Christmas in Southeast Asia is fantastic. The Southeast Asian countries have embraced Christmas with a gusto that makes the region a wonderful destination for the festive season, especially for families. Here’s where to celebrate the festive season in style.
Christmas in Southeast Asia isn’t so different to Christmas in Australia, where we’re from, with the sunshine, blue skies and balmy temperatures – except the Southeast Asian countries are predominantly Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim with Christian minorities. Yet despite the differences in religion, the most tolerant Southeast Asian countries have embraced Christmas with a spirit and enthusiasm that makes the region a fun destination for the festive season, especially for families.
When we moved to Abu Dhabi in 1998, we didn’t expect to continue to celebrate Christmas and we didn’t mind – we were guests in a Muslim country. So we were stunned when December came and the malls erected colossal Christmas trees, shops decorated their windows with bunting and baubles, and my Emirati students gave me Christmas cards.
When we shifted our base to Thailand, a mostly Buddhist country, we were equally surprised when the Thais did the same. Then there was Vietnam – that’s the old town of Hanoi, pictured above, where we spent the 2012 Christmas – where they seemed to relish the holiday even more. Locals especially loved dressing little kids up in Santa costumes.
Here in Cambodia, where the population is predominantly Buddhist, many of the Angkor temples began life as Hindu places of worship, and there’s also a Muslim minority, and a tiny percentage of Christians, it’s no different. One of the favourite past-times of locals right now is going out in the evenings to the big hotels on National Highway 6 to photograph the family with Santa riding his reindeer-led slay through the snow or one of the nativity scenes that the hotels have set up on their lawns and driveways.
You’ve got to love Cambodians. They love a party and will take advantage of any opportunity to get together with family and friends and enjoy their time. After all, this is a country where they celebrate not one, but three new years – the Western New Year, Chinese New Year, and Khmer New Year. And many other Southeast Asian countries are the same.
A lot of travellers seem to be booking last minute holidays this year. I’ve had a number of readers ask me in recent days where they should spend Christmas in Southeast Asia. These are the best destinations as far as we’re concerned, especially if you’re with family or a group of friends – they’re places that embrace the holiday with spirit, partly because they have substantial expat populations and partly because they’re destinations notable for their openness and hospitality.
As you’ll still be seeing the sights and you can find inspiration and information for things to do under each destination on the menu bar, above, I’ve focused here on the best hotels to spend Christmas in Southeast Asia – the hotels that have made an effort to create a festive atmosphere for their guests. While we normally concentrate on small boutique hotels, most of them are already fully booked so your best bet are the big luxury hotels. Can’t afford to stay? Then consider their Christmas Eve dinners and Christmas lunches.
Christmas in Southeast Asia
Christmas in Hanoi
If we had to pick one city to celebrate Christmas in Southeast Asia it would be Hanoi in Northern Vietnam and the hotel we’d pick would be the beautiful French-colonial Hotel Metropole in Hanoi. They are very festive there this year, too, with a soaring 15-metre Christmas tree that has been erected on the hotel’s rooftop garden, Le Balcon, and illuminated with more than 50,000 lights and decorated with over 1,250 Vietnamese conical hats. There’s a life-sized gingerbread house at L’Epicerie du Metropole, where guests can also purchase gourmet gifts, including foie gras, Fine de Claire oysters, and the pastry chef’s piece de resistance apparently – a traditional French Christmas log cake or Buche de Noel. There will be a choir in the lobby on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and five special Christmas Eve dinners and Christmas day buffets and dinners at its different restaurants.
Christmas in Siem Reap
Our own Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia is another fantastic place to celebrate Christmas in Southeast Asia. The majestic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is festooned in green and red garlands, the frangipani trees are illuminated by fairy lights, and the fragrant scent of their Christmas fir tree has been permeating the lobby since its lighting ceremony earlier this month – accompanied by a choir singing carols. The pastry team have created a beautiful gingerbread piece for the lobby. There will be a Christmas Eve Gala dinner and a Christmas brunch on Christmas Day at Café d’Angkor and Le Grand Restaurant. Expect a sumptuous buffet and free flow beverages from 12pm-3pm for US$90. Add $30 for a bottle of Mumm Champagne.
Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel is a hip little mid-range boutique hotel with 25 spacious rooms and a retro-chic tropical feel, with colourful murals enlivening the walls. Family-owned, the hotel is renowned for its hospitality and you can experience that at their poolside annual Christmas Eve barbecue, open to guests and visitors, on Sunday 24 December (6-9pm). Expect a fantastic spread by their talented young head chef Hoyha, including a range of vegan options and treats for kids. Baby Elephant is beloved by Siem Reap expats for everything from their regular yoga classes to their arty vibe thanks to their resident artist programme. The latest artists to settle in have been a muralist and jeweller, who crafts bespoke jewellery in Khmer calligraphy. You won’t have to go far for Christmas presents! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to make bookings.
If you’re holidaying in Siem Reap and putting together a Christmas Day picnic try PARIS Bakery on Wat Bo Road (corner Street 26) for Christmas log cakes; they also have a deli counter with charcuterie and cheeses, and, of course, authentic French baguettes.
Christmas in Phnom Penh
The elegant Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia‘s capital, is our next pick of hotels in the country to celebrate Christmas in Southeast Asia. They are doing a similar thing to Siem Reap, above. They also welcomed the festive season with the lighting of their enormous Christmas tree in the hotel lobby on the first day of December. For our American readers: it’s an 11-foot Noble Fir, imported from Oregon. Gluhwein is already being served in the lobby and the conservatory and there’ll be a Christmas Eve Dinner and Christmas Day Brunch. Santa will attend both. They also promise Christmas stockings with special treats for guests at the hotel and a special Christmas turndown service at both hotels.
Christmas in Bangkok
In Thailand, Bangkok’s historic Mandarin Oriental Bangkok has been decorated with glittering lights and sparkling baubles and a magnificent Christmas tree designed by the hotel’s very own Floral Ambassador fills the lobby. All of the hotel’s restaurants and bars are doing something special for the festive season. Our picks: the Christmas Eve Buffet Dinner (and fireworks!) at The Riverside Terrace overlooking the Chao Phraya River, a seven-course gourmet meal at Michelin two-starred Le Normandie by Chef De Cuisine Arnaud Dunand Sauthier, or an Italian-style Christmas Eve Dinner at Ciao Terrazza, with views of the river and the handsome Authors Wing. On Christmas Day, there’s a French Christmas feast at Le Normandie. Santa will apparently be in Bangkok also.
Christmas in Yangon
The Strand is one of the loveliest of Southeast Asia’s historic grand hotels and I’m told it’s looking even lovelier after a major renovation. We’ve not yet been since the spruce up, but we’ll update you when we do get back. Christmas celebrations at The Strand are taking place on Christmas Eve with a choir in the lobby where mulled wine will be served from 7-8.30 pm, Christmas Happy Hour in the Strand Bar from 7-11 pm, and a 5-course dinner at The Grill restaurant from 6.30-10pm for US$75 per person. Santa’s going to be at The Strand too apparently… hmmm, he’s getting around, isn’t he?