Jason’s Lounge Perches: Southeast Asia’s Chilled Lounges 2018
The beauty of Southeast Asia is both in its contradictions and variety, from fancy rooftop bars to chill, pared-down cliff-top perches. After extensive, err, research and exploration, at least over the past few months, my little compilation here should satiate that desire to find the next ‘hidden’ spot.
I have actively sought out out-of-the-way places or relatively new openings that encapsulate the destination’s many facets, and could, potentially, be a destination bar in its own right.
Paradise Bar, Labuan Bajo, Flores
If there was every an unassuming with a slightly hyperbolic name which lives up to its name, then the Paradise Bar in Labuan Bajo on the Indonesian island of Flores would fit the bill. Perched on a cliff a little out of town (if we can call Labuan Bajo a town), this random bar away from the main drag of backpacker hostels, dive shacks and basic bars is a welcome respite.
Best approached on foot from the main quay of town, a short 10 minute hike up the slope will lead you to a beautiful terrace tucked away behind dense foliage. You could always take your motorbike up, but where is the fun in whizzing past the nice little atmospheric villages?
Inside, the terrace captures you immediately. There is an unobstructed view of Labuan Bajo harbour, as far as the eye can see, with islands dotting the foreground with the endless Java Sea ahead.
The sunset at 6pm will certainly remind you why you would not mind being stuck in the middle of nowhere. With a cool drink, good cheap prices (though still relatively more expensive than the USD1 beer in town), this spot is a good place to unwind after a day of island safari or just to continue on chilling after a day on the sea, be it for sunset or the twilight hours.
I would be remiss to tell you that the street can get dark after sunset, so be mindful!
Atmosphere: Open, wide terrace, with unobstructed views of the harbour, islets and islands, with a very chilled crowd. Primarily travellers.
Drinks: drinkable cocktails and basic beer
Price Point: Agreeable prices for an out-of-the-way destination. USD 5 drink
Feel: Relaxed atmosphere, primarily tourists, good place to chill on a lazy late afternoon
Address: Jalan Bingkom, Labuan Bajo, Manggarai Barat, Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia
Tel: +62 823 3935 4854
SOHY, Ho Chi Minh City
As befitting a rising Southeast Asian city, Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as I occasionally call her, now has a few rooftop perches of pretty good standing, like every other major Southeast Asian city.
However, unlike KL’s occasional live band Helipad, Jakarta’s musically pared down Cloud Lounge or Bangkok’s posh yet accessible CRU Champagne Bar, Saigon’s SOHY has found a way to combine fine dining with rave club, with a touch of beach bar. But for the stunning view of Saigon from the terraces, one would be forgiven if you thought you were at Potato Head in Bali.
With 3 floors to choose from, starting with an open terrace with hard house, to fine dining Italian on the second floor and a champagne bar on the top terrace, SOHY, with Shree just one terrace down, has made Saigon’s Centec Tower in to a Hanging Garden of Nightlife.
While the view is stunning, the music good, and the crowd young and upwardly mobile, the one drawback I found was that it opens pretty late: 6pm late, which barely gives you time to enjoy the sunset with a sundowner while watching the sun descend over the Mekong Delta, with the skyscrapers of Saigon a symbol of where this rising Asian power wants to be.
The beauty of this spot: it could easily be one of the destination bars of Southeast Asia, coming hot on the heels of the sky-high bars of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, with a skyline to boot.
Atmosphere: Beach bar meets cosmopolitan warm-up nightclub. A little posh, yet very accessible. I came up with shorts.
Drinks: Impressive cocktail selection, go for the espresso martini, not half bad.
Price Point: Average price compared to ‘grounded’ Southeast Asian bars at USD 6/+.
Feel: I want to say trust-fund babies. Mostly locals, not many tourists or expats, yet.
Address: Centec Tower Rooftop, 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Tel: +84-90 299 9888
Horizon Bar, Ritz Carlton Langkawi
Like SOHY, this is a fairly new addition to the drinking roster in Southeast Asia, having opened in Q4 2017. However, it was worth the wait, personally. Located within the expansive grounds of the Ritz Carlton Langkawi, Horizon Bar is one of two seaside bars on the property. While The Bar at The Grill is closer to the water, Horizon Bar lives up to its name, with the bar perched on the rocks above the crashing waves below.
