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Maldives

Overview: The Maldives is a by-word for luxury, romance and tropical bliss; a beautiful string of low-lying coral islands in the Indian Ocean, and a paradise for diving enthusiasts and sun seekers alike.

 The country’s 26 natural atolls and over 1000 islands have uniformly perfect white sand beaches lapped by turquoise lagoons the temperature of bath water. Tourism only began in the 1970s, but it is now the Maldives’ most important industry.

 Every resort in the Maldives is its own private island, and with over 100 to choose from the only problem is selecting where to stay. At the top end, the world’
 
At a glance:
  • Population: approximately 400 thousand
  • Capital city: Malé (population 133 thousand)
  • Area: 298 square kilometers
  • Currency: Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR)
  • Time zone: UTC + 5 (summer daylight saving not observed)
  • Religion: Islam.

India

Overview: India is a beautiful and bamboozling place, where holy cows amble along the streets, bask on heavenly beaches next to modern hotels and where ancient temples sit perfectly at home besides shiny new offices.
 
 The most enigmatic of countries, India is a relentless assault on all of the senses at once. It is an extraordinary place, one of the world’s great human melting pots where an incredible array of cultures, religions and ethnicities live in reasonable harmony. It teems with one-sixth of the planet’s population from rural villages where life hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, to ultra-modern cities like Mumbai that ooze western sensibilities. India is simply vast, varied and, above all, unforgettably beautiful.
 
 You could spend a lifetime exploring the echoes of ancient cultures, and the country’s dramatic landscapes, including the mighty Himalayas. The most frequently visited part of India is the Golden Triangle, comprised of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The people-packed cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) have a bustling, colorful charm, while the holy city of Varanasi and the awe-inspiring temples of Tamil Nadu are rewarding places of pilgrimage. Ancient frescoes are on view in the Anjanta Caves in Maharastra and dotted across India are 28 World Heritage Sites. Every region in India is stippled with an unmatched depth of history, diversity in cultures and language, monuments and beauty of settings.
 
 As a tourist there is something to cater to every taste be it adrenaline-fuelled explorations, luxurious pampering or simply relaxing. India’s real allure and magic comes from the sheer assortment of things to do in every region: In Delhi, catch a rickshaw through the narrow lanes to the Red Fort, take a ride on the new world-class metro or visit it’s wonderful Lodhi Gardens. Perhaps you would prefer a more sublime treat such as floating on a houseboat through Kerala’s dreamy landscapes. You can choose to be overwhelmed by the vivid colors and overpowering aromas of a spice market. Or in Rajasthan, you can bounce up and down on a camel through the mystical deserts or sweat with the locals on a train through mountainside tea plantations. And, even if you do all that, you still won’t have scratched the surface.
 
 Don’t expect to absorb all it has to offer in one visit, this is a country best approached as one would a smorgasbord. It’s a much more palatable experience if you take a sampling of what is on offer and then revisit for more.
 
 It can be a baffling and at times an overwhelming place to visit but one thing is for certain, no matter how ready you are to leave by the end of your trip, within a few days after departure, you’ll be longing to return.
 
At a Glance:
  • Population: approximately 1.352 billion
  • Capital city: New Delhi (population 257 thousand)
  • Area: 3,287,263 square kilometers
  • Currency: Indian Rupee (INR)
  • Time zone: UTC + 5:30 (summer daylight saving not observed)
  • Religion: Hinduism & Islam.

Sri Lanka

Overview: Endless beaches, timeless ruins, welcoming people, oodles of elephants, killer surf, cheap prices, fun trains, famous tea, and flavorful food – need we go on?

 
 The Undiscovered Country: You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Countless scores of travelers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of war and challenges such as tsunamis have kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.
 
