Southeast Asia in detail

Activities

Mountains soar, rivers rage, caverns burrow and volcanoes bubble, and offshore, coral reefs teem with astounding marine life – welcome to the adventure playground of Southeast Asia. The activities on offer here are limitless: trekking, cycling, climbing, caving, rafting, surfing, diving – you name it, and there are almost as many options for relaxing afterwards.

Hiking & Trekking

Trekking in Southeast Asia covers a lot of ground, from tramps through monkey-filled rainforests to hikes to the bare rocky summits of smouldering volcanoes. However, for anything more ambitious than short walks on marked trails, a guide is essential. Guides will also keep you informed about local laws, regulations and etiquette relating to wildlife and the environment.

Trekking on elephant back is discouraged because of the serious harm that this can cause to the elephants, but a number of organisations in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos offer treks where you walk alongside elephants. However, some careful research is required, as standards of animal welfare vary, and maltreatment of elephants is not unheard of.

On any trek, be prepared for the conditions with appropriate clothing: long trousers, adequate hiking shoes and leech socks during and after the rainy season. Bring along wet-weather gear (for yourself and your pack) even if the skies are clear. Drink lots of water and pace yourself, as the humidity can make even minimal exercise feel demanding. Note that volcano summit treks typically start before dawn and can be quite chilly, so bring a warm layer.

When to Go

Rain, not temperature, is the primary consideration when planning your trip. The monsoon can make trails impassable, and mosquitoes and leeches flourish in the damp undergrowth. The best months for trekking in mainland Southeast Asia are immediately after the rainy season (November to February), when the forest is lush and flooding is not a concern – although frost is possible at higher elevations, such as Sapa. Things can get busy on popular routes during the peak tourist season from December to January. Avoid the rain-soaked months from September to October.

If you're island-bound, the April–June shoulder season offers dry – or at least drier – weather for trekking to Indonesia's volcanic summits. July and August are peak season in many parts of the region, and popular treks such as the Mt Bromo climb can get very busy. For leech-free trekking, avoid January and February, the wettest months of the northeast monsoon in most of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste.

Where to Go

Mt Kinabalu (Malaysia) Scramble over granite moonscapes for the ultimate Bornean sunrise atop 4095m-high Mt Kinabalu.

Ifugao Rice Terraces Philippines) Hiking the exquisitely carved rice terraces around Banaue and Batad is one of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating walks.

Baliem Valley (Indonesia) The wild Baliem Valley in Papua draws acolytes from around the world for encounters with some of the world's most unique tribal cultures.

Sapa (Vietnam) Sapa is Vietnam’s trekking hub, with spectacular scenery, majestic mountains, impossibly green rice paddies and fascinating tribal villages.

Hsipaw (Myanmar) The laid-back traveller hub of Hsipaw is ringed by timeless, friendly Shan, Palaung and Lisu villages, and the ruins of lost kingdoms.

Mt Ramelau (Timor-Leste) Rise at dawn to scale Timor-Leste’s highest peak – just in time to watch the sun rise over the glittering ocean.

Cycling

The bicycle is a staple form of transport for rural communities across the region, and visiting cyclists will get a warm reception from locals. Bikes are available for hire in tourist towns and at archaeological sites for local exploring, and dozens of operators offer cross-country trips, from leisurely hill-village tours to rugged downhill trails.

For hard-core cyclists, the mountains of northern Vietnam and northern Laos are the ultimate destination, but Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is another mountain-biking hub, and Borneo offers some spectacular trails. For a gentler trip, meandering between villages is always memorable, particularly in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. A bike is a glorious way to explore historic sites such as Angkor, Bagan and Sukhothai. With all the boat crossings, island-hopping across Indonesia is an ambitious proposition, but many islands are well set up for local cycling, including Bali and Lombok or, for the more adventurous, Flores and Sulawesi.

Throughout the region, basic Chinese-made bicycles can be rented for US$1 to US$5 per day; good-quality imported mountain bikes cost US$10 to US$20. Repair shops are found almost everywhere. Bangkok-based Spice Roads (www.spiceroads.com) is the acknowledged expert for cycle tours across Southeast Asia, but there are good local operators in each country.

When to Go

Cycling in the monsoon is no fun, and highland roads and trails are prone to landslides during the rains, so plan your trip for the dry season. The ideal months to tour mainland Southeast Asia are November to February, when the temperatures are lower and breezes provide natural air-conditioning for sweating cyclists.

Where to Go

Temples of Angkor (Cambodia) The temples can get very busy in peak season, so pedal past the crowds and follow local jungle trails.

Bagan (Myanmar) Temples sprawl across the Ayeyarwady plain, and a bike will get you to unrestored ruins between the famous zedis.