Now, this bar is, in one word, posh. Like, very posh. Sure, it is best to be there in standard resort uniform of white linen shirt and swim shorts but do remember this is very much a jet-set bar. Having said that, just swipe your card and remember, ‘you are on holiday.’
With the seating area shared with the adults pool, but designed with privacy in mind, you are both seen by the crowd yet tucked away at the same time. The outdoor bar area is split over a few steps, with one narrow terrace meant for couples fronting the sea, a super bar with unobstructed views of the sea right behind that, a seating area for groups behind that, a larger ‘single group area’ to one side and the covered bar at the back. This is a bar to see, be seen yet stay hidden in.
The signature drinks menu is bespoke, but the bartender can make most standard cocktails with competency. The view at sunset, weather permitting, is divine, with nothing obscuring you. The buggy is always a 5-10 minute call away.
Atmosphere: Posh. Like, understated posh. A few statement pieces, but the bar is, on the whole, minimalist. Why add distractions when the sunset is the main show? All seats are oriented to the sunset.
Drinks: Decent cocktail selection and wine list.
Price Point: I will not lie. Posh. Just swipe and do not think.
Feel: Uber luxury resort, where the uniform is designer swimwear and white button-downs.
Address: The Ritz-Carlton Langkawi, Jalan Pantai Kok, Teluk Nibung, Langkawi, Malaysia
Tel: +60-04 952 4888
Bangkok Penthouse Park Hyatt
On a few trips to Bangkok, whenever I chill by the hotel pool, I will always hear a conversation that goes along the lines of this:
“Oh, which rooftop bar should we go to in Bangkok?”
“There are a million here. I don’t think I can tell them apart.”
Having said that, the Terrace at the Penthouse, Park Hyatt Bangkok, has her own charm that does put her at a different position than the others. For starters, the Terrace at the Penthouse is part of a 3-floor food and beverage destination that is more intimate than your standard massive destination rooftop restaurants. If the woody private bar atmosphere of the Bar at the Penthouse is not to your liking, head up pass the mezzanine to the Terrace for, well, a Penthouse view of Bangkok.
The Penthouse at the Park Hyatt was designed like a well-travelled, seasoned urban professional. His paraphernalia includes a classic motorcycle at the Dining Room entrance, his love of classic rock and motorcycle goggles, and a few choice pieces of furniture form his travels. Head up to his Terrace, and it feels like someone’s terrace, albeit done up for a large number of his friends.
The view is good, looking eastwards along Sukhumvit Road, and north/south along Wireless/Witthayu Road. You do not get perfect views of the sunset, but you get a cosy atmosphere, with a well-appointed outdoor bar and cosy furniture.
Best of all, it is not overwhelmingly large, and as it does not have the ‘star’ appeal or large-scale capacity of Sirocco, Vertigo or Red Sky, the intimate atmosphere will make it a nice spot for sundowners after a day of exploring, business dealing or simply lazing by the pool.
Atmosphere: Chestnut and oak wood panels give this a very masculine feel, with clean lines, simple minimalist decoration and comfy sofas
Drinks: Good cocktail and wine selection. I am a big fan of their vodka martinis
Price Point: Average by Bangkok rooftop bar standards. THB 400+/drink.
Feel: Your fancy friend’s rooftop terrace extension, with ample space to laze around. The chairs are that comfortable.
Address: 34th floor, Park Hyatt Bangkok, 88 Wireless Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Tel: +66 2 012 1234
Nearest Station: Ploen Chit BTS Station
Smoke & Mirrors, Singapore
Singapore is one of those cities that just ooze urban vistas. This city state has a dense, unique skyline, and has an array of rooftop bars to cater to the discerning traveller in search of a watering hole. One of the more laid back places in the middle of all the fancy action, however, is located at the National Gallery Singapore’s terrace, and is, personally, home to one of the more stunning views of the city.
Located on the roof terrace of the ‘Court House’ wing of the National Gallery Singapore, this chic, understated and thankfully not overcrowded bar, has stunning vistas of Marina Bay, the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Place CBD towers, all while you are surrounded by the tamed greenery Singapore of noted for.
