The CIA World Factbook reveals Southeast Asia as a region bordered on the north by China, on the west by India, on the south by Australia and on the east by the Philippine Sea and the Pacific. The countries of this area all share Chinese influence as well as a tropical climate.
This rich past influences the cultures and languages encountered by travelers. For example, English is an important medium of communication in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, while all the other countries rely on their native languages. The churches in the Philippines are primarily Catholic, while Muslim mosques dot the landscapes of Indonesia and Malaysia. In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, Buddhist temples are common.
Accommodations range from high-priced suites that would fit in at any world capital to native huts for a few dollars. For example, the top suites at the colonial-style Raffles Hotel in Singapore costs in the high four figures, complete with such niceties as air conditioning and butler service. On the low end, the fan-only room at the traditional-style Golden Takeo Guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia costs less than a movie ticket but includes a fan, king-size bed and attached bath.
The capital cities and tourist spots boast Western-style steakhouses and fast-food eateries like KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. But native dishes offer new tastes at bargain prices. Sensitive palates can start with familiar fruits like mangoes or meat-based dishes like Indonesian satay, which cooks skewers of chicken or beef in peanut sauce. More adventure tastes await with Vietnamese noodles, which mixes all manner of vegetable and animal in spicy broth, or shrimp paste, common to many dishes in the region. Only the most daring should try Philippine balut, an unhatched duck egg with feathered embryo, fried Cambodian grasshoppers or durian, a fruit whose excrement smell bans its transport into many commercial establishments and vehicles.