Trekking in Asia

What You Need to Know to Choose the Perfect Trek in Asia

Trekking in Asia
••• Trekking in Asia through one of Laos' National Protected Areas. Photo by Greg Rodgers

Trekking in Asia can be challenging and very rewarding. And despite coming back with more insect bites than you care to count, you’ll never forget your time spent in the jungles and forests of earth’s most diverse continent.

Don’t just book a hike in Asia on a whim! A reputable agency will patiently work with you to answer the following questions. If you can't decide on an agency, independent trekking is still an option even in places such as Nepal.

Where Does the Money Go?

Before wasting your time and theirs, find out first and foremost where your trekking money will go. While you’ll often find cheaper agencies in town, sustainability should be a top priority to ensure that the local people aren’t just being exploited for their natural attractions. Many trekking companies have overseas owners who rake in the riches and rarely give back to the local villages.

A good agency should be able to show a breakdown of where your money goes. They’ll hire local guides and porters from nearby villages, and give money back to the community is some way. Many companies claim to be “sustainable” or “green,” but ask for proof. True sustainability goes beyond just limiting impact or packing out rubbish. A good company will be doing what they can to help the area grow.

How Knowledgeable Are the Guides?

Your guide should speak fairly good English -- or your native language -- and ideally will be a local who knows the area well. Although someone with poor communication skills will be able to lead you safely through the jungle, they won’t be able to clearly answer questions about villages, wildlife, and plants that you may have. Trekking in Asia is about more than just getting exercise -- you want to learn more about the region!

Find out these three things:

  • Is the guide a local from the immediate area?
  • Do they speak good English?
  • How many years have they been guiding in the region?

What Type of Forest?

While some treks claim to take you into “the jungle,” the reality is that many don’t penetrate the wild very much at all. Some treks simply weave between villages where deforestation and agricultural clearing have removed most of the primary forest cover. Instead of walking in the jungle, you could end up spending too much of your time walking on access roads and along the edges of rice paddies.

Ask specifically what it takes to get into the primary forest, and if seeing the “real” jungle is even possible on a two-day trek. More often than not, you’ll have to do two overnights to reach the deep stuff far enough away from the effects of civilization.

What Is the Difficulty Rating?

Difficulty ratings for treks are very relative and rarely take age or physical fitness into account. If you have any physical handicaps, you should be very specific with your questions. Trail conditions can deteriorate quickly after a rain, making a slip or fall more dangerous. Ask about elevation changes, trail incline, potential stairs to climb, and other factors. Sometimes scrambling on rocks or climbing over obstacles is required.

If traveling during the monsoon season, you should ask about trail conditions after rain and whether or not the trip will go on even in unfavorable weather.

What Is Included in the Trek?

The following should be included in any good trekking package:

  • All meals
  • Water
  • Entrance fees and hiking permits
  • Bedding and sleeping arrangements
  • Transportation to and from the start of the hike

Find out if you’ll be expected to tip your guides and porters after a trek. If tipping is expected, find out how much you should tip per person per day for exemplary service. Ideally, your guides will be paid well by the agency, and unlike in Nepal, will not be living primarily from the tips they earn.

What Are the Sleeping Arrangements?

Sleeping arrangements vary from rough (the least favorite of most guides because it requires additional work) to village homestays where you’ll stay in a family home. Options between include simple, three-walled jungle huts and village stays in designated longhouses. Sleeping “rough” in the jungle may sound romantic, however, you most likely won’t want to spend a night on the forest floor.

Regardless of what option you choose, you’ll need to ensure that mosquito nets are a part of the plan. Don’t worry too much about comfort levels -- you should be exhausted enough after a good trek to sleep well in any conditions!

Are Leeches a Problem?

A less-than-pleasant prospect, leeches are a problem in the jungle after even a minute amount of rain. Sumatra's national parks and even Laos’ National Protected Areas are full of them. Leeches live in wet foliage on the forest floor and grab on as you pass by. Although leeches don’t carry diseases, they are unpleasant to deal with and can cause infections if not removed carefully. Tip: Never pinch and pull a leech off once it’s attached!

Find out if you’ll have to deal with leeches where you’ll be walking. Tall socks worn on the outside of your pants will be a big help. Repellents to keep leeches at bay include DEET, salt, and even tobacco from crushed cigarettes.

What Will You Need to Carry?

Realistically, unless your trek includes hired porters, you’ll end up carrying your own water. There may be resupply points, but you’ll probably have to carry your own supply -- three liters or more -- in your backpack. Some backcountry operators may ask that you carry your own mosquito net or bedding (dengue fever is a problem in Asia). Guides simply can’t carry enough to cover everyone.

Along with whatever your trekking agency tells you to bring, you’ll definitely want to bring your own sunscreen, mosquito repellent, trail snacks, toiletries, and travel first-aid kit.

What Type of Food Is Provided?

The food provided by trekking companies can be surprisingly delicious. But if you have any dietary restrictions, speak up when making your booking. Dishes more often than not contain meat, and the last place you want to discover a food allergy is when deep in the jungle!

What Potential Wildlife Will You See?

Unless you have a very experienced guide and walk at the coolest hours of the day (before sunrise and just after sunset), spotting endangered wildlife on a trek is challenging. Most hikers spend more time looking at their feet and the trail than up into the jungle canopy. But with a little luck and a great guide, you could spot endangered orangutans in Borneo or Sumatra, or even elephants or tigers in other parts of Asia.

Before trekking in Asia, ask the company what wildlife you may encounter and what are the realistic chances of seeing each. Although agencies may boast that there are gibbons or tigers in an area, sometimes even the guides haven’t happened upon one in years!

Note: A good company will leave wildlife alone and will never feed or bait fish, birds, or monkeys.

Read about where to find orangutans in Asia.