Sorry, Europe: Why Aussie travellers should be heading to Asia

Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour, yet we know little about it.
Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour, yet we know little about it. Photo: AFP

I've never been to Papua New Guinea; I'm guessing most people reading this haven't either.

I barely know anything about the country – I'm not sure what the official language is, I couldn't name its leader, and I even once, erroneously, referred to New Zealand on this blog as "Australia's closest neighbour". Which it's not. That'll be PNG.

I'm not saying everyone should jump on a plane to Port Moresby tomorrow. I just think it's interesting that we know so little about those that live closest to us.

This was reinforced last week when the US president, Barack Obama, stormed into Australia and started talking about "securing the region" with a new influx of his nation's troops. That strike anyone else as strange? I'm pretty sure the reaction would have been different if Indonesia had announced something similar.

The US is an ally of ours, but surely it's time we stopped thinking about ourselves as being part of this abstract concept of the "West" and had a look at our real place in the world.

After all, geographically – and increasingly demographically and economically – Australia is much more a part of Asia than it is of the United States or Europe. Here we sit at the bottom of probably the most fascinating continent on Earth, and we still know very little about it. It's still "them" and "us".

Travel through Asia is popular, sure, but there's only so much cultural knowledge that can be gained from getting a massage on a Thai beach, or riding in a tube down a Laotian river. Most Australian travellers seem to glean their enlightenment from Europe, with its clean streets and familiar history, and reserve cheap Asia for the fun times.

There was an interesting argument on this website a few weeks back about what Europe has to offer as a travel destination that Australia can't, but maybe we're missing the point there. Sorry Europe (and the States), Asia rules.

After all, the reasons travellers commonly cite for wanting to visit Europe – the history, the food, the landscapes, the architecture – could equally be applied to our northern neighbour.

It's a vast, culturally diverse continent with its own unique history, its own religions, its own systems of medicine, its own cuisines, its own natural beauty and its own manmade monuments. It's easily the equal of Europe or the States.

The 798 Art Zone in Beijing, for example, is as interesting to me as any European art gallery (with the exception of the Louvre). The Temples of Angkor are as inspiring as the Coliseum.

A bowl of cheap ramen noodles in Tokyo is as good as a fresh baguette in Paris. A day in the Killing Fields of Cambodia is as disturbing and educational as a visit to the Somme.

Travel through Asia is a constant journey into the unknown, a trip through varied cultures we don't really understand. Try comparing India to, say, Vietnam. You might as well put it up against Iceland. Same goes for China and Japan, or Thailand and Nepal. All different, all fascinating.

Australia has long been separated from these countries not so much by the tyranny of distance but by the language barrier, plus differing religious and political ideals that have usually made us wary accomplices at best.

To me, the answer to "securing our region" isn't by trucking in Americans with guns, but by gaining a better understanding of those people we're trying to secure ourselves from.

The answer: go over there and explore. Talk to people. They're really not that scary.

Should Australia think of itself as part of Asia? Have you explored our neighbouring continent? How does it compare to Europe for travellers?

Follow Ben Groundwater on Twitter, or email bengroundwater@gmail.com

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