A vast legacy of cultural and historical heritage is embodied in the Southeast Asian region and its peoples. Everywhere, the inspirational landscapes, awesome nature and fine ornate architectural features have left an indelible legacy, which imbues the whole area with fascinating discoveries for the visitor.

THE GRAND MONUMENTS

 

A succession of empires have left their mark on Southeast Asia, both culturally and physically, most notably at Angkor, with artistic development easily rivalling that of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and monumental building cultures of central and southern America, so oft regarded as the pinnacle of pre-industrial endeavour. 

The vast tomb construction at Xian in China, guarded by the Terracotta Warriors, dating to the third century BC is a classic and still to be fully explored example of the capability of Oriental builders. The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the great wall are the inheritors of these imperial ambitions.

The impressive structural phenomena scattered across vast tracts of Indochina and Northern Thailand began in earnest with the Khmer Hindu empire, founded by Jayavarman II in 780 AD, which governed almost the entirety of Southeast Asia, and spurred by an advanced agricultural economy driven by highly sophisticated irrigation, devoted itself to staggeringly prolific architectural endeavours over several centuries.  

For many, the profound architecturally refined symbolism wrought from the chisels of the Khmer was most artfully envisioned in their most famous and most visited creation, the stunning Angkor Wat, a riot of harmonious sculptural complexity of ingenious integrity and grandeur, completed around 1150 AD. 

A rival contemporary of Angkor is found in the vast Burmese city of Bagan, in modern day Myanmar, regarded by many as its equal, while as far away as Indonesia, the Javanese Prambanan temples show the vast spread of these great expressions of Hindu cosmological architecture.

 

The once splendorous ancient Hindu culture of Southeast Asia has almost everywhere been supplanted by later cultural overlays, the single exception to which is the Indonesian island of Bali, the last surviving enclave of this ancient Hindu Culture outside India, sitting in the Islamic culture which now dominates all of Malaysia and the rest of Indonesia, a culture which itself has produced some fine monumental buildings among the plethora of mosques which now proliferate these regions.

The reasons for the eventual collapse of the Khmer empire are still not fully understood, but modern theorists, with topical acumen, now cite environmental degradation as a major factor, leading to the collapse of their legendary water-engineering miracle, with predictably disastrous consequences for their economy.

Whatever the causes, rival military powers who had previously paid tribute to Angkor, such as the Cham in Vietnam and the Thais to the south, were quick to fill the void. The Cham were themselves builders of worthy monuments, the remains of which are still to be found in central and southern Vietnam, the most notable example of which is its one time capital at My Son, but it was the Thais who inherited the mantle of monumental building with the founding of their first great capital, Sukhothai, in 1238 AD.


Other Thai Kingdoms vied with Sukhothai for supremacy, such as the Lanna Kingom and Ayuthaya, close to modern Bangkok, who eventually absorbed Sukhothai in 1378 AD. Ayuthaya’s dominance itself was sorely tested by the Burmese, and the growing influence of European powers, but is spite of setbacks, prospered until 1767, when the Burmese, themselves no stranger to great architectural achievement, finally destroyed the great city, which even in its ruinous state still inspires awe in visitors today. 

The Thais quickly recovered their kingdom and set up their new capital at Bangkok, which remains to this day home to some very fine examples of the legacy of beautiful Asian architecture, but the period of vast monumental building begun in Angkor a thousand years earlier was finally eclipsed. 

The spread of Buddhism has also given rise to fabulous architectural gems throughout the region, from the monastic culture of Tibet, the related Dzongs of Bhutan, and the numerous pagodas of Myanmar. The interrelation of Buddhism with the later stages of the Angkor is obvious in structures such as the Bayon and likewise, as far afield as the mighty Javanese structure at Borobadur. 

THE COLONIAL LEGACY

Thailand, uniquely among the countries of Southeast Asia, although often pressured, was never occupied by the European powers as they sought control of Asia’s wealth. However, the voluntary assimilation of European architectural styles is visible at the courtly pavilions at Bang Pa In, close to the remains of Ayuthaya. 

Elsewhere, the European heritage remains profoundly visible throughout Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, though the hated colonialist emblems of the latter were most wilfully set upon by the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, and much of this heritage has been destroyed or left to crumble.

