South East Asia – a nature lover's guide
South East Asia – a nature lover's guide
South East Asia – it's all about the street food, tuk-tuks, golden temples and rice paddies – right?
Those things are part of the cultural heritage of South East Asia. They're the things that make it such a rich, fascinating place to visit. But there's another side to South East Asia – the natural wonders. The pristine rainforest, beaches, mountains, rivers, islands and wildlife.
Nature lovers can get right out in the wilderness, deep into old-growth rainforest or swimming in waters teeming with with marine life. Here are our favourite natural wonders in South East Asia – places that are perfect for nature lovers.
Spectacular limestone formations – Halong Bay, Vietnam
Perhaps South East Asia's best known natural wonder, Halong Bay is simply breathtaking. In the far north of Vietnam, this vast bay is dotted with over 1500 dramatic limestone islets, jutting straight up out of the water. The iconic landscape inspired the legend of dragons sent to protect the local people. The dragons breathed fire and spat out jewels that turned into the islands of Halong Bay and successfully blocked the invaders. The islands are so surreal that once you're in the bay, the legend starts to sound like a pretty reasonable explanation.
Things to do at Halong Bay
• Sit back on the deck of a boat as you sail between the stunning islands of the bay
• Explore the hidden grottoes and caves of the bay by kayak
• If it's warm enough, take a swim in the cool water from Top Ti Island Beach
Pristine islands – Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar
If you look at a map of Thailand's western coast, you'll see the islands and beaches around Phuket. The beauty of this area is well known. Move your eye upwards along the map and there are more islands, more coastline and very few towns. This is the coast of Myanmar, home to the Myeik Archipelago. These are remote, absolutely unspoilt islands, thick with jungle, that are fringed with white-sand beaches and surrounded by turquoise waters.
Things to do in the Myeik Archipelago
• Swim in the warm waters and snorkel with tropical fish
• Keep your eyes open for wildlife – dolphins, sea otters, turtles and loads of birdlife
• Laze on the beach or test your skills on a kayak or paddleboard
Estuaries, mangroves and reefs – Ream National Park, Cambodia
A short distance from the charming beachside town of Sihanoukville, Ream National Park offers pristine Cambodian wilderness to be explored. The park covers 210 square kilometres and extends beyond the land to include the water and offshore islands. The different environments – rainforest, rivers, mangroves, estuaries, islands, beaches and coral reefs – work together in this vast ecosystem to create a haven for wildlife.
Things to do in Ream National Park
• Hop on a boat to the islands and relax on the quiet beaches or go for a snorkel
• Wildlife watch – you might spot monkeys, kingfishers, turtles, dugongs and dolphins
• Take a hike up the mountain for great views across the national park
Old-growth rainforest – Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand is home to what is possibly the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world. The landscapes are stunning with thick forest, lush waterfalls, limestone cliffs and the huge Cheow Larn Lake, studded with islands. There is abundant wildlife and insect lovers will be delighted to hear that the world's only species of amphibious centipede lives in the park.
Things to do in Khao Sok National Park
• Hike along trails through the pristine forests and visit waterfalls
• Take a canoe or bamboo raft on the lake and paddle amongst the limestone islands
• Wildlife spotting – keep your eyes open for elephants, monkeys and tapirs
Picturesque waterfalls – Kuang Si Falls, Laos
Just 30 kilometres from Luang Prabang, Kuang Si Falls makes a perfect day trip. The falls are insanely picturesque, with a tumble of water spilling over a rocky parapet into second and third level rocky platforms, with little side falls arranged around the centrepiece as if by design. A visit to the falls is one of the highlights of a stay in Luang Prabang.
Things to do at Kuang Si Falls
• Hike the trail up to the top of the falls for spectacular views across the valley
• Take a dip in the clear blue pools at the foot of the falls
• Instead of driving to the falls, approach them by boat cruise up the river
Lush, scenic highlands – Hoang Lien Son Mountains, Vietnam
In the misty highlands of northern Vietnam, the town of Sapa is perched on a hilltop. Set in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, close to the border of China, the area around Sapa is incredibly picturesque. From the town you have sterling views across the mountains and on a clear day you can see Vietnam's highest mountain, Mt Fansipan. The Hoang Lien Son mountains are home to many different ethnic minority peoples and the area is great for hiking.
Things to do around Sapa
• Hike past terraced rice fields and visit small ethnic minority hill towns
• Shop for handwoven blankets and textiles in the small villages
• Visit Ba Be National Park and take a boat trip on the lake or walk to the waterfalls
Flooded forests and crashing falls – Stung Treng Province, Cambodia
Head towards the border of Laos in Cambodia and you'll come to Stung Treng Province, an area that is rich with natural highlights. There's Sopheak Mitt Waterfalls, a thundering, powerful falls on the Mekong River. The Anlung Cheuteal dolphin pool is nearby – here, you might have a chance of spotting the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin. Head downstream and you'll come to the flooded forests, where gnarled and twisted trees with exposed roots grow straight from the monsoon waters of the river.
Things to do near Stung Treng
• Kayak between river islands and through the flooded forest
• Watch the birdlife and keep a look out for dolphins at Anlung Cheuteal
• Listen to the thundering waters of the Mekong tumble over Sopheak Mitt falls
Coral reefs and marine life – Koh Tao, Thailand
Off the eastern coast of southern Thailand sit three islands – the third, most remote and smallest island is Koh Tao. The island itself is beautiful, with perfect palm-fringed sandy beaches dotted with beachfront cafes and bars. But it's in the water where nature lovers will find their happy place. The island is surrounded by large underwater rock formations covered in coral reefs that are home to abundant marine life. The water is shallow, calm and clear – Koh Tao has some of the best snorkelling in South East Asia.
Things to do at Koh Tao
• Take a boat to Shark Bay or Koh Nang Yuan to snorkel in the clear waters
• Keep your eyes open underwater for blacktip reef sharks, whale sharks and sea turtles
• Grab a kayak and head off to find your own quiet snorkelling spot