Low-fare Asia

Andrew Rowat

a waitress

Low-cost airlines are offering cheap flights to places previously off your radar. All you need is a couple of twenties and a couple of hours.

Macau, China

Tiger Airways from Manila: $78 round trip, 105 minutes (tigerairways.com)

A former Portuguese colony that's now part of China, Macau is becoming increasingly famous for its gambling scene. Gambling has been legal there for well over a century, but in recent years, the stakes have risen: The city's casinos raked in about $6 billion in revenue last year, just under the amount earned along the Las Vegas Strip.

If you're not into gaming, you're not out of luck. The main square, Largo do Senado, is cobblestoned in a wavy mosaic and reserved for pedestrians. Colonial-era buildings house chain stores and restaurants, but the side streets still have cafés with Portuguese menus. At night, the casinos glow with neon, and the surrounding bars and discos fill up.

Accommodations can be a challenge: Decent hotels are pricey, cheap ones sleazy. Taipa and Colôane, laid-back islands to the south (but still part of Macau), offer budget- and family-friendly accommodations. The new Hotel Taipa Square has a small pool and easy access to a bus that goes to the main island; in a taxi, the 15-minute ride costs $6 (Rua de Chaves, Taipa, 011-853/839-933, taipasquare.com.mo, from $65). Alternately, the Westin, on Colôane, is on the beach, with a large swimming pool (1918 Estrada de Hac Sa, Colôane, 011-853/871-111, westin-macau.com, from $160). Also on Colôane is Fernando's, an informal beachside restaurant that's popular with Western expats from Hong Kong, about an hour away via an $18 high-speed ferry (9 Praia de Hac Sa, Colôane, 011-853/882-264, dinner for two $40).

Kuching, Malaysia

Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur: $54 round trip, 105 minutes (airasia.com)

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, an eastern Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. It feels like Singapore--clean, green, and steamy.

The compact city center is on the south bank of the Sarawak River, and a shady walkway runs along the riverfront. The narrow streets are home to 19th-century buildings spared during WWII. When the humidity gets unbearable, find respite in the air-conditioned Sarawak Museum, which has handicrafts from the region's ethnic tribes and, less expectedly, an exhibit on the petroleum industry's local activities (Jalan Tun Haji Openg, 011-60/82-244-232, free).

Another way to cool off is with a lime-like kalamansi juice ($1) at the James Brooke Bistro & Café, an open-walled spot with river views (Kuching Waterfront, Main Bazaar St., 011-60/82-412-120). Follow locals into the food courts for the best fare; the third floor of Tun Jugah, a modern shopping mall, has a stand with great laksa (noodles with shredded chicken, bean sprouts, and prawns in a spicy coconut soup, $2). Trendy types in Kuching hang out at Bing!, an espresso bar with free Wi-Fi (84 Jalan Padungan, 011-60/82-421-880, latte $2.30).

Stay at the Hilton Kuching, which has an ideal location downtown on the riverside (Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 011-60/82-248-200, kuching.hilton.com, from $72).

Lampang, Thailand

PB Air from Bangkok: $140 round trip, 1 hour (pbair.com)

In decidedly mellow Lampang, horse-drawn carriages share the road with regular traffic, and pickup trucks with benches serve as taxis.

Most hotels are on the shabby side, but the Wienglakor Hotel has an elegant folk-art theme (138/25 Phaholyothin Rd., 011-66/54-224-4701, wienglakor.com, from $29).

Authentic Thai massages can be had at the leafy Lampang Medicinal Plants Conservation Assembly, which also sells locally made soaps and teas (177 Moo 12 Ban Khan Mueang Rd., 011-66/54-313-128, hour-long massage $4). Lampang is home to a dozen or so temples, including the majestic Wat Phra That Lampang Luang--probably the world's best example of Lanna architecture. Another temple, Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, displays a mixture of influences throughout its buildings, including Lanna (flaring, layered roofs) and Burmese (filigreed woodwork, steeply tiered roofs).

Things pick up at night. Bars and discos are clustered around the corner of Thakhrao Noi and Wiang Lakhon Roads, and the Assawin night market sells northern Thai snacks like moo yor (steamed, minced pork sausage). For a sit-down meal, B.B. Coffee, in front of Huen Sai Kum Village, serves seafood fried rice in a scooped-out pineapple ($2) on a sunny patio (bb-coffee.com).

Twenty minutes outside Lampang is the National Elephant Institute, where elephants do entertaining things, such as play music, arrange logs, and create abstract paintings (Kilometer 28-29, Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway, 011-66/54-247-875, thailandelephant.org, $1.85).

Solo, Indonesia

Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur: $68 round trip, 90 minutes (airasia.com)

"Solo" is what everyone calls Surakarta, a city just 40 miles from Yogyakarta, the closest big city on the island of Java. And Solo has all the rich Javanese culture without the corresponding congestion.

The broad, leafy sidewalks along Jalan Slamet Riyadi find pedestrians and bicyclists coexisting happily. At Galeri Batik Kuna Danar Hadi, an outlet, museum, and factory dedicated to the art of batik, Indonesia's history can be seen through the designs (261--263 Jalan Slamet Riyadi, danarhadibatik.com, $2).

Just off Jalan Slamet Riyadi is the Kasunanan Palace, a crumbling compound with architectural influences from China, the Middle East, India, and Europe. A museum in the palace has ornate, centuries-old carriages that are rare reminders of the days of Dutch colonial rule (011-62/271-641-243, 85¢).

The restaurant Adem Ayem is a good place to try the Solo specialty nasi liwet, an addictive dish of rice cooked with coconut milk and served with chicken and egg (342 Jalan Slamet Riyadi, 011-62/271-716-992, dinner for two $4).

The Lor In Business Resort & Spa is only a 15-minute taxi ride from the city center, but since it's surrounded by lagoons and coconut trees, it feels worlds away (47 Jalan Adi Sucipto, 011-62/271-724-500, lor-in.com, from $56).

The low-fare fine print

Searching: Don't bother trying to locate Asian low-fare carriers by using aggregators; they like to pretend these airlines don't exist. Online travel guide Attitude Travel maintains a useful list at attitudetravel.com/lowcostairlines/asia.

Buying: The easiest way to book in advance is by purchasing tickets with a credit card directly from the airlines' websites. You'll be e-mailed an itinerary with a confirmation number. Print this out both for checking in and for getting through security. Purchases are usually nonrefundable, and making route changes, when permitted, carries a relatively hefty fine--$22 each way on Tiger Airways, for example.

Flying: Flight delays and check-in hassles are par for the course. Even finding the check-in counter can be a challenge--in Bangkok, the PB Air counter is in a nearly deserted wing of the departures hall. Leave some wiggle room in your itinerary.

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