Known by many as the Land of Smiles, Siam now known as Thailand never ceases to amaze. From the mind blowing brightly coloured and often mouth burning food that can be eaten 24 hours a day to the brilliantly decorated festivals and celebrations that openly encompass all religions and faiths in the predominately Buddhist kingdom. The only Asian country technically never colonized by a foreign power, Thailand has been a hub for traders routes and migrants for centuries and has adopted many aspects of artisanal crafts and techniques, mixing them in with their own creativity and patient dedication.
Here you will find traditional architecture from ancients dynasties and kingdoms, mixed with European colonial era influences and stealthy modern designs, glistening temples and ancient ruins, sleek skyscrapers and decaying slums laying side by side. Countryside’s awash with a 100 shades of green, palm fringed sandy beaches on both the Andaman coast and the Gulf of Thailand and jungle covered mountains cut through with waterfalls and rivers.
Yet despite Thailand being one of the most developed countries in ASEAN with a thriving tourist industry, the majority of those living in the rural country side heavily relies on agriculture and still has a large number of communities and provinces that are severely underprivileged and living beneath the poverty line.
With easy access across land borders from 4 of its neighboring countries, Thailand is home to over a million non-resident ethnic minorities with 100,000s illegal migrants entering the country each year.
Thanks to many Royal Projects that began in 1969 by the country’s beloved monarch HM King Rama 9 focusing on the empowerment of the disadvantaged and on the protection of the environment based upon the need for self-sufficiency and conservation, there is already an awareness, with a growing trend to implement these programs for the benefit of all, both on small and larger scales.
The Golden Land previously known as Burma has a long history that dates back to 849 AD until present day despite many periods of invaders, occupation and colonization.
The Junta that ruled the strongly religious and very traditional Buddhist nation for 49 years changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989. The majority Burman (Bamar) ethnic group makes up about two-thirds of the population but is only one of more than 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar, each with its own history, culture and language. Hence the fascinating diversity of art, crafts, music and food, which is mesmerising and enchanting to say the least, yet not really known worldwide.
There is so much to see, discover and explore across the diverse topography featuring snow-capped ranges of mountain’s originate in the Himalaya’s that then dominate the north, with the east and central regions offering up a mix of dry arid zones, lush jungles, forested valleys and fertile plains, finished off with long stretches of coastline to the west and south that fringe the Bay of Bengal & the Andaman Sea. After regaining democratic rule in 2011 and opening up more to external visitors after 5 decades of military regime, it is much easier to travel through many parts of the country that were untouched and where both wildlife and flora had flourished.
Modernization is happening rapidly and not all rules or regulations are in place to protect the country’s most vulnerable resources or educate its disadvantaged people. With the influx of tourists and investment interests from countries like China the demand for these still abundant assets is growing rapidly with financial rewards almost too hard to refuse hence endangering both flora and fauna.
There are lots of issues regarding waste management and plastic pollution amongst other things, but there is a slow awakening thanks to the efforts of many foreign parties and the new government’s willingness to accept help to introduce change.
‘The Kingdom of Wonder’ is also referred to as the Khmer Republic or Kampuchea. Nestled in the middle of important overland and river trade routes linking China to India and Southeast Asia the country displays splendid mountain ranges, great flood plains, tropical jungles, deciduous and evergreen forests, vast waterways and narrow coastal plains lying in the Gulf of Thailand. The infamous and vital Tonle Sap, SE Asia’s largest fresh water lake and the only "river with return" in the world; instead of overflowing it reverses and changes direction every year.
The current day Kingdom is all that remains from the Khmer Empire which dominated and ruled during the 9th – 15th centuries. Kambujadesa’s central area of settlement was Angkor, renown for it's immense power and wealth, impressive art and culture, architectural technique and aesthetic achievements and variety of belief systems was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world during its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries.
The country was made a French protectorate in 1863 until it gained independence in 1953. Following the 1970-1975 civil war, Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge took control, which resulted in the Cambodian Genocide leaving 2 million dead before the regime was toppled by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. The Khmer Rouge continued to wreak havoc until the late 90’s and pretty much eradicated all of the wisdom, knowledge, traditions, culture, civilisations and ethnic groups across the country.
All that is left today is a tender culture influenced by Theravada Buddhism practiced by the bulk of its population. More impressive than its sparkling temples and world heritage site ancient ruins is the kindness and gentleness of the Cambodian people, despite all the pain and suffering they have endured, and sadly continue to endure to present date. Archaic education, poor health systems, rampant poverty, lack of industry and the depletion of natural resources at a rapid rate are all part of the corrupt systematic destruction of this once mighty kingdom.
The land of the 'Ascending Dragon, Viet Nam’s origins are shrouded in the mists of time and are steeped in rich oral traditions of myths and legends. Ancient mythology suggests that the ‘Viet’ people are descendants from the union of the blue dragon King Lac Long Quan and the fairy Au Co which produced one hundred offspring.
The eldest son became the first King of the thousand year Hung Dynasty, a blood line which is still commemorated as the bud from which the Vietnamese nation eventually flowered. Possessing a unique cultural and historical heritage, 19th century Vietnam was conquered by France followed by Japanese occupation during 1940–45. Followed by the 1954 division, the now 2 separate countries were dominated by war between North Vietnam’s Communist Vietcong and the South Vietnamese government until 1975. An elected National Assembly in 1976 proclaimed the reunification of the country, which technically is still a communist country with a one-party rule, known as the Communist Party of Vietnam, based on Marxist-Leninist governance to this day.
