Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations—and it’s for good reason! Gorgeous beaches, a year-round warm to hot tropical climate, astounding historical sites, exotic wildlife and varied cuisine transport travelers to paradise. Despite its complex history and modern-day politics, most of Southeast Asia is quite safe and easily accessible for visitors.
In Thailand, you can explore limestone cliffs, azure waters, ancient temples and perfect white-sand beaches. If you’re up for a thrill, you can go hiking, ride an elephant in the jungle, kayak, snorkel or dive. The food is fresh with a delicious blend of flavors.
Cruise the Mekong River to explore centuries of history and culture in Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodia’s Angkor showcases ornate ruins from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the famous Angkor Wat temple. In the capital of Phnom Penh, you can take a bicycle taxi to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda or a local market.
Vietnam offers tasty food, friendly locals and vibrant cities. Explore the elegant boulevards, colonial buildings, lively markets and rich history of Ho Chi Minh City. Enjoy the stunning stone islands of scenic Ha Long Bay, the French influence of Hoi An, or the mosaic of Sapa—a place rich in nature as well as the traditions of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. In Hanoi, take in the mix of ancient and modern as you watch locals perform synchronized tai chi.
Borneo is a wildlife wonderland, home to the oldest rainforest in the world. Here you might spot Asian elephants, clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, and proboscis monkeys. View orangutans in the wild or at a rehab center like Camp Leakey, featured in the movie “Born to be Wild.” Many indigenous cultures flourish here as well, especially in Sarawak, reached by traveling up river by boat.
Whether you’re relaxing on a world-class beach in Thailand, bartering in a busy local market in Indonesia, or stopping to smell the spices of the Spice Islands, the many wonders of Southeast Asia create an unforgettable adventure.
Southeast Asia refers to the 11 countries between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and East Timor. The area’s rich human history dates back at least 12,000 years.
Early Southeast Asia inhabitants were expert seafarers, reaching lands as far away as Madagascar. Archaeological evidence suggests that established trade routes connected Southeast Asia to other parts of the globe as early as 5,000 B.C. Gold from Sumatra has been discovered as far away as Rome, and it is believed that a slave originally from Sumatra accompanied Magellan from Europe on his circumnavigation voyage. (If so, this slave was perhaps the actual first person to sail around the world.)
Magellan, a Portuguese sailing for Spain, was the first European to reach Southeast Asia. He arrived in the 16th century in search of the proverbial Spice Islands, which today we know as the Maluku Islands of Indonesia. At the time of Magellan’s arrival, these islands were the world’s single source of nutmeg and cloves, both of which are still cultivated there today.
The Dutch, French and British were not far behind Magellan, and Southeast Asia was soon colonized to foster European commercial interests in the region. Thailand was the only country to resist colonization and retain its independence. After centuries of occupation, many Southeast Asian countries regained their independence after World War II.
Although Southeast Asia seems far flung and incredibly diverse in culture and language, academics conclude that most Southeast Asian languages have common origins. Similarly, common views on gender, family structure, and social status exist throughout the region. Much of the diversity, including the region’s various religions, can be attributed to converging land and sea routes and the influences of outsiders since early history.
As diverse as the people and geography, the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia span a remarkable spectrum thanks to varied ecological niches. From bears to elephants, pigs to primates, the ecology of Southeast Asia is perhaps the most diverse on Earth. This region is also home to some of the last dwindling populations of Sumatran and Javan rhinoceroses.
Unfortunately, many Southeast Asian countries have been fraught with political turmoil, war and other violence since gaining independence. The area was touched by the Cold War, the Vietnam War (followed by the Cambodian-Vietnamese War of 1975-1989 and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979) and other uprisings, rebellions and political coups.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed in 1967 to foster peace and stability, economic growth, social progress, and cultural development among member nations. Today many Southeast Asia countries are experiencing high economic growth and development due in part to increased industrialization. Many of the world’s computer parts originate in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia produce petroleum and natural gas. Cash crops of rubber, bananas, coconuts, sugarcane, tea, palm old and—of course—spices bolster the region’s economy as well. Tourism continues to thrive despite complex historic and modern-day politics. Most of Southeast Asia is quite safe for visitors and is easily accessible.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER and Ashton Palmer