farm and Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
It’s heartening to see lodges like Elephant Hills, which previously took clients on jungle elephant rides, switch gears and focus on elephant interactions travelers can feel good about. Often, feeding or washing the elephants (prepare to get sprayed!) is much more memorable than the typical elephant-riding experience. It’s a special way to bond with these majestic creatures.
What is your can’t-miss Thailand beach stop?
It is so hard to choose just one, but one of my more memorable stays was at the Soneva Kiri resort on Thailand’s Koh Kood island.
I stared into the moon in the Observatory, and had an insightful holistic Ayurvedic consultation and massage at the spa. The beach is lovely, and the resort offers other unique experiences like “Treepod Dining” and an outdoor cinema.
Southeast Asia is vast. How do you recommend travelers approach exploring the region?
If Thailand is on your itinerary, make Bangkok your entry point. Besides being fascinating and vibrant in its own right, it’s a hub not just for Thailand, but for the entire region: neighboring Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, and nearby Vietnam and Singapore are just short flights away.
I have a soft spot for Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the must-see destination of Southeast Asia. Even after my third visit the allure is still strong. The tethered hot-air balloon is back in operation, and this summer I finally got to have a stunning aerial view of Angkor Wat temple and the lush surrounding countryside.
Most people don’t consider Cambodia a beach destination, but for a unique resort experience, Song Saa Private Island is one of my all-time top choices.
Myanmar is modernizing quickly. Go now for an authenticity and charm that may vanish in the near future. Inle Lake is a perennial favorite, but add a visit to nearby Kalaw, a former British hill station, for pristine landscapes and phenomenal trekking missed by many.
Then visit Green Valley Elephant Camp, a refuge for elephants retired from the logging industry, and the Pindaya Caves, a massive hillside cavern filled with more than 8,000 images of the Buddha.
You lived in Bangkok for a year. What was the most surprising experience you discovered there?
A friend introduced me to a private dining experience called Nang Gin Kui, set in a lovely apartment overlooking the river. I ended up having two private dinner parties there and both were magical evenings.
Holly’s Southeast Asia Need-to-Knows
Fruit: Mangosteens, without a doubt.
Snack: Mien Kam. A made-to-order Thai treat of roasted coconut, ginger, garlic, shallots, green mango, lime rind and chilies, all wrapped in a bite-sized bundle inside a “wild betel nut,” or chaphulu leaf wrapper. Ask to hold the dried shrimp to make it vegan. It’s an explosion of sweet and spicy.
For empty-nesters: Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai for indulgent pampering, and cooking classes in a peaceful countryside setting.
For honeymooners: Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas for total privacy with pools and outdoor bathtubs.
For families: Soneva Kiri for a unique tropical island hideaway with tent-top villas, beach, spa, outdoor movie theater and an ice cream parlor.
For design-savvy travelers: The Siam. It’s a Bill Bensley masterpiece on a quiet stretch of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.
For wellness: Point Yamu by COMO is a stunning new addition in Phuket with healthy food, luxuriant spa treatments, and spectacular views.
For over-the-top luxury: Iniala Beach House. Travelers can rent out the entire residence with a full staff to cater to your every whim.
For off-the-beaten path luxury: Six Senses Yao Noi for sustainably-built pool villas—the best of barefoot luxury.
For bonding: A wedding or anniversary blessing by a Buddhist monk.
For romance: Candle-lit dinner in a secret villa outside Siem Reap.
For culture: An exclusive studio visit and meeting with an acclaimed contemporary Thai artist.
For soft-adventure: Zip-lining in Chiang Mai.
For take-home skills: A personalized market visit and private Thai cooking class in a traditional kitchen.
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