|Overview||Read Travel Advice||Give Travel Advice||Add to My Map|
Asia > Southeast Asia-->
South-East Asia is a collection of dissimilar but not unrelated states squeezed between the twin giants of India and China, where the term "Indochina" is given its name. SE Asia has long been a favorite corner of the world for globe-tramping backpackers; well-known for its perfect beaches, tasty cuisine, low prices, and good air connections.
Southeast Asia is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, and for a reason. Some of the countries here have it all: a tropical climate, warm (or hot!) all year around, rich culture, gorgeous beaches, wonderful food and last but not least, low prices. On the other hand, it has also received a reputation as being a highly volatile region due to many different historical circumstances.
Southeast Asian history is very diverse and often tumultous, and has to an important extent been shaped by European colonialism. The very term Southeast Asia was invented by American Naval strategists around 1940. Southeast Asia was prior to WWII referred to with reference to the colonial powers; farther India for Burma and Thailand, with reference to the main British colony of India, although Thailand was never formally colonized; Indochina referred to the French colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and Indonesia and parts of maritime Southeast Asia was referred to as the Dutch East Indies. The Philippines on the other hand was colonized by Spain for 333 years, by the United States for 44 years and by Japan for 3 years. The Dutch, British and Chinese also attacked the Philippines with minimal success with the British able to take control of Manila and surrounding environs for about 3 years.
Pre-historic Southeast Asia was largely underpopulated. A process of immigration from India across the Bay of Bengal is referred to as the process of Indianization. Exactly how and when it happened is contested; however, the population of the mainland region largely happened through immigration from India. The sanskrit script still used as the basis for modern Thai, Burmese and Khmer has its roots from this process.
Southeast Asia is tropical: the weather hovers around the 30°C mark throughout the year, humidity is high and it rains often.
The equatorial parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, have only two seasons, wet and dry, with the dry season somewhat hotter (up to 40°C) and the wet season somewhat cooler (down to 25°C). The wet season usually occurs in winter, and the hot season in summer, although there are significant local variations. However, in Indochina (north/central Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam), the seasons can be broken down into hot, wet and dry, with the relatively cool dry season from November to February or so being the most popular with tourists. However, even in the "wet" season, the typical pattern is sunny mornings with a short (but torrential) shower in the afternoon, so this alone should not discourage you from travel.
In Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and parts of Indonesia (notably Sumatra and Borneo), haze from forest fires (usually set intentionally to clear land) is a frequent phenomenon in the dry season from May to October. Haze comes and goes rapidly with the wind, but Singapore's National Environment Agency has useful online maps  of the current situation in the entire region.
Just like rest of Eastern Asia, Most of Southeast Asia's major languages are not mutually intelligible. English is a traveller's most useful language overall, although for longer stays in any Southeast Asian country (except maybe Singapore and the Philippines), picking up at least some of the local language is useful, and may be essential. Chinese and Japanese are also helpful, as both powers have invaded and occuppied this region on many different occasions.
 Get in
Southeast Asia's touristy countries (Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) do not require visas from most visitors, but the rest do. However, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia offer visas on arrival at most points of entry, which minimizes the hassle involved. Vietnam and Myanmar require advance paperwork for most western foreigners.
 By plane
The main international gateways to Southeast Asia are Bangkok (Thailand) and Singapore, with Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in third place and Manila also having good international connections. Hong Kong also makes a good springboard into the region, with many low-cost carriers flying into Southeast Asian destinations.
 By train
The only railway line into Southeast Asia is between Vietnam and China, and consequently on to Russia and even Europe. There are no connections between Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries yet, although there are plans for links through both Cambodia and Myanmar onward to the existing Thailand-Malaysia network.
 Get around
 By plane
Much of Southeast Asia is now covered by a dense web of discount carriers, making this a fast and affordable way of getting around. Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Clark are the main hubs for discount airlines in the area.
 By train
Thailand has the most extensive network, with relatively frequent and economical (albeit slow, compared to most buses) and generally reliable services. The main lines from Bangkok are north to Chiang Mai; north-east via Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) to Nong Khai and also east to Ubon Ratchathani; east via Chachoengsao to Aranyaprathet and also south-east via Pattaya to Sattahip; and south via Surat Thani and Hat Yai, through Malaysia via Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur, and Johor Bahru, to Singapore.
Cambodia's railways were badly hit by the civil war and have been going downhill ever since. The only remaining passenger service connects the capital Phnom Penh with the next-largest town Battambang, and takes longer to arrive than a reasonably determined cyclist. It is no longer possible to transit all the way through Cambodia to Thailand by rail.
Every Southeast Asian country has its own currency. The US dollar is the official currency of East Timor. Thai Baht is one of the unofficial currencies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar. Exchange rates for Southeast Asian currencies tend to be very poor outside the region, so it's best to exchange (or use the ATM) only after arrival.
Southeast Asia is cheap, so much so that it is among the cheapest travel destinations on the planet. US$20 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget in most countries in the region, while the savvy traveler can eat well, drink a lot and stay in five-star hotels for US$100/day.
Some exceptions do stand out. The rich city-states of Singapore and Brunei are about twice as expensive as their neighbors, while at the other end of the spectrum, the sheer difficulty of getting into and around underdeveloped places like Myanmar, East Timor and the backwoods of Indonesia drives up prices there too. In Singapore in particular, the sheer scarcity of land drives accommodation rates up and you would be looking at US$100 per night for a three-star hotel.
Rice is the main Southeast Asian staple, with noodles of all sorts an important second option.
Fruit is available everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Mangoes are a firm favorite among travellers. The giant spiky durian, perhaps the only unifying factor between South-East Asia's countries, is infamous for its pungent smell and has been likened to eating garlic ice cream next to an open sewer.
Street vendors or hawkers. Be careful of some, but most offer wonderful food at a very inexpensive cost.
Rice-based alcoholic drinks — Thai whisky, lao, tuak, arak and so on — are ubiquitous and potent, if rarely tasty. As a rule of thumb, local booze is cheap, but most countries levy very high taxes on imported stuff.
Beers are a must try in Southeast Asia - check out San Miguel (Philippines), Tiger Beer (Singapore) and Bia Lao (Laos).
 Stay safe
Virtually all of the traveller trail in Southeast Asia is perfectly safe, but there are low-level insurgencies in the remote areas of Indonesia and Myanmar, and East Timor continues to be politically unstable.
Terrorists in Indonesia have bombed several hotels and nightclubs frequented by foreigners in Bali and Jakarta, but the authorities have cracked down and there have been no attacks since 2005. Thailand's southernmost states have also been the scene of violence in recent years, and while tourists have not been specifically targeted, there have been several attacks on trains and three foreigners were killed bombings in Hat Yai in 2006.
Violent crime is a rarity in Southeast Asia, but opportunistic theft is more common. Watch out for pickpockets in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your bags when traveling, particularly on overnight buses and trains.