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. This tropical realm is hemmed in by jungle-clad mountains to the north and the countless islands of Indonesia to the south. Fertile valleys grow most of the world’s rice, providing the staple for some of the best cuisine on earth.
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. 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 Burma. 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 Angkor Wat but suffering from extreme poverty and poor infrastructure.
Burma has the potential to be an amazing travel destination if the iron grip of the military government is ever broken. Its ancient Buddhist cities like Pagan 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.