Asia

Thinking of this continent, billions of people come to mind. In fact, Asia is the largest continent in the world by population as well as area. That’s because it includes 48 countries, two of which (China and India) each have over a billion people and consider a city of 1 million inhabitants a “village.” But the continent also includes Turkmenistan in Central Asia and Armenia in the Caucasus, two of the least populated countries in the world for their sizes (4 and 3 million, respectively).

Middle Eastern countries largely fall into Western Asia as does most of Turkey. Most (77%) of Russia’s land is in Asia as well. That said, the continent is the most culturally diverse of them all with most of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities (think Damascus, Jericho, Jerusalem, Luoyang and Varanasi). It has everything from stunning beaches and tiger sanctuaries to bustling, neon-lit metropoles. Foodies, history buffs, culture enthusiasts and honeymooners go wild there (except for guarded North Korea). Full of mystique, Asia never has a dull moment …

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Rayong, Thailand

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This group of “stan” countries – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan – is one of the most fascinating regions in the world given its mix of cultural heritages. All are former USSR members with varying degrees of Russian influence depending on how hard a “Rus-exit” they had. Turkmenistan severed all ties, banning all things Russian, including the language, and largely closed itself off to the world. The rest still speak Russian along with their own language and retained bits of Russian culture in order of least to greatest Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Elusive Turkmenistan is open to those willing to hire a guide to get a visa. Uzbekistan is secular by contrast with spectacular Persian architecture. Tajikistan practically is Persian. Kyrgyzstan is all about mountains and horses; Kazakhstan as well but it’s much, much bigger.

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China, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Japan, South Korea and North Korea form East Asia. China, of course, is the tiger of the group with an incredible past and promising future. It is home to some of the largest cities in the world, the Great Wall, ornate palaces and temples, giant pandas, silk sheets and tea of every kind imaginable. Mongolia is a rugged offshoot of China known for yurts (portable, round tents). Taiwan is its ostricized, sophisticated neighbor and Macau is the place to gamble. Japan has the most rule-driven society of all but charms with its traditions and grace. American-influenced South Korea is quite westernized superficially but still connects with its Chinese roots. Shockingly, North Korea allows tourists but takes the fun out of it with intense supervision.

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India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives make up this region. India is one of the most lively and colorful countries in the world. Its people, whether crazy rich or dirt poor, celebrate everything and all slices of humanity are on display in the streets. From bustling Delhi and Mumbai to romantic Jaipur and Goa to yoga retreats and bengal tiger reserves, India has something for everyone. Traveling there is not for the faint-hearted but those who go will never forget it. Bhutan and Nepal are mountain climbers’ delights and honeymooners flock to the exotic Maldives, which have arguably the most beautiful beaches in the world. While currently risky for tourism, the two “stans” are supposed to have incredible landscapes.

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This region includes 11 countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei and Timor Lester. It also has the Australian territories Christmas Island and Cocos Islands. Thailand, meaning “Land of the Free,” is just that; anything goes there for better or worse but the people are all smiles, reflecting many Buddha statues, and the beaches and islands are gorgeous. It has hands-down the most interesting architecture in the world. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are fascinating historically and contrasting, modern Singapore is known for safety and cleanliness. The Philippines stand out for friendly people, Indonesia for exotic islands (think Bali), Malaysia for palm oil and sadly, Myanmar for the Rohingya conflict.

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A departure culturally from the rest of Asia are the Caucasus of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Middle East comprised of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and most of Turkey. The Caucasus countries are intriguing with their blends of cultures, history, topography and wine-making. Turkey is strange mix of Islamic culture and westernized ideals overseen by a dictator. The Middle East is mystical and aesthetically pleasing with a range of Muslim influence from westernized Jordan to no-drinking, no-woman-enters-without-a-husband Saudi Arabia. The region’s food is wonderful and drinking varies by degree of religious observance. Hot desert landscapes abound. The “I” countries remain frought with political instability but they are rich parts of the cradle of civilization.

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Unlike Australia, Antarctica is only a continent, not also a country. That’s because it does not have sovereignty, a government, a political system, an army or a permanent population.