A 12-day trip exploring the coast of Southeast Asia yielded many great experiences, writes Janina Roque

I looked out my window — we were surrounded by water. There's something incredible about waking up every morning greeted by a new backdrop and finding yourself in a different country from the night before, without having to lift a finger to carry your bags, catch a flight or a bus, check in and out or even leave your room. Many of the guests aboard our ship called it "the floating hotel" — the Coral Discoverer was our home for a 12-night cruise to the unseen coastlines of Southeast Asia.

Coral Discoverer cruise ship. Photo / Janina Roque
Coral Discoverer cruise ship. Photo / Janina Roque

The newly refurbished Coral Discoverer, operated by the Australian-based cruise line Coral Expeditions, runs cruises around Australia and Papua New Guinea and they added Southeast Asia to their itinerary last November. The cruise ship accommodates 72 passengers in 36 fully upgraded, spacious rooms. The refurbished areas and facilities included the Sun Deck which was partly covered where the "Explorer Bar" stood, the social hub of the ship. The Coral Discoverer not only offered accommodation but an experience to truly remember.

As newbies to the cruising scene, we were welcomed by the friendliest crew on arrival (some of them are Kiwis too) and provided a superb service from high-standard, three-course meals down to the daily housekeeping.

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Having no experience with the luxury of big cruise ships, or any cruises for that matter, we had no idea what to expect. But we definitely enjoyed the intimacy of travelling in a smaller group and had the pleasure of getting to know almost everyone on board.

Our first stop was Malacca, one of the most popular destinations in Malaysia. It's a city rich in culture and history with influences from the Portuguese, Dutch and the British colonies. Here we visited St Paul's Church, originally built in 1521. It stands as the oldest church in Southeast Asia. It was formerly used as a church by the Portuguese but later served as a cemetery when the Dutch took control. We were driven around town by one of the most popular forms of transport, a trishaw. Famous for their dazzling decorations and heavy sound systems, each trishaw had a different theme to best suit your taste.

Before we departed Malaysia, we explored the Island of Pangkor, where fishing and boat-building served as their main industries.

We visited a fishing factory followed by a tour at a local boat-builders. We couldn't leave the island without trying out their traditional seafood steamboat at Nipah Deli, a well-known eatery.

Set on a beautiful picturesque beach, our tour guide demonstrated the method of cooking a steamboat.

As we continued our itinerary, the Xplorer (a smaller launch used to go places the Discoverer could not reach) took us out for our first swim at Tarutao National Marine Park. Situated on the southernmost part of Thailand, this island was established as a marine park in 1974. It offered plenty of activities including a guided hike up to the viewpoint, snorkelling, kayaking, swimming and, of course, some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Further up the coast, we soaked up some Thai culture in Ao Nang. Dubbed the most "westernised" beach in the Krabi Province, it was formerly known as the hot-spot for backpackers, but it is now a budding area for a different kind of tourism. Here we learned how to make kanom-krok, a traditional Thai dessert made out of coconut pancake. We then took a guided walking tour through the local rubber trees, coconut plantation and pineapple farm.

Walking along the village we discovered the competitive art of bird singing when we came across a couple of cages all in a line, containing red-whiskered bulbul birds. Our local tour guide tells us that they are kept in these cages while being trained for the upcoming bird singing competition, a traditional pastime through many parts of Southeast Asia. We ended our trip in Ao Nang with a private demonstration of Muay Thai kickboxing.

Cruising northwards along the Andaman coast, we entered the stunning Mergui archipelago of Myanmar. Faced with immigration challenges on our arrival, we were forced to take a detour and abandon a couple of the planned excursions. Some of the unexpected landings during our detour included a visit to a sea turtle conservation project and uncovering some of the pristine and almost untouched beaches of Myanmar.

Sights from the Coral Expeditions Southeast Asia trip. Photo / Janina Roque
Sights from the Coral Expeditions Southeast Asia trip. Photo / Janina Roque

Back on board, we took advantage of the facilities on offer. When we'd had enough time baking ourselves on the sun deck, you would find us using the fitness equipment to keep our weight in check. One of the best parts about being on a cruise was the endless selection of food. Every day we were faced with the dilemma of choosing between fish or meat for dinner or preventing our plates from overflowing at the buffet lunch. First World problems!

With limited access to the internet due to the remote locations we were in, we opted to stay offline for the duration of the cruise. It wasn't easy at first. As the youngest couple on the ship we were surprised at how well we managed to stay disconnected from the outside world. It felt surprisingly great (once we got used to it) — we felt free.

The tropical waters of the Andaman Sea are the perfect destination for those who appreciate life in the ocean. We sank our toes into the white sand on 115 Island as we admired the serenity of this secluded spot. Whether snorkelling or scuba diving, we were spoilt for choice to see the colourful schools of fish through the crystal-clear waters along the fringing coral reef.

A trip to Myanmar wouldn't be complete without paying a visit to many local temples and pagodas. Buddhism, practised by 89 per cent of the country's population, is the main religion in Myanmar.

The golden rule when entering these sacred temples, which applied for both males and females, was that clothing that covered the shoulders and past the knees had to be worn and footwear had to be removed. In every excursion, we were accompanied and educated by our guest lecturer Bob Hudson, an Australian archaeologist who has been conducting research in Myanmar for 20 years. With his extensive knowledge and experience of the Myanmar culture, there were no pagodas or buddhas left unexplained during our time in this religious country.

Coral Discoverer cruise ship. Photo / Janina Roque
Coral Discoverer cruise ship. Photo / Janina Roque

As well as temples, there were plenty of markets scattered around for those who are dying to spend their kyats. Our walking tour to the town of Myeik led us to an undercover market, where you could find anything from fresh produce and clothing, to jewellery and electronics.

The grand finale was our visit to the most sacred temple and very famous landmark in Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Standing at 105m tall, its golden dome dominates the skyline of Yangon. Its history dates back 2600 years, having been rebuilt over the centuries, it is believed to contain hair strands and holy relics of the four previous buddhas. Coated in thousands of gold plates, we were told the top of the stupa was studded with diamonds. The value of this immense and divine symbol of Buddhism is believed to be around 5 per cent of the GDP of Myanmar.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar. Photo / Janina Roque
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar. Photo / Janina Roque

The pagoda not only served as a sacred place of worship for Buddhists, but it was also a place where the devotees could come together as a community. At the shrine, we witnessed worshippers as well as monks meditating, pouring water over the statues, offering flowers and lighting candles.

The best time to experience the mystical atmosphere of the Golden Pagoda was at night. As the sun started to set, we slowly admired the beauty of the structure as it glowed majestically in front of our eyes.

It was truly stunning, definitely one of the highlights of the trip, and the perfect way to finish our journey.

Janina Roque in Ao Nang, Thailand. Photo / Janina Roque
Janina Roque in Ao Nang, Thailand. Photo / Janina Roque

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Details:

itineraries includes cruises along coastlines in Vietnam, Java, Thailand and Burma.