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Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire, which, during the Angkorian period, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur in Southeast Asia. The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is sublime and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.
Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples, and its urban areas can surprise with their sophistication. Chaotic yet charismatic capital Phnom Penh is a revitalised city earning plaudits for its sumptuous riverside setting, cultural renaissance, and world-class wining-and-dining scene. Second city Siem Reap, with cosmopolitan cafes and a diverse nightlife, is as much a destination as the nearby iconic temples. And up-and-coming Battambang, reminiscent of Siem Reap before the advent of mass tourism, charms with graceful French architecture and a thriving contemporary art scene.
Experience the rhythm of rural life and landscapes of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms in Cambodia’s countryside. The South Coast is fringed by tropical islands dotted with the occasional fishing village. Inland lie the Cardamom Mountains, part of a vast tropical wilderness providing a home to elusive wildlife and a gateway to emerging ecotourism adventures. The mighty Mekong River cuts through the country and hosts some of the region’s last remaining freshwater dolphins. The northeast is a world unto itself, its wild and mountainous landscapes home to Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and an abundance of natural attractions and wildlife.
China's landscapes span the range from alpha to omega: take your pick from the sublime sapphire lakes of Tibet or the impassive deserts of Inner Mongolia, island-hop in Hong Kong or bike between fairy-tale karst pinnacles around Yángshuò; swoon before the rice terraces of the south, take a selfie among the gorgeous yellow rapeseed of Wùyuán or hike the Great Wall as it meanders across mountain peaks; get lost in green forests of bamboo or, when your energy fails you, flake out on a distant beach and listen to the thud of falling coconuts.
China is vast. Off-the-scale massive. A riveting jumble of wildly differing dialects and climatic and topographical extremes, it's like several different countries rolled into one. Take your pick from the tossed-salad ethnic mix of the southwest, the yak-butter-illuminated temples of Xiàhé, a journey along the dusty Silk Road, spending the night at Everest Base Camp or getting into your glad rags for a night on the Shànghǎi tiles. You're spoilt for choice: whether you’re an urban traveller, hiker, cyclist, explorer, backpacker, irrepressible museum-goer or faddish foodie, China’s diversity is second to none.
Underneath the glass and steel of Hong Kong’s commercial persona is a dynamic cultural landscape where its Chinese roots, colonial connections and the contributions of its home-grown talent become intertwined. Here you’re just as likely to find yourself dissecting art in the dizzying number of contemporary galleries as joining in dawn taichi or reading the couplets of a local poet to the drumbeat of a dragon boat. Culture could also mean indie music by the harbour or Chinese opera in a bamboo theatre, not to mention the thousands of shows staged year-round at the city's many museums and concert halls.
Venturing across Indonesia you’ll see a wonderfully dramatic landscape as diverse as anywhere on the planet. Sulawesi's wildly multi-limbed coastline embraces white-sand beaches and diving haunts, while Sumatra is contoured by a legion of nearly 100 volcanoes marching off into the distance, several capable of erupting at any time.Bali's beaches are the stuff of legend, but you don't have to travel far to find even more beautiful and less touristed stretches of sand in Nusa Tenggara. The Banda islands in Maluku, Derawan in Kalimantan and Pulau Weh off Sumatra all offer superb beaches too.
Dramatic sights are the norm. There’s the sublime: an orang-utan lounging in a tree. The artful: a Balinese dancer executing precise moves that would make a robot seem ungainly. The idyllic: a deserted stretch of blinding white sand on Sumbawa. The astonishing: crowds in a glitzy Jakarta mall. The intriguing: tales of the beautiful Banda Islands' twisted history. The heart-stopping: the ominous menace of a Komodo dragon. The humbling: a woman bent double with a load of firewood on Sumatra. The delicious: a south Bali restaurant. The shocking: the funeral ceremonies of Tana Toraja. The solemn: Borobudur's serene magnificence.
