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The cultural sophistication of Imperial China was clearly manifest in the exquisite porcelain, textiles and other works of art it exported to Europe from the medieval period onwards. Yet few foreigners ever set eyes on the places from which these treasures emanated. A wall of secrecy surrounded their production, creating an aura of mystery that only lifted when the mandarins of the People’s Republic decided to liberalize the Chinese economy in the 1990s. Now, however, foreign visitors can freely explore not just the former Imperial heartland, but also cross the mighty deserts to the west, retracing the Marco Polo’s route via a chain of oasis towns to the fabled core of Central Asia.
This vast region encompasses some of the most visited places on the planet, as well as some of the least known. Contrast the gleaming temples of Bangkok with the impenetrable jungles of Borneo; or the remote archipelagos of southern Burma, only recently opened to foreign tourists, with the neon-and-glass skyline of Singapore. Somewhere between these two extremes, however, lies a middle path where travellers find just the exotic world they came in search of, where wondrous Buddhist monuments rise from a backdrop of rice fields and smoking volcanoes, or where dancers dressed in luminous silk and gold perform in front of ancient carved-stone temples.
It’s an Asian cliché to talk of countries juxtaposing old and new. But in the case of Japan and its far-east neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea, the commonplace attains unparalleled extremes. Although they number among the most developed nations on the planet, with hi-tech export industries and cities bristling with the latest gadgets, they all base their modern lifestyles on a traditional bedrock that’s never far from the surface – and often to be found in locations as wild, unspoilt and beautiful as any in Asia. The hinterland of ancient tradition creates a compelling flipside to the region’s fast-paced capitals, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo.
For a generation of travellers, the three countries of French Indochina – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – will forever be associated with the wars, civil strife and political repression that only drew to a definitive close in the 1990s. Now, however, this magical part of the world is fast re-defining itself. Drawing on the natural splendours of its jungles, mountains, rivers and idyllic coastlines, as well as the extraordinary monuments of its ancestral past – which include such wonders as Angkor Wat – Indochina offers unique experiences for visitors looking for a taste of traditional Asia – a world that’s fast disappearing as development gathers pace.
We are delighted to be able to offer our clients the opportunity to break their journey to or from Asia by spending a few days in the Middle East. It has, indeed, become a destination in its own right for some of our discerning travelers. That bit closer to home but still exotic and oriental.