Swim with whale sharks, clamber smoking volcanoes and wander where dragons roam. South-East Asia is packed with unforgettable moments – here’s our pick of the best…
South-East Asia is one of the world’s top adventure destinations, boasting everything from untapped jungle to cathedral-like caverns.
It’s a place where orangutans swing among the canopies and exotic wildlife, from elephants to ‘dragons’, can be seen in close proximity.
In the water, teeming reefs and snorkelling opportunities are plentiful. Trekking, cycling, climbing, diving, surfing, wildlife watching, wellness – it’s all here in an action-packed region where the activities won’t break the budget.
A game changer for gardens all over the world, this billion-dollar botanical wonder is made up of temperature-controlled biodomes that showcase environments from the Mediterranean to montane rainforest.
The ‘Supertrees’ are the iconic image of this project, and twinkle every night at 7.45pm and 8.45pm in a dazzling light show. Set aside at least a few hours to explore this enormous site.
Where: Adjacent to the Marina Reservoir, Singapore.
When: Year round.
How: This immense botanical garden can absorb a large number of visitors, so just show up on the day.
The impressive temples of Bagan come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, and there is no better way to appreciate this historic spectacle than from the basket of a hot-air balloon, drifting across the Ayeyarwady plain.
Take off in pre-dawn darkness and witness the sun bathe the spires of Bagan in its golden light for one of those breathtaking travel moments that linger long in the memory.
Where: Bagan, Mandalay Division, Central Myanmar.
When: The dry season months of October to April.
How: There are several hot-air balloon operators in Bagan, but the original, and still the best, is Balloons Over Bagan.
Son Doong is the world’s largest cave, reaching 200m at its tallest point. Discovered in 2009 at Phong Nha-Ke Bang NP, expeditions there are dear ($3,000/ £2,285pp), but the park is filled with other caves to explore, such as the underground river of Hang Va, the huge Paradise Cave and the zipline-swim-kayak experience of Hang Toi.
Where: Near to Dong Hoi.
When: The caves are open year-round, but wet season (October to December) can be slippery for treks. The best conditions are February to August.
How: Son Trach village is about 50km north of Dong Hoi, a coastal city with links to Hanoi, Hue and Danang by rail and road.
At a lofty 4,095m, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain on Borneo, its gnarly granite outcrops rising high above the steamy lowlands.
The contrast between the lush, green jungle below and the stark lunar landscape above makes this one of the most rewarding treks in Asia, while serious climbers will want to tackle the via ferrata back to the Laban Rata Rest Camp.
Where: Sabah Province, Borneo.
When: The dry season months of March to August are the best time to climb Mount Kinabalu. Avoid the wet season months of October to January, as some trails become impassable during this time.
How: The national park office is 88km from Kota Kinabalu and can be accessed by bus or private taxi in two hours or less.
Swimming with nature’s gentle giants has to be among the greatest wildlife experiences in travel, and one of the best places to achieve this dream is near the village of Donsol, at the southern tip of Luzon.
Marvel at their grace in the water and try not to be intimidated if it is your first time, as these silver-spotted surfers can grow up to 14m in length. If the whale sharks aren’t in the hood, there is also a fever of manta rays to visit at nearby Ticao Island.
Where: Donsol Bay, Luzon Island.
When: Whale sharks are usually present in the waters off Donsol from November to June, but the peak months for spotting are April and May.
How: There are daily flights from Manila to Legazpi, from where it is 90-minute minivan ride to Donsol.
Carved out of the landscape by the Ifugao people more than 2,000 years ago, local legend tells that the god Kabunyan used the terraces like steps to visit worshippers on Earth, and they do indeed resemble a stairway to heaven.
Carved like natural amphitheatres around the villages of Banaue and Batad, hike beyond to the villages of Cambulo or Pula to leave the tourists far behind in your wake.
Where: Banaue and Batad, northern Luzon.
When: To see the rice terraces in all their glorious greenery, visit during the growing seasons of April to May or October to November. June and December are alternative options for those that want to see the harvest.
How: Philippine Airlines now offers direct flights to Manila from London Heathrow; once there, overnight buses reach Banaue in around nine and a half hours.
This sprawling complex of caves was once the capital (1964–73) of the communist Pathet Lao forces during what is often dubbed Laos’ Secret War.
Set among a fairytale landscape of limestone karst, its setting belies the brutal bombing that took place courtesy of the US, who dropped some two million tonnes of ordinance on Laos during this period.
All the while these caves were home to a secret city of some 20,000 people, which included a hospital and even a theatre and cinema for propaganda and entertainment.