Exploring this part of the Indochinese peninsula exposes and engulfs you in heart-warming natural hospitality, Confucian traditions and the charm of 53 different ethnic groups of people and their individual ethos. Soul-stirring, breath taking landscapes are on offer across Vietnam; the north clearly boasts 4 colourful seasons while the south is typically tropical monsoon climate of dry or rainy seasons and 3,000 km of coastlines offer palm bejewelled sunny beaches and 1000s of islands along the Gulf of Thailand, Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea.
From being the third poorest country 20 years ago to becoming the second fastest growing economy in the world, Vietnam faces serious problems concerning land degradation, forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, air pollution and solid waste management. Poverty and malnutrition still exist, but have been dramatically reduced through government campaigns.
The country’s identity, though forged through highs and lows throughout history is today on the verge of becoming a robust and vibrant commercial hub and thriving travel destination in the heart of Southeast Asia.
This land locked republic in SE Asia known previously as “The Land of a Million Elephants” was first united as the kingdom of Lan Xang in 1353, after being a Khmer Empire province for four centuries. Incorporated into French Indochina in 1893, it was once the Laotian capital, losing out to Vientiane. Though Laos gained its independence in 1949, ensuing a power struggle between the ruling royalists and the communist Pathet Lao group. The country was also caught up in the Vietnam War and was severely bombed by US forces for years. Communist forces finally overthrew the monarchy in heralding years of isolation to become a republic in 1975.
Laos fosters a kind of quiet nonchalance and an atmosphere of ‘a land that time forgot’ with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang to the baffling and enigmatic Plain of Jars.
You will be charmed and intrigued by this wonderful land’s sublime mix of distinctive Asian French cuisine, its rich and diverse folk heritage, of timeworn Laotian wooden houses, half-timbered buildings, unfaltering French structures and ancient Buddhist temples which can still be found despite that past.
Generally forested and mountainous, with the Mekong River running almost the whole length of the western border, the country is a quilt of limestone mountain karsts to river gorges, rural villages stuck in bygone eras, mountain plateaus and fragile cave ecosystems, there is still so much unspoiled places to explore and immerse into.
The majority of people practice Buddhism and they are a truly friendly and laid back population despite the hardships and poverty they seem to be afflicted with.
Laos suffers from a numerous social-economic and environmental problems; Un-exploded ordnance, deforestation, soil erosion, most of the population does not have access to potable water or sanitation and many severely lack access to proper food and quality nutrition. Due to international concern about environmental degradation and the loss of many wildlife species, along with the government’s desire to preserve valuable hardwoods for commercial extraction and to protect the forest environment unique to Laos, there is now a drive to educate and help the communities to be an active part in sustainable solutions.
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The largest of all the countries in South East Asia, ‘Wonderful Indonesia’ is truly a nation of islands, counting over 18,000 of them. True to it’s ancient Javanese saying of “Unity in Diversity, Indonesia’s cuisine reflects regional, ethnic, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Western influences and greatly varies from the sea side up to the rolling hills, allowing you to explore with your taste-buds as well as with your eyes as you venture through dense primeval forests, luscious green tropical jungles home to a hundred kinds of indigenous wildlife, steep mountains and smoking volcanoes covered in cultivated rice steps and endless beaches of white shores and turquoise seas.
The Indonesian archipelago is surely one of the most unusual areas in the world as it encompasses a major juncture of Earth’s tectonic plates, spans two faunal realms, and has for epochs functioned as a huge melting pot of people and cultures from Oceania and mainland Asia, mixed with European conquerors and imperialism; factors that obviously contributed to an extremely diverse environment and society; rich in resources, traditions, craftsmanship and complex ways of life.
Officially the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesians practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and a unique mix of Shivaism and Buddhism known as Balinese Hinduism, so it may seem at times to be united only by susceptibility to seismic and volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a centralized government and a common language have provided Indonesia with more stability and sense of unison helping keep its role as an economic, touristic and cultural crossroad alive.
Around 40% of Indonesians are considered vulnerable and living beneath the poverty line, with an ever increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. In addition to lack of proper sanitation in many places, plastic pollution on land and in water sources, piles of garbage and lack of recycling facilities are huge issues for the majority of the islanders but there are local community groups working together to try to find practical and economical solutions to these issues. In recent years there has also been a move towards reducing child poverty, ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls, and ending violence against children and women.
“Caressed by warm waters, 770 miles of of golden sand ring around the island. Within those sands is green , lush green, fertile land sculptured towards the center into soaring mountains. An emerald, fringed by filigreed gold and set in aquamarine – truly a jeweled pendant” is how Leonard Woolf described Sri Lanka when it was still known by its old name of ‘Ceylon’.
A more than fair description as Sri Lanka is in fact one of the meccas of gemmology. From long rolling waves perfect for surfing, to an array of migratory birds that would excite many ‘twitchers’ and an abundance of wildlife to be captured through a lens, Sri Lanka is as bright and intricate as a traditional hand woven sarong. Amid many ancient architectural wonders you will find colonial edifices and vibrant Buddhist and Hindu temples, churches and mosques, even in the poorest of villages.
Ancient Ayurveda is still practiced and the art of spices is very apparent in every morsel of delicious food offered day or night. This small island’s rich and diverse history dates back to the 3rd century yet evidence of human occupation is 35000 years old. The Indian Ocean island played a very important part of Asia Pacific trade routes which in turn has influenced its cultures, people, religions, food and traditions.
Ruled by 181 monarchs and colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British before its independence in 1948. The country was ravaged by a 30 year war between the Northern Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, resulting in many war widows, orphans and areas of poverty that have yet to recover and the needs for assistance are still great even after years of projects set up through NGOs and other establishments.
There is an awakening at a local level not driven only by the government, which can be seen through public campaigns against sexual harassment, ‘separate at source’ recycling bins in public areas and a trend towards the old fashioned use of paper bags and reusable items instead of plastic.