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Sunday, December 27, 2009

VIETNAM

Vietnam is an utter assault on the senses; it is at once dizzying, frenetic and fascinating. Yet it is lovable. The Vietnamese are friendly and endlessly generous, and travelling the country is nothing but a delight. The cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are both chaotic and captivating: the capital Hanoi is the focus for arts in Vietnam and has been since its foundation in the year 1010, while Ho Chi Minh, still referred to as Saigon, is the business hub, but no less interesting. The imperial city of Hue offers a well-preserved insight in to Vietnam's proud past.

Bustling street life

Life in urban Vietnam is conducted on the streets. In
bia hois (pavement pubs) men sup ice-cold beer and nibble on boiled quails eggs. Odours from makeshift food stalls fill the nostrils: see steaming pho, a noodle soup with various unidentifiable chunks of meat, or grilled chicken feet. Along nearly all the moped-clogged streets produce is sold. Tubs wriggle with live sturgeon, crabs and frogs (still a delicacy from French colonial days), baskets are top heavy with colourful and bizarre fruit, and every possible piece of a pig is on sale.

Traditional country ways
Rural Vietnam is entirely different. Just a short distance from the cities, water buffalo wallow in green rice paddies and elegant women wearing traditional conical headwear cycle along dusty paths. Vietnam's remarkable geography, from the lush Mekong Delta in the south to the remote Sapa valleys in the north, demonstrates a traditional way of life.

THAILAND

Each year Thailand is discovered by millions of visitors, drawn to its pristine beaches andaquamarine seas, as well as its rich culture, glitzy shopping malls, chic boutiques and colourful markets crammed with bargains.

With its enticing mixture of established destinations such as
Phuket and Hua Hin, and out-of-the-way palm-fringed islands, Thailand appeals to the most varied of travellers, whether they are craving barefoot luxury or hippy chic. From staying on a converted rice barge, clambering into a jungle tree house or bedding down in a hill tribe village, Thailand offers a wealth of choice for every taste and budget.

Pampering is an art form in Thailand, and throughout the country
spas offer authentic treatments whether it's in a 5-star luxury resort or a beach-side hut. If it's pulse-raising excitement you are after, head to the hectic sprawl of Bangkok's futuristic high-rise buildings.

Early morning is when the
saffron-robed monks leave the sanctuary of their wats(temples) to receive alms from the people, be it in a dusty village or on crowded city streets. Buddhism is a way of life here and the Thai's are also strong supporters of their monarchy. In fact, His Majesty King Bhumibol is the longest reigning monarch in the world, since coming to power in 1946.

Following the end of absolute monarchy, Thailand moved towards
democracy, but this was thwarted by the military, which has often staged coups in protest at government policies. The most recent was in September 2006 when a bloodless coup overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and replaced him with an interim prime minister until elections at the end of 2007.

For all this, Thailand has risen above the economic collapse of 1997, SARS and avian influenza as well as the devastating tsunami in December 2004, to become a hugely popular destination on the long-haul tourist

SINGAPORE

Cultural melting pot and dazzling example of the region's economic successes, wealthy Singapore assails the senses of the first time visitor.

The former
British trading post and colony has carved a unique niche for itself in its two short centuries of existence, nowadays offering a vivid combination of ultra-modern skyscrapers, remnants of tropical rainforest and colourful ethnic urban areas, each with a character very much of their own.

One of the most noticeable features of this tiny but bustling city-state is its cleanliness - indeed, it is sometimes criticised for its many seemingly petty regulations, such as the banning of chewing gum - but crime is virtually unknown, and it is one of the
world's safest places to visit.

Despite its rather sanitised reputation, though, Singapore is anything but dull. The visitor is spoilt for choice, for things to see and do, and in terms of
vibrant nightlife, its rich cultural mix, and a whole planet's worth of culinary experiences. Singapore is a veritable feast for the senses, a heady mixture of the familiar and the exotic.

It suits all budgets, too, presenting a happy collision of opposites - grand and expensive at the famed
Raffles Hotel, but low-key and cheap (but good) in thefood markets of Bugis Junction and Clarke Quay.

Philippines

Although composed of 7,107 islands (7,108 at low tide), with a total coastline longer than that of the USA, most of the population of the Philippines lives on just 11 islands. The country offers warm tropical waters, coral gardens with beautiful marine life and dramatic drop-offs on the sea bed.

