Tucked in the southeast corner of the world, this amalgamation of countries is well-known throughout the world for its amiable weather, splendid beaches, eccentric culture and budget-friendly travel. Often cited as the favourite corner of the world for backpackers and adventure seekers, it offers a surreal blend of exquisite views (ranging from blue waters to abandoned islands to volcanoes and mighty mountains), a tasty and rather, unusual cuisine (from prawns and fishes to octopuses and even tarantulas), dirt cheap prices (but extraordinary experiences Š in music, art, culture and nature) and some of the best air connections in terms of quick, cheap flights Š making travel easy and fun.
>Beaches, blue water and an abundance of water activities - scuba-diving, snorkelling, surfing, diving etc. >National parks and sanctuaries mean unique flora and fauna >Hiking and trekking opportunities >Best of Southeast Asian culture - a surreal experience in its own >Excellent, wacky food
>Travelling in summer is nearly impossible due to heat and humidity >Poor hygiene in some parts >Too crowded in certain places/traffic can be nerve-wracking >Pick pocketing and stealing is increasingly becoming common
Popular countries in Southeast Asia include - Singapore (island country; most economically prestigious), Thailand (most popular tourist destination with crowded city centres and beautiful beaches, mountains and islands), Indonesia (comprises of 18,000 islands spanning 3 time zones; exquisite sights and unique flora and fauna), Malaysia (diverse life with a flux of both cities and jungles), Cambodia (historically and culturally rich especially in terms of architecture), Vietnam (exquisite food; considered best for backpackers), Myanmar (land of beautiful temples and rivers) and Philippines (home to over 7,000 spectacular islands) and Laos.
Cheap accommodation is easy to find in Southeast Asia Š depending on oneÕs budget and expectations. While pre-booking is advised, finding a room on foot isnÕt necessarily difficult either as a number of options are available year round: hotels: range from low-budget to luxurious; bargaining for rooms and hotel organized tours is recommended, home-stays: most popular in the area especially for an authentic cultural and social experience, guesthouses: more popular in the remote regions of the continent; cheap, clean and basic private rooms are usually available, hostels: the most popular accommodation in Southeast Asia involves bunking up in dorms with strangers and cooking your own food; definitely the cheapest and most convenient way to get around, and beach huts: range from standard to luxurious; common on islands and beaches.
Southeast Asia's culture is majorly influenced by its colonizers as well as the hegemons of the region Š India and China. Indian and Chinese influence is particularly heavy on Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao cultures in terms of faith, folklore, language and writing. Malaysia and Indonesia have additional influences of Arab culture; Singapore and Philippines are more global and include a large number of American, Japanese and Mexican settlers. It is a religiously diverse continent - Malaysia and Indonesia are predominantly Muslim; Philippines is Roman Catholic; Countries in northern Southeast Asia practice Buddhism and Hinduism. All the countries in the region have different languages and hence, they are not mutually usable. English is widely understood however, but picking up some phrases/words from the local languages can be useful and even essential when staying for long periods.
The main and most famous Southeast Asian staple is rice, closely followed by noodles of all kinds. Rice and noodles, are thus, teamed with almost all the dishes to form majority meals in the region. Fruits are available widely, sold in almost every nook and corner of the continent- popular choices include mangoes and the giant durian Š mostly revered as a challenging, daredevil fruit infamous for its pungent smell. Street food including snacks like fried fish, prawns and crabs are widely available in these countries and should not be missed. In beverages, rice-based alcoholic drinks such as Thai whisky, tuak, arak etc are popular, cheap and extremely potent. Beers are not to be missed - San Miguel (Philippines), Singha (Thailand), Bir Bintang, Angker Beer (Indonesia), Tiger Beer (Singapore and Malaysia) and Beer Lao (Laos) are the most popular brands.
>Some areas in Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines and Thaliand are considered low-level insurgent and politically unstable. Tourists should therefore remain cautious and avoid travelling at night. >Some terrorist activities and bombings have been reported in the past decade Š tourists should avoid risky areas and keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. >Pickpockets and thieves are common in crowded areas so travellers are advised to keep their belongings safe, especially in overnight buses and trains. >Bargaining while shopping is common, especially in roadside markets.