This intoxicating land offers some of the last great adventures on earth. Sitting in the open door of a train whizzing across Java, gazing out at an empty sea while on a ship bound for the Kei Islands, hanging on to the back of a scooter on Flores, rounding the mystifying corner of an ancient West Timor village or simply trekking through wilderness you’re sure no one has seen before.The great thing about adventure in Indonesia is that it happens when you least expect it.
Japan is a long and slender, highly volcanic archipelago. It's over two-thirds mountains, with bubbling hot springs at every turn. In the warmer months there is excellent hiking, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines (the latter founded by wandering ascetics). In the winter, all this is covered with snow and the skiing is world class. (And if you've never paired hiking or skiing with soaking in onsen, you don't know what you've been missing.) Meanwhile in the southern reaches, there are tropical beaches for sunning, snorkelling and diving.
Japan is incredibly easy to get around: you can do a whole trip using nothing but its immaculate, efficient public transport. The shinkansen (bullet train) network now runs all the way from the southern tip of Kyūshū (the southernmost of Japan's major islands) up to Hokkaidō (its northernmost), and reasonably priced rail passes make it affordable. Major cities have subway networks that are signposted in English and these days we're seeing and hearing more English all over. But if getting off the beaten track and outside your comfort zone is what you're after, you can have that experience, too.
Korea might be known as the Land of the Morning Calm, but dive into its capital Seoul, the powerhouse of Asia’s third-largest economy, and serenity may be the last thing you’ll perceive. This round-the-clock city is constantly in motion, with a work-hard, play-hard mentality that epitomises the nation’s indefatigable, can-do spirit. You can hardly turn a corner without stumbling across a helpful tourist information booth, a bustling subway station or a taxi in this multifaceted metropolis where meticulously reconstructed palaces rub shoulders with teeming night markets and dramatically modern architecture.
South Korea’s compact size and superb transport infrastructure mean that tranquillity is always within easy reach of urban sprawl. Hike to the summits of craggy mountains – some of which transform into ski slopes come winter – enveloped within densely forested national parks. Get further off the beaten path than you thought possible by sailing to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk welcome you into their homes or simple seafood cafes. Gaze up at the distant stars from serene villages surrounded by rice fields, sleeping in rustic hanok (traditional wooden house) guesthouses.
Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, reflecting its geographic location as a crossroads of Asia. The hardy Hmong people live off the land in remote mountain communities of the north, remote Kahu and Alak communities of the south have the last remaining traditional face tattoos, and the Katang villages of central Laos sleep with the spirits of the forest. Whether it is the cities of the lowlands or the remote villages of the highlands, Laos offers some wonderful opportunities for local interaction.
Travellers rave about Laos for a reason. Adventure seekers can lose themselves in underground river caves, on jungle ziplines or while climbing karsts. Nature enthusiasts can take a walk on the wild side and spot exotic animals such as gibbons or elephants. Culture lovers can explore ancient temples and immerse themselves in Lao spiritual life. Foodies can spice up their lives with a Lao cooking class or go gourmand in the French-accented cities. And if all this sounds a little too strenuous, then unwind with a spa session or yoga class. Laos has something for everyone
For many visitors Malaysia is defined by its equatorial rainforest. Significant chunks of primary jungle – among the most ancient ecosystems on earth – remain intact, protected by national parks and conservation projects. Seemingly impenetrable foliage and muddy, snaking rivers conjure up the ‘heart of darkness’ – but join a ranger-led nature walk, for example, and you’ll be alerted to the mind-boggling biodiversity all around, from the pitcher plants, lianas and orchids of the humid lowlands, to the conifers and rhododendrons of high-altitude forests.
Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur (KL) is a place where gleaming 21st-century towers stand cheek-by-jowl with colonial shophouses and pockets of lush greenery, while shoppers shuttle from traditional wet markets to air-conditioned mega malls. Unesco World Heritage–listed, Melaka and George Town (Penang) have uniquely distinctive architectural and cultural townscapes, developed over a half a millennium of Southeast Asian cultural and trade exchange. Over in the eastern Malaysian states, both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu offer fascinating introductions to contemporary and tribal life on Borneo.
In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government in more than half a century. Sanctions have been dropped and Asian investors especially are coming to do business. Modern travel conveniences, such as mobile-phone coverage and internet access, are now common. But the economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are largely confined to the big cities and towns, and large swaths of the country remain off limits due to ongoing ethnic conflict. The Burmese military continue to play a key, if less visible, role in politics. The new Myanmar is very much a work in progress.
In a nation of multiple ethnic groups, exploring Myanmar can sometimes feel like you've stumbled into a living edition of National Geographic, c 1910. For all the recent changes, Myanmar remains at heart a rural nation of traditional values. You'll encounter men wearing the sarong-like longyi and chewing betel nut, spitting the blood-red juice onto the ground, women with faces smothered in thanakha (a natural sunblock), and cheroot-smoking grannies. Trishaws still ply city streets, while the horse or bullock and cart is common rural transport. Drinking tea – a British colonial custom – is enthusiastically embraced in thousands of teahouses.
Thankfully, the pace of change is not overwhelming, leaving the simple pleasures of travel in Myanmar intact. Drift down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in an old steamer or luxury cruiser. Stake out a slice of beach on the blissful Bay of Bengal. Trek through pine forests to minority villages scattered across the Shan Hills without jostling with scores of fellow travellers. Best of all, you'll encounter locals who are gentle, humorous, engaging, considerate, inquisitive and passionate – they want to play a part in the world, and to know what you make of their country. Now is the time to make that connection.
The Philippines is justifiably famous for its beaches, but sporty types need not feel left out. While surfers are just catching on to the tasty (if fickle) waves that form on both coasts, divers have long been enamoured of the country’s underwater charms. Northern Palawan is perfect for sea kayakers, and Boracay and Pagudpud (North Luzon) are world-class kiteboarding destinations. Back on terra firma, trekking can be done just about anywhere, while mountain-bike and canyoneering tours are gaining popularity. And the Philippines is also, unofficially, the zipline capital of the world.
The Philippines is a land apart from mainland Southeast Asia – not only geographically but also spiritually and culturally. The country’s overwhelming Catholicism, the result of 350 years of Spanish rule, is its most obvious enigma. Vestiges of the Spanish era include exuberant town fiestas (festivals) and centuries-old stone churches. Malls, fast-food chains and widespread spoken English betray the influence of Spain’s colonial successor, the Americans. Yet, despite these outside influences, the country remains its own unique entity. The people are, simply, Filipinos – and proud of it. Welcoming, warm and relentlessly upbeat, it is they who captivate and ultimately ensnare visitors.
Food in Singapore is taken very seriously. From cheap hawker fare to Michelin-starred fine dining, food-enamoured Singaporeans will line up for it, Instagram the hell out of it and passionately debate whether it is ‘die, die, must try’ – Singlish slang for ‘to die for’. Don’t fret about finding a place to chow down, as each neighbourhood is home to local hawker centres and coffeeshops dishing up some of the island’s best meals for just a couple of bucks. Simply follow your nose or join the longest queue – whatever morsels lie at the end, they are almost guaranteed to be scrumptious.
The concrete jungles that once dominated Singapore’s skyline are slowly giving way to green skyscrapers, which look more like living ecosystems than business hubs. Fervently working towards its ‘City in a Garden’ dream, the nation is ploughing money into becoming more sustainable and, well, green. Head out of town a little and you’ll find plenty of walking trails, treetop jungle bridges, wildlife galore and the city's green jewel, the Unesco World Heritage–listed Singapore Botanic Gardens: these are the lungs of Singapore.