Smoke & Mirrors brands and positions itself as a destination bar, and while every other rooftop bar in Singapore (and Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok and Jakarta) likes to make that claim as well, this one deserves the moniker. The views are unparalleled and service adequate.
The feel of this bar is casual chic, with a very urban professional vibe. Not as many tourists as the other, more famous rooftop bars in Singapore, and the prices are reasonable (by Singapore standards). Try their mango beer: it comes from a micro-brewery in Jakarta and is perfect for those steamy, tropical evenings.
Atmosphere: Brushed stainless steel and marble panels, minimalist chic to not distract you from the view outside. Very upwardly mobile urban professional.
Drinks: Interesting cocktail and beer selection. I highly recommend the mango beer.
Price Point: Reasonable (and lower) than standard Singapore rooftop bar standards. SGD 15+/drink.
Feel: A rooftop ‘resort-style’ terrace. Just add swimming pool and you would think you were at a fancy urban resort.
Address: #06-01, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore
Tel: +65 9234 8122
Nearest Station: City Hall MRT Station
What is my criteria?
In 2016/17, I was involved in a fairly large World Bank project involving Indonesia, and it was during this particular sojourn where I discovered the beauty of Komodo. While I have heard of the islands and its reptilian residents, it was only after this project when I suddenly got the call. In the grand scheme of ‘calling’ and my actual ‘action,’ this was definitely one of the fastest I have ever ‘implemented.’
The Spice Islands
Komodo is the main island within the Komodo National Park area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its world renown, it is still relatively untouched, all for the better. To get to the site, there is the usual ‘cruise from Lombok’ option, or for those with a rush, the ‘fly to Flores’ option, which personally, introduces you to the Spice Islands and the Pacific Ring of Fire first hand.
The most realistic option getting to Flores, named so because the Portuguese were spellbound by its beauty, is from Jakarta, where regular direct and connecting flights are available. Arrival in Komodo Airport is an experience in itself, as you pass volcanoes in the middle of the sea, or stunning landmasses amidst the deepest blue.
On arrival in Flores, and specifically Labuan Bajo, the sense of ‘island-life’ and ‘rustic idyll’ permeates, as there is no true ‘town centre,’ especially considering that this location is essentially a fishing village which relies on the tourism and fishing industry. You would want it that way, as what better way to relax than having a nice drink overlooking the bay, with good fresh seafood from the fishermen and vendors who give you a fair price?
The primary reason most travellers come by to this relatively remote part of Southeast Asia, are for the komodo dragons, islands and diving. While regrettably I did not have enough time for diving (as I need a refresher after 3 years of not diving), I did make sure I had enough time for dragons, islands and beaches.
There are a number of operators that do island safaris from Labuan Bajo, some on speedboats, some on dive boats, some on liveaboards, some on cruisers and some on fantastic yachts. I opted for a liveaboard. While not as fast as some of the dive boats or speedboats, I did have the whole boat to myself, with the only noise being the waves crashing against the bow. The speedboats on the other hand sounded like 10 Harley Davidsons with loudspeakers.
Most operators conducting day trips would suggest Komodo Island or Rinca Island as part of the itinerary, with a stop at Padar Island. While on maps, the islands look relatively close by, the straits that separate these islands are at the confluence of the Java Sea and Indian Ocean, and currents can be strong, especially between Rinca and Padar Islands.
I went with Komodo Transportation and Travel, a local outfit with a fantastic guide, who made my private tour really something. My boat, the aptly named ‘Traveller,’ was the perfect vessel, being a liveaboard, and having the capacity for 14 people. Yes, a boat for 14 guests and I was the only one.
As smaller, faster boats passed us, I lazed on the sundeck, with drink in hand, book by my side, sunscreen on the ready. We passed small fishing communities and wildlife on the islands as we cruised towards Padar Island, that large island between Rinca and Komodo, and where those stunning travel photos are usually taken.
The cruise, like all seabourne journeys, is subject to the currents, and while the first 2 hours from Labuan Bajo to the tip of Rinca were smooth sailing, the crossing between Rinca to Padar did get rough at times. If you are ever contemplating squeezing in Komodo’s Pink Beach, Padar Island, Rinca Island and Kelor Island, that would be almost impossible. It is either Komodo or Rinca, one cannot do both in a day cruise.
