Geographically, Southeast Asia is diverse and stunning. The lush tropical rainforests of peninsular Malaysia and Borneo are some of the oldest in the world. Beautiful islands and beaches are many, including large resort areas such as Thailand's Phuket or Indonesia's Bali, plus countless other gorgeous isles, atolls, and sandy strips that are relatively unexploited. Divers and snorkelers flock from around the world for stunning coral reefs bursting with colorful life in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. You can find adventures in the wild while jungle trekking, sea and river kayaking, or visiting ethnic villages and sacred peaks.
Southeast Asia is also a cultural melting pot, a crossroads of influences from China, south Asia, and Tibet. Consider the Sri Lankans, who transplanted Theravada Buddhism, with its serene and orthodox ways, from Myanmar to Thailand and Laos. Or the Indian traders, who brought ancient Hinduism to Cambodia, influencing the architecture of the magical city of Angkor. Or the Hindus who settled on Bali, mixing their dogma with local animism to create a completely unique sect. Meanwhile, seafaring Arab merchants imported Islam to coastal areas of Malaysia and Indonesia, adding another interesting facet to the region. In Vietnam, the only Southeast Asian nation to fall directly under the control of past Chinese empires, China's cultural influences are still strong. And, on top of that, Europeans from the late 1400s onward imported Western culture to cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, and Melaka; the European colonial imprint is still visible in the architecture and cuisine of most countries in the region. Crossing an international border in Southeast Asia is stepping into another world.
Economic and political developments have changed the face of tourism in the region. While cosmopolitan stops such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok guarantee the best luxury hotels, finest dining, and most refined cultural attractions, up-and-coming cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and Chiang Mai promise cultural curiosities around every street corner as they struggle to balance traditional customs with modern development. Thailand's 3 decades of tourism development have created very familiar facilities for travelers, for example, but those looking for a more down-and-dirty experience can head off to nearby Cambodia or Laos, countries still off the beaten path of most tourist agendas. For every luxurious Bali, there's a laid-back Tioman Island (Malaysia). For every busy Bangkok, there's a charming Luang Prabang (Laos).
It is important, of course, to talk about those Southeast Asian nations that have political or safety concerns, and the sections that follow discuss political turmoil in more detail. Steer clear of any sectarian or political tension, and know that the relative stability of many countries in Southeast Asia is rather short-lived; flash political upheavals are not uncommon. Refer to your country's overseas travel bureau or to the U.S. State Department (click "Travel Warnings" at www.travel.state.gov) to learn about current travel warnings in the area.
Each year, Thailand sees more international travelers than any of its neighbors, enticing everyone from luxury vacationers to young shoestring backpackers, Japanese junkets, and European group tours. You'll meet young professionals on hiatus, naive tourists prowling for that "One Night in Bangkok," and soul-searchers hanging around for the Buddhist dharma and Asian hospitality. Many trips to Southeast Asia either start here or end up here, and it is a good orientation.
Travelers usually arrive in Bangkok, staying for a few days to take in the city's bizarre mix of royal palaces and skyscrapers, pious monks amid rush-hour commuters, and sidewalk noodle vendors serving bankers in suits. That's not to mention the city's nightlife, with that seedy element that made the city infamous. Heading south, find the legendary beaches and resorts of Phuket island; Ko Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand, is a comparable alternative. Another attraction, the northern hills around Chiang Mai, presents a world of adventure trekking and tribal culture along well-worn -- but well-worth-it -- travel paths. Throughout the country, you'll have opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports, organized by very professional firms that you can count on for safety and reliability.
And at the end of the day, there's that unbeatable taste of Thai cuisine -- tangy soups, hearty coconut curries, and the freshest seafood.
Travelers who complain that Thailand has become too touristy can look to Laos. Here is a country where foreigners are still greeted as gracious guests rather than as cash cows. Rarely will you find tacky souvenir stalls or tourist kitsch -- just quiet towns with laid-back markets, townsfolk carrying on their trades, and farmers tending to their chores. Life is set to the pace of Buddhism, tranquillity and compassion the hallmarks, and the people are very kind and welcoming.