Some popular night-time destinations/activities in Southeast Asia include: Bangkok, Thailand: for its numerous clubs and bars - the Sukhumvit strip, from Asoke to Thong Lor and Ekkamai, is home to over a hundred clubs; The Khaosan Road area is BagkokÕs biggest nightlife district, popular amongst the young. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: for its popular clubs and bars such as the Chill Sky Bar and Carmen in District 1. Kuala Lampur, Malaysia: for its Bukit Bintang, Bangsar and TREC entertainment districts, popular for their polyhedric music scene. Yangon, Myanmar: Unique music influenced by a range of sources Š punk bands, vibrant bars and dance clubs are becoming common in the city. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: known for its Malioboro Street where young musicians flock in coffee shops, singing late into the night. Boracay, the Philippines: famous for dance clubs and bars, beautiful white beaches and a perpetually energetic party crowd.
Considered a shopping haven, Southeast Asia is home to both high-end, branded goods and cheap, budget-friendly street goods. The most popular cities for shopping include Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore. Street markets, however, remain a central part of daily life in these countries and are recommended for dirt-cheap/counterfeit items or for local goods, as well as an authentic shopping experience. Towns like Chiang Mai in Thailand and Ubud in Bali, Indonesia for instance are well-known for enormous markets that sell traditional artworks. Customers can buy directly from local artists or have custom-made dresses, jewellery, furniture etc made.
Major festivals in Southeast Asia: 1. Songkran, Thaliand (Bangkok / Chiang Mai) - Celebrated in April, this marks the Buddhist New Year. Soaking oneself and others in freezing water as a cleansing ritual and adding a handful of talcum powder to the wet mess is just one of the crazy practices during this festival. 2. Chinese New Year, Singapore (January) - Dragon parades, fireworks, drums and huge feasts mark the Chinese New Year and Singapore is perhaps the best place to witness these celebrations. 3. Thaipusam, Malaysia (Jan-Feb) - One of the largest Hindu festivals - people visit the Batu caves as part of an 8 hour pilgrimage beginning at Sri Mahamariamman Temple. People apply body paint, wear colourful garments and even pierce various body parts to pay respect to Hindu Lord Murugan. 4. Aguman Sanduk, The Philippines (January) - A unique cross-dressing affair takes place in Manila based on an old tradition which ends in a joyful parade across the streets. 5. Loi Krathong, Thailand (November) - Celebrated largely in Chiang Mai, thousand of paper lanterns are released into the night of the full moon and tiny lotus-shaped boats (krathongs) made of banana leaves, with a candle and other offerings are also floated on rivers and lakes across the country.
Depending on the areas you go to, Southeast Asia varies from adequately clean and hygienic to outright dirty and unsanitary. In terms of public toilets, squat toilets are easily found, more so than American toilets - and should be used as they involve no touching, hence minimizing the risk of contracting infection. Travellers are also advised to carry hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes with them. Facemasks should also be worn when travelling through crowded markets and city centres. Do not use tap water for drinking purposes. For people with delicate digestive systems, unclean or poorly cooked street food might lead to poisoning, diarrhoea or infection - tourists should be cautious about what they're eating/drinking at all times.
>While handshakes are now an accepted Western custom in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, a traditional greeting called the wai -- similar to a prayerful gesture -- is the official protocol of Thailand. >First names are not to be used to address locals until enough familiarity has been established. >At restaurants and especially as a guest in a private home, formality and respect is expected at all times. The oldest person or head of the house is always seated first and may even take the first bite of food. >While criticizing the government may be becoming commonplace, refrain from making offensive/personal remarks; also making disrespectful remarks about Thailand's royals could result in a fine. Reverential behaviour is expected around images and statues of Buddha. >Chewing gum is illegal in Singapore, and there are heavy fines for spitting, loitering and jaywalking.