Whether following the sound of water as it disappears underground, venturing upstream away from the tourist throng, or chartering a boat to explore remote backwaters, heading off along Asia’s lesser-known rivers brings unexpected delights, unspoilt scenery and unforgettable encounters. Switch off your phone, relax and let the river set the pace...
Tucked away in a little corner of paradise on Palawan’s west coast is an underground network of caves through which the powerful Puerto Princesa Subterranean tidal river flows. Trek through the jungle from Sabang to the river entrance, perhaps veering off the trail to soak up the tranquility on a hidden beach beyond the trees. At the cave entrance, climb aboard a shallow canoe and float through caverns carved dramatically through the rock, staying silent so as not to disturb the bats who call these caves home. Peaceful, captivating and, for some, a near spiritual experience.
Not exactly hidden, perhaps, but certainly well off the radar for the average traveller, is a stretch of Cambodia’s Phipot River, upstream from Andong Teuk around the Chi Phat eco-project in the Cardamom Mountain region. Stepping away from the busy cities and tourist trail, you can witness first-hand how the project works in harmony with the river, and how an endangered area can be turned around by a dedicated community. Take a kayak out on the water, trek through the wild countryside to secluded waterfalls for a refreshing dip, watch birds, bats and fireflies fill the sky at sunset, and even catch your own lobster dinner. A chance to pause and follow a gentler pace.
Even on the world’s most famous rivers there are quiet stretches, often upstream or between cities, where travellers rarely go. A less-explored section of the Mekong, where it flows over the Thailand border into Luang Prabang, is one such gem. Here, this mighty river has a different character to that at its delta, as it runs brightly through narrow, forested channels that wind their way through rural Laos. Hop aboard a Luang Say cruise at Huay Xai to sail past tiny hamlets and steep green hillsides, explore thousands of Buddha statues hidden in the Pak Ou caves, and observe life on the riverbank from a different angle before arriving (fully chilled out) in Luang Prabang two days later.
A tributary feeding the grand Ayeyarwady river, the Chindwin flows south through the wide Myanmar countryside to Monywa where it meets its more famous cousin. With many shallow sections which make it difficult to navigate outside of monsoon season, the Chindwin is relatively untroubled by mass tourism. Cruising north from Monywa to Homalin on a petite Pandaw boat, you’ll see the stark contrast between the miles of untamed vegetation and the bright stupas that glow in clusters from occasional hillsides. Visit riverside villages, explore the wilderness, and use the lack of WiFi and phone signal to switch off from the tech buzz of modern life.
The limestone karst formations which cut skywards through the hills of Gunung Mulu National Park give the foothills around Gunung Mulu itself their distinctive profile, while beneath the ground the Mulu caves are just as spectacular. This remote park is accessed either by plane or by boat trip along the Melinau River, through dense Bornean rainforest as you watch for wildlife along the banks. A short walk from the water’s edge brings you to the mouth of Clearwater Cave - the longest cave in Asia - with a subterranean river roaring beneath your feet and breathtaking stalactites hanging above. Follow along to where the river exits the cave into a serene pool and jump in for a cooling dip!
On certain rare and magical occasions, adventurous travellers find themselves in places so ancient that the power of their permanence seems to seep out into the air itself. Formed at least 2 million years ago, as the underground river that flows through it wore away the soft limestone, the Phong Nha cave system in central Vietnam is one such place. Thiên Đường Cave (Paradise Cave) is the longest, and Hang Sơn Đoòng the tallest, featuring stalagmites that tower up to 70 metres tall, and the sound of rushing water flowing beneath the floor and echoing around the walls. Only fully explored since 2005, these two caves are still relatively unknown, so visit now while they’re still on the wild side.
Meandering through the dense jungle of central Kalimantan, the Kayahan river is the living backbone of the region, providing food, water, transport and income to the Dayak tribes that live in the forest along its banks. Often the only practical route in, the river is the rainforest motorway, bringing people and supplies to and from remote areas. Take a guided trip along the river to immerse yourself in the rhythms of rainforest life: navigate the narrow channels looking out for orangutans, macaques and proboscis monkeys, sleep aboard a traditional wooden riverboat, and spend a night in a Dayak longhouse, waking early to the jungle dawn chorus cacophony.