Bangkok to Tokyo: A Luxury Journey Through Diverse Asia, Hassle-Free

By Brian Johnston

The fishing port of Nha Trang, Vietnam. Credit: Getty Images
The fishing port of Nha Trang, Vietnam. Credit: Getty Images
A leisurely luxury journey from Bangkok to Tokyo highlights all the diversity of Asia while avoiding all of its travel tribulations.

At Laem Chabang port outside Bangkok, sunlight semaphores off the roofs of factory-fresh cars, and cranes claw at the blinding sky. In this setting, my sleek white cruise ship looks like a mirage in the tropical heat.

Soon I’m absorbed into the air-conditioned comfort of Seven Seas Explorer. I’m shown to my tranquil stateroom, elegant in cream and blue with silken curtains that shimmer like a peacock’s feathers, and a potted orchid pink and graceful as a ballet dancer. My walk-in wardrobe is the size of Narnia. I unpack for the last time in 16 days: no dragging a suitcase around any more. Then the engines rumble and we glide off to explore Asia in style.

Variety is one of the many delights of this cruise. Over the next two weeks, we’re on tiny Thai island Koh Kut; then in booming Vietnamese city Nha Trang; then spending a day sailing the silvery South China Sea. Chefs in white hats serve up a brunch buffet fit for Emperor Nero: honey-roasted hams, grilled fish, Black Angus short ribs, omelettes studded with truffle, and a madness of cakes that are alternatively bursting with cream, molten chocolate or caramelised pineapple.

The gold-toned Atrium on Seven Seas Explorer features a stunning chandelier. Credit: RSSC

Seven Seas Explorer carries 746 guests in beautiful splendour. A cruise line that claims to have “the world’s most luxurious fleet” might be accused of immodesty or exaggeration, but RSSC delivers. Every inch of this ship’s interior is lovely, from plush sofas to artworks, inlaid marble floors to chandeliers like contemporary works of art that put a crick in my neck. Just walking through this ship is an endless pleasure.

Besides that, the extravagant, all-inclusive food is the best at sea. Guests can breakfast on champagne, lunch on foie gras, and overindulge on lobster for dinner if they so desire. One night I’m tucking into French cuisine in chic Chartreuse restaurant, the next Italian at Sette Mari, and after that it’s off to the speciality grill for prime aged steak with splendid sides of sunset over the ocean.

Sailing into Coron in the Philippines is one of cruising’s great arrivals. Its bays are brilliant blue framed in jungle-green islands. As I pace the deck, strange humps of rock lurch like illustrations from a Dr Seuss story. The day is spent puttering around in a jaunty wooden boat, snorkelling amid a kaleidoscope of fish, then a lazy lunch on a white cuticle of beach before snorkelling again.

Manila the next day is hot, cacophonous and concrete – but lively, fun and full of history, too. I like its languid river breezes, its parks that sprout with green tropical intensity, and its collision of skyscrapers and crumbling colonial villas. And who doesn’t like a city where cultures blend? In Manila, everything from the language to the food is peppered with Filipino, Spanish, American and Chinese influences.

RSSC provides plenty of shore-excursion choices. I’ve visited Manila before, so avoid the standard tour of Intramuros old town, and instead pick one that starts in Chinatown, probably the world’s oldest. Streets are jammed with tea houses, pawn shops, jewellery stores and bakeries selling yam buns and mooncakes. The ornate Chinese cemetery has remarkable mansion-sized mausoleums – some air-conditioned – and tombs writhing in dragons and incense smoke.

We finish the afternoon in sprawling Rizal Park, where locals picnic, ballroom dance and fly kites. The day has provided a snapshot of energetic, friendly Manila without the hassle. Seven Seas Explorer, spotlessly polished and peaceful, is an elegant retreat as the day ends. In hot, crowded places it’s wonderful at day’s end to be back in the oasis of calm and order that is my suite. And everywhere on the ship, polite crew cater to my every trivial whim. Yes, I would love my minibar stocked with gin, my fries sprinkled with truffle salt, and my lamb rump cooked just the way I like it.

Seven Seas Explorer. Credit: RSSC

Treasures of Taiwan 

The ship sails as the sun stains Manila’s waterfront orange, turning its rusty industrial buildings into an alluring Impressionist painting. I fall asleep in my beautiful stateroom on a bed that feels like a cloud, and next morning a champagne and caviar breakfast is served on the open deck of La Veranda restaurant as we surge across the Philippine Sea.

