For travellers keen to get to know a place better, the choice of activities in southeast Asia is incredibly diverse, says Andrew Eames
Walking the Balinese rice terraces, Indonesia
The Balinese surround themselves with artistry. It’s the same with their landscape, which they’ve etched into terraces seemingly as much to create a picture as to produce an abundance of good things to eat. What’s more, the terracing of these rice fields, particularly around the inland villages of Ubud and Tegalalang, creates a latticework of pathways — setting off among them is like embarking on a sea of glittering mirrors. And whichever way you go, you’re likely to emerge by a temple, a painter’s house or a little cafe. This isn’t long distance hiking; this is taking your eyes for a walk.
Kayaking in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
‘Lake’ seems hardly the right word for the giant (64sq miles) inland waterworld of Cheow Larn, set in the heart of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park. Surrounded by rainforested hills, studded with huge fists of limestone rising out of the water, it looks like an (undiscovered) freshwater version of the famous Phang Nga Bay, near Phuket. A handful of floating lodges (you’re not allowed ashore) secreted in the lake’s lonely khlongs (canals) or backwaters each has its fleet of kayaks. Early morning paddling is unforgettable in this primeval landscape wreathed in mist, and reverberating with the sounds of langurs, gibbons and hornbills.
Tribal trekking in northern Thailand
The forested hills of northern Thailand have long been home to colourful hill tribes, such as the Lahu, the Akha and the Karen. These are fiercely independent people leading very traditional village lives, and over recent decades they’ve become the focus of a substantial trekking industry, mostly based in Chiang Mai. Trekkers set out in guided groups to spend up to seven days walking from village to village, staying in local houses and eating authentic food. This is tribal life at its most accessible, which means some road-connected villages are very habituated to tourists; the deeper the trek, however, the better the experience.
Golf in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The heat and humidity of most of Southeast Asia isn’t ideal for golf, especially for the fine grass required to make a course. But up above 492ft in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands is a different matter. The air is cooler, the climate fresher, and the greens softer. The Cameron Highlands Golf Club was started back in 1935 by wealthy British colonials, but is now open to all. And there’s a very British bonus just across the way in the form of a Tudor-style timber-framed inn — the Smokehouse — serving roast beef and apple crumble for lunch.
Diving in Sipadan, Sabah
Divers will always argue about the world’s top dive sites, but Sipadan, an island sitting 22 miles off the coast of Sabah, east Malaysia, is invariably up there in the top two or three. The sheer quantity and variety of fish is the big attraction, especially with the added frisson of sharks and turtles, plus lots of steep drop-offs which mix up the species, as deepwater specimens come up to the light. And then there’s the coral. Only a limited number of scuba permits are issued per day, to preserve the beauty of the place.
Trekking up Mount Kinabalu, Sabah
Malaysia has other highlands, too, most specifically Mount Kinabalu, which at 13,455ft is one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage site for its wide range of habitats. Despite its height, Kinabalu is remarkably accessible and requires no particular mountaineering skills. You do have to be fit, though. Most people start from the national park gate at 6,122ft and overnight in the Laban Rata Resthouse at 10,728ft before making the final ascent, but it can also be done in one day.
Cycling on the Bagan plain, Myanmar
Exact figures of the number of temples, stupas and pagodas that stud the UNESCO World Heritage plain alongside the Irrawaddy river in Pagan vary: some say 2,200, others 4,000 — it depends on the state of decay. Whatever the number, the impact is mesmerising, but it can also be hot and dusty in the middle part of the day — which is why so many travellers rent bicycles from local outlets and head out into the plain at sunset or at sunrise to a temple of their own, and to capture a memorable moment.
Riding the Reunification Express, Vietnam
There are some delightful train journeys in Southeast Asia, but the most spectacular has to be the 1,500-mile track linking what used to be north and south Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. You don’t have to do the whole thing, of course; trains are frequent and lots of travellers jump on and off, particularly at Hue (an ancient imperial capital) and Da Nang, with its history and beaches. The 66-mile stretch between the two is the most dramatic, as the train scythes through rice paddies, climbs a mountain pass and bends around white-sand bays.
Food safari in Singapore
In Singapore, with its ethnic mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian, eating well is a national obsession. Sure, you can do fine dining here, but the real deal are the hundreds of food hawker centres dotted around the city, where you order from stalls and sit in communal areas with the locals. Prices are low, the quality is excellent and you don’t need to decipher a menu: just point. Try the food centre in the lovely galleried market at Telok Ayer, where there’s even Turkish and Costa Rican food. Or at Newton Circus, where the seafood and satay is particularly good.
Mekong cruising in Cambodia and Vietnam
River cruising has grown massively in recent years, and Southeast Asia has played its part in that growth. The big focus here is the Mekong, which forms the border (at various stages of its length) between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The hotspot section runs from Cambodia to the delta in Vietnam (Siem Reap to Phnom Penh), an eight-day journey with lots of floating markets and riverside temples. And although they’re not by the riverside, the massive ruins of Angkor Wat are likely to be included in any tour, too.