 So Much in So Little: Sri Lanka’s attributes are many. Eight places have as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites packed into suc
 
 Across whole swaths of the country, that thing that goes bump in the night might be an elephant heading to a favorite waterhole. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks encounter leopards, grouchy water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
 
 When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, which are verdant, virescent and virally infectious with allure. Impossibly green tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers or just those who want to see it on a spectacular train ride.
 
 And then there are the beaches. The beaches! Dazzlingly white and all so often untrod, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds.
 
 It’s So Easy Distances are short: see the sacred home of the world’s oldest living tree in the morning Anuradhapura and stand awestruck by the sight of hundreds of elephants gathering in the afternoon Minneriya. Find a favorite beach to call your own, meditate in a 2000-year-old temple, exchange smiles while strolling a mellow village, marvel at birds and wildflowers, try to keep count of the little dishes that come with your rice and curry. Stroll past colonial gems in Colombo and then hit some epic surf.
 
 Sri Lanka is spectacular, it’s affordable and it’s still mostly uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: approximately 21.670 million
  • Largest city: Colombo (population 753 thousand)
  • Area: 65,610 square kilometers
  • Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR)
  • Time zone: UTC + 5:30 (summer daylight saving not observed)
  • Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam & Christianity.

Vietnam

Overview: Blessed with a ravishing coastline, emerald-green mountains, breathtaking national parks, dynamic cities, outstanding cultural interest and one of the world’s best cuisines, Vietnam has it all.

 The Vietnamese Experience: Its people are energetic, direct, sharp in commerce and resilient by nature. This is an outrageously fun country to explore, the locals love a laugh and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to socialize with them and hear their tales. The American War is over, and yet its impact endures – you’ll find reminders of that cataclysmic conflict everywhere you travel. That said, the country was never broken and emerged with its pride intact. Poor in parts but never squalid, Vietnam is developing at an astonishing pace. For travelers, there are issues to
 Big Nature, Booming Cities: If you want visual dramatics, Vietnam delivers. Cruise an azure ocean pierced by surreal-looking limestone islands in Halong Bay, slalom through the majestic inland karst mountains of Cao Bang. Hike mountain tracks and explore tribal villages near Sapa and Bac Ha. Then witness the spectacular sandy bays of the central coastline and explore the reefs and coves of the Cham and Con Dao Islands. Highway 1 is near-relentlessly urban, so get off it at regular intervals to see the astonishing cave systems of Phong Nha, national parks like Cat Tien, and the bewitching backwaters of the Mekong Delta.
 Finally, no visit would be complete without experiencing the energy of big-city life in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the grand old lady of the Orient, and Ho Chi Minh City, the engine room of the economy and the nation.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: approximately  96 million
  • Largest city: Ho Chi Minh City
  • Capital city: Hanoi (population 8 million)
  • Area: 331,212 square kilometers
  • Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND)
  • Time zone: UTC +7 (summer daylight saving not observed)
  • Religion: Irreligious, Buddhism & Christianity.

China

Overview: Colossal, dizzying and fiercely, endlessly foreign, China is a destination not easily compared to anywhere else on the planet. Home to approximately one-fifth of the human race, China variously dazzles, befuddles, frustrates and thrills. The key visitor attractions are renowned around the globe – think the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Warriors – but on the ground it’s the sheer scale and off-kilter energy of the place that leave the most lasting impression.

 
 The pace of modernization in its key cities; Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou and increasingly others, have thrown up skylines to rival any global city in the world. The skyscrapers of these cities are emblematic of the ‘new’ China – a modern powerhouse both economically and politically, and the eager to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice. China’s cities hum with an energy and pace so quick that even the metropolis-hardened of visitors will feel it. The flipside to this – levels of smog and pollution so severe
 
