Top 10 adventures in Asia
Tempting travellers way beyond Bali, these jungle adventures will make you sweat and stun you with wild encounters and balmy tropical scenes
1. FREEDIVE RAJA AMPAT West Papua, Indonesia
Faraway on the very tip of Indonesia’s West Papuan coastline, Raja Ampat is famous for its dreamy limestone seascapes and the great swathes of pristine coral that lure divers under the sea. When the equatorial squalls abate each November, live-aboard boats and foreign yachts arrive to glide with manta rays in the plankton-rich currents, and immerse themselves in truly great ecosystems of turtles and unflinching fish, safe and unhunted within the sanctuary of Raja Ampat’s protected zones.
It’s not just the astounding diving that lures intrepid water babies so far off the beaten track. The wallpaper is out of this world: sheer, towering limestone outcrops, weathered and severed from the West Papuan coastline and topped with a hundred ragged, lime-coloured palms. There are pitch black caves full of blind crabs to spotlight through, hidden lagoons nestled deep within the limestone, and tree house lookouts to climb to for sunset views that never end.
Raja Ampat’s dynamic drop-offs, drift dives and immense, fringing coral gardens are equally mind-blowing, but it’s the colours of these waters that lap each deserted, sandy cay — cobalt, teal and turquoise — that will make you swoon and book a trip.
The essentials: Liveaboard trips leave from Sorong (and nearby Waisai) on the West Papuan coast, an easy plane ride from Jakarta. If liveaboard experiences are not within your budget, base yourself in a homestay near Frewin Island or sign on as crew with a cruising yacht (from around $40 a day, crewbay.com).
2. CLIMB TO KELIMUTU’S TRICOLOURED LAKES Flores, Indonesia
It’s said that when children die in the mountain village of Moni, their spirits soar high towards Mount Kelimutu, settling in the warmest and bluest of the volcano’s sacred, tricoloured lakes. Cradled close to heaven, Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai studs a scene so spectacular and so surreal that travellers brave wildly winding mountain roads far inland on the Indonesian island of Flores, and climb the volcano by torchlight just to watch the day begin above Moni.
Rugged up against the high-altitude chill, perched on the sheer-drop edge of the lakes, we shift restlessly in the dark at 1,640m until the sun finally reaches this sea of jagged volcanic peaks, painting Mount Kelimutu’s trio of multi-coloured crater lakes with intensifying, dazzling hues.
The Turquoise Lake is the most captivating by far, and close by, Tiwu Ata Polo (the Brown Lake where good-hearted elderly souls go to rest) provides a remarkable contrast. Black, cold and desolate, Tiwi Ata Mbupu is a sinister sight; a resting place for the wicked and the only summit lake whose colour never changes with the seasons.
When the spectacle is over, tackle the trail that loops back to Moni the long way, descending around rice paddies to hot springs and waterfalls, and finding your way to the ancient spiritual Customs Houses that make Flores famous.
The essentials: Moni is located on the Indonesian island of Flores, a 3-hour drive from Labuan Bajo (of Komodo Island fame). From Moni, take a 4am taxi to Kelimutu National Park, and hike back to town (pack drinking water, a torch and swimmers).
3. STAND ON A VOLCANO Mount Sibayak, Sumatra
Sibayak’s fiery fumaroles are a staggering sight: hot and pungent and spewing out fluorescent yellow sulphur at random. They colour Sibayak’s barren, volcanic slopes and vent the beast that bubbles beneath the Sumatran hill station of Berastagi. On the other side of town, Sibayak’s wilder twin – Sinabung – has exploded annually since 2013, but Sibayak only simmers, and the stiff, three hour-long climb to the summit is perfect for selfguided adventurers.
Follow the foot trail that leads from the outskirts of town up Sibayak’s ever-steepening flanks, switchbacking beneath the long-tailed macaques that crash and call from the dense jungle canopy. Through a muddy tangle of roots and undergrowth, you’ll eventually top out above the treeline onto a rocky landscape full of the fiery fumaroles that vent nasty smelling sulphur and colour the slopes in vivid yellow pools.
Chase the steamy, swirling mist that rises to Sibayak’s 2,094metre summit to take in views of lush valleys and verdant, volcanic peaks beyond. On the return trip, follow the obvious, rocky trail that tumbles through bamboo forest down the other side of the mountain and stop to bathe at Semangat Gunung, the village of hot springs (5hr return).