Chiang Mai (Thailand) The mountains that climb above Chiang Mai are criss-crossed by epic mountain-biking trails.

Luang Prabang (Laos) Cycling is perfectly in tune with the languorous mood of this riverside retreat, providing easy access to the surrounding countryside and villages.

Mekong Delta (Vietnam) The flatlands of the Mekong Delta region are ideal for long-distance rides, linking villages off the tourist trail.

Motorcycling

The motorcycle is the official vehicle of Southeast Asia, used for everything from transporting pigs to market to shifting three generations of the same family through rush-hour traffic. The mad melee of motorcycles can seem daunting at first, but in urban areas at least, traffic moves slowly, and it doesn't take long to adjust to local riding conditions.

The big bonus of being on two wheels is mobility. Motorcycles can traverse trails that even the hardiest 4WD can't follow, and if the road is washed away, boats are on hand to transport you and your bike to the next stretch of hardtop. Motorcycling will also bring you closer to the countryside, and to local people, than being tucked away inside a car or bus.

Motorcycles are widely available for rent in traveller centres, particularly in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Daily charges start at US$5 to US$10 for 100cc bikes and rise to US$15 to US$50 for 250cc dirt bikes or road bikes. One-way bike rentals are often available for an extra fee. Specialist motorcycle-touring companies can organise multiday trips into remote areas, using suitable trail bikes. Repair shops are everywhere, and scooters with automatic gears are widely available for novice riders, but caution is advised, as many tourists are injured in accidents each year.

Hire firms often rent out bikes without asking to see a license, although you might be asked to show one in Brunei, Malaysia or Thailand. The law, however, may disagree: it pays to make sure you are licensed to ride any vehicle you hire. You almost always need to leave a passport to hire a bike; the shop should keep this safe, but it can cause problems if you get injured in a remote place and need to be evacuated.

When to Go

The rainy season creates perilous motorcycling conditions and extends stopping distances when braking, so stick to the dry season if you're on two wheels. In rural parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, leave the trip a little later into January to give the remote jungle trails time to dry out after the rain.

Where to Go

Sapa (Vietnam) Rumble through glorious mountain scenery, river valleys and tribal villages around Sapa, Bac Ha and Dien Bien Phu.

Preah Vihear Province (Cambodia) Get your kicks on Route 66, the old Angkor highway that runs from Beng Mealea temple to Preah Khan temple.

Vang Vieng (Laos) Meander between the karst outcrops that pepper the west bank of the Nam Song River on this scenically stunning motorcycle ride.

Mae Hong Son (Thailand) The classic northern route is the Mae Hong Son loop, a 600km ride that begins in Chiang Mai and takes in Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang.

Boat Trips, Kayaking & Rafting

With the mighty Mekong and Ayeyarwady rivers slicing through mainland Southeast Asia, and any number of jungle rivers cutting across Borneo and other islands, the region was made for boat travel. Many cities were built on canals, so boats are even an option for downtown travel.

The trips everyone thinks about are long-distance journeys along Southeast Asia's major arteries – the cruise along the Tonlé Sap from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, riding the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay to Bagan, cross-border hops from Laos to Thailand and Cambodia to Vietnam. These multiday odysseys offer a fantastic vantage point for observing life on the riverbanks.

Then there are backwater trips to remote jungle reserves and minority villages in Cambodia, Borneo and across Indonesia. Indeed, it is possible to travel right across the Indonesian and Philippines archipelagos by local ferry or chartered outrigger boats. There are even boat trips along subterranean rivers, and out over sleepy lakes where even markets take place on the water.

Kayaking has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. Krabi Province in Thailand is the spiritual home of sea kayaking and most Halong Bay tours in Vietnam also now include kayaking through the karsts. River kayaking to tribal villages in Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia is growing in popularity, as are lake trips around Ba Be National Park in Vietnam and the flooded forests and floating villages of the Tonlé Sap in Cambodia.

Though white-water rafting here is not as dramatic as in mountain areas such as Nepal, things get a little more vigorous in the wet season. Go with the flow and try rafting on the Pai River in Thailand or the Chico or Cagayan Rivers in the Philippines.

Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is also growing in popularity around the region as an easy option for beginners to test themselves on calm seas or gentle rivers.

When to Go

Whether you're after a mellow boat cruise on the Mekong or a white-water rafting trip on a raging river, the best time to go is during the rainy season. Rivers are high, lakes are full and the landscape is lush and green. During the dry season, some trips stop completely as rivers are too shallow for boats.

Where to Go

Halong Bay (Vietnam) Take an overnight cruise among the karsts and paddle into a hidden lagoon, or try stand-up paddleboarding.