Where: Houaphanh Province, north-east Laos.
When: Year-round access is possible, but it is remote.
How: Vieng Xai is best seen as part of an overland trip from Hanoi (Vietnam) to Luang Prabang (Laos).
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is arguably the most iconic of several places in Malaysia and Indonesia where it is possible to meet these giant apes in their own habitat.
Many here have been injured or orphaned as a result of trafficking or poaching, and this is their halfway house back to nature.
Be sure to also visit the nearby Sun Bear Conservation Centre, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary and the Rainforest Discovery Centre for more incredible wildlife encounters.
Where: Sabah, Borneo.
When: Dry season (April to October) is best for visits, but orangutans can be seen year-round here thanks to the nursery.
How: Fly to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and other regional destinations, then catch a bus to Sepilok (around 40 minutes).
To the Balinese, Mount Rinjani is the ‘seat of the gods’, and the second-highest volcano (3,726m) in Indonesia doesn’t disappoint. Summiting here gifts you one of the best views in Asia, as you peer out over its 6km-wide caldera, high above the cobalt-blue crater lake where lies the active Mount Baru, a ‘new’ volcano that first erupted in 1994.
Beyond, Bali’s Mount Agung is visible on the horizon, ensuring it’s well worth the 3am wake-up call to see sunrise from the summit.
Where: The island of Lombok.
When: The dry season months of April to September offer the best trekking conditions. The wet-season months of November to April are challenging as trails are slippery. Be aware that the park is occasionally closed due to volcanic activity.
How: Lombok is easily accessible from Bali via a 30-minute flight or a bus and ferry journey (four to five hours). Most Rinjani ascents start from Senaru, two hours’ drive from Mataram.
Railay is the spiritual home of sea kayaking in South-East Asia, affording an unmissable chance to explore the limestone karst islands, peaks and caves that dot its surrounding bays.
There is no better way to take it in the scenery than at the languid pace of a kayak: stop on a secluded beach for a swim, cool off in a cave or do a spot of freeclimbing, then take a leap into the azure waters.
Where: Krabi Province, southern Thailand.
When: Year round is possible, but it is better in the dry-season months of November to March, as it warms up dramatically in April and May and is wet through to October.
How: From Krabi Airport, it’s a 40-minute drive to Ao Nang, then 15 minutes by longtail boat to Railay Beach. Once there, speak to local outfits in the area to rent a kayak or paddleboard, or sign up for a day trip with a guided tour.
Feeling fried? Take a well-earned break with an escape to a wellness centre on Koh Samui. Samahita Retreat is one of the most established on this idyllic island, with yoga, meditation, massage and tailormade diets all on offer.
Of course, we wouldn’t blame you if you slipped off to kayak the nearby archipelago of Anthong National Marine Park as well – after all, nature is the best healer.
Where: Koh Samui.
When: Year round.
How: Samahita Retreat offers a range of detox breaks throughout the year.
This pioneering ecotourism project was set up to preserve the forest habitat of wild gibbons living in the Bokeo Nature Reserve. Visitors trek into the jungle before ascending the old-growth forest to spend a night in the treetops.
Gibbons are usually heard if not always seen, but the real wow factor is sleeping in a treehouse and waking up to the soundtrack of the jungle.
Where: Bokeo Nature Reserve, near Huay Xay, north-west Laos.
When: The dry season months, lasting from November to March, are the best for trekking.
How: Fly to Chiang Rai in Thailand, then drive 100km north-east to cross the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River to Huay Xai. Book ahead at peak times as numbers are limited.
The majestic temples of Angkor are among the most iconic monuments in the world, but the word is out and mass tourism has come to once-sleepy Siem Reap.
Leave the tour buses behind with a ride along the lesser-visited trails of Angkor, entering the East Gate of Angkor Thom from the forest and riding around the walls of the great fortified capital of the Khmer Empire.
Where: Near Siem Reap, north-west Cambodia.
When: The dry months of November to March are best. April and May are very hot and the trails get slippery during the wet-season months of June to October.
How: Arrange a mountain bike, e-bike or a blinging new e-mountain bike through local rental shops in Siem Reap, or sign up for a tour with one of the local adventure operators.
The UNESCO-listed national park of Khao Yai has more than 50km of walking trails, originally formed by some of its larger inhabitants – typically elephants.
There are also several waterfalls to see here, including the Su Wat and Narok, as well as some 280 species of birds to look out for. Wild bliss.
Where: Deep in Nakhon Ratchasima Province.
