Sublime spirituality combines with intricate architecture, breathtaking nature and vibrant cities to make Southeast Asia an open-hearted wanderer's dream. It's not surprising, then, that this part of the world - particularly Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia - has become an immensely popular backpacker trail, drawing ragged travellers from across the globe on quests of self and cultural discovery. But you don't have to be disheveled or in need of spiritual clarification to enjoy this three-week itinerary: moving between the cultures and nature of seven fascinating countries, it will delight and inspire anyone with a pair of eyes, ears, or just a functioning set of taste buds.
For a truly breathtaking introduction to Southeast Asia, fly into Myanmar's capital Yangon, take a day to explore the city's conglomeration of British, Burmese, Indian and Chinese architecture, and then catch a train or bus out to Bagan. Bagan was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Pagan between the 11th and 13th centuries, a kingdom that has left the most astonishing architectural legacy. Sprinkled across the rolling plains and hills on the site of the ancient city are the remains of over 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas, their intricate domes and towers rising above thickets of trees. Gaze over this landscape from a distance, then walk down into it, wandering among the diverse and beautiful structures. There's no better introduction to Southeast Asian spirituality.
Photo by François Hogue/Flickr.
Following a brief introduction to the region's religion and architecture, Laos is the ideal place to discover Southeast Asia's natural world. Much of the country is wilderness, from the Mekong Delta lowlands in the south to the jungle cloaked hills in the north. To experience this, catch a bus out to the northern town of Vang Vieng. Here, you have two options, depending on your preferences: Vang Vieng is a bar-crammed backpacker hangout, so you can spend a night losing yourself in this hedonistic world. Alternatively, if this sounds like your vision of hell, head straight out to the natural attractions near the town: a series of stunning limestone karsts, studded with shadowy caves that contain Buddhist statuary and the occasional glimmering lagoon.
Photo by Basil & Tracy/Flickr.
From Vang Vieng, travel north, moving deeper into Laos's beautiful rural world, aiming for the town of Luang Namtha. From here, you can arrange treks into the surrounding hills populated by Khmu hill tribes. A wonderful two-day trek, known as the Ban Nalan Trail, runs through rice fields and rain forests vibrant with wildlife. It also passes through a couple of Khmu villages, where you can see traditional cultural practices such as basket weaving and rice pounding. Certified guides accompany travellers walking the trail, and they may be able to arrange a home-stay and evening meal with a Khmu family.
After a few days in the Laos wilderness, you'll be ready for a little life and buzz again, so head to Vietnam's capital Hanoi, a vibrant blend of French and Vietnamese style and architecture. Immerse yourself in this rapidly evolving capital, for centuries a slumberous ancient city that in recent decades has begun to develop, fast. Navigate through shoals of roaring motorbikes into the picturesque Old Quarter, where hawkers hound travellers just as they've done for hundreds of years. Feast on outlandishly cheap Vietnamese food from an atmospheric street stall, then wash it down with a beer while watching the ebb and flow of the city. Take a day to dip into some of the city's many museums, being sure to check out the grand and slightly eerie Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can see the Communist leader's body pickled and presented like Comrade Lenin in Moscow.
Photo by - FMD -/Flickr.
Tucked into Vietnam's east coast is one of Southeast Asia's most beautiful natural sights, Ha Long Bay. Over 2,000 islands are scattered across the glittering green surface of the Gulf of Tonkin, shards of limestone jutting up from the ocean bed and raising their lightly forested heads into the open air. Cat Ba Island is a good base to start from, but, as well as the obligatory boat trip around the islands and their many cool-aired caves, arrange to stay overnight in a boat on the bay, so you can see its beauty irradiated by sunrise, sunset, and a myriad of glimmering stars.
If you've any breath left by this point, prepare to have it whipped away. Located in northern Cambodia, encompassing over 400 square kilometers, Angkor Archaeological Park contains some of the most spectacular ancient ruins on earth. These are the remains of the Khmer Empire, which existed from the 9th to the 15th century, and they include the world's largest pre-industrial city as well as the biggest single religious monument on the planet, Angkor Wat. Equally spectacular is the Bayon Temple, adorned with exquisite stone-hewn decorations. A liberating way to explore the site is by bicycle; you can rent one from the town of Siem Riep and then cycle the six kilometers to the park. You'll have plenty of time to study the intricate symbolism of the temples, and discern the recurring mythical motifs.
Head back west and return to Southeast Asia's frenetic urban world by delving into its most notorious city, Bangkok. Take a couple of days to eat well, drink well, and explore the city's legendarily active streets, losing yourself in the color and bustle of this gloriously unpredictable city. And intersperse the sensuous indulgence with a visit to the city's incredible historic and religious sites, such as Wat Pho, another mesmerizing Buddhist monastery which contains a huge gold statue of a reclining Buddha. Then, from Bangkok, travel to see the other side of Thailand on the island of Koh Samui, a lush natural paradise situated in the Gulf of Thailand. Drowse on the island's palm-studded beaches and arrange a half-day hike through the virgin rainforest covering its interior.
From Thailand, travel to Borneo's northernmost state of Sabah and take a few days to explore the best of the island's panoply of natural treasures. Start by visiting Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, situated on the fringes of a virgin rainforest which resounds with the cries and calls of its wild inhabitants. Here, stroll the boardwalks in the reserve and venture out onto walking trails through the rainforest, looking out for orangutans, macaque monkeys, hornbills, snakes, lizards, tortoises, spiders, and a plethora of alien-looking bugs. From there, head to Mount Kinabalu, a 4000-meter mountain with a jagged pinnacle of granite spikes piercing the clouds that circle its summit. You can ascend the mountain or, if that is too much, take a leisurely stroll through the rainforest cloaking its lower slopes.
Finally, finish your expedition in style in the quintessential Southeast Asian destination, Bali. Yes, it's well-trodden, but somehow it retains its magic (so long as you eschew the temptation to disappear into Kuta's warren of backpacker bars for the entirety of your stay). Ringed by a rugged coast that folds into the softest of white sand beaches, its interior is equally dramatic, as lush rice terraces give way to bare volcanic slopes. Visit a handful of the island's fabulous endowment of Hindu temples, which express spiritual yearning in a wildly diverse range of styles. Try your hand at surfing, or sample some of the seriously spectacular scuba sites. Dip into the various local delicacies - unique in Indonesia due to the popularity of pork - and, perhaps, allow yourself to party a little. It's easy to make trips to other islands, too, perhaps to see the remarkable Borobudur Buddhist temple on Java, or to encounter the world's largest living reptile in Komodo National Park. And when you finally, painfully have to drag yourself back home, Ngurah Rai International Airport is a hub of international flights for the entire subcontinent.