For the travelling Indian, he’s never too far away from home if he’s in any part of Southeast Asia, that part of the world that falls below China and to the east of our country, surrounded by the sea on most sides, the land of beautiful sunrises and sundowns, and the land of rich agriculture and urban excess. The most frequently visited destinations of Southeast Asia are Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Burma and Indonesia, with Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Macau. Some purists are of the opinion that the Andaman and Nicobar comes under the umbrella of Southeast Asia.
India is a land of many religions and faiths, and the top faiths of India find healthy representation in Southeast Asia, with Islam, Buddhism and Christianity being the top three faiths and Hinduism not far behind. In fact, Bali in Indonesia features Hinduism predominantly over other religions, and Malaysia and Singapore, though primarily Islamic, have a liberal chunk of Hindus in their population as well. This can be seen not just in the many Indian faces you run into on a regular day in these countries, but also in the many Hindu temples that pepper their streets and market places. The Brahma temple in Angkor Wat in Cambodia holds two records for being one of the two Brahma temples in the world and also for being the largest religious temples in the world.
Southeast Asia can be best described as a melting pot – some destinations like Singapore, Malaysia, etc. are heavily cosmopolitan while the most delightful tourist spots are tucked away in remote areas like the beaches of Bali in Indonesia and the Mayon Volcano in Philippines, surrounded by an awe-inspiring landscape of green. The population is again multi-ethnic, with a lot of South Indians having made Southeast Asia their home, along with the indigenous population.
The tourist spots like Sentosa Island in Singapore is brimming over with urban indulgences like the Universal theme park, spas, resorts, huge sprawling malls, restaurants serving different cuisines (Indian, too, of course!) and many more. Mainland Singapore is either clear walkways or malls that seem to go on for miles and miles or skyscrapers and business centres or residential complexes. Singapore is a wonderful mix of the simple joys of the east and the urban comforts of the west. Always a choice destination for the Indian, Singapore is one of the foremost reasons why Southeast Asia holds such appeal.
Its cousin, Malaysia, is not far behind. Big air-conditioned malls in Kuala Lumpur offer respite from the outside heat while the blue ocean and the silken sands of Langkawi beckon on balmy evenings. For those with an adventurous spirit, the Genting Highlands, boasting of a theme park and casinos call out for a visit. The highlands are accessible only by cable car, which is in itself a treat, taking you deep into the ravines of the jungle, with nothing visible but lush greenery around you as you sit breathless in your cable car.
Indonesia promises long bicycle rides and inexpensive massages and exotic seafood, and the romance of moonlit walks along quiet beaches in the night. Thailand is another favourite destination with its many urban splendours and a very happening nightlife. Vietnam, armed with rich history and steeped in even richer culture, offers unique experiences in terms of food, popular tourist spots and religious tolerance.
Cuisine, though it differs to a large extent from one Southeast Asian destination to another, mostly retains some similarities – it’s usually bland, with generous usage of meats and rice and very little flavouring/spice. Southeast Asians prefer the natural flavours of the main ingredients in their food and don’t usually attempt to mask it using too many spices. The best desserts are made from locally produced tropical fruits like coconut, pineapple, jackfruit, etc. This is not to say that other cuisine is not available – you will be surrounded by a multitude of choices, including continental fare, wherever you may be.
Another big reason for Indians to be partial to Southeast Asia are the many shopping avenues that are available duty-free – each destination will have many of the most popular perfumes, gadgets, shoes, apparel and designer stuff (or very competent rip-offs) at bargain prices. Southeast Asia serves as a link to the western world while retaining its eastern uniqueness that every Asian takes pride in – hence giving the travelling Indian all the more reason to make it one of his top destinations to travel to year after year.