Although its impact has been diluted by overuse on blogs and collections of inspirational travel quotes, there’s still truth to the adage “it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters.”
Before contrails from airline traffic bisected the skies of Asia, travel in the region was measured in weeks, months and years rather than hours.
When the great explorer Henri Mahout became one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on Angkor in Cambodia in the mid-19th Century, his discovery was just one element of an epic tour of Asia that lasted for three years and only ended when he died in Laos of Malaria.
Overland expeditions in the region have also informed the observations and writings of seasoned travel scribes such as Paul Theroux, Norman Lewis and Pico Lyer.
Yet despite the romanticism inherent in taking travel slow and easy, for many modern travellers the concept of delayed gratification is as alien as being without a smartphone.
In many ways, this attitude is understandable. People have busy lives and have limited windows of opportunity for travel.
What’s more, the expansion of budget air travel means that visitors can hop from point to point with the minimum of fuss. Who would want to exchange a comfortable seat on a three-hour flight for a bumpy journey along a remote road where air-con is not always assured?
While such an assertion may scream practicality, it discounts many of the mystical and often mysterious elements that make travel in Asia so special. This, after all, is a region that encompasses geographic marvels and remote highlights to whet the appetite of all but the most impatient or timestarved traveller.
From the snow-capped mountains and endless grasslands of Gansu Province in China to extended periods exploring the nooks and crannies of destinations like Myanmar or Indonesian Borneo, Asia offers a smorgasbord of widescreen experiences. Not only do these journeys offer a wealth of visual stimulation, they also provide a slow drip of understanding through steady attainment of new knowledge.
“Journeying along the Mekong is about discovering Asia’s most important river, the lifeblood for millions of people,” comments Kim Rasmussen, Product Manager EXO Thailand. “Encountering the Hmong villages of Northern Thailand, learning about rice planting in Laos, unearthing the wonders of the Mekong Delta – these are all experiences that should not be rushed.”
Much has changed in Asia over the last couple of decades and modern technology and infrastructure advances have altered the face of travel in the region. With a little imagination and effort, however, guests can get off the grid and sample its full glory in an unhurried fashion.
“Slow travel in its purest form is extremely attractive,” adds Rasmussen. “People yearn to plug into something vast, something beyond, to find their limits physically and mentally and to discover what they didn’t know existed both in their surroundings and in themselves.”
There is no shortage of transcendent trips to take in the region. A nation where the golden era of overland travel can be easily evoked is Myanmar. Isolated from the world for much of the late 20th Century, the country has recently emerged as a sought-after travel destination. While famous destinations such as Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake are seeing a good amount of footfall, much of the rest of the country remains practically virgin territory for foreigners.
A case in point is Kachin State, the country’s northernmost enclave. A trekking expedition in this remote corner of Asia – a mountainous nook in the mighty Himalaya surrounded by China and India – allows intrepid guests to venture deep into the unknown, savouring unexpected vistas and exploring untouched tribal villages. Equally enticing is a month long road trip around the country that combines big-hitting sights such as Inle, Mandalay and Bagan with lesser-visited highlights such as mountain towns Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw and Hpa An, the picturesque capital of Karen State.
Another country ripe for extended exploration is Indonesia. The archipelago nation stretches for thousands of miles along the equator, throwing up numerous mysteries and unsung treasures along the way. Possibilities for adventure are positively limitless. Curious guests can savour river rides in Borneo, scale the summits of live volcanoes in Java and Lombok, learn how to cook Balinese food and convene with the local “dragons” on the island of Komodo.
The Tibetan Plateau and the Mekong River are two geographical elements of Asia that practically ache with travel romance. The tiny province of Gansu is far from the beaten tourist path, but its endless grasslands; Silk Road history; rich culture and splendid mountain scenery make it a treasure trove for fans of immersive travel. Likewise, a boat journey down the mighty Mekong – which flows down from its source on the Tibetan Plateau to its Delta in South Vietnam – showcases spectacular scenery, unique architecture and varied local culture and customs.
Interaction with the indigenous people of the area is certainly a highlight of an extended period in northern Vietnam. High on the slopes of the Tonkinese Alps, far from the busy streets of Hanoi, Red Dao and Black H’mong ethnic communities live much as they have for centuries, farming rice and vegetables and making their living from the land. Although foreigners rarely visit these settlements, they make compelling stops on a comprehensive trekking adventure in the area.
Close encounters with nature as well as humans is the specialty of the state of Sabah in Malaysia’s portion of northern Borneo. On expeditions up wide jungle rivers guests will have opportunities to spot wild animals such as otters, proboscis monkeys, kingfishers and orangutans – the king swingers in this part of the world. Other natural highlights of Sabah, meanwhile, include the thick virgin rainforest area of Danum Valley – one of the world’s most complex ecosystems – and Gomantong Caves, where the ancient tradition of collecting solidified swiftlet saliva for Bird’s Nest Soup is still carried out.
“On these adventures, guests are travelling overland using cars, bikes, buses, boats, trains or even their own feet,” continues Rasmussen of EXO Travel. “By travelling this way, they have more opportunity to experience the local sights and culture at eye level and at a relaxed pace. By journeying in such a way – perpetually crossing borders and other frontiers – guests can experience the buzz of perpetual motion and witness the contrasts upon entering new countries and regions with different customs and culture.”
“These expeditions offer travel with a purpose, albeit undertaken at a more leisurely pace. It’s nostalgic travel, reminiscent of how people used to experience destinations when the world spun at a slower pace.” In the modern era, the search for novelty becomes ever more difficult. With air travel costs lower than ever and information widely disseminated, even the most far-flung destinations seem more familiar. Despite this, getting your teeth into an unforgettable Asian adventure is still eminently possible with a little forward planning. Such overland expeditions remain as rewarding as ever. As the author John Steinbeck said, ‘people don’t take trips, trips take people.’
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