The countries of Indochina were absorbed into the French empire, often notable for the brutality of its rule. Had more gentle and inclusive governance prevailed, the leafy Parisienne grace that lingers in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia might have been better preserved, but instead led inexorably to the horrors of the Vietnam War which also engulfed Laos and led to the dark disaster in neighbouring Cambodia. 

With indigenous victory now maturing into self-confidence in their cultural identities, the influences of French culture are now being better appreciated and preserved, and filtered through intelligent hybrid design into modern fusion styles with much to please the eye.

Tree lined avenues, baguettes and café culture still pervade the streets of Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Vientiane, and are now much enjoyed by the cool mobile phone, internet savvy, scooter culture of Indochina’s youth. 

In Malaysia, the British themselves found much to admire in Asian architecture, and employed many of these features into its colonial buildings, some fine examples of which are to be found in Kuala Lumpur, a good example of which is city's old railway station.

Although British rule was quite naturally and deservedly resented, being often bluntly imposed, it was intrinsically more inclusive than the French model, and there lingers still, even in the modern era of Islamic antipathy to the west, an appreciation of the British heritage, both in its buildings and infrastructure. 

Indeed, the success of post-independence Malaysia has derived much benefit from the principles of the British who, although certainly acting out of self-interest, actively encouraged Malays to undertake administrative tasks in the governance of their country, thereby providing the accumulation of experience that enabled successful transition. 

The British influence is most notable in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and the strawberries and cream tea legacy of the Cameron highlands. In Malacca, the colonial impressions are more complicated, the economic prosperity of this lively, once crucial port having attracted several competing interests, the most visible of which is that of the Portuguese.

Portuguese legacy is also present, and best preserved, in the delightful old town area of Macau, easily accessible overland from China or via a short ferry ride from Hong Kong, itself still retaining vestiges of British Colonial memory, and both are well worth the visit if you are in that neck of the woods. British colonial heritage, though less cherished by its current government, is also abundant in Myanmar.

Another delightful colonial area can be found at the Bund, in Shanghai's historic waterfront, now a trendy place to stroll both day and night and features many fine European structures. Perhaps the strangest legacy of colonial influence in China is the almost bizarre Thames Town, near Shanghai, a Chinese modern replica of an English market town.

The Spanish influence in Southeast Asia in confined solely to The Philippines and, although much of this heritage found ruin during the conflict that raged in and around these islands during the Second World War, some well-preserved areas still exist in several towns, most notably Vigan, in Luzon.


ETHNIC HERITAGE 

Over millennia, Southeast Asia has been suffused with a culturally diverse intricacy of ethnic strains, evident in enclaves everywhere across the region, which, although largely subsumed by the essentially modern national cultures of the various countries, provide a colourful richness of the tapestry of humanity at their very heart and soul.

By far the largest of these ethnic groupings is, of course, that of the Chinese, who have pervaded everywhere, with their characteristic temples and clan houses a vivid feature in many locations, but it is the subtle interlacing of smaller ethnic groups that endear the traveller, from the numerous tribes and Head-hunters of Borneo and the Philippines, the remarkable Sea Gypsy communities of the Mergui Archipelago, Malay Peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago, to the distinctive costumery of the bewildering multiplicity of interrelated ethnic minorities spread throughout Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and southern China.

For many visitors, visits to floating and land-based markets are the most easily obtainable ways to interact with this living heritage, but for adventure enthusiasts and ‘off the beaten track’ travellers, remarkable opportunities to meet and even stay with local families of diverse ethnic groupings, provide a deeper insight into the reality of these micro-cultures.

Rice is the major crop throughout the east, and the remarkable achievements of the early indigenous peoples inhabiting Southeast Asia, which underpin the region’s entire cultural development can be best appreciated in the stunning and shapely ricefields of the Dragon’s Backbone in China, Sapa in Vietnam, Bananue in the Philippines and the Jatiluwih rice fields in Bali.


The greatest treasure in the world is found, as everyone instinctually knows, not in gold and riches, but in the simplicity and health of a harmonised being from which all other potentialities in life flow, and without which all is destined to wither. 