 Shift away from the urban sprawl and out into China’s rural areas and countryside however, and the visitor is confronted with a very different reality. The sheer size of the country – where the landscape veers from the lush green terraced rice fields to the harsh mountain geography of the Himalayas and the awe-inducing beauty of UNESCO protected Yangtze River as it winds its way through the Yunnan province. In many of the rural heartlands, that tableau of life in China fifty years ago can still be found, with village life seemingly unchanged, on the surface. Still, for visitors to China the greatest reward will be scratching beneath it, to engage with a country that will contradicts and captivates in equal measure.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: ~ 1.3 billion
  • Capital city: Beijing (pop. 14 million)
  • Area: 9,597,000 sq. kms
  • Currency: Chinese Yuan Renminbi / ‘People’s Money’ (RMB / CNY)
  • Time zone: UTC +8 (daylight-saving time not observed)
  • Religion: 60% not religious, remainder follow traditional beliefs, Confucianism and Taoism, or are Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims or Protestants

Thailand

Overview: The jewel of the Southeast Asian travel circuit, Thailand offers astonishing diversity and a truly fascinating and accessible culture that, along with the revered Thai hospitality, makes it an incredibly popular destination.
 
 With an enticing mixture of established destinations such as Phuket and Hua Hin, and out-of-the-way palm-fringed islands, Thailand has a very exotic appeal. From staying on a converted rice barge, clambering into a jungle tree house or bedding down in a hill tribe village, the country offers a wealth of choice for all tastes and budgets.
 
 For divers, snorkelers, and the extraordinary metropolis of Bangkok in the south, while the north offers the sublime delights of culture-packed Chiang Mai with its temple-studded old town, and cooling forests and mountain retreats.
 
 One of the best ways to access Thai culture is through a ‘Monk chat‘ session in a local wat (temple) in Chiang Mai, where you get the opportunity to quiz the dignified saffron-robed monks about anything you like. And in the early morning, all over the country, the monks leave the sanctuary of their wats 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 Thais are also strong supporters of their monarchy.
 
 The most welcoming of countries, despite being inundated with tourists and expats, it’s the gentle hospitality of local people that is the strongest memory of Thailand for many visitors. And what a wonderful memory it makes.

At a glance:

  • Population: approximately  69.5 million
  • Capital city: Bangkok (population 8.4 million)
  • Area: 513,120 square kilometers
  • Currency: Thai Baht (THB)
  • Time zone: UTC +7 (summer daylight saving not observed)
  • Religion: Buddhism & Islam.

Malaysia

Overview: Reefs and rainforests, mountains and minarets, skyscrapers and sampans, Malaysia more than lives up to its official slogan “Truly Asia”.
 
 One of the great cultural melting pots, Malaysia is a nation where Chinese joss-houses, Hindu temples and gold-domed Malay mosques jostle for space with bustling markets and towering skyscrapers. Away from the cities, untamed nature awaits, in the form of jungles dripping with rare and exotic species and coral reefs teeming with turtles, sharks and rainbow-colored tropical fish.
 
 Malaysia offers two countries for the price of one – Peninsular Malaysia is the long finger of land extending south from Asia as if pointing towards Indonesia and Australia. Much of the peninsula is covered by dense jungle, particularly its mountainous, thinly popu­lated northern half. On the western side of the peninsula there is a long, fertile plain running down to the sea, while on the eastern side the mountains descend more steeply and the coast is fringed with sandy beaches. The other part of the country, comprising more than 50% of its area, is Malaysian Borneo – the northern part of the island of Borneo (the larger, southern part is the Indonesian state of Kalimantan). Malaysian Borneo is divided into the states of Sarawak and Sabah, with Brunei a small enclave between them. Both states are covered by dense jungle, with many large river systems, particularly in Sarawak. Mt Kinabalu (4101m) in Sabah is Malaysia’s highest mountain.
 
At a glance:
  • Population: approximately  32 million
  • Capital city: Kuala Lumpur (pop. 1.95 million)
  • Area:  330,803 square kilometers
  • Currency: Malaysian Ringgit (MYR)
  • Time zone: UTC + 8 (summer daylight saving not observed)
  • Religion: Islam (official), Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.