This is a country travelers fantasize about – exotic, oriental, ancient India. It is also modern, booming, chaotic India. Between the two lies a wealth of delights – the charm of a golden civilisation still alive and kicking after centuries and to be glimpsed as you turn the corner of a palace or a fort; as you hear the sweetness of the flute in the misty northern hills and the deep rhythm of the sitar at a mesmerizing performance; as you drive past the captivating sound of temple bells that ring out loud amidst the noise of a daily ritual prayer; as you wander into monuments adorned with precious stones – unguarded, still splendid; as you lie deeply relaxed drifting to music, massaged by the strong yet gentle touch of Ayurveda healers.
The wonder that is India never stops overwhelming your senses. It is not a country for the frail and the timid. Unpredictable, Noisy, spiritual, peaceful, argumentative, complex, intelligent, emotional – a country that has seen and absorbed many invading and colonising cultures and has grown to a chaotic, vocal, economically booming and fiercely independent democracy that embraces both the poor beggar on the street and the ostentatious luxury brand in the mall. Commercialisation jostles with creativity and an ancient heritage and teachings already include and accept ultra-modern changes and a fast-paced evolution of ideas and inventions.
India has on offered the magnificence of a varied landscape that spreads itself out from the mystical Himalayas to the warm serenity of the backwaters of Kerala, from the deep mysterious Sunderbans to the brilliant colours swirling around the deserts of Kutch. Travel here takes you from country-sized bustling cities to forgotten mud-hut villages around rich monuments in locations where empires once existed.
A trip to India is what travel stories are made of. It’s not just the places and the sightseeing that travelers relish, but also the festivals, the art and craft, the people, the cuisines, and of course, the shopping. And we haven’t even talked about the warmth, hospitality, and friendliness yet.
Wedged between the high Himalaya and the steamy Indian plains, Nepal is a land of snow peaks and Sherpas, yaks and yetis, monasteries and mantras.
Other travellers prefer to see Nepal at a more refined pace, admiring the peaks over a gin and tonic from a Himalayan viewpoint, strolling through the medieval city squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and joining Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims on a spiritual stroll around centuries-old stupas and monasteries. Even after the 2015 earthquake, Nepal remains the cultural powerhouse of the Himalaya; the Kathmandu Valley offers an unrivalled collection of world-class palaces, hidden backstreet shrines and sublime temple art.
Further south lie Nepal’s wild and woolly national parks, where nature buffs scan the treetops for exotic bird species and comb the jungles for rhinos and tigers from the backs of lumbering Indian elephants. Choose from a luxury safari lodge in central Chitwan or go exploring on a wilder trip to remote Bardia or Koshi Tappu. Whether you cross the country by mountain bike, motorbike, raft or tourist bus, Nepal offers an astonishingly diverse array of attractions and landscapes.
Many people have spent a lifetime exploring the mountain trails of the Himalaya and the atmospheric temple towns of the Middle Hills, and they still keep coming back for more. The biggest problem you might face in Nepal is just how to fit everything in.
The Nepal Himalaya is the ultimate goal for most mountain lovers. Some of the Himalaya’s most iconic and accessible hiking is on offer here, with rugged trails to Everest, the Annapurnas and beyond, and most trekking areas escaped with only minor damage in the 2015 earthquake. Nowhere else can you trek for days in incredible mountain scenery, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal, cosy lodge and warm slice of apple pie await you at the end of the day.
Then there's the adrenaline kick of rafting a roaring Nepali river or bungee jumping into a bottomless Himalayan gorge. Canyoning, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and mountain biking all offer a rush against the backdrop of some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.
Bhutan is no ordinary place. It is the last great Himalayan kingdom, shrouded in mystery and magic, where a traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces global developments. The Bhutanese pride themselves on a sustainable approach to tourism in line with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness.
Bhutan holds many surprises. This is a country where the rice is red and where chillies aren't just a seasoning but the main dish. It's also a deeply Buddhist land, where monks check their smartphones after performing a divination, and where giant protective penises are painted beside the entrance to many houses. Yet while it visibly protects its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a museum. You will find the Bhutanese well educated, fun loving and well informed about the world around them. It's this blending of the ancient and modern that makes Bhutan endlessly fascinating.
So why spend your money to come here? Firstly, there is the amazing Himalayan landscape, where snow-capped peaks rise above shadowy gorges cloaked in primeval forests. Taking up prime positions in this picture-book landscape are the majestic fortress-like dzongs and monasteries. This unique architecture sets the stage for spectacular tsechus (dance festivals) attended by an almost medieval-looking audience. Then there are the textiles and handicrafts, outrageous archery competitions, high-altitude trekking trails, and stunning flora and fauna. If it's not 'Shangri La', it's as close as it gets.
Endless beaches, timeless ruins, welcoming people, oodles of elephants, rolling surf, cheap prices, fun trains, famous tea and flavourful food make Sri Lanka irresistible. Few places have as many Unesco World Heritage Sites (eight) packed into such a small area. Sri Lanka's 2000-plus years of culture can be discovered at ancient sites where legendary temples boast beautiful details even as they shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks. More recent are evocative colonial fortresses, from Galle to Trincomalee.
Across the island, that thing that goes bump in the night might be an elephant heading to a favourite waterhole. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks encounter leopards, water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Countless scores of travellers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of uncertainty kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.
But now Sri Lanka has found its place firmly on the itineraries of travellers. The country is moving forward quickly as more and more people discover its myriad charms. Lying between the more trodden parts of India and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka's history, culture and natural beauty are undeniably alluring. It's the place you haven't been to yet, that you should.
When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride.
And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, 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. And you're always just a short hop from something utterly new.
Tibet offers fabulous monasteries, breathtaking high-altitude treks, stunning views of the world’s highest mountains and one of the most likable peoples you will ever meet.
Tibet's other big draw is the elemental beauty of the highest plateau on earth. The geography here is on a humbling scale and every view is lit with spectacular mountain light. Your trip will take you past glittering turquoise lakes, across huge plains dotted with yaks and nomads’ tents, and over high passes draped with colourful prayer flags. Hike past the ruins of remote hermitages, stare open-mouthed at the north face of Everest or make an epic overland trip along some of the world’s wildest roads. The scope for adventure is limited only by your ability to get permits.
Whatever your interests, your lasting memories of Tibet are likely to be of the bottle of Lhasa Beer you shared in a Lhasa teahouse, the yak-butter tea offered by a monk in a remote monastery or the picnic enjoyed with a herding family on the shores of a remote lake. Always ready with a smile, and with great tolerance and openness of heart despite decades of political turmoil and hardship, it is the people that truly make traveling in Tibet such a profound joy.
For many people, the highlights of Tibet will be of a spiritual nature: magnificent monasteries, prayer halls of chanting monks, and remote cliffside retreats. Tibet’s pilgrims – from local grandmothers murmuring mantras in temples heavy with the aroma of juniper incense and yak butter to hard-core visitors walking or prostrating themselves around Mt Kailash – are an essential part of this appeal. Tibet has a level of devotion and faith that seems to belong to an earlier, almost medieval age. It's fascinating, inspiring and endlessly photogenic.
The Maldives is home to perhaps the best beaches in the world; they’re on almost every one of the country’s nearly 1200 islands and are so consistently perfect that it’s hard not to become blasé about them. While some beaches may boast softer granules than others, the basic fact remains: you’ll find consistently whiter-than-white powder sand and luminous cyan-blue water like this almost nowhere else on earth. This fact alone is enough to bring over a million people a year to this tiny, remote and otherwise little-known Indian Ocean paradise.