All Articles 5 Asian city-and-beach pairings to try this winter

5 Asian city-and-beach pairings to try this winter

Find time for urban frenzies and total relaxation with these combos.

Zinara Rathnayake
By Zinara Rathnayake19 Jan 2023 7 minutes read
Bottle Beach, Koh Phangan, Thailand
Bottle Beach, Koh Phangan, Thailand
Image: 4FR/Getty Images

If you are looking to catch some sunshine this winter, consider pairing a weekend in a bustling metropolis like Colombo or Bangkok with a few lazy days in a quaint beach town with turquoise waters. These five Asian winter vacations pack a punch with street food, fine dining, heritage temples, design-led spaces, luxury resorts, and a touch of yoga and adventure.

Sri Lanka

Colombo and Ahangama

The Red Mosque of Colombo in Sri Lanka
The Red Mosque of Colombo in Sri Lanka
Image: heckepics/Getty Images

Contemporary architecture, busy markets, and a growing restaurant scene make the Sri Lankan capital Colombo a fitting Asian city getaway. Here, you’ll find Number 11, the urban residence of the late Geoffery Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most prolific architect known for his modernist buildings that blend into natural tropical surroundings, that's now a museum. Other design picks include Bawa’s former office, now converted into the fine dining restaurant Paradise Road Gallery Cafe, where you can dine al fresco on Sri Lankan fare like black pork curry and an extensive menu of 30 desserts.

Start your day with a yoga class at Prana Lounge, eat brunch at Cafe Kumbuk (a tranquil spot championing local produce), and pamper yourself with a deep tissue massage at the Kemara spa. After a well-rested day, grab drinks and feast on Southeast Asian cuisine at Monsoon Colombo on Park Street Mews, an entertainment lane with upmarket bars and restaurants. Located in the heart of the city, 55TG’s Boutique Suites is a 90-year-old home turned into an art-centric oasis, making it an ideal place to rest your head.

When you are ready to escape: Travel two and a half hours south of Colombo to Ahangama, a laid-back beach hamlet along the southern coastline. Every winter, travelers flock to the surf and yoga retreats at chic accommodations like Sunshine Stories and Soul & Surf. Or you can ground yourself at PALM, a design-centric boutique stay with A-frame cabanas, hopping from nearby beach towns like Weligama, Talpe, and Unawatuna to the book cafe Wild & the Sage, which hosts book clubs and author events.

Don’t miss the UNESCO Heritage Site Galle Fort—originally built during the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period, the fort’s quirky streets are lined with cafes, gem boutiques, and souvenir shops. Grab lunch at Church Street Social housed at the luxury hotel Fort Bazaar or head south to Cruising Smoothly in Weligama, a local-run food truck with vegan ice cream served on coconut shell bowls. Take in the sunset at Wijaya Beach overlooking the palm-fringed rocky shores frequented by wild sea turtles.

Thailand

Bangkok and Koh Pha-Ngan

Woman on beach swing on Koh Phangan, Thailand
Koh Phangan, Thailand
Image: Rocky89/Getty Images

No Asian city getaway is complete without devouring some street food—and no one does street food quite like Thailand’s vibrant capital Bangkok. If you are a first-timer, hop on a night market and Chinatown food tour with a local guide at TakeMeTour to get a wealth of knowledge about different Thai dishes. Or, if you want to try your hand in the kitchen, grab an apron for a hands-on experience with a local chef at the Chef LeeZ Thai Cooking Class, where you can learn to cook five Thai dishes.

Spend your early mornings visiting Bangkok’s grand temples, such as Wat Pho, which dates back to the 16th century with its 46-meter-long, gold-plated reclining Buddha sculpture. From here, a quick ferry ride takes you to Wat Arun with ornate floral mosaics along the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Book yourself at the luxurious urban Four Seasons Bangkok—and don’t leave the city without heading to legendary Jay Fai, a woman-run, Michelin-starred street food stall serving crispy, golden crab omelets.

When you are ready to escape: Make your way southeast toward Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand’s fifth biggest island popular for the all-night, free-spirited Full Moon Party that happens each month. But the island is not just for party-goers: Book a pool villa at the Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villas on the northeastern side of the island for a relaxing weekend, or spend your time in a charming seaside cabana at the Sea Love Bungalows. Sail Rock Divers curates diving and snorkeling trips for all levels, and you can easily beach-hop to Haad Rin, Haad Yuan, and Mae Haad, which connects the small marine park island Koh Ma through a narrow sandbank. To drink: head to the quirky, rustic One Love Bar in Haad Rin with a great cocktail menu.

India

Chennai and Goa

Shore Temple Garden in Chennai, India
Shore Temple Garden in Chennai, India
Image: Dhilip Sivaramakrishnan/Getty Images

The capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is often overlooked by travelers, but Chennai boasts striking temples, rich cuisines, and heritage mansions with distinct architecture incorporating courtyards, carved wooden doors, detailed entrances, and patterned handmade tiles. Book a tour with Five Senses Tours to walk through the city and explore Hindu temples like the Kapaleeswarar Temple or see how the classical Indian dance Bharatanatyam is performed while listening to a mix of historical and cultural tales tied to this art form. Meanwhile, Storytrails’ tours will take you through the city’s Christian influences and neo-Gothic architecture or introduce you to some local delicacies like vada, dosa, and idli, all with a Chennaite guide. To stay: Pick Leela Palace Chennai featuring an in-house walk exploring the art and antiques of the hotel.