Inland, the
rich history and culture of the Filipino people, the dramatic landscapes andthriving cities fascinate the visitor. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is also its heart and soul. It sets the rhythm of life in this archipelago and is a pulsating hub that blends the Oriental with the Occidental, the traditional with the modern, the mundane with extraordinary.

The islands were occupied by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, during WWII, only achieving
independence in 1946. The country has suffered from frequent natural disasters, and has pockets of violent rebellion. Povertyand the country's debt burden are also very high, explaining the high number of Filipinos residing abroad.

Infrastructure projects involving airports, expressways, inter-island transport and even the currently almost non-existent railway system are part of a 10-point development agenda until 2010.
Travel and tourism will surely benefit, asairports nationwide are being constructed or renovated to accommodate larger planes and more visitors

MYANMAR

But for its brutal military regime, the beautiful country of Myanmar (previously known asBurma) would be a popular tourist destination tempting visitors from across the globe to explore its dense forests, abundant wildlife, friendly people, rich culture and underdeveloped coastal resorts.

However, would-be tourists face a difficult choice in whether to come. On the one hand, there are many attractions: thousands of
pagodas, fascinating culture and ancient towns among them. And tourists are welcomed with open arms by locals hungry for news of the outside world, and for their economic contribution.

On the other hand, it is argued that tourism directly funds the military regime. The pro-democracy resistance figure
Aung San Suu Kyi is one of many who have asked tourists to resist travelling to Myanmar for this reason.

Travellers should also be aware that certain areas in Myanmar are currently out of bounds owing to the political disturbances of recent years; always seek advice before planning a trip.

MALAYSIA

Malaysia, which celebrated 50 years of independence in 2007, is one of the rising stars of South-East Asian tourism, a nation looking to the future while cherishing the ways of the past. Centuries of trade combined with a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and tribal influence have created a mix of peoples and culture that make it a colourful and intriguing place to visit.

Tropical island resorts and endless white, sandy beaches offer a taste of paradise, while beneath warm coral seas, world-class divesites await exploration. Orang-utans, the oldest rainforest in the world, city skyscrapersand majestic mosques and temples, plus a gorgeous coastline, are enough to tempt even the most jaded visitor. And if that were not enough, Malaysia's culinary credentials are among Asia's finest.

The
British were relatively late arrivals to the region in the late 18th century, following Portuguese and later Dutch settlement, but they played a key role following the European wars of the 1790s and, in particular, the defeat of the Netherlands by France in 1795. TheFederated Malay States were created in 1895, and remained under British colonial control until the Japanese invasion of 1942.

After Japanese defeat in 1945, the 11 states were once again incorporated as British Protectorates and, in 1948, became the
Federation of Malaya. In 1963, the Federation of Malaya merged with Singapore and the former British colonies of Sarawak and Sabah, on north Borneo, to form modern Malaysia. Singapore seceded to become an independent state in its own right in 1965, leaving Malaysia in its present form.

Its convoluted history highlights why Malaysia is so ethnically and
culturally diverse. Even better, the magnificent landscape is no less fascinating - dense jungles, soaring peaks and lush tropical rainforests harbour abundant and exotic flora and fauna.

LAOS

This land-locked mountainous country is gaining a reputation as an ecotourist destination. Its many rivers criss-crossing the country and unspoilt national parks are ideal for activities such as trekking, kayaking and caving. The capital, Vientiane, and the other major towns have been spared major modern developments with traditional and colonial architecture still dominant.

Tourism newcomers
Laos is one of the few Communist countries left in the world. Until 1988, tourists were not allowed access to Laos, but now it is perfectly feasible to travel all over the country, preferably with a recognised tour company, although plenty of backpackers do it independently. The number of tourists is expected to continue increasing over the next few years as more and more people discover the delights of this laid-back country of mountains and rivers.

Unspoilt and undeveloped
For now, Laos remains relatively isolated and undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is more like a big village than a crowded Asian hub and life throughout the country is slow paced. Most people come to Laos and make a brief tour of Vientiane and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang with perhaps a brief detour to the mysterious Plain of Jars. But those who make the effort to explore further afield will be well rewarded with luscious landscapes, friendly people and unique glimpses of a country hardly changed for over a century.

INDONESIA

The islands of the Indonesian archipelago are strung like beads across the equator. Clear blue seas lap pristine beaches, gentle breezes carry scents of spices and flowers, and divers are entranced by the ocean's riches. Inland, dramatic volcanic ranges tower above a green mantle of terraced hillsides and lush rainforest.

