There is something in the air of this region –or perhaps it’s the water– that makes everything, absolutely everything, run at a different pace from the rest of the world. And by having its own rhythm, it becomes the most seductive place on Earth.
Southeast Asia is not just a region, it is a state in which body and soul align to live the same experience, which is seasoned with a series of surprising wonders that fill the eyes completely. If there is one thing that these coordinates have, it is the ability and talent to turn any getaway –however brief it may be– into a journey that nourishes the spirit.
If this adventure had to start somewhere, the gateway would be Myanmar, the northernmost country in the southeast, famous for Shwedagon, a complex of golden pagodas that has become one of the country’s favorite tourist sights, whose Buddhist faith provides endless reasons to be explored from beginning to end. Of course, the ancient capital and most populated city –Rangoon– as well as the Golden Stone and the coexistence with the Padaung, women with very long ringed necks, are just more elements to convince you to start this trip on the right foot.
The next stop is the kingdom of Thailand, which, as exotic as its name, promises much and disappoints little or nothing. Here, dragons found their home and took over the cornices of the most impressive temples in the entire Asian continent. In Thailand you find yourself in a world apart and far away from the usual Westernism; it is a place where cultures meet, understand, embrace and complement each other. The best example of this is reflected in its cuisine.
Rich in spices, capable of mixing chicken and pork in the same dish, with a salty, sour, sweet and spicy taste at the same time, the Thai culinary tradition is a journey that the taste buds need to experience at least once in a lifetime, because like life itself, all flavors are needed to achieve a true balance.
Speaking of balance, get ready for an exciting and adrenaline-filled experience in Bangkok, the second most visited city in the world, only behind Hong Kong. And when you find yourself at the highest peak of your emotions, it will be time to travel to the most authentic part of this region that is filled with endemic traditions. Phuket, Chiang Mai and the Phi Phi islands are just some of the many stops you need to make if you want to discover the true Thai personality.
We continue with Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Although these three territories are neighbors, they hold little resemblance to each other. In Laos, waterfalls, caves, tigers and a way of life that follows the Buddhist philosophy await. It is perfect for pure ecotourism, but also ideal for unearthing the treasures of former French Indochina, because just like Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos was once part of the French colonies, which has touched the local culture in a particular way.
From Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, Vietnam represents a thriving future and a deep respect for the history of a stoic and magnificent nation. As the most populous country in the Indochina peninsula, the possibilities are endless and include turquoise beaches, otherworldly landscapes, ancient imperial cities and –of course– the most endearing Vietnamese postcard: meandering rice paddies that create a beautifully hypnotic stamp.
From the floating villages of the Tonle Sap Lake to the beautiful white beaches of Koh Rong, Cambodia is an unexpected place with secrets so hidden that nowadays it still holds a large part of its geography as virgin territory. Among so many treasures ready to be discovered, there are two that are a real privilege to admire: the Mekong and Angkor Wat. The first is a river that crosses the nation and has served to reveal more about Cambodian culture. The second consists of the perfect ruins that nature has claimed as its own. These are the pride of the country to the extent that they even appear as a depiction on their national flag.
Before leaving mainland Southeast Asia, let’s make two stops. The first is Malaysia, where Islam and Buddhism have managed to coexist and have provided the Malays with a rich range of customs and traditions. Thus, between majestic mosques and Buddhist sculptures that even make their way into the caves, Malaysia offers a series of surprises for which you must have a well-trained jaw. And just when you think nothing more could surprise you, the national star appears: Kuala Lumpur, which looks modern and futuristic with its incredible Petronas Towers.
And speaking of the future –at a worldwide level– it has permanently settled in Singapore, our second stop. This city-state is small, but don’t be fooled. This is the most industrialized country in all five continents, thanks to an effervescent economy that has turned it into an “Asian Tiger” –a name given to countries in the continent that grow at over seven percent per year, uninterruptedly–. Thus, everything the sun touches is synonymous with progress, wealth, technology and innovation.
Leaving the mainland behind, it is time to dive into the waters of the many seas of this region: South China, Java, Celebes, Jolo, Banda and Timor. All of this with the intention of discovering the other members of Southeast Asia. But let’s start at the beginning, that is, with Indonesia.
Made up of only islands, Indonesia has turned a thousand cultures into a single nation. It is home to the famous Komodo dragon and three of the great apes that exist on Earth: the Sumatran orangutan, the Borneo orangutan and the Tapanuli orangutan. For this reason, Indonesia is considered a sanctuary that harbors its own unique and exotic flora and fauna.
But the Indonesian lands also include the busy and always vibrant city of Jakarta, which contrasts with the relaxing vocation of Bali, the star of local tourism that has every reason for you to settle here: crystal clear waters, a rich cultural life and many ways to demonstrate that tourism and care for the environment are not at odds.
Brunei is a riddle worth solving. Bandar Seri Begawan is the best place to start your Bruneian journey. Just like any Islamic country, the capital of this sultanate promises incredible mosques that echo at prayer time, but it is also a starting point for various nature reserves and national parks that together preserve the habitat of more than 150 species, including panthers, monkeys, lizards and snakes.
From Brunei, let’s head north to our next destination: the Philippines. Here lies one of the Natural Wonders of the World: the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a place that can be perfectly described with just one word: SPECTACULAR. However, it is not the only Philippine natural jewel. Proof of this are the Palawan landscapes, the mountains of chocolate in Bohol and the island of Las Palmas, which offers surfers the perfect waves.
But on Philippine soil you will also find Manila. It is the epicenter of this region and a national cultural bastion. Manila offers rich traditions that, unlike other places in Asia, are connected to Christianity, a Spanish legacy that has lasted through the centuries and has taken on a personality of its own.
To round off this tour of Southeast Asia with a flourish, let’s travel to the first sovereign state that gained independence in the 21st century: East Timor. A former Portuguese colony and later, Indonesian. It is a nation with a unique syncretism, where Catholicism meets Islam head-on. However, it is also a natural paradise eager to be explored. Between protected parks, sacred islands and virgin beaches, this is the perfect place to reconnect with the true purpose of life: happiness.
Welcome to Southeast Asia… a powerfully seductive place.