Wrapped in rainforests, edged by golden sands, crowned by volcanoes, studded with ruins of lost civilisations: this is Southeast Asia as you’ve always imagined it.
The soul of Southeast Asia has been forged by the elements. Mighty volcanoes have thrust the land up, and raging rivers have carved it down. Coral reefs have formed islands, and sea spray has sculpted them into surreal karst outcrops. Millennia of monsoon rain have created cultures defined by the seasons, and by the annual flooding of rivers, which double as super-highways through impenetrable jungles. In this region of rivers, oceans and islands, you're as likely to travel by boat as by road, following trade routes that were old when the great powers of Europe were young.
Spirituality swirls around Southeast Asia like the smoke from incense sticks swirls around its myriad temples. At dawn in Buddhist nations, monks flood into the streets to gather alms in endless monochrome chains. In Muslim countries, the call to prayer rises in a multi-throated chorus above rooftops. In Taoist temples, devotees fill the morning air with thick incense smoke, while tribal people in remote villages mark the new day's arrival with arcane animist rituals. Every aspect of life here has a spiritual dimension, from the food people eat to the religious geometry that dictates the layout of centuries-old mosques and temples.
Southeast Asia's mighty megacities are stepping boldly towards the future with one foot planted firmly in the past. Skyscrapers rise above streets like crystal gardens, while at street level, traders hustle, food-hawkers hawk, and temples bustle with devotees toting their offerings. For many travellers, the first taste of the region is the urban chaos of Bangkok, or the organised modernity of Singapore, but each of Southeast Asia's capitals has its own unique character, defined by religion, culture, geography and, in most cases, by centuries of colonialism and feuding dynasties. Learning the rhythms of each is part of the magic here.
Southeast Asia is both a melting pot and a cooking pot, where the flavours of some of the world's greatest cuisines melt into one another, throwing up ever more mesmerising combinations. The region's spices were once valued more highly than gold, and combined with one notable import – the South American chilli – they've created a cooking palette that inflames the senses and leaves the taste buds begging for more. This is a region where humble hawker stalls come with Michelin stars, and where a meal at a roadside canteen or night market can be as memorable as a five-star, dim sum banquet.