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Cruise: Southeast Asia : ASIA PORTS, THE LUXE WAY : Visiting Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore by small ship

February 11, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

ON THE ANDAMAN SEA — Southeast Asia, and the living is easy.

Along the shores of Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore, the jungle vegetation is in full riot, the old architecture is in picturesque post-colonial decline, modern economies are in overdrive, and here and there a beach lies fine-grained and underpopulated. Every day, I face a devil of a choice: explore ashore, or submit to serious luxuries aboard ship.

By serious luxuries, I do not mean the occasional complimentary umbrella-topped cocktail. I mean a perpetually open bar, a ban on tipping and the joy of pacing the well-scrubbed deck of a 409-foot-long vessel with fewer than 100 guest cabins. I could get used to this--but I'd have to make the equivalent of my monthly mortgage payment every three days.

This is the good ship Song of Flower, possibly the premier vessel of possibly the world's premier luxury cruise line, Radisson Seven Seas. We have seven January days and nights at sea to cover 1,198 nautical miles and six ports of Yangon, Myanmar; Phuket, Thailand; Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, Malaysia, and Singapore. Some are grimy, some idyllic, some rustic, some relentlessly urban, all humid. Most of us have come principally because of these port calls, so we choose exploration over cabin sloth, at least by day. We shuffle through the incense-thick air of cool Buddhist temples, peer at the old-fashioned shop-houses of Malaysia, wander down dusty back streets in the former Rangoon. In bright and shiny Singapore, we listen as cabbies explain the black market in chewing gum. On the Thai island of Phuket, we either troop off to see kick boxing and elephants, or flop on the beach, lying in wait for a para-sailing session or an hourlong, open-air $10 massage.

At day's end, we retreat to our privileges. The crew of 144 serving about 150 passengers. The chateaubriand and caviar for the traditionalists, occasional Asian-spiced soups for those who dare. The video and printed-word libraries. The comfortable cabins, each with a VCR and mini-bar (again, no separate billing). And on the desk in each cabin, there's the telephone, from which one may call the United States by satellite, if one doesn't mind paying $15 per minute.

The Song of Flower is not a new ship. It entered service in 1986, was taken over and substantially upgraded by Japanese owners in 1987. Since 1990 it has been operated by Seven Seas, which in a 1995 merger became Radisson Seven Seas. The ship's distinction is not so much its hardware, but its exotic itineraries and elaborate service.

When the ship's tender brings us ashore for a beach landing at Phuket, an employee of the Kata Thani Resort stands waiting to rinse our feet, lest our enjoyment of the patio buffet be impaired by sand between our toes. When passenger Peggy Carr of Dallas one evening mentions in passing the shortage of chocolate desserts on the menu, head waiter David Jezequel secretly arranges the creation and delivery of a customized chocolate concoction to Carr's room that night.

The bill for all this? Radisson Seven Seas' most affordable price for my 11-night itinerary worked out to $4,585 per person, double occupancy. That figure, which included the cruise line's advance-booking discount, paid for the seven-night cruise, a week's shipboard eating and drinking, shore excursions, port fees, air fares from the United States, two pre-sailing nights at the high-end Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok and two post-sailing nights at the Regent Hotel in Singapore. Stripping away non-cruising costs, the price of a Song of Flower cruise usually runs about $460 per day.

Thus, we are a ship full of retired attorneys, bank directors, stockbrokers, doctors, computer company founders and a few obvious inheritors who bear, in the words of one less-wealthy passenger, "the scars of privilege." The cruise line's vice president for marketing, Donna Remillard, estimates that the typical Song of Flower passenger has a household income of $150,000 or above, and is 60 or older. Most nights, the dress code is coat-and-tie for the men, and there's one formal night, on which tuxedos are preferred, dark suits tolerated.

At age 35, I am easily the youngest paying passenger. More than once, I am issued orders by other passengers who mistake me for the ship's apprentice photographer. (Damn that ban on tipping.)

The only weak links are entertainment and lectures: One of the headliner acts, the Wright Brothers singing duet, leaves the ship early and mysteriously in Penang; guidebook author Carl Parkes, scheduled to give at least two slide-accompanied lectures on Southeast Asia, delivers one, then vanishes from the schedule, though he remains aboard.

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