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.
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!
Getting there: regular boat trips can be arranged from Labuan Bajo to Komodo National Park. Entrance fee costs IDR 150,000 (US$ 11) on weekdays, and IDR 255,000 (US$ 18) on weekends and Indonesian national holidays.
Labuanbajo and Komodo are part of our extended, three-week Indonesia itinerary.
The Khao Kheow Open Zoo uses its location within the Khao Kheow-Khao Chom Puo Wildlife Sanctuary near Pattaya to its advantage. Some 300 animal species live in the zoo’s sprawling, 2,000-acre real estate, conveniently divided into zones that recreate each animal’s native habitat.
The open enclosures put as little as possible between the visitor and the animals without sacrificing safety. Close encounters with the animals may be arranged – through animal shows at regular intervals; feeding times for friendlier critters; and an elephant trekking experience.
Given the zoo’s massive size, visitors may need transportation to get around, courtesy of a zoo-wide tram service or the golf carts for rent. Beyond the zoo, visitors with a more adventurous bent may try the Flight of the Gibbon zipline, with almost two miles of running through the tropical rainforest.
Getting there: buses depart regularly from Bangkok’s Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkamai) and Northern Bus Terminal, taking two hours to cross from the capital to Bang Pra and the zoo.
Entrance fee costs THB 250 (US$ 8.11) for adults, THB 100 (US$ 3.25) for children.
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.
For such a small country, Singapore contains an absurd amount of world-class zoos. After the Singapore Zoo, visit its other animal sanctuaries: the Night Safari (dedicated to nocturnal animals, opens after 7pm); Jurong Bird Park (an avian-themed zoo); and River Safari (housing animals adapted to a riverine environment). Find out why Singapore's zoos are part of our top reasons to visit Singapore.
Getting there: Take the Singapore MRT to Khatib Station (NS14), then ride the Mandai Khatib Shuttle to Singapore Zoo. The Shuttle operates from 8am to 10pm, and costs SGD 1 (payable only by EZ-Link Card) per way.
Entrance fee costs SGD 37 (US$ 27.20) for adults, and SGD 25 (US$ 18.40) for children.
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.
Getting there: The Philippine Eagle Center is accessible by taxi. Entrance fee costs PHP 150 (US$ 3) for adults, and PHP 100 (US$ 2) for children. Davao City itself is part of our two-week-long Philippines itinerary.
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.
Getting there: Getting to Sepilok from Sandakan requires taking a Grab taxi or minibus from the city. The latter goes directly to Sepilok. From Kota Kinabalu (some 120 miles from Sepilok), go to Inanam Station (Google Maps), then ride a bus to Sandakan. The trip will take some 5 hours to get there; ask the driver to drop you off when you reach Sepilok. Ride a taxi at the park entrance to complete the journey to the sanctuary.
Entrance fee costs MYR 30 (US$ 7.30).
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.
Getting there: A once-daily shuttle bus service departs from Hotel Sandakan and Sepilok Car Park in Sandakan, leaving at 9:30am and 10:30am respectively. The return trip departs from Nipah Lodge in Labuk Bay at 3pm and 5pm. The trip costs MYR 20 each way.
Entrance fee costs MYR 60 (US$ 14.60) for non-Malaysian adults, and MYR 30 (US$ 7.30) for non-Malaysian children.
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.
Weekday tickets cost IDR195,000 (US$13) for adults and IDR 170,000 for children below 6 years; on weekends, tickets cost IDR 230,000 (US$16.50) for adults and Rp 210,000 (US$15) for children.
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.