Want to meet Southeast Asia's weirdest wildlife finds up close? Venture into one of these zoos located throughout the region to have your own close encounter with examples of the region's magnificent biodiversity - from colorful birds to deadly big cats to noble raptors.
Here Be Dragons: Komodo National Park, Indonesia
The Komodo National Park was established in 1980 to protect the fearsome Komodo dragon from certain extinction at the hands of encroaching humans. From its two largest islands, Rinca and Komodo, tourists can wander down trails on the dragon's own turf, with nothing separating you from the ravenously hungry lizards but a quick-thinking park ranger and his handy staff.
Rinca Island offers a "short trek" of one hour's duration that passes by a Komodo dragon hatching ground, a savannah-like expanse where dragons rest in the shade of ancient trees, and a hill that overlooks a scenic bay. Over 2,500 healthy Komodo dragons rule the roost on Rinca Island, sharing the living space with macaques, deer and wild boar (in other words, their natural prey).
There's no place to stay on the island except in a few small fishing villages on the coast - and even they are not immune from the occasional dragon attack!
The Open Zoo: Singapore Zoo
The Singapore Zoo's "open zoo" concept allows guests to look into animal habitats without bars or wires getting in the way, furthering the illusion of watching them in their natural setting. The real action happens when feeding time arrives - visitors are allowed to feed certain species themselves.
Guests can explore the 40-plus hectares of the zoo on foot, or take the tram that winds through the Singapore Zoo's major exhibits. Miles of walking trails connect eleven zones that serve as home to animals as diverse as naked mole rats, pygmy hippos, chimps, and cheetah.
High in the foothills of Mount Apo, an hour's drive away from Davao City, the Philippine Eagle Center works to halt the Philippine Eagle's inexorable march to extinction.
Borne out of a captive breeding program established in the 80s, the Center evolved into park/zoo/nursery dedicated to breeding Philippine eagles and raising awareness about their plight.
Located in a rainforest watershed, the eight-hectare park displays several live Philippine eagles as well as other native animals from the Philippines - macaques, several species of birds and reptiles, among others.
Asia's only native great ape - the orangutan - takes refuge against encroaching humanity in Sabah's Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, a 5,529-hectare park that holds an animal clinic, information center, jungle resort, and viewing platforms from which guests can watch park workers teach young orangutan how to survive in the wild.
Feeding times at 10am and 2:30pm allow guests to see the great apes come out of the forest, breaking their usual solitude to eat in peace.
A Nose for Action: Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia
The Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary exposes guests to a community of strange-looking proboscis monkeys: from the sanctuary's platforms, you can watch the monkeys leap from tree to tree, occasionally feeding on chow set out by sanctuary staff.
Over 60 monkeys now visit the sanctuary regularly, comprising three family groups and a single bachelor group.
The Sanctuary is often packaged with other nearby attractions - the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre can be visited immediately before or after.
Almost 2 million fruit bats make a tidy (if somewhat crowded and smelly) home in a cave on Ms. Norma Monfort's property, the Monfort Bat Sanctuary in Samal Island, Philippines.
The property has since been converted into a showcase for the bats, one that prioritizes the well-being of its winged denizens. Visitors can come and peek into one of the five main cave openings, but cannot go beyond the bamboo railings installed around the caves.
The bats are quite amazing to see, if you can stand the ammoniac aroma of their guano. Clinging to the cave walls, the bat multitudes doze, occasionally jostling for space, and caring for their young during the day. At night, the bats fly out to feed on the fruit orchards around Davao and Samal Island.
Drive Through Zoo: Taman Safari Zoo, West Java, Indonesia
The 35-hectare Taman Safari Zoo on the northern slopes of the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park allows guests to engage with wild animals in a safari-style drive-through experience - tour buses are available for guests' use, or guests can bring their own cars and wander at their own pace.
The enclosure is divided into compounds that each recreate a different habitat (and separate predators from prey).
The rules say visitors are forbidden from opening their windows, feeding the animals, or exiting the vehicle (but that didn't stop me when I was there!). Ostriches, zebra, llama, deer, and macaques are free to interact with the vehicles and their riders. I followed the rules strictly in the big cat enclosure, though.
For the Birds: Taman Burung Bali Bird Park, Bali, Indonesia
The two-hectare Taman Burung Bali Bird Park in central Bali houses about 250 species of birds native to Indonesia, South America, and Africa - the habitats recreate the natural homes of each bird, down to the actual plant life. The park focuses on Indonesia-endemic birds, from Papuan birds-of-paradise to Bali starling to Javan serpent eagles.
A bird show exhibits the falconry skills of the staff and the amazing abilities of the park's tame birds. Another rare animal makes a home here, too - one enclosure holds several Komodo dragon native to the Komodo National Park.