Chenda knocked softly on my door to wake me before dawn. “It is time,” she whispered. When I emerged in the hallway of the old inn, a smile overtook her cocoa-colored cheeks. She wore the same white cotton shirt and tight blue jeans as she had the evening before, when we sat by the inn’s front desk to map out another day’s adventure.
Chenda was my guide to the treasures of Angkor Wat, the stunning assemblage of 12th-century temples in Cambodia, and it was my first visit there, 20 years ago. I was a young journalist in what now feels like a distant century. At that time, visa restrictions and armed conflict made it hard to get to Angkor. Remnants of the brutal Khmer Rouge still haunted the jungle surrounding the area, as the government forces protecting Angkor reminded all visitors.
I’ll never forget the chill I felt the day before, when one of those government soldiers, a barefoot young teenager in a worn green uniform with a Kalashnikov rifle slung nonchalantly over a shoulder, wandered up to Chenda and me outside a temple and asked what country I came from. His eyes carried the vacant look of a young man with nothing to lose. Chenda sensed my apprehension and squeezed my hand as a signal to keep walking. She said something quietly, and he let us go. I was surprised, when Chenda and I sat down in the evening to discuss plans, that she insisted that we go back to yet another Angkor temple before the sun rose.
“The light, the light,” she said over and over.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I asked.
“The light,” she said again.
We saw almost no one on the grounds of the temple when we arrived in the misty light of dawn. The towers loomed like majestic tributes to the sky. The supple light of the hour did indeed coax a richness from the russet-colored sandstone in a way I had not seen before. Chenda took my hand and led me to a corner where she pointed up at the carved apsaras, explaining the Cambodian lore that these divine nymphs, depicted as dancers with bare breasts and elaborate crowns, were sent by the gods to seduce or persuade a hero to take an unexpected turn, to move off the well-trod path, to explore, to discover. To my young and restless soul, standing before magical figures and bathed in an otherworldly light, the possibilities seemed infinite.
Like others who explored Asia in the last century, I can easily bore dinner guests, not to mention my children, with nostalgic stories about a simpler, more dangerous time, when the thrill of travel to faraway places was accentuated by logistical and political challenges. But my old memories are really only a short flash of perspective, a measuring stick of just how much has changed.
Over the past 20 years, Asia has undergone a historic transformation toward openness and pragmatism and freedom of movement. The mysteries and the special finds are still there—and they are so much easier to get to. The chances to explore and experience the exotic delights of the continent are now far richer and more accessible than they have ever been, and the pleasures are much greater, not lesser, than in the days of excessive government control. As a result, there is a vibrant optimism all over the region.
This is a golden age of travel in Asia. The variety of choice and the specific activities that one may seek out and find are satisfyingly broad and deep. Countries like Cambodia, Burma and Bhutan, which were off-limits for so many years to all but the most tireless and persistent visa-seekers, now open their doors eagerly to travelers who can tailor their choices, as one ought. Instant cities in Malaysia and South Korea attest to the efficiency of the pervading business-first mind-set that pervades. Military campaigns and political suppression and sealed borders have generally melted away into a reasonable life.
Consumer options, unrestricted travel and the flow of free information now rank far above the political alliances and government pronouncements of old. That may be sad news for geopolitical theorists. But for travelers, it is an unalloyed bonanza. One need only look to the center of Asia, where the big kahuna—and the most eye-popping transformation—is China. No longer walled-off to outsiders, simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the country is now leading the way to openness and modernity at a pace that is truly breathtaking. It bespeaks a fresh confidence, fully deserved.
In Shanghai, glistening bullet trains and shiny nightclubs echo the modern-mindedness that infuses business districts and artist studios alike. In Hangzhou, the meditative calm of West Lake draws on Chinese traditions to smooth the bumpiness of modern transitions. As for Beijing, anyone who wants a taste of its vibrant youth culture and rocking music scene ought to check out one of the excellent accounts from the growing bookshelves of work on China, like Big in China, by Alan Paul, or Rock Paper Tiger, by Lisa Brackmann.
We now live in the Asian Century. That’s not an economic prediction. It is an easily observable fact. The palpable energy, the unrelenting commerce, the ever-expanding limits and the tremendous optimism now surging throughout Asia can be seen, felt and tasted by even a first-time visitor.
And don’t forget to eat. Inside these pages lurk ideas about how to experience the cornucopia of competing Asian cuisines—perhaps most colorfully in Singapore—that now represent a grand and ever-growing addition to world culture.
The food offerings are even good in Siem Reap, that once-sleepy town in Cambodia known as a stopping place for pilgrims desiring the serenity of Angkor Wat. The town has been utterly transformed into a Vegas-like carnival of lights that truly shocks those of us who ventured there in centuries past. Yet it is an electric part of the unfolding, the essential mystery of where exactly Asia is going, and it invites us to explore.