Some people fear that Laos will follow Thailand's accelerated development model, that the ethnic villages in the north will be turned into safari parks and the country's beautiful temples transformed into theme attractions. But the infrastructure of this developing nation won't yet support that, and Lao people are in no rush to cash in on the nation's peacefulness.
For a capital city, Vientiane is startlingly parochial. With every other building dedicated to an international development agency, it's an eye-opening reminder that Laos is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Next stop is Luang Prabang, UNESCO World Heritage Site, a paradise of gorgeous Buddhist temples -- dozens of them amid shady streets that lead to the Mekong River. If you have time, Xieng Khouang, east of Vientiane, is the home of Southeast Asia's Stonehenge, the Plain of Jars, huge mysterious stone monoliths that have somehow survived bombs and guerrilla insurgents. Ecotourism is growing rapidly, and some new and interesting avenues into the Lao jungle and rivers connect remote ethnic villages (especially in the north).
If the thought of Vietnam stirs flashbacks of televised war coverage or scenes from dark movies, guess again. One of the fastest-growing destinations in the region also happens to be one of the most beautiful, friendliest, and most convenient places to travel.
Vietnam's major destinations fall in a line, and most visitors choose to travel from north to south, starting in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), or vice versa. Convenient tourist buses connect the main coastal stops, and there are increasing options for individual travelers as well.
In the south, Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is the gateway to the beautiful Mekong Delta region. Heading north, you'll pass through Dalat, a hill station in the cool mountains, and then on to Nha Trang, an emerging seaside getaway. Farther north, Hoi An is one of the region's most charming villages and a picturesque labyrinth of cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and lots of shopping. Still farther, the former capital city at Hue is filled with many architectural gems of Chinese and European influence. The cultural amalgam is best defined in Hanoi, where Vietnamese, French, and Chinese cultures collide. From here, head east to see gorgeous Halong Bay, with hundreds of craggy rock formations jutting straight up from the sea; or travel to the far north to Sapa, where you visit Vietnam's hill-tribe people in the mountains that divide northern Vietnam from China.
It wasn't long ago that Cambodia was off the map, a land plagued by general lawlessness and banditry as the result of years of strife. In recent times, visitors have braved the remnants of the country's chaos and, by hook or by crook, made their way to Siem Reap and Southeast Asia's premier cultural attraction, Angkor Wat, the magnificent temple ruins of the mighty Angkor civilization of A.D. 800 to 1200.
The good news is that, though it will take years to catch up economically with its growing neighbors, Cambodia is on the mend. It will take at least a few generations to heal after the tragic events of the mid-1970s, when the entire country was turned into a concentration camp under Pol Pot, but Cambodia is now looking to the future. Bolstered by international humanitarian aid organizations, the country is enjoying a protracted period of peace not seen in many years. Phnom Penh, the capital, and Siem Reap, the access village for the Angkor temples, are safe, and the countryside is open to more adventurous travelers ready to brave the rough roads and basic amenities and accommodations. Many still limit their trip in Cambodia to the temples of Angkor, however. Convenient direct flights from the larger cities throughout the region simplify the process.
It's important to remember that the country is still littered with UXO, unexploded ordnance, including dormant bombs and land mines. In the rural areas, it's important to stay on well-worn trails and, farther afield, to go with a knowledgeable guide. After a peaceful election in 2003, the situation in Phnom Penh is stable, but visitors should stay informed before going, as the country has a history of flash political upheaval.
All of Southeast Asia's cultures seem to converge on Singapore, making it perhaps one of the best places to begin your exploration of the region. Excellent museums explore Asian civilizations, Southeast Asian art, and even World War II history. The city's hundreds of restaurants provide a wealth of choices in terms of cuisine, offering a glimpse of many regional specialties in one stop. And some of the best regional fine arts, crafts, and antiques end up in Singapore showrooms.
Singapore gets trashed regularly by complaints that it is too Western, too modern, too sanitary -- too Disneyland. Walk the streets of Chinatown, Little India, and the Malay Muslim area at Kampong Glam, and you can see where the buildings have been renovated and many former inhabitants have retired from traditional crafts. But some of these places have a few secrets left that are very rewarding if you are observant. Over the past 200 years, Singapore has reinvented itself from many contributing cultures. If you consider the country today, you'll realize it is still keeping up that tradition.
