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Winners of 2023 Smart Travel Asia 20th Anniversary Best in Travel Poll


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Slow trains to nowhere, and the cheapest OTAs for 2023

Richard Barrow's excellent train journeys continue with detailed guides to rides within Thailand and on to Singapore or around Cambodia. Train pulls into Samut Sakhon (below/ photo: Richard Barrow).

Train pulls into Samut Sakhon Market - Photo: Richard Barrow

Singapore to Bangkok by train...

From indefatigable wanderer and train buff Richard Barrow, a series of Thailand train guides available as free PDFs. Accompanied by good photographs, timetables and useful tips, Barrow's guides include the much romanced Singapore-to-Bangkok train trip (in several sections as there is no single through train), northern 'rapid' routes, excursion trains, and the Mae Klong market run from Bangkok to Samut Sakhon and then, after a boat ride across the river, on to Samut Songhram. Writes Barrow: "Many people rave about the market on the train tracks in Samut Songkhram (Mae Klong) but I actually prefer the one in Samut Sakhon (Maha Chai) as it's more open and rarely has any tourists." The Singapore-Bangkok run can be done in four stages. Barrow did in a more leisurely five, preferring to take in the cities and sights along the way, including Johor Bahru, Gemas, Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth, Penang, and Padang Besar. More on SE Asian trains.

On 1 September 2023 Bhutan (above left, bhutan.travel/) brought the daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) fown to US$100. The levy is valid until September 2027. Young children get special concessions too. In early 2023 the government opted to drop all-inclusive tour fees (US$250) and began charging a flat US$200 per head for foreigners (with a special Rs1,200 rate for Indians). The freebie was over. Hotels and tour operators complained that this was killing tourism as foreigners now had to pay the $200 personal fee and fork out separately for hotels, transport, and meals. This resulted in the cut. Indians don't require a Bhutan visa. Maldivians and Bangladeshis are also exempt from visas. Meanwhile up in Nepal, an hour's drive from Kathmandu with grand panoramic mountain views, the Dusit Thani Himalayan Resort Dhulikhel (above right, www.dusit.com/dusitthani-himalayannepal/) opened in July 2023 bringing a fusion of Thai-Nepalese decor and service with an arsenal of wellness options, yoga, and space for a cosy wedding or a small corporate meeting.

Cheapest OTAs in 2023

OTAs with the best rates in 2023

The jury may be out on this but a flurry of reports are out naming the cheapest online travel agents (OTAs) around. So who were tops for 2023. As many as 39,679 hotel searches made by RatePunk users 1 January to 1 December 2023 were analyzed to toss up some interesting rankings. According to RatePunk (a travel tech start-up), Agoda had 47.3% of the best rate searches last year while Hotels.com weighed in second with 15.5%. while Expedia had 11.9%. RatePunk claims a user base of 140,000 travellers and it analysed data for eight selected companies to see how often the lowest rates popped up when searched by their users. The cheapest OTA in the US was Priceline and the best rates in Europe were provided by Agoda (with a smaller share of 37.6%). The cheapest OTA for all-inclusive resorts was also Agoda. According to RatePunk's findings, certain destinations had different OTAs offering the best rates - Maldives (Hotels.com), France (Priceline), Thailand (Agoda), and Brazil (Expedia).

Bhutan cuts visitor levies September 2023 Dusit Thani Himalayan Resort Dhulikhel Nepal

Just a short hop from striking Chapora Fort and the sun-soaked beaches of Chapora and Vagator, the new JW Marriott Goa (above left, www.marriott.com) is a high end bolthole that never forgets the family and kids. There's plenty of space to soak up all that energy and some great distractions for all ages. Expect a 24-hour fitness centre with a sweat-inducing sauna, spa treatments galore, steam baths, and more potions and lotions than you could shake a stick at. Look out for the 'Family by JW' programme at this hideaway that offers a customised experience, melding kids' activities and accommodation. Set in 30 hectares of beachfront, Alma (above right, www.alma-resort.com) serves up a 'Kids are King' deal featuring humungous suites (from 71sq m to 114sq m). The deal runs at US$240 per night for a five consecutive night stay before 31 December, 2023. Children can enjoy a 6,000sq m Splash Water Park with a wave pool and an 18-hole golf putting area. At the breakfast-anywhere-anytime Fusion Resort Cam Ranh (camranh.fusionresorts.com), children can pluck mangoes and learn about vegetables up close with tips on sustainable farming.

JW Marriott Goa Alma Cam Ranh - Splash Park for kids and summer deals

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Chedi Muscat