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 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 serves 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 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 noncruising 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. 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 higher, 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.
Our first port is Yangon, Myanmar, formerly Rangoon, Burma. There we circle the 300-foot-high golden spire of Shwedagon Pagoda, step among the throngs in the downtown marketplace, and prowl the rows of British-built buildings now decaying under the leadership of Myanmar's repressive, isolationist State Law and Order Restoration Council. Then, too soon, we're gone.
No land battles
At Phuket, Thailand's glamour resort island, two of us commission a taxi for a quick mini-tour: a couple of scenic overlooks, a "sea gypsy" camp where fishing families live in colorful squalor, a grove of rubber trees, a quick pass through the traffic-choked streets of Phuket Town. So far advanced is the tourism industry on this island that I could go bungee jumping next, or participate in a "paint ball" war at the shooting range (no Southeast Asian land battles for me, thank you), play golf, go horseback riding, go para-sailing too many things. I go back to the beach, join a short snorkeling expedition, then settle in for a few hours of sitting and strolling on the beach.
On Penang there are nice beaches, too, but the architecture threatens to overwhelm the nature. The British established the island as their first settlement on the Malay Peninsula in 1786, and under their control, the city of George Town rose with a row of handsome mansions and a commercial district of hundreds of shop-houses with businesses downstairs and the proprietors' residences upstairs. These tile-roofed, two- and three-story buildings multiplied until they filled a downtown grid, then settled into gradual decay while the Malaysians, independent since put up skyscrapers and office buildings nearby. The city's population has now surpassed 400,000.
When yu walk through those colonial neighborhoods, it is easy to be entranced by the succession of colorfully painted shade screens, the flower stalls, the Buddhist and Hindu temples, the mosques (most Malays are Muslim), the pungent smells of cooking in Little India, the chilly gusts from the air-conditioned rooms of jewelers' row, the monosyllabic storefront signs of Chinatown. Once I'm aboard a trishaw, however, the reverie doesn't last too long; seated in the hurtling, weaving two-passenger tricycle, you're frequently six inches from being maimed by another vehicle.
Capital of Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, or K.L., as the Malaysian capital is called, is in the middle of a rampage of growth. First we make the hourlong drive from Port Klang to the center of the city, then obligatory monument stops: independence square, a mosque, a museum. Around us rush 1.1 million K.L. residents. Above us rise the twin Petronas Towers, soon to become the tallest skyscrapers on the planet, now within months of completion.
Set free for two hours, I discover almost nothing within walking distance but shopping malls and hotels. On the way back to the ship, I find that almost all of my fellow travelers have enjoyed K.L.: They were wise enough to take our downtown neighborhood for what it was -- a bustling example of Westernization and economic development -- rather than laboring to extract Asian local color, whatever that is.
This brings us to Malacca, and a strange bit of cruise-line spin-doctoring. The night before we go ashore, the ship's matinee idol Norwegian captain, Dag Dvergastein, warns us not to expect much. After considerable input from passengers and crew, he says, the line will be dropping Malacca from next year's itineraries.
Because Malacca was once the trading capital of this peninsula, the Singapore of its day, most of us persist in our plans to go ashore. When the old quarter of town turns out to be a wee bit self-conscious (signs and pamphlets proclaim American Express' sponsorship of a downtown "Heritage Trail") and the "antique row" on Jalan Hang Jebat (a k a Jonker Street) turns out to be mostly cheap trinkets and reproductions, we feel well briefed.
After seven nights of leisurely dinners and whirlpool baths at will, we draw up to the tidy, modern port of Singapore, and our polite crew discreetly expels us.
Our consolation is two pleasant days and nights in Singapore. Strolls in the bright and shiny mall along Orchard Road. A quick drink in the utterly commercialized Raffles hotel, where Singapore Slings are mixed by the trayful and run $15 apiece. A ride on the spotless subway. A conversation, or two or three, with cabdrivers complaining about the heavy hand of the government. Then it's time to dig out our return air tickets and fold away trinkets and memories from Yangon and Phuket, Penang and Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
If you go
The Song of Flower: Operated by Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (800) 477-7500, the ship has seven itineraries between Yangon and Singapore planned between now and April 1997. (The line has no children's programs.)
Embarkation dates for the seven-night cruises are Nov. 23 (Singapore-Yangon); Nov. 30 (Yangon-Singapore); Jan. 10, 1997 (Singapore-Yangon); Jan. 17, 1997 (Yangon-Singapore); Feb. 15, 1997 (Singapore-Yangon); Feb. 22, 1997 (Yangon-Singapore); March 30, 1997
(Singapore-Yangon). Beginning in January 1997, itineraries will add a second night in Yangon, dropping Malacca. Rates vary depending on guest cabin, embarkation date and advance purchase.
Among other cruise lines with ships in Southeast Asia in 1996:
Crystal Cruises (which sells only through travel agents; for brochures, call  288-9883, Ext. 101).
Noble Caledonia (a British company represented by Esplanade Tours at  426-5492).
Oceanic Cruises (a Japanese-operated line represented by Tourism Marketing Specialists in Los Angeles,  545-5778).
P&O; Spice Island Cruises of Indonesia (a British company represented in North America by Boston-based Esplanade Tours  426-5492).
Princess Cruises, (800) 421-1700.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, (800) 327-6700.
Seabourn Cruise Line, (800) 929-9595.
2& Silversea Cruises, (800) 722-9955.
Pub Date: 5/26/96