The insight and depth of understanding of the motion of the life force through the human body prevalent in the Asian healing arts is already fairly well understood in the West, and there is no better place to benefit from the ancient expertise of its practitioners than in the countries featured here.

The wealth of treatments available which have their origin in Yoga, Tai Chi, Reflexology, the many forms of Massage, Aromatherapy, Herbal treatments and Spa therapies are available in some form almost everywhere in the east, but from the tourist perspective, these highly pleasurable treatments are best enjoyed in resorts at a number of locations throughout the region which specialise in these arts, providing not only exemplary practitioners, but set in luxuriantly tranquil surroundings within resorts that also cater in style to all your other holiday requirements

In Vietnam, these are largely clustered around the central coast, especially near Mui Ne at the Evason Hideaway, Victoria and Life resorts. In Thailand, a premier spot is the Anantara resorts of Chiang Rai and Ko Samui. Even in the thrumming hubbub of Bangkok, an excellent herbal massage awaits in Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha. For Malaysia, Pangkor Laut Resort offers almost every treatment of the East in its dedicated luxurious spa village. Bali is the Spa capital of Indonesia and has innumerable Specialist resorts. 

NATURAL HERITAGE

Perhaps the most appealing heritage of Southeast Asia is the stunning and unique topographical features which has influenced the inner shape of the emergent soul of its mystical cultural identity, in particular, the fascinatingly evocative karst limestone geological creations, which present some of the loveliest natural views to be found on the Planet.

The most beautiful of these shapely features are found at Guilin, Wullingyuan and Huangshan Mountain in China; Ha Long Bay and Tam Toc Bich Dong in Vietnam; Vang Vieng in Laos; Krabi, Phi Phi and Phang Nha Bay in Thailand and El Nido in the Philippines.


Another profound natural feature in the northern part of the region is the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalaya, whose snow-capped spiritually uplifting landscapes serenely straddle Bhutan, Southwest China and northern Myanmar.

Although, as with the world over, modern life and the greed which fuels corruption and illegal practises has dramatically diminished much of the regions’ wild areas, the forests of Southeast Asia continue to host a staggering array of plants, animals, insects and birds and include some of the oldest forests in the world.

Southeast Asia also has a beautiful oceanographic heritage, which, though similarly under threat, contains the world’s most rich underwater environment, in the area known as the Coral Triangle.

WAR SITES 

If the symbols of human creativity draw much admiration from visitors, it is also true that the darker side of human endeavour has a curious fascination. 

Engendered by the intransigence of the French to relinquish the colonial noose, the rise of communism as a focus of the yearning for independence fatefully coincided with a powerful American administration’s anathema to such doctrines, who, by employing secret interference, financial and military support of corrupt regimes, ultimately left the downtrodden no other voice and only hastened the onset of bitter and bloody conflicts in Vietnam, with disastrous consequences also for its neighbours.

Many of the war sites are visited by remaining veterans or their relatives, particularly from America and Australia to connect with the reality of those times, and conciliation of once fierce enemies is a happy consequence of many of these visits, leading to an understanding of the conflict from all perspectives in memory of the many who died on all sides. 

These sites are also often visited by other travellers, with no direct connection to the conflict, but who have an interest in sensing the palpable history of such events. 

Even now, however, some areas of Vietnam, Cambodia and particularly Laos are strewn with unexploded material, and local guides are therefore essential. If you wish to visit some of the famous battle zones of the DMZ, our experts are on hand to advise and, where necessary, obtain permits.  

Safe sites like the Vinh Moc and Cu Chi Tunnels are commonly visited by all kinds of tourists, and provide much insight into the conflict.

 

My Lai, scene of the infamous massacre, which played a significant role in the shaming of the USA among its own people during the conflict, also has a compelling appeal. 

Any visitor to Hue and nearby My Son Sanctuary will, as a matter of course, unavoidably witness the damage wrought by B52 bombers on these historic buildings.

In neighbouring Cambodia, America’s secret war would eventually result in the disastrous emergence of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. A great many visitors to Phnom Penh take the opportunity to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the nearby ‘killing Fields’ memorial at Cheong Ek.

