From ancient forests to unspoiled beaches via kaleidoscopic lakes and dramatic landscapes, these Southeast Asian destinations capture the incredible beauty of what is a wonderfully diverse region.
This eastern area of Cambodia is the largest but most sparsely populated of the country, a land of sprawling forests, powerful waterfalls and rolling, tree-topped hills. Sen Monorom is the central hub for the exploration of elephant reserves, the iconic ‘ocean of trees’, and the locally-run strawberry, rubber, coffee and cashew nut farms.
Taman Negara, Malaysia
One of the world’s oldest deciduous rainforests – estimated at more than 130 million years old – extends across an enormous sprawl of Central and Northern Malaysia. Kuala Tahan is just one of the jumping-off points from which to explore this ancient jungle. Situated along the Tahan River, day-trippers can wander across the treetops along the world’s longest suspension bridge or trek the Bukit Teresek Hill. Longer treks – both guided and unguided – are available for up to nine days with necessary supplies available for sale or rent in the village. Visitors can also visit Orang Asli settlements, the indigenous nomadic tribe of the Taman Negara, raft through the rapids, explore cave systems and join night safaris for the chance to see rare mammals like the Malay tiger and Asian elephant.
Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia
This undeveloped counterpart to the backpacker paradise of nearby Koh Rong appears to be straight from the pages of Robinson Crusoe. Just nine kilometers long and four wide, the entire spit of land lives up to its name loosely translated as ‘drowsy’ or ‘dreamy,’ so expect some serious relaxation upon hitting its shores. The main area of activity is the aquamarine-framed Saracen Bay, which has a great variety of accommodation options from tree houses to futuristic pods and luxury huts in hidden away lagoons for ultimate privacy.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
At nearly 3,000m (9842ft) above sea level in the Shan Hills of Myanmar, Inle Lake is home to a number of subsistence-based tribes dispersed across four main villages along the iconic lake, with a number of smaller settlements framing the shoreline. Most of the indigenous people live in communities of stilted bamboo homes and the local fishermen practice a distinctive leg-rowing style that developed from the need to fish from a vantage point among the reeds and floating plants. The Shan region is also famous for its incredible Chinese-inspired cuisine, Lotus textile weaving and ‘cheroot’ cigars made from tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana and star anise. The local village also has its own beautiful vineyard overlooking the valley, with wine tastings available.
Bai Xep, Vietnam
A tiny fishing village just south of Quy Nhon, this once isolated inlet offers two coves. Bai Truoc is a bustling beachfront harbour used by Vietnamese traditional circular fishing boats, whilst Bai Sau offers a larger bay for swimming and relaxing on a white sandy beach. The area is gloriously devoid of cars or anything cosmopolitan, with plenty of opportunities for cooking classes, hiking trails and treks.
Mae Hong Song, Thailand
Bordering Myanmar, Mae Hong Song province is a lush expanse of misty mountain landscape with hundreds of hidden caves, hot springs, nature parks and waterfalls sprinkled throughout. Trekking opportunities are world-class, opening up incredible viewpoints and offering access to indigenous hill tribe villages. There’s also the iconic Su Thong Pae Bamboo Bridge that stretches across rice paddies, still used today by monks during alms ceremonies and the Phu Klon Mud Spa to really treat yourself while getting back to nature.
Nusa Islands, Indonesia
Breathtaking beauty doesn’t have to be totally inaccessible. Just off the coast of Bali are the Nusa Islands – Lembongan, Penida and Ceningan – each a step back in time to Bali before mass tourism. Just as Bali enjoys incredibly diverse landscapes, some parts of the Nusa Islands are blanketed by calm, white sandy beaches framed by turquoise waters, with others revealing dramatic cliff-sides and surf breaks, naturally-formed infinity pools and enchanting hidden lagoons. The area is also home to a chunk of Indonesia’s manta ray population, with tons of operators available to get you swimming, snorkeling, or scuba diving with these gentle giants.
Jaco Island, East Timor
This (almost) deserted paradise lies within Nino Konis Antana National Park, an ancient coral reef. Locals revere Jaco Island, which is considered sacred as the land sits at the convergence of two seas: the Banda and the Timor. This reverence has led to a firm stance against any development or construction, meaning day trips are the only means of visiting, but the integrity of its natural beauty remains entirely untouched. Boats can be hired in the nearby mainland village of Tutuala, which also offers the area’s best accommodation and a relaxed peek into the daily lives of the Timorese people.
Con Dao archipelago, Vietnam
This group of 16 islands once served as a political prison during French colonial times and was later used by American forces during the Vietnam War. Today, dilapidated structures stand as remnants of the region’s unique history, eclipsed only by the natural beauty of the islands. With forested hills, sandy beaches and stunning reefs submerged in turquoise waters, there’s also the tomb of national heroine Vo Thi Sau where each day at midnight people come to pray, burn incense and make offerings.
