Travellers may be deterred by Myanmar’s bad rep, the continued bickering over the military government’s renaming of colonial-era cities and the argument of protesting the regime by non-visitation. But really, you’re just denying the locals income and yourself an experience you won’t forget.
The Burmese are some of the friendliest people you can imagine (and often the funniest, given their propensity to consider humour high art) and they’re always willing to show you around town.
The faded grace of cities like Yangon (Rangoon) is matched by markets where everything is hawked with colourful banter. There are beautiful beaches to the south that remain untouched by the tragedy of Nargis, the cyclone that hit the south, and in Bagan more than 3000 temples and shrines sit on a treeless plain. If the idea of sailing through tropical water floats your boat (we’re not going to apologise so forget it) book a tour of the Mergui Archipelago in the country’s south. More than 800 islands can be found here, many of them isolated if you don’t count the gibbons who live there. You can sometimes sail for days and see no one else apart from the occasional fisherman in a dugout canoe.
Buddhism is the main way of life – golden Buddhas and monks in their red robes are everywhere. Buffalo and farmers wading through rice paddies are the plodding essence of the rural regions and it’s here that you’ll uncover a Myanmar very much at odds with the nation’s harsh international reputation.
Lush greenery, pristine forests, the Bengal tiger and not a bad cricket team… Those are just a few of Bangladesh’s assets. It’s also the only country to have six official seasons – summer, rainy, autumn, cool, winter and spring – instead of four.
It’s a country that offers just as many reasons to visit as its more highly fancied neighbours like India and Myanmar. The historic heart of Old Dhaka is a sprawl of alleyways and markets that unravel at the waterfront of Sadar Ghat. From there, river cruises offer a more relaxed view of the city while stopping at historic monuments like Lalbagh Fort and the Baitul Muharram Mosque, one of the biggest in the world.
Find solace in the Buddhist villages of Kaptai Lake and the ruins of Bagerhat where fifteenth-century warrior saint Khan Jahan Ali ruled and lived. Sundarbans National Park contains the largest mangrove forest in the world and boat trips offer glimpses of exotic monkeys, birds, deer and perhaps even the elusive Bengal tiger.
Although not known as a beach destination, you should head to Cox’s Bazaar, where there’s a stretch of golden sand that’s 125 kilometres long. There’s been a bit of unauthorised development along the beach, so get there before this little piece of paradise is gone.
It’s so close, yet in countless ways is so far away. Beyond ever-popular Bali, there’s a plethora of other experiences in this vast archipelago. Trek to discover wildlife, including tigers and orangutans, surviving deep in the jungle in Aceh and Northern Sumatra’s Gunung Leseur National Park. Underwater enthusiasts will find they can dive just about anywhere in the country, but there are pristine scuba spots in the Tongian and Komodo Islands. And while surfers flock to Uluwatu in Bali’s south, there are far more isolated waves to be had in places like East Java, with its world-class G-Land barrels, and the Mentawai Islands.
There are more than 18,000 islands to explore across what is the world’s largest archipelago, each with its own cultural twist and geographical wonder. Generally speaking, it’s a world of terraced rice paddies, cloud-fringed mountains, traditional artistry, coffee, richly decorated temples and cities packed to the rafters.
You’ll also discover traditional communities still enacting centuries-old rituals, like the ancient Pasola Festival on Sumba, where warriors on horseback wield spears in one of the bloodiest harvest festivals you’ll ever witness. It’s raw, it’s mesmerising, it’s wild, and there’s plenty more like it to be discovered throughout Indonesia.
Often thought of as the holy grail for travellers, nothing can prepare the eyes for the visual feast that is India. From the technicolour costumes of Rajasthan and Gujarat, to the larger-than-life glitz and glamour of Mumbai’s Bollywood and spirituality of Rishikesh on the Ganges, there’s an explosion of colour and culture around every corner.
Once you have caught your breath from it all, festivals abound, there are beaches on which to play, mountains to climb and colonial history at which to marvel. Its highlights are far too many to mention, but we’ll go out on a limb and say you can’t miss Chandni Chowk in Delhi, tiger spotting in Ranthambore National Park and the spectacular Amber Fort near Jaipur. And no matter how many photographs you’ve seen of it, your breath will be stolen by your first sight of the Taj Mahal.
Despite the affluence from the recent economic boom, the riches are contrasted by the slums, beggars and the high possibility that you will get Delhi belly at some point. But if you have a sense of adventure and an open mind, India is guaranteed to change your life.