The essentials: From Sumatra’s capital Medan, take a 90-minute bus ride to Berastagi and find a bed at one of the guesthouses on the main road. Visit from May to June or September to October.
It’s said that when children die in the mountain village of Moni, their spirits soar high towards Mount Kelimutu, settling in the warmest and bluest of the volcano’s sacred, tricoloured lakes.
4. TREK TAMAN NEGARA Peninsular Malaysia
On the summit of The Forbidden Mountain, a giant monkey stands guard over the magic stones of Gunung Tahan (2,187m), or so the Batek Orange Asli hunter-gatherers say, even though they don’t dare to venture there and find out. You can though, in an epic five-day trek that crunches 110 rugged kilometres up Peninsular Malaysia’s highest peak and back down again through some of the oldest rainforest in the world (older than both the Amazon and Congo).
There’s so much forest in fact, that spotting rare Malayan tigers, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros is a tricky business, and only by spending a succession of sleepless nights in a rustic animal hide might you actually encounter one of the big three. Be warned though: trekking in Taman Negara is an unbearably balmy business and the sweat that poured off us on our most recent visit had us reaching for the rehydration salts, but the deeper you go, the more you’ll see.
Staying by the breezier riverside, the Rentis Tenor trail is a favourite, self-guided loop (4 days, 30km). Elsewhere in Taman Negara you can explore caves, shoot Lata Berkoh’s roaring rapids in a river sampan, and overnight in national park animal hides (we like Bumbun Kumbang) to spot tapir, mouse deer and wild boars too.
The essentials: Fly into Kuala Lumpur and travel 250km on to Kuala Tahan. Visit from May and August when the dry conditions deter leeches. For rustic hide stays, pack a sleeping bag, torch, drinking water and food. Don’t miss a sampan ride up Tembeling River (wonderfulmalaysia.com).
5. ENCOUNTER ORANGUTANS Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra
Across the Bohorok River in a vulnerable bastion of orangutan habitat, tourists gather to snap off Insta pics at a milk-andbananas feeding session for Indonesian rehab orangutans. But deeper in the jungle where trekkers sweat and guides swing their machetes at invisible pathways, truly wild orangutans dwell, and though you have to get lucky and spend a considerable amount of time walking and waiting, encountering these stellar primates in their own realm is another world altogether.
From Bukit Lawang, local guides (with cooks and porters in tow), lead small groups of trekkers into Gunung Leuser National Park. Self-guided adventures are not allowed, and since orangutan-spotting demands some skill, guides offer the best chance of success anyway.
The essentials: The easiest access to Gunung Leuser National Park is via Bukit Lawang where there are riverside guesthouses aplenty, 2.5 hours by bus from the Sumatran capital, Medan. Overnight treks cost around $130/person and local operators bukitlawang-jungletrekking.com support both ‘Pack for a Purpose’ and the conservation movement Care Now.
6. SWIM WITH STINGLESS JELLYFISH Kakaban Island, Maratua Atoll
Girthed by ragged limestone cliffs and kaleidoscopic coral reefs, faraway Kakaban Island harbours a rare evolutionary secret, deep within its jungly interior. Hidden from the world and cut off from the sea, a vast inland lake almost as big as the island itself pulses with jellyfish, shimmering and swarming in numbers unimaginable.
Although it seems like poor judgement I take the plunge, pushing off into the deep and flinching as jellyfish swirl around my ankles and bump my mask, slipping and sliding along my bare arms, outnumbering me by thousands.
But there’s nothing to fear here because Kakaban’s jellyfish are stingless.
The island hangs off the magnificent coral fringe of Maratua Atoll, located a couple of hours by speedboat from Indonesian Borneo. Book yourself a stilt cabana stretched out over sea and spend your days eyeballing manta rays, drifting with green sea turtles, and pin diving into deep limestone sea caves.
The essentials: Fly from Jakarta, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Balikpapan and onto Berau, then take a speedboat to Maratua. Charter a boat for the day-trip to nearby Kakaban. Visit from June to September and bring snorkelling gear, sunscreen and cash. Maratua Guesthouse and Nouri Cottages are solid beachfront choices.
7. TREK TIGER LEAPING GORGE Lijiang, Southwest China
Beneath snow-clad peaks and shimmering waterfalls, the High Trail snakes along a precarious path, teetering on the airy, crumbling edge of the Jinsha River gorge where a long-ago South China tiger once leapt into infamy. From the raging river far below (the world’s third longest no less), flaring rock walls shoot 4,000 metres to the snow-capped Haba and Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, forming a spectacular river canyon that’s amongst the world’s deepest.