In preparing this guide, we were confronted with problematic political realities in Myanmar -- realities that made us question the advisability of sending readers there. The brutality and unfairness of the military government of Myanmar have been met with sanctions and embargoes from the international community. Political leaders such as the resilient Aung San Suu Kyi are being punished, and any dissent is met with house arrest and prison.
Since the early 1990s, the junta has encouraged tourism, and a visit to Myanmar is in fact a unique glimpse into rich Buddhist tradition, ancient culture, and stunning natural beauty. But while some encourage tourism and believe that Western visitors give voice to the troubles of Burma, others shout for a moratorium on tourism to this troubled land, saying that visitors' dollars subsidize and support tyranny.
Because of the precarious political climate in Myanmar, we've decided to exclude the country from our coverage. Those not so easily dissuaded, however, can find more information on the subject at the Burma Project at the Open Society Institute (www.soros.org/burma) or at www.burmadebate.org. If you do decide to go to Myanmar, we suggest sticking with a reputable international tour operator. Good regional providers include Diethelm Travel (1 Inya Rd., Kamayut Township; tel. 951/527-110 or 951/527-117; fax 951/527-135; www.diethelm-travel.com) and Exotissimo Travel (#0303 Sakura Tower, 339 Bogyoke Aung San St., Kyauktada Township, Yangon; tel. 951/255-427 or 951/255-388; fax 951/255-428; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Possibly one of the most overlooked countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is one of our favorites for one very special reason: It's not Thailand. After so much time spent traveling around Thailand listening to every hawker yell, "Hello! Special for you!" and every backpacker bragging about $5 roach-infested guesthouses, we look forward to Malaysia just to escape the tourism industry. Beaches on the islands of Langkawi and Sabah are just as beautiful as Thailand's, and resorts here are equally as fine. The quaint British colonial influences at Penang, Malacca, and Kuching (Sarawak) add to the beauty, as do the mysterious Arab-Islamic influences all over the country. That's not to mention an endless number of outdoor adventures, from mountain climbing to jungle trekking to scuba diving -- in fact, the rainforest here is far superior.
Why is Malaysia so underestimated? To be honest, after experiencing the relative "freedom" and tolerance of Thai culture, many travelers find Malaysian culture too strict and prohibitive. We think it's a fair trade -- in Thailand, when we talk to Thai people, we're often treated like tourists with fat wallets. In Malaysia, when we meet locals, we end up having interesting conversations and cherished personal experiences. And we don't have to suffer through blatant prostitution and drug abuse -- the sad, sleazy side of the Thai tourism industry.
A word of caution: On April 23, 2000, a group of tourists was kidnapped from the diving resort at Sipadan Island, off the east coast of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). Abu Sayyaf, the Filipino Muslim separatists who were responsible for the incident, still remain at large in the southern islands of the Philippines close to Borneo. Exercise caution when traveling to this area.
Memories of the 2002 and 2005 bombings in southern Bali are imprinted on our collective image of the island, and no doubt the whole world is familiar with Indonesia's history of civil unrest: ethnic and religious conflict, the struggle for independence in East Timor and now Aceh, and anti-Western bombings and riots in Jakarta. Yet tourism is on the upswing in Bali, and those who visit are taking advantage of great hotel deals on an island well known for spectacular beaches, lush rice paddies, and welcoming people.
Until the bombings, Bali was the one safe haven, an enclave of upscale resorts separate from troubles on the larger islands of Indonesia. Now, in the wake of the bombings, Bali struggles to regain its international allure. The beaches remain the stuff of legend, supporting dreamy resorts that cater to anyone from families to escapist honeymooners and well-heeled paradise seekers. Watersports enthusiasts flock to Bali for surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming as well as kite surfing and windsurfing. Those who can pull themselves away from the seaside can venture into villages lively with local smiles and markets packed with eye-boggling handicrafts and treasures, or take off into the jungle or up among high volcanic peaks for rigorous trekking. The town of Ubud is set among delightful Hindu temples and gorgeous mountain scenery -- famed for its terraced rice fields -- and supports a community of local and expat artists. Bali still has much to offer, and the friendly Balinese islanders are eager to see a return of the Western visitors who've brought so much to this magical isle.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.