An earlier conflict, the Second World War, is the focus of Veteran and other interested parties to the Bridge on the river Kwai, with a trip on the notorious death railway and a visit to the memorial cemetery a feature for those visiting Kanchanaburi in Thailand.

In the Philippines, there are a number of sites relating to the action of the American battles with the Japanese in World War II and the seas around Subic Bay and Coron are renowned dive spots for visiting some of the naval wrecks of both nations.

Country: Vietnam
Type of holiday: Adventure, Heritage, Beach, Trekking, Wildlife
Destinations: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Con Dao Archipelago
Duration: 15
Guideline price: US$ 3008     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

A delightful tour suited to those who want to leave conventional tourism aside and really connect with the culture and environment of Vietnam, visiting the usually unvisited villages of the northern and central highlands and culminating with a visit to Con Dao Island. Travellers wishing to model a tour on this template should be aware that, in some village locations, the local river will provide your only bathing and washing opportunities.
Country: Vietnam
Type of holiday: Heritage, Luxury
Destinations: Hanoi, Hue, Ho Chi Minh City
Duration: 12
Guideline price: US$ 4096     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight:
Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

This twelve day luxury tour revives the memory of the French colonial heyday in Vietnam, with overnight stays in some of the iconic hotels of the era, exploring the legacy of the French presence in Indochina and the Vietnamese sights that in turn inspired the colonisers. The tour includes visits to Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, the historical imperial city of Hue, Saigon and Dalat.
Country: Laos
Type of holiday: Classic, Heritage
Destinations: Vientiane, Northern Laos
Duration: 6
Guideline price: US$ 662     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

This short tour of the cultural highlights of Laos visits the capital, Vientiane, and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, and is a perfect addition for travellers visiting neighbouring countries to discover the unique delight of Laotian life.

Country: Laos
Type of holiday: Classic, Heritage
Destinations: Vientiane, Northern Laos, Southern Laos
Duration: 12
Guideline price: US$ 1954     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

This 12 Day tour visits the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and the charming UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, and a sojourn to the 4,000 islands of the Mekong River. In harmony with the relaxed Laotian pace of life, the tour features plenty of free time to explore your surroundings and imbibe the unique ambiance of this remarkable country.

Country: Cambodia
Type of holiday: Classic, Heritage
Destinations: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap
Duration: 5
Guideline price: US$ 623     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

This 5 day tour gives provides a thorough in-depth exploration of the ancient Angkor Empire, from its earliest structures, through to the pinnacle of its wondrous architectural, engineering and cultural achievements, The tour also explores the country’s capital, Phnom Penh and the more recent, less worthy, history of the Khmer Rouge era.

Country: Thailand
Type of holiday: Classic, Heritage
Destinations: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Krabi and beyond
Duration: 14
Guideline price: US$ 2702     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

This 14 day comprehensive tour visits the Capital Bangkok and the nearby ruins of the World Heritage site at Ayutthaya, before travelling north for an in-depth exploration of the cultural nuances of northern Thailand, with visits to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Hong Son, featuring an elephant ride, bamboo rafting and meeting the ethnic minorities of the northern lands. The tour concludes with a spell of relaxation on the delightful beaches of Krabi in southern Thailand, which can be easily extended to visit other southern resorts.
Country: Cambodia
Type of holiday: Heritage, Beach
Destinations: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville
Duration: 8
Guideline price: US$ 914     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

This 8 day tour is in many ways a microcosm of human existence from the pinnacles of human endeavour in the exalted civilisation of Angkor, to the abhorrent aberration of human depravity of Pol Pot and his brutally insane regime of the 1970’s and finding resolution in the lives of modern day Cambodia and some reflective relaxation on the beaches of Sihanoukville.
Country: Laos
Type of holiday: Heritage, Cruising
Destinations: Northern Laos, Vientiane, Southern Laos
Duration: 9
Guideline price: US$ 2424     (per person for Superior accommodation)
Highlight: Sample travel plan only: for a ‘no obligation’ comprehensive itinerary within 24 hours, click here.

A combination cruise and overland tour of Lao’s highlights, with visits to the unique atmosphere and scenic countryside of historic Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and an exploration of the waterways and river-islands of the Mekong River in Champasak province.

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