High above the river, from the slenderest of market gardens, Naxi villagers feed up the trekkers who come for a brief reprieve from the chaos that tends to be Chinese exploring. And while it might take you just a day and a half to tackle this 22km-long scenic wander, the High Trail through Tiger Leaping Gorge is easily Southwest China’s best teahouse mini-trek, and a standout in a region bereft of real wilderness trails.
From the village of Qiaotou, the trail switchbacks up steep gorge walls, winding through bamboo and pine forests to deliver you to teahouses in Nuoyu village in time to watch the light fade over the mountains. After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of steamed buns and rosebud tea, walk on to Walnut Grove, descending to the river’s edge to unwind with fellow trekkers over bottles of cold Dali beer served in sunny guesthouse courtyards.
The essentials: Tiger Leaping Gorge lies in Yunnan Province in Southwest China, a two-hour bus ride from Lijiang. Entry costs around $15. Time your trek from September to October, or from March to May.
8. CYCLE TOUR SOUTHERN THAILAND Sungai Kolok to Krabi
Far from Thailand’s idyllic, coral-fringed isles and intoxicating party scene, the south-east coast sees very few travellers. Yet its scenery is every bit as breathtaking as anywhere in the country, and better yet, it’s crowd-free, uber affordable and utterly authentic.
For lovers of slow, self-determined travel, cycling into Phatthalung is a dream come true and what rocks most is what dominates the horizon: a rugged limestone outcrop known as Khao Ok Thalu, girthed by forest and tamed by a 1,000 steep
steps. The summit climb is breathtaking in every way, leading past hidden temples and gleaming Buddhas to reach a tranquil forest sanctuary for Buddhist nuns that crowns the mountain.
Beyond Phatthalung, you can cycle on to Trang for west coast island hopping and night market feasting, soak in the iridescent Emerald Pool in Thung Teao Forest Nature Reserve, and kick back at Krabi’s Ao Nang beach with spicy papaya salad, deep-fried seafood and icy beers.
The essentials: From Sungai Kolok on the Malaysian/Thai border there’s more than 500km to cycle before you reach Krabi. Time your trip from February to August and allow three weeks (wildtravelstory.com).
9. DISCOVER SARAWAK’S MOST REMOTE WATERFALL Bako National Park, Kuching
The best way to discover what really moves in a Bornean jungle after dark is to take a boat to Bako National Park and start hiking. Located within easy reach of the capital Kuching, Bako’s beachside sanctuary safeguards Borneo’s own, rare proboscis monkey, shy silver leaf monkeys and unstoppable bearded pigs.
There’s also an excess of annoying macaques, but you can soon escape them on Bako’s faraway trails to swim beneath secluded waterfalls, gaze from lofty jungle lookouts, and pitch a tent on the blissfully deserted Tajor beach, a half-day’s hike away. This wilderness is Sarawak’s oldest, and while forest bungalows can be booked online, for overnight adventures you’ll need an airy, tropical tent, stove and food (gather and treat water from Tajor Waterfall en route).
The essentials: From Kuching, take a taxi to Bako Village and a boat onto the park. Visit from March to October and find out more at sarawakforestry.com.
10. CYCLE KALAW TO INLE LAKE Myanmar
For two days from Kalaw to Inle Lake, this off-track ride will thrill you with forest descents and faraway villages on a 60km-plus adventure over the Shan Hills to Inle Lake. At the lake there’s more to explore on a three to four day loop out of the guesthouse hub at Nyaungshwe, balancing along wooden bridges that pass as the watery streets of Inle’s famously stilted lakeside villages, and ticking off treks to a forest monastery high above Maing Thauk, Indein’s crumbling temples, and Khaung Daing’s natural hot springs.
Add on a trek to Kakku where a ‘stupa garden’ of 2,478 monuments dates back to Third Century BC, and wobble your bike back to Nyaungshwe after a stint of wine tasting at Red Mountain Estate Vineyard.
The essentials: From the Myanmar capital Yangon, Inle Lake is a short flight (or an overnight bus ride) away. Visit from
November to February and book your ride or hire a decent bike from local operators Naing Naing Biking and Trekking (find them on facebook) or try grasshopperadventures.com.