Its modern face is dazzling, but China is no one-trick pony. The world's oldest continuous civilisation isn't all smoked glass and brushed aluminium, and while you won't be tripping over artefacts – three decades of round-the-clock development and rash town planning have taken their toll – rich seams of antiquity await. Serve it all up according to taste: collapsing sections of the Great Wall, temple-topped mountains, villages that time forgot, languorous water towns, sublime Buddhist grottoes and ancient desert forts. Pack a well-made pair of travelling shoes and remember the words of Laotzu: 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'. Few countries do the great outdoors like the Middle Kingdom. China's landscapes span the range from alpha to omega: take your pick from the sublime sapphire lakes of Tibet or the impassive deserts of Inner Mongolia, island-hop in Hong Kong or cycle between fairy-tale karst pinnacles around Yangshuo. Swoon before the rice terraces of the south, take a selfie among the gorgeous yellow rapeseed by Qinghai Lake, or hike the Great Wall as it meanders across mountain peaks. Get lost in green forests of bamboo or, when your energy fails you, flake out on a distant Hainan beach and listen to the thud of falling coconuts.
On the surface Japan appears exceedingly modern, but travelling around it offers numerous opportunities to connect with the country's traditional culture. Spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), sleeping on futons and tatami mats, and padding through well-worn wooden halls to the bathhouse (or go one step further and sleep in an old farmhouse). Meditate with monks or learn how to whisk bitter matcha (powdered green tea) into a froth. From the splendour of a Kyoto geisha dance to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden, Japan has the power to enthral even the most jaded traveller. Japan is a long and slender, highly volcanic archipelago. It's over two-thirds mountains, with bubbling hot springs at every turn. In the warmer months there is excellent hiking, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines (the latter founded by wandering ascetics). In the winter, all this is covered with snow and the skiing is world class. (And if you've never paired hiking or skiing with soaking in onsen, you don't know what you've been missing.) Meanwhile in the southern reaches, there are tropical beaches for sunning, snorkelling and diving.
Adored around the world, Thai cuisine expresses fundamental aspects of Thai culture: it is generous, warm, refreshing and relaxed. Thai dishes rely on fresh, local ingredients – pungent lemongrass, searing chillies and plump seafood. A varied national menu is built around the four fundamental flavours: spicy, sweet, salty and sour. Roving appetites go on eating tours of Bangkok noodle shacks, seafood pavilions in Phuket, and Burmese market stalls in Mae Sot. Cooking classes reveal the simplicity behind the seemingly complicated dishes, and mastering the market is an important survival skill. The celestial world is a close confidant in this Buddhist nation, and religious devotion is colourful and ubiquitous. Gleaming temples and golden Buddhas frame both the rural and the urban landscape. Ancient banyan trees are ceremoniously wrapped in sacred cloth to honour the resident spirits, fortune-bringing shrines decorate humble homes as well as monumental malls, while garland-festooned dashboards ward off traffic accidents. Visitors can join the conversation through meditation retreats in Chiang Mai, religious festivals in northeastern Thailand, underground cave shrines in Kanchanaburi and Phetchaburi, and hilltop temples in northern Thailand.
The world’s fourth most populous country is like 100 countries melded into one: a kaleidoscope of a nation that sprawls along the equator for 5000km. Indonesia is a land of so many cultures, peoples, animals, customs, plants, sights, art and foods that it defies homogenisation. The people are as radically different from each other as the variety of landscapes you'll see, with every island a unique blend. Over time, deep and rich cultures have evolved, from the mysteries of the spiritual Balinese to the ancient animist belief system of the Asmat people of Papua. This intoxicating land offers some of the last great adventures on earth. Sitting in the open door of a train whizzing across Java, gazing out at an empty sea while on a ship bound for the Kei Islands, hanging on to the back of a scooter on Flores, rounding the mystifying corner of an ancient West Timor village or simply trekking through wilderness you’re sure no one has seen before. The great thing about adventure in Indonesia is that it happens when you least expect it. An orang-utan swinging through the trees? Surfing breaks on remote islands? Yes and yes.
The catchy tourism slogan ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ continues to ring true as this country really is a potpourri of Asian cultures. Muslim Malays, religiously diverse Chinese, and Hindu and Muslim Indians all muddle along with aboriginal groups (the Orang Asli) on Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo’s indigenous people, scores of tribes known collectively as Dayaks. Each ethnic group has its own language and cultural practices which you can best appreciate through a packed calendar of festivals and a delicious variety of cuisines. The icing on Malaysia's verdant cake is the chance to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat. The most common sightings will be a host of insects or colourful birdlife, but you could get lucky and spot a foraging tapir, a silvered leaf monkey, or an orangutan swinging through the jungle canopy. The oceans are just as bountiful: snorkel or dive among shoals of tropical fish, paint-box dipped corals, turtles, sharks and dolphins. Even if you don’t venture outside the urban centres, there are excellent opportunities for wildlife watching at places such as the KL Bird Park or Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
With more than 7000 tropical islands to choose from, the Philippines is a beach bum's delight. There's an island to suit every taste, from marooned slicks of sand in the middle of the ocean, to volcanic fantasy-scapes concealing hidden lagoons, to sprawling mega-islands such as Luzon and Mindanao. Sun worshippers and divers should head straight to the Visayas, where island-hopping opportunities abound and the perfect beach takes many forms. More adventurous travellers can pitch a tent on a deserted stretch of coastline in Palawan and play solo Survivor for a few days. We've all had it happen: your trip to paradise is ruined by torrential monsoon rain. Rather than let the weather defeat them, in the Philippines travellers can embrace meteorological uncertainty and use it as an excuse to go with the flow. This is a place to dispense with advance bookings and, when the going gets rough (or wet), migrate to fairer climes. Domestic travel is cheap and fun, and is best done spontaneously. Do your homework too – Palawan and the western seaboard are pretty darned wet from July to September, so go east during this time (unless there's a typhoon brewing).
Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims. Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation's labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it's impossible to forget Vietnam's pivotal position close to the epicentre of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities' skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.
Decorum plays a major role in Korean people’s generosity to outsiders, and their instinctive graciousness possesses a highly endearing quality. Helpfulness abounds, whether it’s at a tourist office, asking someone for directions or finding yourself deep in a conversation with a stranger. Time-honoured Confucian principles have set a template for strong civic pride in a society that is introspective, perhaps, but also decorous and affirmative. You may pass glorious landscapes and gaze out across dazzling seas but don't forget, half of your travel journey will be about the people, and the Korean tribe are a joy to be among. South Korea’s compact size and superb transport infrastructure mean that tranquillity is always within easy reach of urban sprawl. Hike to the summits of craggy mountains – some of which transform into ski slopes come winter – enveloped within densely forested national parks. Get further off the beaten path than you thought possible by sailing to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk welcome you into their homes or simple seafood cafes. Gaze up at the distant stars from serene villages surrounded by rice fields, sleeping in rustic hanok (traditional wooden house) guesthouses.
‘This is Burma', wrote Rudyard Kipling. ‘It will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ Amazingly, over a century later, Myanmar retains the power to surprise and delight even the most jaded of travellers. Be dazzled by the 'winking wonder' of Shwedagon Paya. Contemplate the 4000 sacred stupas scattered across the plains of Bagan. Stare in disbelief at the Golden Rock at Mt Kyaiktiyo, teetering impossibly on the edge of a chasm. These are all important Buddhist sights in a country where pious monks are more revered than rock stars. In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government in more than half a century. Sanctions have been dropped and Asian investors especially are coming to do business. Modern travel conveniences, such as mobile-phone coverage and internet access, are now common. But the economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are largely confined to the big cities and towns, and large swaths of the country remain off limits due to ongoing ethnic conflict. The Burmese military continue to play a key, if less visible, role in politics. The new Myanmar is very much a work in progress.
Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire, which, during the Angkorian period, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur in Southeast Asia. The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is sublime and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra. Experience the rhythm of rural life and landscapes of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms in Cambodia's countryside. The South Coast is fringed by tropical islands dotted with the occasional fishing village. Inland lie the Cardamom Mountains, part of a vast tropical wilderness providing a home to elusive wildlife and a gateway to emerging ecotourism adventures. The mighty Mekong River cuts through the country and hosts some of the region’s last remaining freshwater dolphins. The northeast is a world unto itself, its wild and mountainous landscapes home to Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and an abundance of natural attractions and wildlife.
You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Scores of travellers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of uncertainty kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.Now, however, all that has changed. The country is moving forward quickly as more and more people discover its myriad charms. Lying between the more trodden parts of India and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka's history, culture and natural beauty are undeniably alluring. It's the place you haven't been to yet, that you should. When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride. And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds. And you're always just a short hop from something utterly new.
The Nepal Himalaya is the ultimate goal for mountain lovers. Some of the Himalaya’s most iconic and accessible hiking is on offer here, with rugged trails to Everest, the Annapurnas and beyond. Nowhere else can you trek for days in incredible mountain scenery, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal, cosy lodge and warm slice of apple pie await you at the end of the day. Then there's the adrenaline kick of rafting a roaring Nepali river or bungee jumping into a yawning Himalayan gorge. Canyoning, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and mountain biking all offer a rush against the backdrop of some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.
Laos cherishes many of the traditions that have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. It's hard to believe somnolent Vientiane is an Asian capital, and there's a timeless quality to rural life, where stilt houses and paddy fields look like they are straight out of a movie set. Magical Luang Prabang bears witness to hundreds of saffron-robed monks gliding through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region’s iconic images. Intrepid travellers will discover a country untainted by mass tourism and Asia in slow motion. Travellers rave about Laos for a reason. Adventure seekers can lose themselves in underground river caves, on jungle ziplines or while climbing karsts. Nature enthusiasts can take a walk on the wild side and spot exotic animals such as gibbons or elephants. Culture lovers can explore ancient temples and immerse themselves in Lao spiritual life. Foodies can spice up their lives with a Lao cooking class or go gourmand in the French-accented cities. And if all this sounds a little too strenuous, then unwind with a spa session or yoga class. Laos has something for everyone.
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