For some guests, a day at sea is time to wallow in the spa; for others, the chance to visit the Culinary Arts Kitchen for a cooking lesson. As for me, I’m content to gaze from the infinity pool off to the horizon beyond the ship’s stern, and later to wander into the Meridian Lounge for afternoon tea: yuzu lime éclair, waffles, strawberry cream cake and French apple tart.

A new city awaits. Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan happily relieves me of big-city sightseeing, leaving me to enjoy its working-port energy and arty urban charms. Streets are wide and leafy, promenades flank the Love River, and the former warehouses of harbourside Pier-2Art Center have been taken over by galleries and giant pop-art sculptures.

Deeper into the city, two lurid pavilions sit in a lake and are reached by a zigzag bridge. Entering one temple through the mouth of a giant dragon, and leaving the other through the mouth of a tiger, is said to bring good fortune. Yet good fortune is already mine on this fabulous ship, whose sophisticated opulence is matched by informality: a place for relaxation, not pretension.

I enjoy listening to Seven Seas Explorer’s guest speakers, who give lectures on Taiwanese history and Japanese culture. I like its shore excursions, arranged so that I often have time for extra exploration by myself afterwards. And what’s not to like about Coffee Connection? Smiling Burmese waiters serve proper coffee and chocolate croissants in this onboard café, while I gaze over the railings as the next port looms.

The following day we’re in Keelung, Taipei’s port town, where a tour takes me to the National Palace Museum and I goggle at 5,000 years of bronzes and jade, ceramics and scroll paintings. Then in another wonderful quick-change of cruising, all I have to do is splash in the swimming pool, enjoy crab cakes and New York strip steak in Prime 7 restaurant, and fall asleep in my stateroom to find myself transported to Kagoshima in Japan.

JAPANese Tranquility

I like Kagoshima. It’s an overlooked but relaxed, somewhat old-fashioned city that I might never have thought to visit if it weren’t for this cruise. It has an agreeable everyday feel, with its clothes stores and noodle shops and little gardens where carp gulp in ponds. It also has a serious volcano sitting right across its generous bay, which regularly burps plumes of smoke and sprinkles ash on footpaths.

The volcano’s cone is a grand silhouette against a pink sky from the ship’s Observation Lounge as we sail away to civilised cocktails and a grand piano’s tinkle. A plume of smoke gives a last salute from its summit. Then I’m off to Pacific Rim restaurant for a scrumptious meal to celebrate Japan: indulgent crab and lobster tempura with wasabi mayonnaise, a sashimi platter, pickled cucumber and seaweed salad, a sensational chunk of miso black cod. This might be the best restaurant on board, beautifully decorated with an understated, contemporary Asian theme, and with impeccable service from its all-female waiters.

Next day, Kochi is filled with provincial pleasantries. High on a hill, Makino Botanic Garden flushes with blossoms, and below the time-warped pagoda of Chikurin-ji Temple rises amid pine trees. Little stone statues in red bonnets sit under maple trees and, beneath a bodhisattva of wisdom, university students pray for success in their exams. Later, down in town, I explore busy shopping streets around a samurai castle.

Skyline of Kobe, Japan from the port.

Kobe is a key port call on this journey thanks to its proximity to Kyoto, Japan’s temple-strewn ancient capital. We have two days here, leaving time for me to explore Kobe itself, too. The 19th-century villas of European traders sit above the city; below is another international influence, Chinatown, crammed with young folk eating dumplings and red-bean buns. The whole city is jam-packed with people plundering shopping arcades, eating beef from smoking griddles, and strolling the waterfront. Kobe is a place to make you smile.

Our last stop is Shimizu. As Seven Seas Explorer sails out of port towards its final destination of Tokyo, Mt Fuji is a woodcut-perfect cone rising against pine trees to a snow-capped summit. You can see how this extraordinary mountain inspires worship. The sight pins me to the deck as daylight fades. I’d never see this sight from the road or railway, and certainly not with this style and ease. From the sea, Asia looks different, and always makes you marvel.

Smart Tip: Cooking skills

The Culinary Arts Kitchen curriculum on board Seven Seas Explorer was developed by chef Kathryn Kelly, who has travelled the world, tasting and exploring the many different cuisines and the cultures that create them.  Choose from courses such as Anytime Brunch Favourites, La Technique Francaise, Bounty of the Sea, and A Taste of Spain.

To learn more about the Seven Seas Explorer, visit the Regent Seven Seas website:


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