Bali, Lombok and Jakarta
Bali offers an image of paradise: stunning scenery, gentle sarong-clad people and sunsets of legendary glory. On peaceful Lombok, life moves at a slower pace, while bustling Jakarta exhibits Indonesia's cosmopolitan, modern face.

Adventure

Komodo Island's ‘living dinosaurs' and the entrancing ‘sea gardens' of Suwalesi invite exploration, as do Borobudur's architectural treasures, which include 5km (3 miles) of Buddhist relief carvings. Adventure-seekers head for Kalimantan's remote jungle interior or explore Sumatra, with its teeming wildlife and wealth of tribal groups.

History

Long-term president, General Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 after decades of keeping control of the country in his own hands. It wasn't until September 2004 that the first ever direct presidential election was held when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected. The government is taking a strong stand against terrorism and tourism is slowly returning to the numbers experienced at the end of the 1990s. Once again visitors are discovering the myriad marvels scattered throughout this intriguing archipelago

EAST TIMOR

In May 2002, after 450 years of continuous foreign occupation, East Timor became theworld’s newest independent state. However, East Timor's road to independence was long and traumatic.

The
Portuguese first arrived on the island in the early 16th century and by the 1550s had occupied the eastern part. The Dutch took control of the western part, which became part of the Dutch East Indies and, after independence, Indonesia.

In 1975, the new left-wing Portuguese government relinquished all of its colonies. East Timor then enjoyed just a few days of independence, before the Indonesians
annexedit as their 27th province. There was little local resistance and the international community largely acquiesced.

The main Timorese
independence movement, FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionario de Este Timor Independente), which was originally formed to fight the Portuguese, now had to gear up again to combat a new and even more brutal occupier. In the savage counter-insurgency campaign that followed, the Indonesian army killed over 100,000 East Timorese.

It was not until the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the subsequent removal of veteran Indonesian President Suharto that the growing international criticism of the Indonesian campaign began to have some effect. In June 1999, President Habibie of Indonesia announced that a
referendum would be held in East Timor, offering independence or autonomy within Indonesia.

The referendum was held in August 1999 and 80% opted for independence. By way of revenge, the Indonesian army, along with local militias that they had armed and financed, indulged in an orgy of destruction and killing that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed the territory’s already fragile economic base.

In October 1999, a
UN transitional administration (UNTAET) was set up in East Timor, pending the conduct of national elections. The new country faced a massive reconstruction task and the government has found it difficult to deliver on many of its initial promises.

Colonial architecture, Portuguese fortresses and other remains from the 100-year-long Portuguese occupation can be found all over the country. However,many towns and villages were destroyed during the Indonesian occupation and the fighting in 1999, and these are only slowly being rebuilt. Many houses are still built on stilts in the traditional way, using local materials such as grass, bamboo, tree trunks and palm leaves

CAMBODIA

Captivating Cambodia is a land of beautiful temples, wild jungle and unspoilt countryside, yet still bears the scars of years of conflict.

For so long off limits to the tourist trail, Cambodia began to open up to visitors again in the late 1980s. Travellers poured into the gritty capital
Phnom Penh and marvelled at the jungle temples of Angkor as the Khmer Rouge militia dissipated.

An extensive landmine clearing programme has made other areas of Cambodia accessible, and visitors should take the time to discover the
hill tribes around Banlung, the colonial architecture of Battambang and the sandybeaches of Sihanoukville.

Today's tourists can expect to mix
luxurioushotels and restaurants with traditional markets and ramshackle side streets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Intrepid foodies can look forward to sampling
deep fried spiders and cockroaches which have become delicacies in northern Cambodia, despite being a reminder of the food crisis endured by Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge.

With the road network improving, it's time for visitors to start exploring this
delightfulcountry beyond its imposing temples

BRUNEI

Although a tiny state with a small population,Brunei has one of the highest standards of living in the world thanks to sizeable deposits of oil and gas.

Situated on the
northern coast of Borneo in South-East Asia, Brunei is a heavily forestedstate where visitors will encounter the grandeur of Islamic architecture and royal tradition. Architectural treasures include the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, with its gleaming gold dome.

The country only gained independence in 1984, but has the
world's oldest reigning monarchy and centuries of royal heritage. At the helm of the only remaining Malay Islamic monarchy in the world, the Sultan of Bruneicomes from a family line that dates back over 600 years. The first sultan ascended the throne in 1405, founding a dynasty of which the current sultan, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, is the 29th ruler. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has been on the throne for 38 years and is one of the world's richest individuals.