In many ways, Southeast Asia is reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Like that region, its towns and cities were distributed around a sea in which sailors and traders cross-fertilized their respective civilizations. Thanks to its archeological wealth, compelling cities, beaches, singular cuisines, theatrical and religious traditions, and much more, you can find a complete 10- or 12-day itinerary that will offer a diverse, eye-opening and unforgettable experience.
With its major destinations lying a few hours away from one another by air and its hotels among the best in the world, Southeast Asia is perfect for the kind of traveler that wants to experience it on a multicountry journey. Many wholesalers have assembled packages that exploit this natural way to tour the area. At a time of soaring prices and diminishing economic prospects at home, Southeast Asia, once you’ve arrived, remains a bargain.
Southeast Asia became prominent for long-haul American travelers as early as the 1980s. At that time, Thailand emerged as the region’s most popular destination, with Bali and Singapore trailing. In the 1990s, Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) began a steady ascendance, especially in combination with Thailand, which continues to grow. As ecotourism grew in popularity, so, too, did the allure of Malaysia, where Borneo offered its singular combination of wilderness, great diving and cultural riches. The Philippines, separated from the rest of the region by a different air connectivity, sells itself as a stand-alone destination.
Though Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have wonderful airports and great connectivity to the U.S., Bangkok (with its own new airport) rules the roost as the premier gateway. Bangkok, which sells as well to shoppers as it does to culturally motivated travelers, is a great introduction to Southeast Asia, thanks to its abundance of luxury hotels and their world-class spas, its wonderland of temples and palaces, popular food and edgy nightlife. There’s nothing quite like the experience of zipping along the city’s Chao Phraya River on the 30-foot taxi-boats called hong yao. The annual Thailand Grand Sale offers discounts of 10 percent to 50 percent, and there are promotional offers by participating department stores, shopping complexes and retail outlets.
For more than a decade, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has helped market such attractions as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (a 75-square-mile tract of temples encircled by moats and towers surrounded by encroaching jungle); Saigon, Hanoi and Da Nang in Vietnam, and, increasingly, the Laotian capital of Luang Prabang and the nearby Plain of Jars. The TAT’s strategy not only affirms Bangkok’s role as a gateway, but on a cultural level, it helps visitors comprehend the rich history between the Thai Kingdom and the ancient Khmer Empire. The classical history of Southeast Asia was largely written by the clash of these two mighty cultures. Another powerhouse, Burma (now also known as Myanmar), also played an important role.
Heading west out of Bangkok, you can explore the Malay Peninsula all the way to Singapore on the Eastern & Orient Express. The train offers several packages. One seven-night program, the “Colours of Asia,” travels from Bangkok to Singapore, spending two nights each in such iconic hotels as Bangkok’s Oriental and the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, joined by three nights in a Pullman Superior on the Express. The company also runs the river cruising Road to Mandalay ship on Burma’s Irriwaddy River.
The 600 miles of ocean that divide peninsular Malaysia from Borneo also create a divide between two varied tourism experiences. The peninsula features the modern capital and gateway, Kuala Lumpur, as well one of the world’s oldest and most intriguing cities, Melakka. It’s also home to the world’s oldest rain forest, which can be visited in the Taman Negara National Park; the enchanting off-shore island resorts in Langkawi; and the old British Colonial settlement on Penang.
On Borneo, travelers visit traditional longhouse dwellings of tribal peoples, and some tours give them the chance to fish with blowguns. They can view Kuching’s anthropological museum, which explains the society of the “head hunters” and their longhouse-based communities, where entire villages live under one roof. They can also visit the Orangutan Sanctuary and stay on resorts along the island’s northwest coast. Kota Kinabalu’s charms include floating villages, rain forests and the towering Mount Kinabalu. Borneo’s Mulu Caves are reached by longboat, and are fascinating for their formations and for the thousands of bats that call them home.
With its clean modernity, Singapore offers visitors a place where travelers can relax and enjoy some of Asia’s best restaurants, hotels and bars. Singapore mixes the past, present and future almost as well as it mixes the cultural melange of its people. Singapore’s charms are rooted in a spicy history. The spice trade lured the very British Sir Stamford Raffles, who opened his trade-friendly outpost on the Singapore River in 1819. Singapore still retains the presence of the Malays, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Javanese and other spice islanders who traveled in on junks, dhows and the prahu boats of the Bugis traders. At the enclosed, air-conditioned shopping center at Bugis Junction (the former red-light district), the city has preserved an old prahu. The Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (877-227-6963, www.crowneplaza.com) is linked to Terminal 3 by covered walkways leading from both the first and second floors of the hotel. The hotel offers spa treatments that cater to the long-distance traveler, with jet-lag reflexology a feature of the menu.
In May 2008, when the State Department finally lifted its Indonesia advisory, one of the world’s great destinations returned to the fold. This 13,000-island nation is home to such amazing temple complexes as Burubudur, the Komodo Dragon, the Stone Age societies of Irian Jaya, countless tropic islands and, of course, Bali. Though tourism stakeholders don’t expect a sudden surge in North American arrivals, due largely to the absence of direct airlinks, they recognize the positive impact the lifting of the advisory will have on the destination’s global image. For more information, visit www.indonesia-tourism.com.