Have you ever arrived somewhere that you’d never visited before and immediately felt as if you had come home?

Though I’d been lucky enough to have visited numerous countries over six continents, including living abroad for several years, it wasn’t until I touched ground in Southeast Asia that I immediately felt a special, intangible connection that had eluded me in previous travels. And, after countless trips to Southeast Asia, over the course of more than three decades, I’ve never lost that feeling. Though it’s not in my DNA, my heart and my brain are somehow connected to that part of the world.

With the disclaimer that Southeast Asia has been rapidly moving into the 21st century and that some of my memories are quite old and that places change over time, here are few of my favorite places and experiences from my many trips to Southeast Asia. I’m jotting them down as they pop into my head; they’re in no particular order.

  •  The Crazy House in Dalat, Vietnam, is a whimsical piece of architecture that is constantly being tweaked. It was created by architect Hang Nga, who lives on site and who rents some of her crazy rooms to visitors. Getting from one section of the structures to other sections might mean moving through a cavern-like tunnel, walking in a lopsided way or feeling as if you’re in a children’s fairy tale. It’s one of those places that begs to be experienced and I’m guessing that some people won’t be as intrigued as I was when I visited it a number of years ago. But, if you like quirky places that conjure up Alice in Wonderland, the Crazy House fits the bill.  (As an aside, Hang Nga is the daughter of a former Vietnamese vice president.)
  •  Inle Lake in Myanmar is an otherworldly kind of place. Though the serenity is sometimes broken by motorized canoes or sampans, there’s something surreal about the floating gardens where roots of lotus plants, tomatoes and other produce cling to the bottom of the lake and sway back and forth with the breezes and lake currents. The Shwe Inndein Pagoda, on the shores of the lake, is a series of temples that seem to be straight out of the imagination of someone like Tolkien. The lake’s villages are all built on stilts and getting to a neighbor’s house, or tending one’s garden, means getting into a boat. At the rotating 5-day market, members of the region’s ethnic minority groups bring crafts and goods to sell. They come in their traditional garb. Not for the sake of tourists, but because that’s how their dress. For me, the stillness and spirituality of Inle Lake lingered long after returning home.
  • I’m pretty much obsessed with Danum Valley in Malaysian Borneo. I think about it often. This is a remarkable area of original old-growth rainforest that has never been cut down and regrown. The forest is estimated to be 130 million years old. You can truly feel its primordial character. One night I took an after-dark walk with my guide, to look for nocturnal animals. It was a starless night and when my guide suggested that we turn off our flashlights the darkness was so complete that my eyes never adjusted. I lost all sense of direction, distance, everything. It was a profound experience (though I was certainly glad to have a flashlight on hand). Danum Valley is home to a variety of wildlife including orangutans, Asian pygmy elephants, fabulously colored birds, crocodiles and much more. But, for me it’s the ancient rainforest itself that has seeped into my soul.

Diane Embree
October 8, 2019