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From ancient forests, unspoiled beaches, colour-changing lakes, and dramatic landscapes, these Southeast Asian destinations capture some of the most incredible beauty of 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. The local community is home to 10 tribes that instill a penetrating Pnong influence throughout the region of the Khmer kingdom. Sen Monorom is the central hub for exploration to elephant reserves, the iconic “ocean of trees,” and the locally-run strawberry, rubber, coffee, and cashew nut farms.
One of the world’s oldest deciduous rainforests – estimated at more than 130-million-years-old – extends across an enormous 4,343 square kilometers through 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.
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 once 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 beachside futuristic pods and luxury huts in hidden away lagoons for ultimate privacy.
At nearly 3,000 meters 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 village valley with wine tasting available.
A tiny fishing village just south of Quy Nhon, this once isolated inlet has two coves: Bai Truoc, a bustling beachfront harbour used by Vietnamese traditional circular fishing boats, while Bai Sau offers a larger bay for swimming and relaxing on the white sandy beach. The area is gloriously devoid of cars or anything even suggestively cosmopolitan, with plenty of opportunities for cooking classes, hiking trails, and trekking to waterfalls.
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 hilltribe villages. There’s also the iconic Su Thong Pae Bamboo Bridge that spans nearly a kilometer 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.
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 some of Indonesia’s incredible manta ray population, with tons of operators available to get you swimming, snorkeling, or scuba diving with these gentle giants.
This (almost) deserted paradise lies within Nino Konis Antana National Park, an ancient coral reef built up of dramatic limestone cliffs. 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 instituted firm policy 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 accommodation and a relaxed peek into the daily lives of the Timorese people.
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 still stand as remnants of the region’s unique history, eclipsed only by the natural beauty of the islands – forested hills, sandy beaches, and fringing reefs submerged in turquoise waters. There’s also the tomb of national heroine Vo Thi Sau, and each day at midnight people visit to pray, burn incense, and make offerings.
Affectionately known as the “hidden Maldives of 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, as well as local businesses that teach cooking, 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 the 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 is almost entirely laid out along the Mekong River, set in stunning natural surroundings juxtaposed against the odd assortment of French colonial buildings, Buddhist temples, and an ancient Khmer temple complex sprinkled along the hillsides of the region’s mountainous landscape. Though distinctive elements to the ancient local culture are evident, there are similarities in design to the famous Angkor Wat complex, and remnants of the pilgrimage route that once connected the two.
Up in Udon Thani province is a 26 square mile 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.
Referred to by Spanish colonists as the Isla del Fuego, or Island of Fire, Siquijor is entrenched in tradition of mysticism and witchcraft. The island gets its fiery name from the enormous swarms of fireflies within its molave 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 still practises ancient healing rituals and incantations, and many of the island’s natural features are veiled with enchanted traditions.
This small fishing village along Vietnam’s southern coast have nearby expansive sand dunes, 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.
This volcano on the island of Flores has three crater lakes famous for their ever-changing colours. Local legend believes 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 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.
Located in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – the oldest karst mountains in all of Asia formed 400 million years ago – Son Doong is the world’s largest cave, only discovered in 1991 by a local villager, first surveyed in 2010, and then open to the public as of 2013. The cave has its own subterranean river, campsites, beaches, and even a localized weather system.
Far in Indonesia’s eastern Papua region is this archipelago of 1,500 islands, entirely within the Coral Triangle boasting some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity. Raja Ampat has four main mountainous islands: Wayag offers the most the iconic viewpoint of the seascape, while Tomolol has incredible sea caves with ancient paintings of human palms and animals still in tact 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 measure into the millions, this ancient complex on Java is the world’s largest Buddhist temple buried deep in overgrown jungle. The temple’s history is shrouded in mystery and legend, built at some point in the eighth or ninth century, and then abandoned for unknown reasons – theories suggest the capital’s move was due to earthquakes or the mounting dominance of Islam. The temple was rediscovered in 1814, but not accessible to the public until it was restored in the 1970s. Today, the traditional pilgrimage route treks across five kilometres along three tiers that each symbolize the paths from the world of desire, to the world of forms, to the world of formlessness, respectively – yet the complex itself is accessible without making this trek.
The northernmost part of the country, this archipelago province is the smallest in terms of both population and land mass, 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 120 miles south of Taiwan, with lush, mountainous panoramas that give way to deep canyons and rocky shorelines.
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, numerous cave paintings have been found extending back as far as 2,000-years-old, hidden away within the islands’ mountainous centres that cascade down to rice flats, mangrove trees, and endless expanses of sandy beachfront.