Krabi Province (Thailand) Sea kayaking in Southeast Asia began here amid the region's iconic karst islands.

Tham Kong Lor (Laos) This river cave might feel like the River Styx, but offers one of the most memorable underground boat rides on earth.

Chico River (Philippines) One of the Philippines' best white-water rafting sites, where you can tear down the raging waters of North Luzon.

Bhamo to Mandalay (Myanmar) Cruise the mighty Ayeyarwady River from remote Bhamo to Mandalay, then continue downstream to Bagan.

Ulu Temburong National Park (Brunei) Approach this impressive national park by longboat for wildlife encounters from the water.

Diving & Snorkelling

Considering that many of the islands here were created by coral reefs, it should be no surprise to learn that Southeast Asia is one of the world's top diving and snorkelling playgrounds. Inexpensive dive centres, offering everything from dive certification to Nitrox, are found pretty much anywhere the land touches the ocean.

Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines top the list of dive destinations, with everything from sunken islands and epic wall drifts to wartime wrecks and underwater caves. Be aware that diving and snorkelling put unique pressures on the marine environment: use reputable and environmentally conscious operators, and follow best practice to minimise your own effect on the undersea environment.

When to Go

Diving depends on visibility, which depends on calm waters and storm-free days. Most diving locations have subpar conditions during the rainy season; luckily the double monsoon means you can always find high visibility somewhere in the region; the Gulf of Thailand offers good conditions for most of the year.

Where to Go

Komodo National Park (Indonesia) Besides dragons, this national park boasts some of Indonesia’s best and most varied diving.

Coron (Philippines) The Calamian archipelago is festooned with dive sites, but perhaps the highlight is roaming the WWII wrecks in the murky gloom off Coron island.

Similan Islands (Thailand) Keep an eye out for whale sharks on a live-aboard diving adventure to this stunning marine national park.

Pulau Sipadan (Malaysia) Malaysia's only oceanic island boasts sea turtles, sharks, and schooling barracuda; it's often voted the world's best dive site.

Ataúro Island (Timor-Leste) Dazzling, pristine reefs fringe Timor-Leste’s north coast, and arguably the best lie off Ataúro Island.

Best-Value Places to Learn to Dive

Ko Tao (Thailand) New to diving? Check out Ko Tao, the cheapest and best place to learn the basics.

Gili Trawangan (Indonesia) Among the best places to get certified worldwide; accessible reefs are just a 10-minute boat ride away.

Perhentian Islands (Malaysia) Plentiful competition ensures rock-bottom rates at this popular traveller hang-out off Malaysia's northwest coast.

Moalboal (Philippines) The original hub for Philippines diving is still one of the best places to learn.

Watersports

Surfing and kitesurfing are big draws in Southeast Asia, aided by the ample monsoon winds. Indonesia is the region’s surfing capital, though the Philippines isn't too far behind, while Vietnam and Thailand have consistent winds for seasonal kitesurfing. Laos has carved itself a unique niche as a centre for tubing and kayaking. Be sure to go with a company that has a good safety record, and respect the water conditions during the monsoon and typhoon seasons.

When to Go

May to September brings prime swells to Indonesia’s Lombok and Sumbawa, while Bali always has good surf somewhere year-round. In the Philippines, surf season coincides with the typhoons (August to November), creating challenging barrels for experienced surfers. For beginners, Phuket (Thailand) has swells from April to September, and Cherating (Malaysia) from November to March.

Kitesurfing is popular on Boracay (Philippines), the east and west coast of Thailand (Hua Hin and Phuket), in Mui Ne (Vietnam) and at Hu'u and Pantai Lakey on Sumbawa (Indonesia). These beaches tend to have a long windy season through most of the year.

Where to Go

Sumatra (Indonesia) You'll be up against the best in the surf capital of Southeast Asia, but the Mentawai Islands are pure perfection.

Phuket (Thailand) As one of Thailand's top beach destinations, Phuket offers surfing, kitesurfing and more.

Mui Ne (Vietnam) Mui Ne Beach is fast becoming a windchasers’ hot spot in Asia.

Siargao (Philippines) Home to Cloud Nine, the name of this legendary right-hander says it all: it's one of Asia's top reef breaks.

Rock-Climbing

Across Southeast Asia, karst cliffs and limestone outcrops have been hung with bolted climbing routes that now have a reputation as some of the world's top sport climbs. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are the focus of the scene, but there are also bolted crags in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.

When to Go

Climbing in the wet season is not advisable as the rocky surfaces are slippery and potentially dangerous. Carry plenty of chalk for the hot months from April to June.

Where to Go

Railay (Thailand) Scaling beachside outcrops above azure seas makes Railay the number-one climbing site in Thailand, particularly for big-wall enthusiasts.