Green Hills & Gaping Thrills
Padar Island is worth the stop, if only for the summit climb. The beauty of being on my larger but slower boat, as that by the time we berthed at harbour, the larger tour groups were descending, meaning I had the summit walks mostly to myself. The mostly barren, steep island with sheltered beaches and coves makes it a magical site, with unobstructed views of Komodo and Rinca islands.
Rinca Island is one of two sites within the Komodo National Park where you can view the fabled komodo dragons safely. While Komodo Island is a spot where you are assured of sightings due to the dragons being used to humans, Rinca Island is a good spot to see the dragons in their natural habitat.
After a short walk from berth to park headquarters, pass low-lying flat lands and mangroves and the occasional buffalo, you will be mesmerized by the rolling hills of Rinca, resembling pastoral New Zealand than tropical Indonesia.
The 1.5 hour walk, with our park ranger, resulted me in counting at least 16 dragons. Yes. 16 dragons, from 2 baby dragons, to countless larger dragons underneath the kitchen giving a Japanese TV crew quite the fright, to a dragon guarding her nest to my favourite: dragon lazing on top of the hill, under a gazebo, monarch of all he surveys.
From Rinca, we made our way to Kelor Island, the final stopover before Labuan Bajo, and a frequent spot for snorkelling, kayaking, SUP-ing or a climb to the summit for a fantastic view.
Due to time constraints, I had to pass on the evening bat exodus, but time flies when you are having fun on a cruise.
View from Paradise
Despite the rural idyll, Labuan Bajo is a tourist town, but not in the veins of San Sebastian, Ubud or Queenstown. Prices are reasonable and the locals, on a whole, do not attempt to make a quick buck from travellers. The bars are good, the restaurants serve fresh fish and everything is mostly walking distance.
One of these spots, a bit off-centre, is Paradise Bar, which lives up to its name at sunset. Cool beach-house beats play, with a wide terrace overlooking Labuan Bajo, the bays, islands and sea beyond. Drinks are reasonably priced, and for the sunset views, worth the steep hike up.
La Pirate, a sister property of La Pirate in Bali, has a lovely rooftop terrace and bar, with an infinity pool overlooking the harbour. The drinks are pretty good too, and it’s a nice spot for a late lunch.
The stalls of the night markets along the seashore, where the fishermen dock and unload their catch, is an excellent site for good, cheap seafood in the evenings, frequented by locals and tourists alike. No overpriced fish for tourists and reasonable prices for locals here: it is very egalitarian.
For something posh, Atlantis on the Rocks at the Plataran Komodo, is without a doubt, a good escape from the world. Taking a car (or in my case, a motorcycle) along narrow roads, looking down at steep cliffs, rolling mountains, crystal clear seas to my left and right while riding on the saddle of a mountain, makes the journey (and the drink) worthwhile.
Komodo Travel & Transportation
I used Komodo Travel & Transportation, and Ali is a fantastic guide. His boat, the ‘Traveller’, is apt for those who want to rekindle that romance of travel. www.komodotraveller.com
Komodo National Park Fees
Weekdays: IDR 295,000 (trekking) IDR 310,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
and on Sundays/Public Holidays: IDR 370,000 (trekking) IDR 385,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
Times to visit:
Peak – April to October, as the monsoon is less prominent, and particularly busy during the dry months of July to September, when komodo dragons are out and about and the sea is more agreeable.
Off-Peak – October to December is a decent time to visit: weather is not as hot, the sites are not crowded and the komodo dragons are still around, as they tend to hide when the storms roll in from December onwards.
Jason’s Essay: Adventures in Review
The past year has been a very interesting year for travel, personally. Scaled up challenging peaks for one of the most spectacular views, sought shelter in an old lava tube amidst near freezing temperatures and played the explorer while on an island safari. While travel teaches us much, it is also a very good mirror held up to ourselves.
Target missed, experienced gained
If I were to pick one lesson as a highlight, then the climb up Mt Merapi in February 2017 would be a master class. I did not really plan for the climb until about 4 weeks before my trip. When I did finally book it, I had 3 weeks to prepare. Preparation is not the lesson here, but making the best of unforeseen circumstances.
Whenever I post on Instagram or here, or even on Facebook, I seem to project the image that everything goes according to plan. No hiccups, all targets achieved. This ascent up Mt Merapi would be a class to remind myself that not everything is within our control.
