In the heyday of the British Empire, young Englishmen of privilege would customarily round off their educations with a lengthy peregrination around the Continent—attending opera in Vienna, roaming the Accademia, sketching the Acropolis. The premise of the Grand Tour, as defined in Thomas Nugent's 1749 book of the same name, was "to enrich the mind to rectify the judgment...and [to] form the complete gentleman."
Today, those same leisured gentlemen, should any exist, might instead set a course farther east. Asia is to the 21st century what Europe was to the previous three, and its influence touches every aspect of life in the West—culturally, politically, demographically, not least economically. Asian design, cinema, fine art, fashion, cuisine, medicine, and even spirituality have come to permeate and (re)define our own.
This goes way beyond the rage for manga, soup dumplings, yoga, and bubble tea. For many Americans—particularly those under 30—the allure of the East now rivals that of Europe. I've met college students from the Midwest, some of whom don't yet have passports, who are more eager to see Tiananmen Square than Trafalgar, more entranced by Angkor than the Colosseum. (I assume this isn't just a Lara Croft thing.) And why not?Europe isn't nearly so foreign nowadays. Traveling around the Continent's major cities can often feel like traveling around America, albeit with smaller cars, more Benettons, and worse music. It's still entirely worth it, of course—good Lord, I'd never imply otherwise. But is it as transporting, as eye-openingly exotic, as it was for Thomas Nugent and his fellow travelers?Is it still truly Someplace Else?
Hardly any place is—not on this little planet, not now. And Asia, too, for all its persistent Otherness, comes off as far less alien to a Western visitor today. For as the East has informed the West, so has the West informed (nay, saturated) the East. No surprise there—but in Asia this symbiosis crackles with a particular intensity. At times the Orient resembles an exaggerated, parallel-universe incarnation of our own culture. Think of the best and the worst impulses of America, and you'll find them multiplied tenfold in Asia: the can-do industriousness, the insistent sociability, the rampant sprawl, the alarming disregard for the poor, the fervent religiosity, the ubiquity of KFC and Baywatch. To anyone curious about where our culture may be headed (and where much of it originated), a journey east offers compelling clues.
In 2006, to be well-traveled is to know Asia. So why, then, are relatively few Americans actually going?This year, more than 40 million of us will travel to Western Europe; fewer than 3 million will visit Southeast Asia.
There's the distance, certainly. And the jet lag, the vaccinations, the language issue, the visa hassles, and oh, forget it, Gladys, let's just go to Barbados. But in fact Asia is not so daunting. Communication poses no more of a problem than it does in, say, rural Spain; in larger Asian cities, the majority of people a traveler will encounter speak English. Vaccinations aren't necessary for the average visitor sticking to urban areas. Visas, when required, are issued without fuss. And polar routes and a new slate of nonstop flights have cut travel time significantly. Now you can fly from New York to Hong Kong in less than 17 hours, from Chicago to Tokyo in 13. If that still sounds grueling, bear in mind that Asian airlines like Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Thai, and JAL are on a whole other level of comfort and class—I'd take 17 hours in Cathay coach over eight on any U.S. carrier.
Flying within Asia is easier now, as well. Airports are enviably advanced and efficient, and low-cost airlines, inspired by the European model, are popping up across the region. Asia even has its own equivalent to the Eurailpass, with several airlines now offering bargain "all-Asia" passes. Combine that with the fact that the dollar goes much, much further here, and a few weeks in Asia could cost you less than a week in, well, Barbados.
This is also why a two- to three-week, multicountry "Grand Tour" is the best way to see Asia for the first time, or even the fifth. Since flying there and back is (for most travelers) the major expense and time commitment, it makes sense to spend more than a week on the ground. One's first 72 hours in the East tend to be lost to jet lag and culture shock; it can take a few days to find your rhythm. Furthermore, traveling among several distinct cultures coaxes differences and similarities—among Asian countries and between East and West—into high relief. (By the way, we're talking here about East and Southeast Asia: Japan, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. These are the "Big Nine," the customary stops in a journey across the East.)