Trekking. It needs no special equipment, no learnt skill, just a little stamina and a local guide in some of the more off the beaten track areas. The moment you step outside your door in Southeast Asia there are incredible sights waiting to be seen, just a short walk from the main tourist path. Escape the crowds by clambering up mountains, foraging through jungles, peering into volcanic craters and scampering around the waterfalls to get to the local beauty spots – peaceful and deserted!
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Where are the best places for trekking in Southeast Asia?
Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia
For those of you looking to bag South East Asia’s highest peak, you may be thinking of heading to Malaysian Borneo to take on Mount Kinabalu? However, despite what people think, Kinabalu (4,094 metres) is actually only the fifth highest mountain in South East Asia, with Burma’s Hkakabo Razi (5,881 metres) clenching the top spot. However, much more accessible is Kinabalu, which can be summitted in two days from the town.
People of all ages take on the mountain each year and there are many tour companies based in Kota Kinabalu that will guide your way up the mountain. Ascending through the clouds looking out over magical landscapes, it is easy to see why mountains have long been thought of as the home of the Gods in many cultures and are the source of myths, legends and spiritual folklore.
Volcano Trekking in Indonesia
One of the most exciting and otherworldly trekking adventures has to be to tackle some of Indonesia’s spectacular volcanoes, their steaming, gurgling crates rising high into the wispy clouds. In a country that holds the title for having the most active volcanoes in the world (129), Indonesia boasts incredible landscapes to explore.
Volcanoes in Java
In East Java, popular climbs start from Yogyakarta and head to the summit of Mount Semeru or Mount Bromo. Holding the title of ‘most photographed active volcano in the world’, Mount Bromo is Indonesia’s most popular volcano and stands about 2,329 metres high. Its name comes from the Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu creator God.
Locals believe that throwing offerings into the crater will bring them good luck, despite the danger of such proximity! In January 2011 a 2-kilometre exclusion zone was implemented surrounding Mount Bromo, due to its recent activity. Expect an ash fall if you stay close by!
Volcanoes of Sumatra
In Sumatra, Gunung Sinabung can be climbed from Berestagi, whilst Mount Singgalang and the recently erupted Mount Merapi can be tackled from Bukittinggi. Treks tend to start in the early hours of the morning so that you reach the peak in perfect time for sunrise to be rewarded with magnificent and dramatic views.
Volcanoes of Bali
Gunung Batur and Gunung Agung on the holiday island of Bali are easier climbs and can be tackled in a day. Ascending through steamy sulphuric moonscapes that offer a glimpse into a pre-historic era, when the earth was being moulded by the fiery, lava-spewing giants makes for a surreal trekking experience.
Volcanoes of Lombok
From the island of Lombok, many travellers attempt the Mount Rinjani Trek to cast eyes on its incredibly blue crater lake from the top. Mt Rinjani (or Gunung Rinjani) is an active volcano that lies at 3,762 metres making it Indonesia’s fifth-highest peak. It’s a challenging 2-day, 1-night trek to the summit, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but very rewarding! Check out some tips on booking the trek and what to bring here.
Jungle Trekking & home-stays in Chiang Mai & Pai, Northern Thailand
Another attraction with trekking in South East Asia is the fascinating glimpse into the lives of ethnic hill tribes living in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and many parts of Indonesia. Chiang Mai and Pai in Northern Thailand offer great bases for jungle treks and adventures into the hills and remote villages.
Among others, you will come across Hmong, Karen, Lisu and Lahu tribes, who have been living for hundreds of years since their emigration from countries such as Tibet, China and Mongolia. Many of the trekking tours offer the chance to stay overnight in the local villages so you can catch a glimpse of their traditional way of life.
Only an overnight bus ride away from Bangkok, jungle trekking tours here in Chiang Mai can be combined with white water rafting, traditional bamboo rafting and all kinds of other exciting activities. Pai is just another three hours on a motorbike or coach from Chiang Mai and has gained itself a reputation as a yoga hub as well as offering some fantastic trekking opportunities. Just minutes outside this Bohemian town you’ll find yourself in paradise… from hot springs to waterfalls; Pai is undeniably beautiful.
Tham Lod Cave, Soppong, Pai
Not to be missed it this trek to the impressive Tham Lod Cave which offers an exploration of one of the longest cave systems in Asia! Just one hour from Pai, the cave can be visited on a two-day trek where you’ll visit a waterfall and hill tribe village.
Trekking in Luang Prabang and Luang Nam Tha, Northern Laos
The laid-back town of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos provides the perfect base from which to explore the surroundings and get an insight into the lives of the Khmu hill tribe people. Follow the Mekong River and perhaps even take a ride in a boat when your legs get tired.
Be sure to visit the Kuang Si Waterfall, with its stunning turquoise waters and feet-nibbling fish. Further up north, the wild karst-clad countryside of Luang Nam Tha is a big draw for adventurous travellers. Take a river cruise from Luang Prabang to reach this intrepid destination.
Check out one of these sustainable treks from Luang Prabang,
The Rice Terraces of Banaue, the Philippines
Slightly less well known as a backpacker destination, the Philippines’ sandy white beaches and exquisite underwater life are not all these 7,107 islands have to offer. The 300km drive north from Manila is stunning. Look out for the ‘Stairways to the Gods,’ a seemingly never-ending plateau of incredible rice terraces, which are over 2000 years old. The terraces were cut into the land by the Ifugao tribespeople and are well worth the trek.
Hiking in Sapa, Northern Vietnam
Sapa is home to the Black H’mong and Red Dao people, living amongst miles of misty rice terraces and cultivated paddy fields. “You buy from me? You buy from me?” is the incessant chant of these hilltribe-turned-saleswomen. Be on your guard, don’t let them ‘tag’ you with a free friendship bracelet as it’s their way of signalling to their pals that you are prime meat!
Be sure to visit the weekly mountain markets, where the local sweet plums are a speciality and if you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a Saturday evening, Sapa is famous for its interesting Love Market.
In ancient times, the young girls of the Red Dzao hill tribe would come to the market and sing songs from a dark corner. The boys would then find the girls whom they thought sounded attractive and if they matched together they would disappear into the forest for three days, returning only to get married. So restrain from singing unless you’re looking for marriage!
The highest mountain in Vietnam, Fansipan is a wonderful, strenuous two-day climb that offers fantastic views of the Sapa Valley. Up for a challenging adventure?
Off the Beaten Track in Ratanakiri, Cambodia
Southeast Asia’s secret trekking spot, Ratanakari is truly off the beaten backpacker track. Choose Cambodia as your trekking destination to truly experience untouched countryside. The name of this area translates as ‘mountain of treasure’ due to its abundance of gem mines. Stunning amethysts and sapphires have been found aplenty and are the heart around which the community was formed.
Trekking here is incredible, through thick jungle and past many a glimmering waterfall. Stop for lunch with a traditional hill tribe village, then visit a gem mine and watch the process yourself. Cool down with a swim in the lake at Boeng Yeak Lom, so perfectly circular that some believe it was formed by a meteor. There is so much to see here, that we’d recommend doing a two or even three-day trek. Sleeping under the stars in a hammock, you’ll feel closer to nature than ever…
Although you don’t need to spend a bomb on fancy footwear, a good pair of walking shoes goes a long way when trekking in Southeast Asia. Check out the best travel shoes guide for our recommendations.