When: Year round is possible, but the dry-season months of November to March are better for trekking and wildlife spotting.
How: Pak Chong, the gateway town for Khao Yai, is located three hours from Bangkok and can be accessed by bus, but rental car is an easier way to reach the Visitor Centre.
There is a buzz about Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife, and to experience it like a local, you need a Vespa.
Whether you go vintage or modern, this iconic scooter is a favourite of local Vietnamese, for whom it became a status symbol as far back as 1975, when the country isolated itself after the Vietnam War. Explore bars, street food markets and more bars on an immersive and tasty night safari.
Where: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
When: Year round, but you might get caught in a downpour in the wet-season months of June to October.
How: Vespa Adventures are the experts, and their trips can be booked online at Vespa Adventures' official website.
Halong Bay hogs the headlines, but its karst outcrops continue north all the way up the coast to Bai Tu Long Bay and south-east to Lan Ha Bay.
The latter – a short distance from Cat Ba Island – offers spectacular scenery that is still far from the frenetic crowds that gather in Halong City, and is dotted with hidden sandy coves for seafood BBQs or overnight camping.
Where: Off Cat Ba Island.
When: Year round is possible but it is advisable to avoid typhoon season, which lasts from September to November.
How: Sign up with a luxury cruise as part of an organised tour with a UK operator, or book a more basic cruise on the spot out of Hanoi (which will include transport to the bay area).
Learn the art of Thai cooking with Poo, a self-taught Thai chef with a flair for flavours and a sense of mischief.
Growing up in the Klong Toey slum area of Bangkok, she sold food straight out of her kitchen to hungry regulars on the street and has risen to become a bit of a local celebrity, with her own unforgettably named recipe book, Cooking with Poo – she’s even shown Jamie Oliver a thing or too about tasty Thai treats.
Where: Klong Toey District, Bangkok.
When: Year round.
How: Make a date with Poo online, but book ahead as numbers are limited.
Experienced divers regularly namecheck Raja Ampat as the best dive site in Indonesia, even after the cruise liner disaster that happened here in 2017. Thankfully, only a fraction of its 40,000 sq km was impacted, and this remote northwest corner of Papua remains a gem.
The region is home to over 1,000 islands, many tufted with wild jungle and hiding powder-white sands, while a pristine coral reef and diverse marine life lies below the water. Liveaboards cater to the luxury scuba crowd, with homestays drawing the more intrepid independent travellers.
Where: Raja Ampat, Papua Province.
When: Liveaboards operate from October to April, when manta rays descend on the area to feed. Avoid July to September, when rough seas make some dive sites inaccessible.
How: Raja Ampat is far off the usual banana-pancake trail. Fly to Sorong from Jakarta (four hours), Makassar (two hours) or Ambon (one hour) and continue by fast boat to Waisai on Waigeo Island (around two hours). Unsurprisingly, most serious divers opt for high-end liveaboards.
Head to Mondulkiri in the wild east of Cambodia to visit the Elephant Valley Project (EVP). This pioneering retirement home for pachyderms offers them some respite after a lifetime as beasts of burden, as you spend the day following them through their forest home to learn about their natural behaviour.
Where: Mondulkiri Province.
When: EVP is open all year round, but it is best visited in the dry season months of November to March, as the jungle trails can be quite tricky during the wet season.
How: Sen Monourum is a five and a half hour bus ride from Siem Reap. From there, EVP will transfer you to the project site, but book ahead online as numbers are limited.
In January 2020, Komodo Island will be closed to the public for one year in a bid to help its eponymous dragons recover from thefts by smugglers.
Thankfully, the rest of Komodo NP will remain open, so even if you miss the cut-off, you can still visit neighbouring Rinca, which is a slightly longer journey from Labuan Bajo but offers equally wild dragon encounters.
Enjoy snorkelling stops along the way and some great diving, but the real highlight is meeting these dinosaur throwbacks.
Where: Komodo National Park (Komodo, Rinca and Padar islands)
When: Year round, but trekking is better in the dry season (April to October).
How: Arrange a liveaboard from the Gili Islands to Labuan Bajo in Flores that includes a dragon encounter.
The Reunification Express links Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and was an important symbol of national reconciliation when it reopened in 1976, bridging north and south after the long years of separation and war.
One of the finest stretches of the 1,726km-long line is the coastal section between Hue and Danang, as it meanders beneath the Hai Van Pass. Grab a window seat and soak it all in.
Where: Hugging the coast in Central Vietnam.
When: Year round.
How: Rock up to the train station in Hue or Danang and book a ticket to ride.
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