Southeast Asia has become one of the world’s most intriguing destinations. This region, which consists of countries including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar (among others), is full of unique experiences, people, foods and historical significance. And, with some dedicated time, two-three of them are easily combinable depending on how you like to travel.
For those travelers looking to learn a little more about this region, here are a few highlights:
From floating markets to grand palaces, Thailand is a true treasure to explore. The country’s rapid economic growth between 1985 and 1996 turned it into a major tourist destination, with the Chatuchak Weekend Market (one of the largest in the world), the Grand Palace (in Bangkok) and Phang Nga Bay (with sheer limestone cliffs) as major attractions
Thailand has fabulous architecture, diverse hill-tribe villages, ancient ruins, beautiful islands, excellent shopping and so much more. The balance between comfort and excitement is up to individual travelers: Stay at a five-star hotel or trek through the jungles; eat at gourmet buffets or buy fruit from local vendors; shop in glitzy malls or wander through outdoor markets. Thailand offers a curious mix of the ultramodern and the simply delightful.
- Thailand’s name in the Thai language is Prathet Thai, which means “Land of the Free.” It is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European nation.
- One-tenth of the entire population of Thailand lives in Bangkok, the country’s capital and largest city.
- There are about 35,000 temples in Thailand (visitors are encouraged to wear modest clothes, meaning no shorts or sleeveless shirts).
- The country has more birds than Europe and America combined.
- The national flower of Thailand is the orchid. If you love exotic flowers, you’ll be pleased to know that 1,500 orchid species can be found growing wild in Thai forest.
- Thailand is sometimes known as the “land of smiles” because the people seem to be always ready with a smile.
- Thailand used to be known as Siam, and it is the country where Siamese cats originated from.
- The country is made up of approximately 1,430 islands and more than 1,000 beaches.
- Buddhism is Thailand’s largest religion with approximately 94.6% of the population practicing the religion.
- The Mekong River, which forms part of Thailand’s eastern border, supports more than 1,300 species of fish.
Vietnam is a dramatic mix of old and new and has taken its rightful place as one of Asia’s most vibrant, romantic and traditional destinations. It offers a unique blend of dramatic, fascinating history in cities like Hanoi and Saigon, and relaxing seaside beaches.
The country as a whole is going through a rebirth after some of its tragedy and conflict from decades ago. Many historical sites have been fully restored, the country’s economy is booming and the infrastructure for tourism is developing rapidly. It’s truly a place where the ancient and modern coexist: Cell phones and gleaming motorbikes are ubiquitous in the towns and villages, but people still till the rice fields with the help of bullock plows.
Many of the sights to see in Vietnam are religious or spiritual ones, in keeping with the country’s long traditions of honoring multiple religions.
- In religious construction, pagodas are for worship and offerings, while temples are built to honor historical figures.
- Water puppetry is a popular art form that dates back as far as the 11th century.
- The culture is a complex adaptationof Chinese, Japanese, French and American colonial influences.
- The cuisineis well known for its balance of the five Asian elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet.
- Vietnam’s street food culture is very popular and considered by many to be one of the best in the world.
- The country is one of the biggest producers of cashew nuts in the world.
- Its literacy level is 94%.
- The rate of unemployment is one of the lowest of all developing countries in the world.
- Ha Long Bay is of such scenic beauty that it was included as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most descriptions of traveling in Cambodia lead with words such as charm, allure and peace. Some of that allure comes from a mix of cosmopolitan options, Southeast Asia history right in front of you and some of the best food in the world. Angkor Wat is an amazing architectural and cultural achievement, and Bamboo Island has roughly 30 residents (serenity pervades).
Phnom Penh is a city revitalized, and the intriguing capital has enough interest to hold visitors for several days. It is also an important business destination, and is becoming a popular port of call for Mekong River cruises. Sihanoukville, four hours south of Phnom Penh, offers nice beaches and a sleepy atmosphere. For the more adventurous, the remote and hilly provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, close to the borders with Laos and Vietnam, are worth exploring.
Though the country is not large, its geography is surprisingly varied. Central Cambodia, bisected by the Mekong River, is flat farmland, mostly rice paddies. The river floods during the rainy season (June-October), irrigating the surrounding countryside. The coastal and southeastern regions are hilly, even mountainous in some places.
- Cambodia is one of the fastest-growing economiesin Asia with an average growth rate of more than 6% in the last ten years.
- Phnom Penh is the country’s capital city.
- Angkor Wat is theworld’s largest religious monument, covering an area of more than 400 acres. Angkor Wat means “Temple City” or “City of Temples” in Khmer.
- The Silver Pagoda, part of the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh, has a floor covered with 5,000 silver tiles. Among the many treasures housed there is a solid-gold Buddha weighing 198 pounds and encrusted with 9,584 diamonds.
- Riverboats in the Mekong Delta have a set of eyes painted on the front of the boat, a tradition thought to scare off crocodiles.
- Cambodia has the largest inland lake in South East Asia called the Tonle Sap.
- There are 3 million mopedsin Cambodia for a population of over 1.5 million people.
- Cambodians do not celebrate their birthdays. Many older people do not even know how old they are.
For most of its independent existence, Myanmar (formerly called Burma) has seen a good deal of ethnic controversy and civil wars. However, in recent years the tourism structure has developed and locals are welcoming to travelers, making it among the most remarkable places on Earth. Popular sites include Shwedagon Paya, which has 27 metric tons of gold leaf, and Ananda Pahto, among the most revered of all Bagan temples.
Myanmar is a country rich in jade and gems, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources. Its slow economic growth has contributed to the reservation of much of its environment and ecosystems. Forests, including dense tropical growth and valuable teak in lower Myanmar, cover over 49% of the country, including areas of acacia, bamboo, ironwood and Magnolia champaco. Coconut and betel palm and rubber have been introduced in the area.
- Myanmar depends on agriculture for more than half of its GDP. Rice is the major product.
- The traditional Burmese dress is the longyi, a wraparound skirt worn by men and women. Men tie theirs in the front and women fold the cloth over and secure it at the side.
- You will see small children wear holy thread around their neck or wrist for protection from bad spirits or spells.
- Chinlone — a combination of sport and dance team sport with no opposing team — is the traditional sport of Myanmar.The focus is on how beautifully one plays the game. Any number of players form a circle and keep the chinlone as long as possible in the air by kicking it soccer-style from player to player, using any body part except the hands.
- Myanmar is one of only three countries in the world that has not adopted the metric system of measurement. The other two holdouts are Liberia and the United States.
- Tea leaves, lahpet, are fermented and eaten in the nation’s most beloved dish, lahpet thohk– tea leaf salad.
- Those chalky swirls you see on the cheeks of women and children is thanaka– a cosmetic paste made from the bark of selected trees. The wearing of thanaka has been happening for at least 2,000 years; it is said to keep skin smooth and protect against sun damage.
- Roughly 135 ethnic groups make up the people of Myanmar and it’s ranked 75 most culturally and ethnically diverse country in the world.
Want to learn even more about Southeast Asia, or hear about Pique Travel Designer Erin Green’s recent trip there? Email her at ErinG@PiqueTravel.com.