The cluster of countries that make up Southeast Asia are some of the most colorful and exotic on the planet and tend to be well-geared to tourists. They pack in a huge amount of diversity, from the tropical beaches of Thailand and the street life of Vietnam to the ancient temples of Cambodia and the glinting towers of Singapore.
It’s this mix of different smells, sights and sounds — the muzzy scents of the rainforest, the startling orange of monks’ robes, the honk and clamor of a heat-baked city — that gives Southeast Asia its magic.
Arrival numbers of U.S. visitors are healthy: Vietnam reported a 12 percent increase in U.S. visitors across 2016 as a whole (to 552,644), while Cambodia saw a 10 percent increase (to 187,717) in the 10 months to October. Singapore had a two percent increase in U.S. visitors (to 420,452) over the same period. Thailand is routinely the most popular destination in Southeast Asia, and provisional figures suggest that the number of U.S. visitors last year exceeded 2015’s figure (of 867,520).
The relatively short distances between key destinations make the region highly suited to multi-center vacations. Among the options, Bangkok and Phuket are often sold together, as are Singapore and Bali. Elsewhere, it has become feasible to take in the highlights of, say, Vietnam and Cambodia in one trip.
Cruising has grown into another popular way of experiencing the region — Cox & Kings has added two new southeast Asia cruise itineraries and CroisiEurope has introduced a new Mekong vessel for 2017. Regardless of how clients choose to enjoy the destination, it remains somewhere with superb potential for creating intense, unforgettable travel encounters.
Singapore has enjoyed something of an image overhaul in the past decade. The island city used to be seen as somewhere clean and efficient but lacking in serious attractions — a description that couldn’t be levelled at it now. Studded with swashbuckling modern architecture, including the iconic three-towered Marina Bay Sands, the city presides over an ever-expanding range of theme parks, showpiece sights and luxury resorts. Cultural tourists are well catered for by Singapore’s mix of different influences. Chinatown and Little India share the city map with grand colonial remnants such as the famous Raffles Hotel, while the ultra-modern “super trees” of Gardens by the Bay and the 150-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens hold genuine wow-factor. Food, meanwhile, is a national obsession. The cuisine draws on flavors from across Asia, and can be sampled everywhere from fine dining restaurants to atmospheric “hawker center” food courts.
When Seabourn’s newest ship, Seabourn Encore, made its maiden voyage in January, it embarked on a 10-day sail around Indonesia. It was a suitably exotic choice. The nation is huge, comprising thousands of islands and hundreds of different ethnic groups, and is known for everything from its wildlife to its volcanoes.
It’s also well-stocked with tourist-friendly beach resorts, particularly on the island of Bali. Nearby Lombok is another gem, and the enormous island of Java is seen as the heart of the country, playing home to the world’s largest Buddhist temple and the megalopolis that is the capital city of Jakarta.
Conical-hatted farmers in verdant rice paddies; half-remembered jungle scenes from war films; streets rammed with fruit-sellers and swerving mopeds — Vietnam comes with no shortage of preconceptions attached, but it overturns all of them. Today’s country is a first-rate travel destination, full of exotic verve and glorious natural scenery.
Among the most obvious attractions are Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), positioned at the north and south of the country respectively. Hanoi’s highlights include superb street food and the busy atmosphere of the Old Town; its location is a further draw— sitting within reach of the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay, known for its steep limestone islands.
Ho Chi Minh City, meanwhile, has some beautiful period architecture and is well placed for visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, a fascinating remnant of what’s still known here as “the American War”. Other top attractions are the beaches of Nha Trang, the once-imperial city of Hue and the historic waterside town of Hoi An, which in late 2016 welcomed the country’s first Four Seasons Resort.
The country’s mix of steamy jungle, ancient Khmer culture and sleepy towns have helped Cambodia become an established stop-off on the Southeast Asian circuit, but there’s no doubting its headline attraction. The awe-inspiring Angkor Temples are established as true world wonders, and many tourists come simply for the chance to see these millennium-old complexes in person.
Angkor Wat itself — the largest religious monument on Earth and a vision of exquisite symmetry and symbolism — is the star of the show, but a number of other temples are scattered close by. These include Bayon, decorated with giant sculpted faces, and the root-covered Ta Prohm, which famously appeared in the film Tomb Raider.
The temples are by no means Cambodia’s only attraction. Capital city Phnom Penh is a hubbub of palace spires and heaving markets, and gives insight into the dark years of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. One popular option is to experience Cambodia on a river cruise. It’s possible to sail from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, with many vessels continuing on to Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Temples.
Landlocked Laos draws less attention than neighbors Vietnam and Cambodia, but offers huge reward. Highlights include the beautiful riverside town of Luang Prabang — a UNESCO World Heritage Site with legions of temples and saffron robe-clad monks — and the easy-going capital Vientiane. French influence from the colonial era is still apparent.
Tourist numbers to Myanmar (formerly Burma) have swelled significantly in recent years, thanks in part to political reforms, and the country is now a significant part of the region’s overall charm. For clients in search of classic Southeast Asian sights, Myanmar’s blend of lush rice paddies, golden stupas and towering temples is an evocative one. Cruises on the Irrawaddy River have become increasingly common, with the key route linking Bagan — famous for its hundreds of temples and stupas — and Mandalay. Inle Lake, where fishermen leg-rowers can still be seen, is another big draw, as is vibrant Yangon (Rangoon).
With a multi-ethnic make-up largely comprising Malay, Chinese and Indian inhabitants, today’s Malaysia represents an intriguing pot pourri of Asian cultures. Capital city Kuala Lumpur mixes modern towers with period architecture, while the popular, beach-fringed islands of Penang and Langkawi offer colonial-era heritage and dreamy tropical resorts respectively. On Malaysian Borneo — separated from the rest of the country by the South China Sea — tourist interest tends to focus on the island’s rainforest and the opportunity to climb Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia.
The dazzlingly scenic archipelago of the Philippines is slightly set apart from the rest of Southeast Asia — both literally and culturally — but still holds huge allure. Away from the diving, surfing, island-hopping and postcard-friendly beaches, it’s also a multicultural country known for its lively festivals, colonial towns and jungle-clad mountains.
The Land of Smiles has had reasons to frown in recent years, dealing with matters from terrorist incidents to the death of its long-standing monarch, but it remains enormously popular among international tourists. Overall visitor numbers were up nearly 9 percent in 2016, to a record total of 32.6 million. Thailand offers a sumptuous mix of sunshine, long beaches, delicious food and heady cultural attractions — not to mention a global reputation as a nightlife destination.
Operators based on the U.S. West Coast last year named Thailand as the Asian destination with the highest client satisfaction — marking the fourth consecutive year the country has won the accolade. Its appeal is partly down to the sheer number of islands, resorts and experiences it offers. Colorful cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai attract plenty of tourist attention with their temples, bars and markets, but the headline draws are the beaches, with palm-dotted islands such as Ko Pha-Ngan, Ko Samui, Ko Chang, Ko Phi Phi and Phuket leading the way — and each offering their own distinct character.