Stories, advice and inspiration fromour Destination Specialists
Walking through the dense rainforest of Sumatra's Gunung Leuser National Park, swathes of titan-like trees stretching skywards, it is easy to imagine the land as it was millennia ago. The rush of the river cutting a path from the mountains to the sea, interspersed with the calls of the wildlife, provides the soundscape; if you are lucky, a flash of golden fur might catch your attention through the greenery and you will be treated to the sight of a rare Sumatran orangutan, or perhaps even have an encounter with Sumatran elephant in their natural habitat. Ed suggests wild camping in the rainforest 'if you are adventurous enough', although listening to the patter of the rain as you lay in a cosy bed at the Jungle Lodge or Bukit Lawang Eco-lodge is pretty special too.
Wilpattu, the largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks, is an oasis in the centre of the dry zone; a unique wetlands habitat of naturally-forming shallow lakes, known as ‘villu’, attracting an array of wildlife to the lush land, even during dry season. Many species come to drink at the water’s edge and make their homes in the fertile surroundings. Water birds such as spoonbills, White Ibis, egrets and herons, are often sighted here, as are owls, kites and even eagles. Sri Lankan elephants, sloth bears and deer wander freely, and the park is home to a healthy leopard population. According to Anna, the leopards are spread out over greater distances than at the more well-visited Yala but if you spot one you are 'likely to be able to enjoy the sighting without getting stuck in a queue of other jeeps!'.
Cambodia’s national parks have really opened up in recent years, allowing visitors greater freedom to explore without needing specialist jungle-trekking equipment! Phnom Kulen, with its undulating hills and waterfalls in sheltered glades, leading to a rocky mountain range with an ancient, almost magical, appeal, is a particular highlight. There are several sites of archaeological significance within this park, including Preah Ang Thom: an enormous, highly decorated reclining Buddha carved directly into solid rock. Should you wish to experience the sacred sites after the crowds have dispersed, you can camp by the temples and wake up to the sounds of the wildlife. Anna suggests visiting at the weekend so you can mingle with the locals as they come to swim and picnic by the waterfalls.
Komodo National Park encompasses Indonesia’s lesser-visited islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar and the surrounding seas, and is home to hundreds of vulnerable species. It was originally created to protect the region’s most iconic creature: the Komodo Dragon. The sight of these leathery, dog-sized monitor lizards slouching around gives a certain prehistoric feeling to the landscape, and the park is committed to preserving the unique biodiversity of their habitat. Stay in a bungalow next to the sea for your own private slice of paradise, or charter a yacht and go diving in the crystal waters. You’ll discover a rainbow array of corals, sponges and over 1,000 species of tropical fish, and your visit helps fund the continued preservation of this exquisite region.
Claire’s top recommendation is Khao Sok National Park on the West coast of Thailand’s southern peninsula. Her reason? 'Elephant Hills - say no more'. Elephant Hills is a visionary project located deep within the rainforest, and combines luxury glamping with elephant rehabilitation and conservation-focused interactions with the animals. With a firm commitment to the welfare of the elephants, there are no rides or performances. Instead, you have the chance to watch the elephants enjoy a mud bath (which can get pretty messy!) then help clean and feed them before observing them interact with one another in their natural habitat. You can also stay on the water and enjoy superb birdwatching from your floating camp.
The scenery surrounding Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is notable in itself - eerie, rocky outcrops rising abruptly from the flat landscape, covered in blankets of trees, with rivers snaking between - but the terrain below the ground is truly something else. The park is home to over 300 linked limestone caves, the largest such complex in Asia, which you can explore accompanied by a trained guide. The largest cavern discovered so far is the 19 metre long Paradise Cave which is covered in stalactites and stalagmites spiking out from the rough rock, as well as underground beaches and bulbous limestone formations. Kate loves this 'area of natural beauty which sees fewer visitors than other parts of Vietnam, with three vast caves all offering something different,.
