One of the world’s most diverse and mysterious regions is South Asia, a massive chunk of land encompassing the Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas and a spattering of tropical islands. Striking religion and culture exist side-by-side, their tensions always lying just beneath the surface. But for the traveler South Asia is a wonderland offering a little bit of everything.
At its heart lies the massive crush of humanity known as India. Steel your nerves for your first foray into this passionate country which slaps you in the face with its bleak poverty and stunning beauty at every turn. Actually several distinct regions, India boasts chaotic cities, the Taj Mahal, the deserts of Rajasthan, the Kerala Backwaters and popular beaches like those in Goa.
India is hardly a relaxing holiday destination, but few travelers return unchanged by their experience. Its Muslim neighbor to the west, Pakistan, is filled with amazing mosques such as Islamabad’s Shah Faisal and soaring mountains in the Kashmir region. To the east is the desperate flood-prone country of Bangladesh. Its capital Dhaka is one of the most shockingly poor places on earth.
The Himalayas ring the northern borders of South Asia, dividing the subcontinent from Tibet. Trekkers love Nepal, situated to the east of Delhi, for its endless web of walking trails. The Annapurna circuit trek takes you deep in the Buddhist splendor of its alpine villages, while Kathmandu retains its mysterious reputation as a heady blend of temples, holy men and fluttering prayer flags, despite pollution, chaotic traffic and poor infrastructure.
Bhutan allows just a few thousand well-heeled visitors into its Himalayan kingdom each year, but it’s definitely worth the cost to experience a completely unadulterated Buddhist culture. Sri Lanka provides another face of Buddhism, epitomized in the cool, mountain town of Kandy. Amazing beaches make Sri Lanka a chilled out alternative to India.
But if you really need to unwind in isolation, head to the Maldives. This splash of tiny atolls will likely be submerged by rising sea levels before long so visit it while you can. Anywhere you travel in South Asia you’ll be challenged by crowds, con artists, beggars and unavoidable poverty. But the intense spirituality, ancient history and superlative nature make it worth the effort.