A generation ago, this was the only Orient that most of us could aspire to visit. But these days the real Far East is not far either. The revolution in air travel means the mysteries of the Orient are evaporating faster than you can say "747". China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan are less than 12 non-stop hours from Britain, and fares are falling fast. For less than the cost of a London-Shetland flight (or a reserve team defender for Leyton Orient) you can fly from Heathrow to Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur thrown in; pounds 459 including tax through Malaysia Airlines, 0181-740 2626.
Whichever Asian city you arrive in, an immediate reaction is to get on the next plane out. With the exception of Singapore - so heavily sanitised that it is more like a clean version of Croydon than an exotic Eastern city-state - Oriental capitals appear to be competing for the title of noisiest, scruffiest and least appetising city on the planet. But the spirit of Asia does not reside, thankfully, amid the foul urban frenzy of Bangkok or Manila, Seoul or Taipei. It flourishes among the verdant wilderness on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo; gushes from the ground in the Japanese spa of Nikko; and floats out in a heavenly fashion from the Buddhist wats in Thailand and Cao Dao temples in Vietnam. Wafting past, too, is a multitude of aromas, from the exquisitely delicate flavours of Japanese and Thai cuisine to the brute culinary force of Korean kim chi (cabbage, pickled viciously). On your travels, you survey the whole food chain from a billion shoots of rice in a million paddy fields to markets which test the limits of the spectrum with their Technicolor displays of fruit - and pose a challenge to your powers of identification and digestion with some of the creatures on show.
The Far East rewards those who simply take part in real life. Just as you need to keep an open mind about eating so, too, travelling around the region is a succession of surprises. Take a trip from Bangkok via Phuket and Penang down to Singapore: as well as trains, boats and planes, the flexible traveller can also plan a stint in a hypercrowded pick-up truck, an overnight bus where the soundtrack of the in-coach video drowns out the croakiest engine, and a tuk-tuk - the whining, bewildering consequence of bolting a passenger cabin on to a motorscooter. If this seems a little too much like hard work, then plenty of tour operators will make the going easier for you. Mass-market operators are moving into Thai and Malaysian beach resorts, while specialists are casting their nets ever wider: Guerba (01373 826611) has a 10-day trekking holiday in the mountains of northern Vietnam, departing next month, for pounds 1,190.
With transportation, accommodation and food so cheap, one of the great attractions of the region is the low cost of living. Thailand or Vietnam on pounds 10 a day is not merely possible; some travellers would see it at positively extravagant. The one exception is Japan: the Yen's ritual humiliation of Sterling means reaching and surviving Japan costs a fortune. The problem of getting a cheap flight to Tokyo is best solved by buying a ticket to Australia: the normal cheapest return travelling with All Nippon Airlines is more than pounds 1,000, but strangely you can get a fare of pounds 673 (through agents such as Quest Worldwide, 0181-547 3322) if you agree to hop from Tokyo down to Brisbane and back. But if you're happy to settle for Brisbane Road instead, then you'll have to wait a week to see Leyton Orient in action against Doncaster Rovers, admission pounds 7.50.
Simon CalderReuse content