After fifteen years of travelling the world there are so many places that I genuinely love and even many that I would happily call home, but no region has ever affected me more than south east Asia. This diverse, enigmatic and enchanting region just keeps drawing me back time after time, and I will never tire of it. Here is why.
South east Asia is just the best. It is. I love it here. It is such a stunningly beautiful, enigmatic, sometimes contradictory and often awe inspiring region, and is the traditional first stop on many first time backpackers round the world itineraries for very good reason.
I have visited every single country in south east Asia at least once, many of them multiple times, and some often enough for me to consider them second homes, and it is without doubt my favourite region on the planet.
Don’t get me wrong, I like other countries, regions and continents too, a lot of the places I have visited over the years are special in different ways, but in all my travels none have ever even come even close to south east Asia.
But what is it exactly that this relatively small region has has that enthralls me so much? What is it that keeps me coming back time and time again?
Don’t get me wrong, I have had some awesome adventures all over the world and I have loved every one, but there is something about the stories I have from south east Asia that hold a special place in my heart.
I ‘m not exactly sure why, perhaps it is because many of these adventures were had during formative or life changing periods, maybe it is because of the sheer ability to be able to tell stories about hiking up active volcanoes, trekking through the jungles of Borneo or nearly getting run over by a speedboat when diving in Thailand, all of these adventures and so many more, is just an awesome thing in and of itself.
I honestly don’t know.
But I do know all of these adventures have become a large part of how I define myself. I’m not just a nurse, a writer, a brother, a son. I’m a guy who can look back when I reach the end and say I did all those things and it was awesome!
Of course there are so many adventures and memories from around the world, but south east Asia, perhaps more than any other region, has given me that.
The feeling of home.
I can’t explain it, but there is something about south east Asia that makes me feel instantly at home the second I arrive.
The comfortable familiarity of backpacker havens like Khao San Road, the easy going vibe of the islands, the eclectic buzz of the cities, there is a very special feeling I get in south east Asia. Some places more than others admittedly but still, there is an inescapable vibe in this part of the world where I am instantly in my comfort zone no matter where I am, where I can arrive off a plane and instantly just relax.
Apart from a few forays into Europe on more traditional holidays, like many backpackers south east Asia was my first introduction to travelling the world independently, and on reflection it was an almost spiritual experience that truly opened my eyes to a wide range of cultures and religions.
The stark contrasts and glaring similarities hit you almost immediately as you travel through what is a very diverse and yet at the same time very multicultural region. Nowhere else on earth has the same ability to have such diversity of culture in such a small space and accept it as universally normal.
The cost of living.
Okay, so this isn’t the primary reason I love south east Asia, far from it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give it a passing mention because the fact is the cost of living throughout most of south east Asia is very low, or at the very least extremely good value, and what is there not to love about that?
Coming from the UK in particular where the cost of living is almost punitive, living – even for short periods – at such a low, comfortable cost is very attractive.
The world is a beautiful place, it really is, and there are mind blowing vistas and stunning panoramas on every continent, no doubt.
But south east Asia just redefines the word paradise. From lush, tropical jungles to stretches of white sandy beaches and everything in between, it is easy to be lured into falling in love with such a stunning region.
The food. Oh my god, the food! The street stalls of Bangkok, the food courts of Malaysia and Singapore and the tiny little plastic chairs plastered all over the pavements everywhere else hold a special place in every foodies heart, and for good reason. It really is that good!
The food in south east Asia is absolutely legendary across the world, with Singapore being widely considered as the worlds premier culinary destination and almost every country on the planet adopting at least a few of the regions dishes as their own, south east Asian cuisine is almost universally loved.
And who am I to argue with that?
The first time I arrived in Bangkok at the start of my very first gap year fifteen odd years ago, the first thing I did one leaving the airport – even before I had found a hostel and dropped my then oversized pack – was find a food stall near Khao San Road, take a seat on the pavement next to some locals and order meal after meal of Pad Thai! It was some of the best food I had ever tasted, and that’s not just because I had just been subjected to 10 hours of the gassy poison they call airline food!
But it really isn’t just the taste of south east Asian cuisine, it is the experience itself. It is sitting on a bunch of plastic chairs next to a bunch of locals who laughed at my early attempts at using chopsticks before showing me how, or sitting elbow to elbow with other diners on a long bench; often looking as out of place as the Incredible Hulk at a child’s tea party but still managing to meet new people. You get a deeper cultural understanding and a deeper connection to the people simply by eating with them in south east Asia, far more so than anywhere else in the Western world.
It is the joy of exploring fresh markets, smelling the smoky satay from a roadside barbecue or pointing to something cooking over an open fire in an attempt to ask what it is I was about to eat. It is gaining an insight into the culture of where I am through the eyes of the people’s culinary dishes, from the traditional fare of Thailand, the eclectic fusion dishes of Singapore or the often insane inventiveness of the food in the Philippines. The experience of the food in south east Asia is as important as how it tastes, and that is why I love it.
It helped me find my way.
Like many people I have had times of my life where I have been broken, lost or where my life has been in transition from one part to the next and I have had no clue which direction to go – figuratively speaking at least.
I won’t bore you with the details, everyone struggles through their own challenges in life in their own way and has their own demons to face.
When my own have threatened to become overwhelming, south east Asia has helped me heal. I know that sounds self indulgently mawkish but it really isn’t.
Each time I have somehow found myself somewhere in south east Asia, and each time the region gave me exactly what I needed. It was as if the universe knew I was treading water in an open sea, and allowed the region to move me to shallower waters and openly guide me back onto a path that was right for me.
Somehow, just travelling through south east Asia gave me balance, an innate sense of equilibrium that allowed me to take stock and evaluate my life. Every single time I have visited, even for brief periods, it has helped me rejuvenate, regenerate, and be ready for whatever else the world can throw at me in the future.
The draw of south east Asia has not left me since that very first trip 15 years ago. I have always somehow found a way to head back there at least once a year, and since that time the magic and the lure of this eclectically mesmerising region has only grown stronger.
Of course everywhere I have travelled over my lifetime has left a mark in some way, but my memories and experiences in south east Asia have no doubt helped shape my world view and who I am as a person today is a reflection of that. South east Asia is a big part of who I am today, and I look forward to seeing how the region will help me shape who I will be tomorrow.
What about you? Do you love south east Asia as much as I do? Or do you have another region that your spirit calls home?
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