For 3 weeks I ran hill-sprints and focused my training regime on building my legs. At the eve of my trip, I felt as ready as I could ever be with such short training. The competitor within channelled my inner mountain athlete as on the day itself, I held my own with the front of the pack, keeping good pace and navigating the rocky terrain.
I had my own mission: to reach the top in a very respectable, preferably top percentile range. The mountain, on the other hand, had a lesson in store for me. Winds howled, sleet rain splattered on my face, cloud covered the last 1km of the summit. The benign weather in the day time turned in to a tempest by nightfall.
We never reached the summit, only the last checkpoint before we were told we could not proceed any further. The pain of being stuck in an old lava tube, cold, wet and shivering, trying to find a way to stay warm, as fellow hikers who were used to sub-arctic temperatures complained about the cold, suddenly felt like a further blow.
Yet, it was the experience, the possibility for me to relay this story of defeat instead of the usual tales of conquest, which brought a smile to my face as we descended. While 2 other hikers realized this lesson too, a few others did not take heart, and trodded down with disappointment.
Yes, we travelled far, we brought fancy kit, we trained as much as we can, but it is from the unexpected, the defeats, the targets missed, which remind us of why we travel: we make the best of it.
From uncertainty, jubilation
It was the lesson from the mountain that kept me going, hoping against hope, but to revel in what is to come, regardless of the outcome, as the weather turned for the worse as I was on an expedition to the Mulu Pinnacles in June 2017.
Heavy downpour the night before my hike to Camp 5 made me question if it was possible. The clear weather on the hike brought hope, but the weather the evening before the morning climb, brought a literal dampener.
We were informed that even the slightest hint of rain in the morning would mean that our climb would have to be cancelled. All our expectations, our hopes, our desire to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site hinged on the weather. Come what may, I had a fun hike and boat ride, enjoying drinks by the crystal-clear stream.
Come morning, the weather was absolutely perfect. Clear skies, hardly a cloud in sight, with Venus lighting the way. The realization that I could ascend up the peaks to view the Pinnacles, brought a cautious optimism.
My annoying competitive side within saw me once again be right behind my guide, who happened to be lead guide. A few slippery stones made me cautious, the slightly wet ladders and ropes heightened my awareness. Then, once at the top, passing a crevice, with cuts and bruises on my shins and knees, I heard my guide call out: last ladder and you’re done.
And indeed, at the top, I had the whole view to myself. I was mentally prepared to be disappointed, but having achieved this, the climb and view of the Pinnacles, I was in jubilation. The mini bottle of champagne waiting at Camp 5 was worth it. The realization of uncertainty of a trip, once achieved, makes the experience even more jubilant.
Experiences to talk about
The fine balance of uncertain possibilities to see the sights against the anticipation of expectation is something you will experience as you travel, and is something that shapes your outlook on your journey. Cautiously optimistic is personally better than the expectation of perfect sights.
It was this lesson that closed my 2017 adventures. I went to Komodo National Park, hoping to see dragons in December 2017. First, the eruption of Mt Agung on Bali island brought a standstill to my flight plans. Then, a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean brought about uncertain weather, yet I still wanted to go. The islands called me.
I made my booking, I liaised with my expedition team, and they advised that yes, my private boat can be arranged, and yes, my desired stops can be placed in the itinerary, but no, I cannot be guaranteed all the stops I wanted. Ocean currents and weather were both to play a role in affecting my trip.
Yet on the day itself, the weather was perfect, the ocean currents agreeable, clouds made the heat somewhat bearable and the dragons came out to play. I cruised the islands on my little island safari, seeing stunning islands, rugged hills and wildlife in their natural habitat, all while playing an explorer who finally visited Jurassic Park.
This expedition to end the 2017 season was apt: I prepared as much as I could, being cautiously optimistic and reminded myself that not everything will go according to plan. I left my travel fate to the gods, but I did as much as I could to improve the likelihood of the situation.
When the sights was seen, and the experienced surpassed expectations, the feeling was surreal. Do not set your expectations on too low a bar: just remember that life always finds a way…finds a way to both amuse you and annoy you, to impress on you. And of course, make the best of any experience!
Happy travels in 2018! Here’s to more adventures!
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.