From a vertical gondola ride in Singapore to Bangkok’s downtown forest park, seven new Southeast Asian tourist attractions
- Countries and businesses in Southeast Asia have new attractions for returning visitors, from a sculpture park in Da Nang, Vietnam to a theme park in Malaysia
- In Thailand, the dramatic 2018 rescue of children from a flooded cave is the subject of an exhibition in Chiang Rai, and Manila has a man-made beach
Local governments and businesses across Southeast Asia have been busy during the pandemic, opening all sorts of tourist attractions, from the green to the glam.
Benjakitti Forest Park, Bangkok, Thailand
It’s hard to believe I’m in downtown Bangkok. The mad traffic is absent, the city’s din is muted, its nest of skyscrapers is distant, and a flock of birds has just swooped over my head and landed in the wetland below my feet. Benjakitti Forest Park is borderline surreal and so welcome.
In the past few years, Bangkok has seen many unnecessary new shopping centres built, but what was desperately required was more parkland. Finally, this problem is being addressed. In December 2019, the Thai government launched the ambitious Green Bangkok project, under which a host of new green spaces have been opened during the pandemic.
The most valuable and impressive is the Benjakitti Forest Park. Located near the tourist neighbourhoods of Asoke and Nana, it is, at 72 hectares (178 acres), the city’s biggest park. Its finest feature is the sprawling wetland, which has attracted a significant population of birds already.
Visitors can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the area by walking the 1.6km (1 mile) elevated pedestrian bridge that snakes through the park and over the wetland habitat.
Saloma Link Bridge, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Malaysian capital has a trove of photogenic attractions, including the 452-metre Twin Towers, which dominate the skyline, the giant rainbow-coloured stairway that leads to the Batu Caves and the Islamic architecture of the National Mosque of Malaysia and Jamek Mosque.
With its hypermodern design and vibrant light displays, the Saloma Link Bridge became Instagram fodder soon after it opened in 2020. Intended to look like a Malay floral gift, the steel bridge has nine linked outer shells that together create a cover for this 69-metre-long pedestrian footbridge.
Spanning a river and an expressway, it offers a connection between KL’s modern downtown and one of its oldest, most traditional areas, Kampung Baru.
Built in the late 1800s, this Islamic neighbourhood is lined by palm trees, street stalls and stilted wooden homes.
APEC Sculpture Park, Da Nang, Vietnam
Although it’s easily the largest city on Vietnam’s central coast, Da Nang has been overshadowed, from a tourism perspective, by its neighbours Hue and Hoi An. Both of those cities boast major tourist draw cards: Hoi An has its photogenic Ancient Town and Hue its giant, walled Imperial City.
Da Nang had few notable attractions beyond its fine beaches. In recent years, however, the city authorities have aimed to fill this gap by creating modern landmarks that double as dazzling social media backdrops.
This includes the world’s fourth-largest Ferris wheel (reputedly), the Instagram-famous Golden Bridge, held by two giant hands, and now the APEC Sculpture Park.
In 2017, the park was a small sculpture garden alongside the Han River, 200 metres south of the city’s iconic Dragon Bridge. In January, following a 760 billion dong (US$30 million) extension, it reopened as a significant waterfront venue and attraction.
At its core is a visitor centre with great river views. This attractive building is covered in plants, surrounded by water features, complemented by a stage for public events and topped by a huge, striking rooftop sculpture designed to resemble a flying kite.
SkyHelix Sentosa, Singapore
Sentosa Island’s pretty beaches and lush countryside offer a reprieve from Singapore’s urban sprawl.
Now tourists can get an elevated view over the natural beauty of the city state.
SkyHelix Sentosa opened in December as Singapore’s highest open-air panoramic ride. Guests are seated in a gondola that is slowly lifted to a height of 79 metres.
During each 12-minute ride, which costs S$18 (US$13) for adults, the gondola gently rotates as it ascends, offering views of Singapore’s skyline and giant port, and the beaches and theme parks of Sentosa.
The SkyHelix is located at the northern end of this 4km-long island, near the popular Singapore Cable Car, which connects Sentosa with Mount Faber Park, a hilly park on the mainland 500 metres to the north.
Genting SkyWorlds Theme Park, Genting Highlands, Malaysia
Despite being just an hour’s drive north from Kuala Lumpur’s metropolitan area, the Genting Highlands look and feel much further away. Rising to an altitude of 1,800 metres, this former hill station is noticeably cooler, calmer and greener than KL. It’s cloaked in a dense rainforest that dates back more than 100 million years.
Contrasting the old with the new is Genting SkyWorlds, a US$800 million theme park that opened in February. This 10.5-hectare (26 acres), hilltop complex, which has 26 rides and attractions, represents a massive overhaul of the former 20th Century Fox World Malaysia park.
It is expected to become the second-most visited theme park in Southeast Asia, after Singapore’s Universal Studios, according to projections released by Malaysia’s Maybank investment firm.
At 189 ringgit (US$43) for a full-day adult ticket, Genting SkyWorlds is affordable when compared with the (US$89) tickets at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Tickets include unlimited rides and access to all nine of the theme park’s distinct “worlds”, such as a prehistoric precinct inspired by the Ice Age movie franchise and Eagle Mountain, a recreation of the Californian wilderness.
Thai cave rescue exhibition, Chiang Rai, Thailand
In 2018, global media swarmed into a remote Thai forest to report on a story that gripped the world, and has spawned a feature film, an upcoming Hollywood movie and Netflix series, as well as a defamation lawsuit against Elon Musk.
For 17 days, a dozen young footballers and their coach were trapped 4km inside the partially flooded Tham Luang cave, one of Thailand’s biggest, in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
After they were all safely led out by rescuers, two of whom died, the 13 survivors became celebrities and Tham Luang a tourist attraction.
Currently, visitors can venture 200 metres inside the 10km-deep Tham Luang cave system, following a recently extended trail that terminates at one of the chambers used as a base by the rescue divers.
From August, less adventurous tourists can inspect a 30-metre-long scale model of the cave. Part of a free exhibition about the rescue located near the mouth of Tham Luang, the model will be complemented by information boards that explain the story.
Baywalk Dolomite Beach, Manila, the Philippines
An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is understandably renowned for its beaches. Now tourists need not even leave Manila to enjoy a day on the sand.
The capital has engaging historical sites, magnificent churches, terrific shopping and diverse nightlife but, despite being next to the ocean, it’s never had a beach. That is, until ton upon ton of artificial dolomite sand was placed on the foreshore of Manila Bay in 2020, creating a clean artificial beach near Rizal Park, a key tourist attraction in the city.
Although it’s been closed on and off during the pandemic, the beach has proved enormously popular. Despite being only about 140 metres long, and less than 100 metres deep, it has at times attracted more than 100,000 visitors in a single day.
The crowds have since been curbed by a system that requires visitors to register online for a time slot. While tourists can laze about on the sand, they aren’t yet allowed to wade into the ocean. Manila authorities have announced plans to purify the water in the area to make it fit for swimming this year.