Staying below ground, the Puerto Princesa National Park in the Palawan region of the Philippines contains buried treasure: the world’s longest underground river, which flows for 8km beneath the park, through an extraordinary network of caves and rock formations. Your guide rows while you sit back and enjoy the experience. The journey is conducted in silence, an audio tour providing narration at key points, so during the pauses there is an unfamiliar lack of sound - an unnerving yet somehow serene experience. The caves are home to hundreds of bats which flit over your head, or sleep suspended from the roof of the cave. This is another of Kate’s favourites (she loves being underground!) - she describes the trip as being one of her most unique experiences in Asia.
Mt Qomolangma is the Chinese name for Mount Everest, and the lands surrounding this legendary peak comprise the Qomolangma National Park. In stark contrast to the lush greenery of many of the parks mentioned so far, the landscape here seems as harsh and foreboding as the surface of the moon. The reputation of its key landmark certainly adds to the otherworldly atmosphere; Everest’s iconic slopes which simultaneously inspire and terrify those brave enough to attempt the climb. Nick, Selective Asia’s intrepid founder, has recently returned from a visit to this remote region and says he loved it. From a vantage point on an exposed hilltop, looking out over endless rocky undulations towards the immense, snowy slopes on the horizon, he says the view was 'alright'!
Cutting a deep yet narrow path through the landscape, the Taroko Gorge is one of Taiwan’s most well-known natural landmarks. At its base, the Liwu River winds towards the sea, while the surrounding lands have been designated a national park. All along the gorge, the steep cliffs provide undisturbed habitats for unusual endemic wildlife, including many exotic birds, wild boar and even bears - a true natural paradise. Martin picked Taroko National Park as a favourite thanks to the excellent hiking trails, and there are routes of varying difficulty to explore. If you’re feeling adventurous (and don’t suffer from vertigo) you can take the Zhuilu Old Trail to a high suspension bridge across the canyon for some hair-raising photo opportunities!
If hiking is your ‘thing’, then a pilgrimage to see the sun rise over Mount Bromo is a bucket-list experience. Your journey starts in the wee small hours when, having wrapped up warm and perhaps had an early coffee (you will be on Java, after all) to get you going, you’ll set off through the dim light up the slopes of the caldera around this active volcano. Once at the top, you can look in and see the smoke rising in irregular wisps, as if proving it is still awake, before you settle down and look out across the mist covered plateau below. As the dawn breaks over the volcanic landscape, you can enjoy a few moments of calm from your perch on top of the world. Apparently, the sunrise was so beautiful it caused Karl to shed a few manly tears. Awww.
One difficulty when wildlife-watching is that the warier animals can scarper at the sound of humans moving, however carefully, through their territory. There’s also sometimes a fair amount of waiting quietly to allow them to return, or relying on sheer luck that they’ll cross your path. A river boat through Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan gets around this by viewing the animals from the water, as they naturally emerge from the shelter of the forest to drink and play. The traditional klotok boat softly putts down the river, allowing you to watch the banks at ease in the hope of spotting an orangutan or two, or maybe a proboscis monkey. Falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle and the gentle lilt of the boat after a day’s cruising is certainly pretty blissful.
The shimmering reservoir waters and forested islands of Gal Oya National Park are a bustling haven for wildlife. Made up of hundreds of small islands, much of the park remains inaccessible and relatively undisturbed, creating ideal habitats for nesting water birds including pelicans and Red-Faced Malkohas. However the park’s most famous residents are the wild elephants who have adapted to their environment and can be seen swimming between the islets, trunks in the air! There are opportunities to meet with members of Sri Lanka’s indigenous Veddah people who still live and work within the forest and learn about the park’s distinctive flora and fauna. Tour the park by traditional jeep safari, or go off road and get closer to the wildlife as you island hop in a boat.
Our Destination Specialists really do eat, live & breathe Asia. They each travel frequently & thoroughly in their countries of expertise, and have the t-shirts to prove it - not to mention a shelf of unusual cooking ingredients, and a few travel industry awards!
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