Exotic, accessible, full of variety yet still a bargain; Southeast Asia is one of the best tourist destinations in the world. Southeast Asia is longtime favorite for travelers of all stripes. Its pleasant blend of balmy climate, colorful cultures and friendly locals makes it an easy entry into the vast realm of Asia.
Southeast Asia is a fascinating and diverse region, spanning the southern tip of the Himalayas in northern Myanmar to the 13,000 subtropical islands of Indonesia. Fertile valleys grow most of the world’s rice, providing the staple for some of the best cuisine on earth. It’s a land of rich culture, deep spiritualism, and some of the most enjoyable traveling on the planet.
Although most of the nations in this region resemble each other, they offer different variations on the same theme. Buddhist culture dominates the northern countries of Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, while Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic nation and the Philippines is mostly Catholic. But unlike other parts of the world, religion rarely interferes with neighborly relations.
Thailand lies at the heart of Southeast Asia, and has the most developed tourism scene. World-class beaches, trekker-friendly mountains and hip urban centers like Chiang Mai and Bangkok make this a good place to start. Its reputation as a relaxed and tolerant society is well-deserved.
Surrounding the kingdom of Thailand and connected by the mighty Mekong River are Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The languid nation of Laos is locked in time, but slowly opening to tourism. UNESCO sites like Luang Prabang are among the most magical in Asia, but the country offers very little else. Cambodia is in a similar condition, boasting the superlative temple complex of but suffering from extreme poverty and poor infrastructure.
Myanmar has the potential to be an amazing travel destination especially now that the iron grip of the military government is loosening. Its ancient Buddhist cities like Bagan and Mandalay have to be seen to be believed. Vietnam is just the opposite. It has fully opened the floodgates and is enjoying a wave of prosperity. Prepare yourself for Chinese-style aggression as everyone in this country tries to cash in on the tourist dollar.
Malaysia and Indonesia are both fascinating blends of several ethnicities. Their relative lack of tourism makes them great places to explore. Natural wonders like rainforests, volcanoes and exotic wildlife await more adventurous travelers. Southeast Asia has some great urban centers, too. Singapore is an entire city-nation and by far the most organized and clean destination in the region, too much so in some people’s opinion.
Buddhism dominates the societies of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, while Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation. There’s also the colorful Hindu island of Bali and a wealth of ancient sites like (Cambodia), Borobudur (Indonesia), and Sukhothai (Thailand). Southeast Asia is one of cheaper places to travel, and the people here eagerly welcome new faces from abroad.
Travelers are now moving beyond the perenially popular tourist spots of Thailand, Bali and Malaysia into the formerly isolated countries such as Cambodia, Laos and the more remote Indonesian islands. With a decade of relative stability, well-developed tourist infrastructure, low prices and famously easygoing locals - Southeast Asia is a prime destination for both first-timers and experienced travelers. The biggest challenge is not in finding your way around, but in finding your own way.
Brunei: Although off the main tourist circuit, Brunei is a fascinating Islamic mini-state awash in oil money. It’s modern towns are dotted with picturesque mosques and adorned in conspicous wealth. There are few attractions and a few days is enough to satisfy most visitors. Brunei seems uncertain how much tourism it really wants, but with so much wealth it can afford to be choosy.
Cambodia: Dashing head-long out of war and isolation and boasting Angkor, a “wonder of the world” that lives up to the hype. Cambodia has much to appeal to the tourist including some nearly deserted islands, the charming capital of Phnom Penh and the magnificent Angkor and enigmatic Bayon temples. But get there quickly as tourism is reshaping the country.
East Timor The 21st century’s first independent nation, East Timor is finding its identity after many unhappy years under Indonesian rule. East Timor is not a tourist magnet yet boasts some lovely beaches and still harbors some cities with colonial charm. Prices may still be high from the bubble economy of rebuilding efforts, but there are bargains to be found.
Indonesia: An archipelago of over 13,000 volcanic and sun-drenched islands stretching over 5,000 kilometers, Indonesia is a country rich in history and hosting a phenomenal array of distinct cultures. With many beaches, volcanoes, ancient cultures and archaeological ruins such as Borobudur, magnificent wilderness areas and the crown jewel of Bali - it is impossible to see all of Indonesia even after several trips.
Laos: Sleepy mountain villages and life in the slow lane mixed with stunning natural beauty make Laos a wonderful tourist destination. One of the least developed of the former French Indochinese states, it has been something of a tourist backwaters, which was part of it’s charm, but that is changing quickly. Travelers who make it here tend to agree that this country is one of the highlights of South-East Asia.
Malaysia: A multi-cultural melting pot and often overlooked by travelers, Malaysia is one of the most hassle free and pleasant countries in the region to visit. Most travelers stick to peninsular Malaysia starting in Kuala Lumpur and then heading to green tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands and beaches of Langkawi. But there is an entirely different Malaysia further afield with spectacular wildlife and longhouses in Sarawak and Sabah.
Myanmar: Hosting some incredible sights such as Shwedagon Pagoda, magnificent Bagan and picturesque Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma) is one of Asia’s most fascinating destinations. With gilded pagodas, ox-cart villages and towns oozing in faded glory - Myanmar is picture-book Asia. Unfortunately its military junta dictatorship makes visiting Myanmar is a contensious and morally debatable issue for many travelers.
Philippines: Over 7,000 islands dotted with great beaches, dramatic volcanoes and Spanish colonial charm - the Philippines is definately on tourist circuit, but attracts far fewer visitors then most other Asian countries. Although transport can sometimes be unreliable and time-consuming - having some of the most spectacular diving and snorkeling in the region, with english widely spoken and travel relatively cheap it is well worth the effort.
Singapore: Not quite for the budget traveler, Singapore is the shopping hub of Asia and a model of ordered efficiency. Gleamingly clean yet quintessentially Asian, Singapore is an oasis of calm and moderninity in an otherwise chaotic Asia. With a mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures - Singapore offers a taste of the cultures of Asia in a small, easy-to-manage package.
Thailand: Deservedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Thailand boasts an unparalleled range of beaches, temples, ruins and parks with fantastic value for money at every price-range. From hilltribe trekking in the north, to white sand beaches in the south, fantastic food, friendly smiling people and incredible ease of traveling - Thailand just may have it all.
Vietnam: Ruled by a communist government, yet vibrantly capitalistic, Vietnam is a country of constrasts. From sailing in the world heritage Ha Long Bay, viewing the rice terraces and colorful tribal peple of Sapa, to exploring the ravages of war along the DMZ and Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietnam offers a unique opportunity to view a country of traditional charm - with a unique civilization and highly cultured people.