Far East

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South East Asia is a magnet for travellers from all over the world, and it is easy to see why. It's not only the enchanting islands, the amazing cities, the dense jungles and the majestic rivers that draw people in. The region enthrals its visitors with its array of rich and diverse cultures, its all-pervading spirituality and mysticism, its thousands of years of history, and the welcoming and generous warmth of its people.

Mainland and Maritime

South East Asia is generally defined as comprising the countries between eastern India and China, and these can be grouped into mainland countries, and maritime, or island, countries. The mainland countries are part of the Asian continent, and include Burma or Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Maritime, or island, south-east Asia includes Japan, Singapore, Indonesia (including Bali), the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia -- the peninsular part of Malaysia is attached to the continent, but the country also includes part of the island of Borneo.

 

Shaped by the Landscape

There are marked differences in physical environment between mainland and maritime south east Asia, and these very much influence the life of the people, as well as the experience for travellers. One feature of the mainland areas is the very long rivers, particularly the Mekong, which passes through every single country, and plays a crucial role in the lives of the people. The rivers have carved out the extensive lowland plains, which are separated by forested hills and mountain ranges. The fertile plains enabled the establishment of settled cultures based on rice growing, while the mountain ranges are inhabited by tribal groups, with distinctive and colourful identities and cultures.

The islands of south east Asia range from very large, like Borneo, Sumatra and Java, to tiny dots on the map, but what they nearly all have in common is their mountainous, jungle-clad interiors making land travel difficult, so the main means of transport is by boat. The seas surrounding the islands are warm and not very salty, an ideal environment for fish, coral and marine life. Apart from the Philippines, the area is generally free from hurricanes, but contains many active volcanoes.

Monuments to the Divine

The outstanding motif running through the incredibly diverse peoples of south east Asia is spirituality -- the awareness of elemental forces and their power to shape the lives of communities and nations. All the great monuments of the region are built for the divine, and provide some of the most iconic sites for travellers to visit in almost every country. Apart from the well-known resplendent temples of Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, and the mystical structures throughout Bali, less well known but equally awe-inspiring are the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, and the golden monasteries of Luang Prabang in Laos, which infuse the city with an air of transcendence throughout.

Probably one of the most prodigious monuments of the entire region is the temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, so vast that it takes several days to visit, and called one of the greatest human creations in history. Then there are the Bagan Temples of Burma -- a vast plain with literally thousands of magnificent, intricate temples rising out of a canopy of palm and tamarind, built by the kings of Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries. For the visitor who wants to experience the sublime while escaping from the crowds, this is the place.

Many Hidden Treasures

Away from the temples, the region has so much to offer that is like nowhere else on earth. There is cruising in Vietnam's dazzling Halong Bay, the Bay of Descending Dragons, with its more than 2,000 islets jutting out of the water -- you can land on them, explore them and climb the rocks. There are the stunning, unearthly landscapes of Indonesia's volcanic belt, in particular the Mount Bromo National Park, and the desolate beauty of the Sea of Sand.

There is more than enough in Thailand alone to keep visitors spellbound for several weeks, from the great temples and floating markets of Bangkok to the sensational islands and beaches in the south, and in the north the hill tribes, the Golden Triangle and the elephant treks. Little Laos is one of the hidden treasures of the region, with its mountains and rainforests, and the astonishing Four Thousand Islands in the wider reaches of the Mekong River. And for urban excitement in an exotic setting, few places on earth can compete with the cosmopolitan city states of Hong Kong and Singapore.

While both the history and modern-day politics of the region are complex, most countries are safe and welcoming, and travelling around is easy and convenient. Any one country provides more than enough for one visit, but if you do have the opportunity to travel from one to another, you can witness how the way of life changes, and appreciate the incredible kaleidoscope of landscapes and cultures that is represented here. You will just be at the beginning of a journey of discovery which you will not complete in a lifetime.