When you are ready to escape: Consider a trip to Goa on the western Konkan coast of India. The Goan capital of Panjim is home to Fontainhas, the town’s Latin quarter and a UNESCO heritage site that’s filled with colorful historical buildings and century-old cafes like Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro. Move north to find Assagao, where the once sleepy streets are lined with charming cafes, bars, and restaurants like the local-run Sabor Cafe serving Goan-Portuguese snacks. Near Mojigao—a thematic eco-village housing a restaurant, library, yoga hall, and six luxury cottages—you’ll find SWAN Yoga Retreat offering tailored yoga and ayurveda getaways.

Nearby, North Goa beaches like Anjuna, Mandrem, and Arambol pack a hippie vibe, while Betalbatim to the south offers quiet and serenity. There, you can sunbathe on the beaches in Colva and Benaulim; sip feni, a local liquor, at the popular Martin’s Corner; and feast on a fluffy pancake brunch at Mon Petit Frère. Soul Travelling, an offbeat Goan tour operator, can arrange a culinary trail to feast on the state’s vegetarian delights. Must try: a local Goan thali meal at Vinayak Family Restaurant in Assagao.

Cambodia

Siem Reap & Koh Rong

Wooden boats on the beach on Koh Rong island, Cambodia
Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
Image: slavadubrovin/Getty Images

Intricate stone ruins of the 154-square-mile Angkor Archaeological Park alongside the main temple Angkor Wat are Siem Reap’s main tourist attractions, but the city is a great destination for food lovers too.

Once ruled by the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th century, Angkor Wat is best explored with a guided tour. Stay at the Villa Indochine D'angkor and set aside a day for a sunrise or sunset trip to the temples with Angkor Wat Travel Tour, who can also arrange a private multi-day tour to traverse the building complex. The tour company also takes guests to cooking sessions at a local’s home where you can prepare Khmer dishes like fish amok, a steamed fish curry, and tour the floating village on Cambodia’s largest lake, Tonlé Sap. While away the time at Pub Street, stop for drinks at the graffiti-filled Angkor What? bar, and visit the book-themed non-profit New Leaf Eatery to grab a read on Khmer history.

When you are ready to escape: Make a move to Koh Rong near the coastal city Sihanoukville for sandy beaches, dense tropical jungles, and waterfalls. You can laze in a hammock on Sok San Beach or Long Set Beach, join boat cruises, snorkel, dive, or go on a zip line tour at the High Point Adventure Park. Rest at a private island resort like Song Saa or travel south to find the smaller Koh Rong Sanloem Island, where you can soak up the sun at one of the secluded, eco-friendly bungalows at Bamboo Jam. To spend some time sampling Koh Rong’s culinary scene, head to the Italian Enocafe or the oceanfront Secret Garden Bar & Restaurant for great cocktails; it also houses eight charming bungalows right on the beach.

Malaysia

Penang and Langkawi

Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia
Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia
Image: Inti St Clair/Getty Images

Take a one-hour flight from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to Penang, a city known for its multicultural culinary delights and street food. Start with Sister Yao's Char Koay Kak—as the name suggests, this 50-year-old pushcart fixture run by three sisters dishes up char koay kak, a type of fried rice cake that can be tossed with duck eggs and served on a banana leaf. For a fun dining experience, stop by Ah Beng Lok Lok at the Padang Brown Food Court to try skewered food sticks dipped in a pot of steaming water—you can get pork liver, squid, shrimp, meatball, and mushroom skewers, among other foods.

Base yourself at the boutique Areca Hotel Penang, located in George Town, a UNESCO Heritage site with Instagram-famous street art, cafes, and colonial heritage buildings. After walking the streets, travel five miles south to Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Chinese Buddhist temple in Malaysia with various colorful pagodas and a towering statue of the mother-goddess Guanyin. Architecture lovers should also stop by the striking Blue Mansion owned by the businessman Cheong Fatt Tze which pays homage to Hakka and Teochew Chinese architectural styles.

When you are ready to escape: Head next door to Langkawi, an archipelago with 99 islands in the Andaman Sea. Go on the world’s steepest cable car ride located more than 2,000 feet above sea level at the Langkawi Sky Bridge, and watch the sunset on Pantai Cenang Beach. This sandy strip houses a clutch of restaurants, cafes, and boutiques, and—being a duty-free island—Langkawi is also one of the best places to shop for chocolates, wines, and sportswear in Malaysia. Every day of the week, the island also hosts night markets in different locations.

If you love adventure, Langkawi has 12 zip lines, and the longest of them opens to the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls nestled in the tropical jungle. Sea Splash Langkawi has many island cruises to choose from—you can opt for a sunset tour with views of the eagles fluttering across the nearby peaks, enjoy the seawater jacuzzi, and feast on a seafood dinner. After days full of activities, stay at the beachfront Four Seasons Langkawi or book yourself a cozy cottage at the Tanjung Rhu Village Villas & Cottages.

Zinara Rathnayake
Zinara Rathnayake is a travel, food and culture writer with bylines in New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Guardian and others. You can read her work here. She shares her travels on Instagram @zin10santafe.