Mataking Island, Borneo, Malaysia
This island off southeastern Sabah is actually comprised of two smaller bits of land connected by a natural sandbar visible during low tide. The region is a premier diving and snorkeling destination packed with rich marine biodiversity including sea turtles, sharks and enormous shoals of pelagic fish. There’s even an underwater post office within a sunken fishing vessel. Waterproof covers and rubber stamps are available for purchase on the island and letters can be delivered internationally from under the sea. Other activities are available across the island like sea kayaking, jungle trekking and local businesses offer cooking classes, traditional dance and handicrafts like batik painting.
Getting to this laidback town in the Shan province is half the experience. The train route connecting Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw was made famous by Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and today still runs through the incredible hill country of Shan state and across the dramatic Gokteik Gorge. The viaduct that crosses the gorge was the largest railway trestle in the world upon its completion in 1901 and is still the highest bridge in Myanmar. The village of Hsipaw itself lies in a low valley, a jumping-off point for excellent day hikes and nearby waterfalls.
This tiny town sits along the Mekong River amid stunning natural surroundings. With a smattering of French colonial buildings, there are Buddhist temples and an ancient Khmer temple complex built into the hillsides of the mountainous landscape.
The Red Lotus Sea, Thailand
Up in Udon Thani province is a lake that blooms with millions of pink lotus flowers during the cool months of November to February. This unique wonder is of special reverence to the Thai people, who consider the lotus to be the traditional flower of Buddhism and along the river, there are several small islands with Buddhist statues, shrines and pagodas.
Siquijor is a destination entrenched in the tradition of mysticism and witchcraft. The island is home to enormous swarms of fireflies within its trees that give the entire landscape of beaches, caves and waterfalls a uniquely magical glow. While the majority of the population today practises Catholicism, a remnant of Spanish rule, the community continues to practice ancient healing rituals and incantations and many of the island’s natural features are veiled with enchanted traditions.
Mui Ne Sand Dunes, Vietnam
This small fishing village along Vietnam’s southern coast has expansive sand dunes nearby. One field of white sand, another of red, each sculpted into ever-changing dunes by the whim of the winds. Jeep and dune buggy tours are available to explore either guided or unguided – if you choose to go at it on your own, be aware not to disturb the natural ecology and life within the dessert.
Mount Kelimutu, Indonesia
This volcano on the island of Flores has three crater lakes famous for their ever-changing colours. Local legend teaches that the lakes are the resting place of departed souls – Tiwu Ata Bpau is the Lake of Old People, Tiwu K’o Fi Nuwa Muri is the Lake of Young Men and Maidens and Tiwu Ata Polo is the Bewitched Lake – and they change colour according to the mood of the spirits. The lakes’ colours change independently of one another, as often as several times a month, caused by changes in the levels of elements like iron and manganese that interact with dissolved volcanic gas.
Son Doong Cave, Vietnam
Located in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Son Doong is the world’s largest cave yet was only discovered in 1991 by a local villager. First surveyed in 2010 before opening to the public in 2013, the cave has its own subterranean river, campsites, beaches and even a localized weather system.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Deep in Indonesia’s eastern Papua region, this archipelago of 1,500 islands, entirely within the Coral Triangle, boasts some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity. Raja Ampat has four main mountainous islands: Wayag offers the most iconic views of the seascape, while Tomolol has incredible sea caves with ancient paintings of human palms and animals still intact today. The Ayua islands consist of small spits of land across a large atoll, many connected by natural sandbars and full of vegetation and fauna entirely unique to the region. Scuba diving and snorkeling are among the most popular activities, along with bird watching, sailing, learning traditional Papuan fishing, waterfall trekking and cave exploration. If you’re visiting during the end of the year, head to East Waigeo to experience the ‘Sea Ghost’, a natural phenomenon of light across the ocean’s surface for 10-20 minutes.
While temples around Southeast Asia number in the millions, this ancient complex on Java is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, making it something special indeed. Sitting deep in overgrown jungle, the temple’s history is shrouded in mystery and legend. Built at some point in the eighth or ninth century, the site was later abandoned for unknown reasons. Today the traditional pilgrimage route spans 5km (3mi) along three tiers symbolising separate spiritual paths.
The northernmost part of the country, this archipelago province is the smallest in terms of both population and landmass, with only three of its islands inhabited primarily by fishing and agricultural subsistence communities. Its landscape and climate are distinctly different from the rest of the Philippines as the region is only 193km (120mi) south of Taiwan, with lush, mountainous panoramas that give way to deep canyons and rocky shorelines.
Koh Yao Yai, Thailand
This tiny, overlooked paradise between the heavy tourist meccas of Phuket and Krabi is an unspoiled depiction of the beauty that Thai islands have come to be known for. The local, predominantly Muslim communities have cultivated thriving rubber tree and fishing industries, while many of the island’s other locals descend from the Sea Gypsy or Monken people. Across Yao Yai and its more developed sister, Koh Yao Noi, there are numerous cave paintings dating back as much as 2,000 years.
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