Cat Ba Island (Vietnam) Instruction for beginners and dedicated trips for experienced rock stars, set against the backdrop of Halong Bay.

Vang Vieng (Laos) Another set of stunning limestone cliffs with more than 200 rock-climbing routes – many bolted for sport route fans.

Caving

The term 'outdoors' in Southeast Asia extends to several spectacular networks of cave systems, offering some of the world's best caving experiences. However, spelunking through underground rivers, squeezing through narrow cracks and dropping into bottomless chasms is a dry-season-only activity – the risk of sudden floods rules out the monsoon season.

When to Go

Some caves are open year-round, but deeper systems are best avoided during the rainy seasons because of the risk of flash flooding and the difficulty of approaching entry points on waterlogged trails.

Where to Go

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (Vietnam) Stupendous caving trips delve underground in this national park; most trips combine hiking, swimming and climbing.

Vieng Xai Caves (Laos) A different take on the caving experience, exploring the underground base and wartime capital of the Pathet Lao communists, beneath stunning limestone rock formations.

Gunung Mulu National Park (Malaysia) Some of the world’s largest and most spectacular caves pockmark the outcrops in this Sarawak national park.

Sagada (Philippines) Explore fascinating burial caves or slog through underground rivers on a thrilling cave-to-cave excursion.

Watching Wildlife

It may not be as easy to spot wildlife in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia as it is on the open plains of Africa, but there are some excellent wildlife-watching opportunities here. Most visitors crave encounters with large mammals such as wild elephants, Komodo dragons, proboscis monkeys and orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia, but there are also amazing opportunities to spot rare bird life around lakes and rivers. Once common in the wild, tigers and big cats are more likely to be seen in wildlife sanctuaries and zoos in the region. Then there's the amazing underwater world, where megafauna such as whale sharks, dugongs and mantas rival the big beasts visible on land.

When to Go

Many of the best wildlife destinations are in protected forests or deep jungle, so plan a visit in the dry season, when trails are passable. Some national parks in the region are best visited by boat, so trips can run year-round. Birdwatching is seasonal due to migratory patterns, but the dry season offers the best visibility for birders.

Where to Go

Sungai Kinabatangan (Malaysia) Cruise down this Sabah river to spot orangutans, proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards and even elephants.

Khao Yai National Park (Thailand) Elephants, monkeys, hornbills, blood-sucking leeches and other creepy-crawlies call this monsoon forest home.

Cat Tien National Park (Vietnam) Meet primates in the jungles of Cat Tien on a wild gibbon trek, then swing into the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre.

Kratie Province (Cambodia) Spot rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River at Kampi in Kratie Province.

Tanjung Puting National Park (Indonesia) Anchor along one of Kalimantan's iconic rivers and watch orangutans running wild.

Wellness

Many of the treatments and therapies that have become staples in spas worldwide were originally devised in the monasteries and villages of Southeast Asia. From meditation to traditional Thai massage, spa treatments are available everywhere, and at bargain prices, with some of the best centres providing work for ex-prisoners as part of their rehabilitation into mainstream life.

In Thailand, monasteries are important centres for traditional massage, but there are also some magnificent luxury spas that take indulgence to a new level. Beachside massage is available on almost every coast, particularly in tourist centres such as Bali, southern Thailand and resort islands in Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, in some places 'massage' is a smokescreen for sex tourism; the look of the establishment should give a clear indication of what kind of 'services' are really on offer (red lights or fairy lights usually mean the main business may not be wellness). Be aware that some traditional massages can be vigorous to the point of pain – make sure you know what is involved before you start.

Yoga and meditation are both also widely available on the beach, in forest retreats and at working monasteries, where people interested in Buddhism can fully immerse themselves in spiritual life for days, weeks, months or even years.

When to Go

Unless the yoga or meditation is in an outdoor setting, it really doesn't matter when you travel. Some wellness centres may offer more varied programs during the high season, as resident yoga instructors may move around from traveller centre to traveller centre over the course of the year. Plan ahead if you want a tailor-made experience, particularly for monastery stays.

Where to Go

Phuket (Thailand) The island has numerous retreats aimed at foreigners, plus several leading yoga schools.

Ubud(Indonesia) Ubud is the epicentre of wellness in Bali, and yoga, meditation and massage seem to be offered almost everywhere.

Siem Reap (Cambodia) Foot massages to soothe your soul, loosening yoga classes, calm meditation retreats and some of the best spas in the country.

Luang Prabang (Laos) Laos' spiritual and holistic hub, with some excellent spas and a small yoga community.

Mawlamyine (Myanmar) The Pa-Auk-Taw-Ya Monastery is one of the largest and most welcoming meditation centres in Myanmar.