Few places have as many Unesco World Heritage Sites (eight) packed into such a small area. Sri Lanka's 2000-plus years of culture can be discovered at ancient sites where legendary temples boast beautiful details even as they shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks. More recent are evocative colonial fortresses, from Galle to Trincomalee.Across the island, that thing that goes bump in the night might be an elephant heading to a favourite waterhole. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks encounter leopards, water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
Distances are short: see the sacred home of the world’s oldest living human-planted tree in the morning (Anuradhapura) and stand awestruck by the sight of hundreds of elephants gathering in the afternoon (Minneriya). Discover a favourite beach, meditate in a 2000-year-old temple, exchange smiles while strolling a mellow village, marvel at birds and wildflowers, try to keep count of the little dishes that come with your rice and curry. Wander past colonial gems in Colombo, then hit some epic surf.Sri Lanka is spectacular, affordable and still often uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.
When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride.And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds. And you're always just a short hop from something utterly new.
Defying those who said it wasn't in their DNA, the Taiwanese have created Asia's most vibrant democracy and liberal society, with a raucous free press, gender equality, and respect for human rights and, increasingly, animal rights as well. The ancestors are still worshipped, and parents still get their dues, but woe betide the politician who thinks it's the people who must pander, and not them. If you want to catch a glimpse of the people's passion for protest, check out Taipei Main Station on most weekends, or just follow the local news.
Taiwan is heir to the entire Chinese tradition of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and that amorphous collection of deities and demons worshipped as folk faith. Over the centuries the people have blended their way into a unique and tolerant religious culture that's often as ritual heavy as Catholicism and as wild as Santeria.Taiwanese temples (all 15,000) combine worship hall, festival venue and art house under one roof. Watch a plague boat burn at Donglong Temple, go on a pilgrimage with the Empress of Heaven, study a rooftop three-dimensional mosaic, and learn why a flag and ball have come to represent prayer.
In between the cluttered cities and towns is the rural heartland, which is a mix of rice paddies, tropical forests and squat villages tied to the agricultural clock. In the north, the forests and fields bump up against toothy blue mountains decorated with silvery waterfalls. In the south, scraggy limestone cliffs poke out of the cultivated landscape like prehistoric skyscrapers. The usually arid northeast emits an emerald hue during the rainy season when tender green rice shoots carpet the landscape.
The celestial world is a close confidant in this Buddhist nation, and religious devotion is colourful and ubiquitous. Gleaming temples and golden Buddhas frame both the rural and the modern landscape. Ancient banyan trees are ceremoniously wrapped in sacred cloth to honour the resident spirits, fortune-bringing shrines decorate humble homes as well as monumental malls, while garland-festooned dashboards ward off traffic accidents. Visitors can join the conversation through meditation retreats in Chiang Mai, religious festivals in northeastern Thailand, underground cave shrines in Kanchanaburi and Phetchaburi, and hilltop temples in northern Thailand.
With a long coastline (actually, two coastlines) and jungle-topped islands anchored in azure waters, Thailand is a tropical getaway for the hedonist and the hermit, the prince and the pauper. This paradise offers a varied menu: playing in the gentle surf of Ko Lipe, diving with whale sharks off Ko Tao, scaling the sea cliffs of Krabi, kiteboarding in Hua Hin, partying on Ko Phi-Phi, recuperating at a health resort on Ko Samui and feasting on the beach wherever sand meets sea.
Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation's labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it's impossible to forget Vietnam's pivotal position close to the epicentre of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities' skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.
Thailand may contest the top spot, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of the north, spices sparking up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typifying the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam's many regional markets.
If you have the bills, Vietnam has the thrills and chills. Some require a little physical effort, such as motorbiking switchback after switchback up the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require even more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical oceanic waters off Mui Ne or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa. And when you’re done with all that adrenaline stuff, there’s plenty of horizontal ‘me’ time to relish. Vietnam has outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments to simple family-run massage salons with backpacker-friendly rates.