From volcanic peaks to jungles and rainforests, trekking in Southeast Asia will keep even the most seasoned adventurer happy on the trails. World class hikes in Southeast Asia often lead to stunning views from volcano summits or even isolated beaches where you leave the first and only footprints of the day.
Go read these trekking safety tips, then choose one of these great places for trekking in Southeast Asia.
Edited by Mike Aquino.
Built over 500 years ago by the Ifugao, the Banaue Rice Terraces represent a culture and a way of life little touched by the outside world.
The Ifugao highlanders of the Philippines' Mountain Province carved rice terraces out of the mountains and tended them over generations – the locals are tied to a yearly planting calendar that requires regular sacrifices of livestock, arduous planting and harvesting, and storing the rice in distinctive granaries that also serve as their homes.
Hikers can choose from a multitude of rice terrace trails to hike through, from the relatively easy Bangaan Rice Terrace hike to the arduous-but-gorgeously-scenic Batad Rice Terrace trail. For our personal experience on the latter, read our article about hiking Batad Rice Terraces in the Philippines.
Difficulty level: Easy trails descend to Ifugao villages at the base of rice terraces and back; Batad is the most challenging, but still accessible to hikers with average fitness levels
When to go: Go in December to see the Rice Terraces during their “mirror” phase, with no crops, just the sky reflecting off the terraces' water (read about weather in the Philippines)
From the base camp at Paltuding, a short but challenging three-kilometer trail snakes two miles up a mountain in eastern Java in Indonesia to arrive at an alien looking (and smelling) place: the curiously blue-green crater lake of Kawah Ijen.
Getting to the top takes about two hours' hike for the moderately fit. You'll leave early, in the hopes of catching the unique “blue flame” over the crater's sulfur deposits – these can only be seen just before dawn. (We left our hotel in Banyuwangi at midnight, and departed the Paltuding camp at 2 AM – arriving just before 5 AM at the top.)
You'll pass by Ijen's sulfur miners on the way up, scantily-masked fellows who earn a pittance harvesting sulfur from the crater. Their work is tough and dangerous – when the volcano acts up, the gases can suffocate anyone in the area, miner and hiker alike!
Ijen is just one of many volcano trails you can tackle in the country; read about trekking active volcanoes in Indonesia.
Difficulty level: Easy to difficult, depending on the desired pace. Miners sometimes offer a ride to the top on their trolleys, charging about $50 (and your self-respect) for the trip
When to go: Between April and October, the weather around Ijen is dry and amenable to hiking – the rest of the year is too rainy for good trekking
Malaysia's Cameron Highlands is famous for two things: tea and excellent trekking. The cool climate makes the Cameron Highlands superb for growing tea; travelers flock to the green region just to take a break from Southeast Asia's typically scorching temperatures.
Make no mistake, the Cameron Highlands is not a national park with helpful signs and maps. The area is still wild, with miles of trails winding through mountains and sprawling tea plantations. The area even proved to be the possible demise of legendary millionaire Jim Thompson who disappeared while on a walk.
The Cameron Highlands are roughly halfway between Penang and Kuala Lumpur; the usual base for staying in the Cameron Highlands is the tiny town of Tanah Rata.
Difficulty level: Easy, mostly ranging through highland forests with great views of tea plantations in rather cool weather
When to go: Cameron Highlands is open all year round but is very crowded during weekends and public holidays
Two dormant volcanoes give the Gunung Gede Pangrango Park its name, and the trails that crisscross its 22,000 hectares allow travelers to encounter a wide variety of rare plant and animal species.
The day trip begins at Cibodas visitors' center, the start of a 1.7-mile trail that skirts a surreal-looking blue-colored lake and Gayonggong Swamp through primeval rainforest before terminating at the Cibeureum triple waterfall at an elevation of 5,300 feet above sea level.
The hike to the summit of Gunung Gede requires a detour from Gayonggong Swamp and another ten to eleven hours' hike. You can spend the night in one of a number of campsites around the peak, before going back the way you came.
For more information, visit the official site at www.gedepangrango.org.
Difficulty level: Easy to difficult: the trail from Cibodas to Cibeureum Falls takes about four to five hours there and back, while the climb all the way to the summit takes two days to complete
When to go: Visit between May and October, when the dry season keeps the paths at their most accessible. The trails are closed between January and March and throughout August, to allow the ecosystem to bounce back from the tourist traffic at other times of the year
MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore
Don't count out the greenery behind Singapore's futuristic skyline just yet. Despite the main island's small size, generous tracts of reservoir land have been reserved at the peripheries, providing ample space for hikers and nature lovers to play in.
The MacRitchie Reservoir Park is one of Singapore's oldest and most accessible nature reserves. Its nature trail consists of multiple boardwalks that cut through the unspoiled tropical rainforest and around the water's edge. A Treetop Walk takes you across a suspension bridge spanning MacRitchie's two highest points, grazing the forest canopy at an elevation of 800 feet.
Signs scattered throughout the trail allow for easy self-guided tours through the ancient forest cover. And there's little chance of hardship: a food kiosk and drinking fountains are all within easy reach.
