Cambodia is a deeply scarred country. Although peaceful now, only a generation ago its people were ravaged by civil war, a vicious, genocidal regime and unspeakable atrocities. Much did not survive those dark times, but the moated, jungle temple complex of Angkor Wat did, and remains a beacon of pride and an enduring symbol of hope for the people of Cambodia to this day. It is tightly woven into the national psyche and has featured on the country’s flag since its rediscovery in the 19th Century.
The complex was built almost a thousand years ago for the Khmer kings, but over the ages was gradually abandoned to the jungle, which steadily reclaimed its territory. Most of the temples – which are widely considered to represent one of the pinnacles of human creation – have now been fully restored. One, however, has been left in the embrace of its natural environment: Ta Prohm steals the limelight with the roots of a nearby tree cascading down its walls like molten wax.
Barcelona has Las Ramblas. Paris has the Champs-Élysées. Vegas the Strip. Bangkok’s answer to all of those? The Khao San Road, a legendary street that rampages through the heart of the city and bangs the heads of East and West together in a dizzying carnival of chaos. It’s crammed with bars, clubs and hostels, street food vendors, souvenir stands, tuk-tuks and an endless supply of touts trying to tempt tourists to the notorious ping pong shows. And it’s just the beginning.
Bangkok is an intoxicating cocktail of culture and you can binge on it without touching a drop of the lethal concoctions the Khao San Road brews up. Some of the finest temples in Asia can be found here, including Wat Pho, home of the monumental reclining Buddha, and Wat Saket, an iconic landmark which crowns a manmade mound in shimmering gold. The colourful floating market of Damnoen Saduak should not be missed, and if you have time check out a Muay Thai boxing match. Expect blood.
The festive name of this remote island, a speck in the Indian Ocean between Australia and Indonesia, is due to its discovery on Christmas Day in 1643 by British Captain William Mynors. Just 1,400 residents live on Christmas Island – now an Australian territory, despite being in a different continent – mainly on its northern tip, Flying Fish Cove. The land is of immense interest to wildlife enthusiasts: due to its isolation much of its flora and fauna, particularly its birdlife, is not found anywhere else in the world.
The most famous of these endemic species, however, is the Christmas Island red crab. Each year, 120 million of the Santa-coloured sea critters create a natural phenomenon when they leave their forest dwellings and make their way down to the sea to spawn. The annual mass migration, which takes place after the wet season (usually around November), has been described as one of the wonders of the natural world.
Halong Bay has the kind of scenery that makes science fiction movies depicting alien worlds suddenly seem delightfully plausible. Thousands of limestone karsts burst out the emerald depths in a display of extraordinary, humbling natural beauty. Indeed, it will come as no surprise that UNESCO has given its stamp of approval, listing the area as a World Heritage Site, placing it up there with the other truly spellbinding portions of our planet.
Obviously, the only way to become immersed in the scene is by boat. Numerous cruises are on offer, ranging from half-day trips to three night voyages, and everything in between. Kayaking is very popular and gives a chance to actually get inside allocated caves, which are illuminated from the inside. For those with a head for heights, climbing opportunities abound. For a bird’s eye view, helicopters will take you to the skies and sear an unforgettable image into your mind.
Utter pandemonium. From the second you step into Ho Chi Minh – still known to locals by its former name, Saigon – it grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The bamboozling labyrinth of roads, streets and alleyways are a swirling cacophony of activity and noise day and night. The first thing that will strike you – hopefully not literally – are the seething tides of mopeds that roar through the dusty, potholed streets. Crossing the road for the first time is a rite of passage.
Like any city, Ho Chi Minh has its big hitters: the Reunification Palace, whose eerie basement corridors were only a generation ago bustling with South Vietnamese military leaders tasked with repelling advancing communists from the north; Ben Thanh Market, a colourful hive of activity where tourists buy souvenirs and locals buy vegetables and sellers lightly clutch your arms as you pass through. But in truth, Ho Chi Minh is not defined in its attractions: its heart lies in its tangled streets. Find a bar with an outside table, sit down, and just soak it up.
The sparkling capital of Malaysia – locally known as ‘KL’ – serves up a wonderfully intense contrast of old and new: this is a city immensely proud of its heritage, but also one which looks forward with unblinking determination and vision. Kuala Lumpur began life as a shanty town but over the decades has evolved into one of the greatest metropolises in the world, both in a financial and cultural sense.