Visit the MacRitchie Reservoir Park official site for more information.
Difficulty level: Easy, the trails range in length from two to seven miles. The main hiking circuit takes about four hours to complete – more than enough time to get back to your Singapore hotel.
When to go: Any time of year is all right, but given Singapore's uniformly humid and occasionally rainy weather, take care to bring a raincoat when you go
This mountain settlement near the Vietnamese border with China has everything a hiker craves for. Trails varying from half-day walks to Hmong and Dao villages, to a four-day trek up Vietnam's highest peak, Fansipan.
Built by the French in 1922 as a mountain retreat from lowland Vietnam's oppressive heat, Sapa's year-round cool climate and amazing views have made it a popular tourist destination. The green rice terraces and unspoiled highland forests serve as the perfect backdrop to an easy hike through the mountains on the way to popular Sapa stops like the Bamboo Forest and Ta Phin Cave.
Getting here requires a train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then a one-hour bus ride to Sapa. To visit the Hmong and Dao villages, you'll need to secure a permit from the Sapa tourist information center.
Difficulty level: Easy to moderate; no climbing skills are required, and porters are available to carry your luggage to the peak.
When to go: Visit between March and May, and between September and November, to get the best weather conditions for a hike. Between June and August, Fansipan is too hot; from December to February it's the opposite
Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia
Mount Kinabalu dominates the landscape in Sabah, Borneo – rising over 13,000 feet above sea level, it is undisputably Malaysia's tallest mountain.
From the starting point at Kinabalu National Park, a series of hiking trails allows even newbies to get most of the way to the top. Climbing Mount Kinabalu requires no special training or equipment. Getting to the summit is purely a matter of physical and mental stamina.
A much tougher challenge can be found in the mountain's “via ferrata” (Wikipedia), the world's highest. Managed by Mountain Torq, this pair of routes uses metal rungs and steel cables to help climbers along, who at times will inch their way precariously over a terrifying drop. At its highest point, the via ferrata rises over 12,000 feet over sea level. The views, though, are worth it.
Mount Kinabalu National Park was Malaysia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hikers must get a permit to begin their two-day adventure up the slopes.
Difficulty level: easy to hard; newbies can take two to three days to gingerly make their way to the top. The via ferrata is rated very easy to moderately easy. Hardcore climbers join the Kinabalu Climbathon, a race to the top where the winners take less than three hours to get to the finish line.
When to go: Mind the weather in Malaysia; schedule a climb between February to April, when the least rainfall occurs over Sabah.
Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar
Trade in Southeast Asia's mountains for gentle hills when you make the multi-day trek between Kalaw and Inle Lake in Myanmar's Shan State.
Your starting point – the hill station of Kalaw – was founded by the British as a cool retreat from the lowlands' heat (as Vietnam's Sapa was to the French). You'll pass down a very well-worn trail through sleepy hamlets and farmland, spending the night at a bed-and-breakfast or temple after sundown.
At the end of your hike, you'll find yourself near one of Myanmar's cultural treasures: a lake surrounded by quaint villages and floating gardens.
Difficulty level: Easy to medium: treks last anywhere between two to five days, depending on the trail you choose. The two-day trek is the least scenic, but the five-day tour lets you see more of the Shan countryside and peoples at your leisure
When to go: during the cool, dry season between November and February; the hot season between February and June, and the monsoon season between July and October, should be avoided
Doi Inthanon, Thailand
At 8000 feet above sea level, Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest peak, located in Chiang Mai close to Myanmar. Its unique vegetation and wildlife make Doi Inthanon a must-visit for nature lovers – birdwatchers in particular flock to Doi Inthanon for its varied bird population.
Despite its elevation, Doi Inthanon is an easy climb – most of the trail is well-worn and paved in parts. The main trail stretches 30 miles from base to summit, encompassing Karen and Hmong settlements and a landscape that starts out subtropical, transforming into a frigid alpine climate close to the top.
Shorter trails, like the three-hour Kiu Mae Pan walk and the brief Ang Ka Luang Nature Trail provide easier outlets for the less fit.
Difficulty level: Easy to hard, see above. Entrance must be paid at the park entrance, about USD5 for foreigners
When to go: Doi Inthanon is open all year round, but the coldest months between November and February call for jackets and other warm clothing
Luang Prabang, Laos
While the serene town of Luang Prabang has its peculiar charms, the surrounding countryside has a magic all its own. Trekking trails lead out from the town's outskirts to the hilly Northern Laos landscape beyond, leading you to waterfalls and villages where traditional ways are still practiced.
The lowlands, occupied by the Lao majority, give way to hills and highlands occupied by local ethnic minorities the Khmu and the Hmong. (who don't appreciate being photographed without their consent – ask permission before snapping away.)
The official Laos Tourism site has a list of Luang Prabang treks and trail providers to get you started.
Difficulty level: Easy to medium, most trekking trails require no more than a day trip out of the main town
When to go: hit the trails during the dry season from November to April, but bring an extra jacket during the chilly months between December and February. Avoid the rainy season from May to October.