Most striking is the architecture. Forests of glittering skyscrapers rise proudly from the manicured streets alongside historic temples and mosques. Two of the more iconic buildings are the Petronas Towers, twined giants that reach almost half a kilometre in height and which are joined at the hip by a skybridge. The population is incredibly diverse, culturally and ethnically speaking, and this is reflected in the vast array of sumptuous cuisine, from high end restaurants to street food stalls.
This active volcano in the Indonesian province of East Java is a place of ethereal, mystical and volatile beauty. It is one of three volcanoes to have been belched up from the mouth of the Tengger caldera, a much older and larger crater, and although it is not the largest, with its classic conical shape it is the most spectacular. It’s peak is frequently ringed with mist, especially at sunrise, giving it an over-worldly feel.
The mountain is hugely significant in the culture of the local Tenggerese people. During the Hindu festival of Yadnya Kasada, they make their way to the edge of the crater to cast in fruit, vegetables, flowers, animals and other offerings in an effort to appease the mountain gods. Some actually climb into the smouldering crater itself to try and catch whatever is being thrown in, in the hope the items will bring them luck.
A purposely vague heading here, for there are simply so many of these dramatic splodges of paradise that it would be dreadfully unfair to just choose one. There are hundreds of islands sprinkled throughout the Andaman Sea (to the west) and the Gulf of Thailand (to the east), and the boat transport between them is cheap, frequent and well-organised. This means that the wonderfully evocative – but all too often impractical and expensive – notion of ‘island hopping’ is perfectly doable in this part of the world.
Which islands you visit will depend on what type of experience you’re after. The largest, Phuket, has peaceful areas, but most people visit the main city for its hard core party scene. Koh Pha Ngan is also popular with revellers, who flock in their thousands to Haad Rin beach for the monthly Full Moon parties. In terms of scenery, Koh Phi Phi (pictured) is difficult to top, and while all the islands have beaches, the most spectacular can be found on Koh Samui. For some of the best diving and snorkelling in Southeast Asia look no further than Koh Tao.
The locals of Vang Vieng, a small town in northern Laos, have discovered a rather successful recipe for some brilliantly irresponsible fun, and it’s going down a treat.
Ingredients. One tractor tyre inner tube, one river, one backpacker, lots of extremely potent alcoholic beverages.
Garnish. Jaw-dropping scenery, rope swings and a plethora of ramshackle riverside bars.
Serves… Well, about 170,000 a year, but don’t let that put you off – there’s plenty of space for everybody, the alcohol’s not running out anytime soon and the river’s not going anywhere.
Tubing, as it’s become known, began as a fringe activity about 10 years ago, but as word spread it gathered ferocious momentum, resulting in tourists in the main town now outnumbering locals 15 to one. Clearly this is not much of a cultural experience, but it is ridiculously good fun, and if you’re not completely reckless (i.e. diving into shallow water) you should escape unscathed with some of the best memories of your life.
The door to Burma isn’t exactly revolving yet, but it’s certainly ajar. After decades of civil unrest and authoritarian rule, the country is finally beginning to open up to tourism. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is the old capital of Burma and one of the most fascinating cities in the world. The element of mystery caused by years of being closed off to the outside world certainly boosts its allure, but even if this place had been welcoming stampedes of tourists for the last 100 years it would still be a highly worthy destination.
Taking (literally) centre stage in all its golden glory is the Shwedagon Pagoda, with a stupendously impressive stupa that can be seen from all over the city. Also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda, locals claim it was built 2,600 years ago, but more recent estimates date it to between the 6th and 10th centuries. Other highlights in the city are its markets and colonial architecture, but it is the warmth of the people that will stay with you the most.
Photo credits -
Khao San Road - dmmcc
Christmas Island - Jenningspony78
Ho Chi Minh - JensAar
Kuala Lumpur - Super Cab Driver
Mount Bromo - Jesse Estes
Koh Phi Phi - Mikael.zellmann
Vang Vieng - Julien Simery
Ta Prohm - Gibtach
Yangon - Gedsman
Ha Long Bay - Vukimson
"Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life" - Jack Kerouac