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Southeast Asia’s Experiences

Orangutans in BorneoOrangutans in Borneo. Image: Corbis

From colorful Balinese festivals to paradise diving in the Philippines, Andrew Eames reveals seven of Southeast Asia’s definitive travel experiences

Stay with Thai hill tribes

The northern tip of Thailand is a land of river, jungle and rainforest-covered mountains. Because the landscape isn’t  easily penetrated, the national borders with Burma and Laos are relatively indistinct. Certainly the tribes who live in these regions think so; they’re well used to moving between one country and another, with very little let or hindrance. Their remote situation has allowed them to preserve their traditional customs, lifestyles and dress. The largest ethnic groups are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lahu and Padaung — the latter famous for wearing brass rings to elongate the neck.

Although they’re fiercely independent of governments, and have been in trouble for growing opium, these tribes are happy to receive visitors. The best approach is to join a trekking party, completing a circuit in the hills and staying in tribal villages. The landscape is stunning; it’s often possible to do part of the journey on elephant-back, and there’s the real sense of exploration inherent in moving from tribe to tribe.

Most treks start from the northern city of Chiang Mai, itself worth a stay of several days, whose temples are among the most sumptuous in Thailand, while the climate is sunny and hot, but less humid than down south.

Spot Komodo Dragons

The world’s largest land lizard — a hangover from the dinosaur age — was discovered as recently as 1910, on the remote Indonesian island that gives the species its name. These fearsome-looking creatures grow up to 10ft long, can weigh three times as much as a man, and have been known to consume the occasional traveler who strays into their territory. Their saliva is deadly, their strength legendary; but their eyesight is poor and their table manners are awful — Komodos sometimes push their prey down their throats by ramming it against a tree.

These days, the endangered dragons are a protected species and their appeal is doubled by the location — a national park in an archipelago whose clear, warm waters are host to spectacularly colorful outrigger canoes.

Meet Bornean Orangutans

Although ‘orangutan’ means ‘man of the jungle’, they’re anything but commonplace. Like their cousin, the gorilla, these hairy orange great apes are an endangered species, currently found only in rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where they spend most of their time in the trees. Nevertheless, it’s possible to get close to our shaggy, distant relatives — supposedly the second most intelligent species on the planet — at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, an eastern Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, where orphaned orangutans are nurtured in the most natural of environments until they’re ready to be released. The rehabilitation facility occupies a vast area of forest, but there’s a very good chance of a close encounter with young apes, particularly if visitors arrive at feeding time.

Visit Cambodian temples

Although it’s now one of Southeast Asia’s top UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for decades the massive Hindu temple at Angkor Wat — said to be the world’s largest religious monument — was a mysterious lost world. The spiritual seat of the massive Khmer empire, from the ninth to the 13th century, was hard to reach due to both the restrictions of successive communist governments and the encroaching forest. Giant trees and creepers had virtually swallowed it up, adding to its mythological status and visual appeal. In fact, the great temple at Angkor was one of at least 1,000 temples in the surrounding plain. Today, the region is largely agricultural, but tourism is developing fast, with new hotels and resorts around Siem Reap, just 3.7 miles away, and with a modern international airport.

Ride Vietnam’s rails

The Reunification Express rail journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is a big hit with travelers. Not because of the transit time — the journey takes 32 hours — and not because of the symbolic crossing of the 17th parallel, where North and South Vietnam were conjoined in 1976 after the Vietnam War. Its appeal lies in the coastal route the train takes, rumbling through rural villages and rainforest, across mountains, around turquoise bays and along white, sandy beaches. Highlights include Hue, the beautiful, former imperial capital of Vietnam, plus the beach scenery on the three-hour leg between Hue and Danang. Also popular is Nha Trang, the beach resort with a mix of luxury retreats and town-center guesthouses. The trains have a variety of standards of accommodation and are a great way of meeting locals.

Join a Balinese festival

The Indonesian island of Bali is like nowhere else on earth. A landscape of beaches, mountains, forests and sculpted rice terraces is a good start, but it also has a fascinating Hindu culture which means barely a day goes by without a major ceremony or celebration somewhere on the island. The best place to experience this is the region around the town of Ubud, alive with artists and craftsmen. Odalan, Nyepi and Galungan are festival calendar highlights, although births, marriages and deaths are also celebrated by local communities, along with various purifications, processions and dances. So if you see women in traditional costume, balancing offerings on their head, grab a camera and mingle with the crowd — you’ll always be welcomed.

Dive in the Philippines

With more than 7,000 beautiful islands set among pristine reefs in warm, clear seas, the Philippines is a divers’ paradise. A vast diversity of marine life inhabits an undersea landscape, including dramatic drop-offs, wrecks and caves, with many rare experiences on offer, from diving with dugongs at Dimakya Island and with thresher sharks at Malapascua Island to snorkeling with whale sharks at Sorsogon. If you want to get away from it all, try tiny Cabilao Island, where the reefs are home to barracuda, sharks and large rays. Several of the dive areas are marine sanctuaries. Arguably the best dive destination is the island province of Palawan, an archipelago that’s home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the Philippines, from limestone cliffs and thermal lakes to underwater caves.

Of Motorbikes and Monkeys

Ben Lerwill travels around Cambodia’s south coast by motorbike, before heading north to the mesmerizing ruins of Angkor Wat

It was the monkey that really made it. A vast orange sun was setting over the road to Kampot, and I’d pulled my motorbike up to revel in the moment. The evening was warm. To my left, the Gulf of Thailand was flaming in the dusk, and off to my right was the tropical green of the forest.

Jungly squawks mixed with the roll of the waves. The sky had filled with reds and yellows. It was a view that needed sharing, and, as if in acknowledgement of this, a rustle a few feet away made me turn. Sitting there was a rhesus monkey, chewing on a creeper and staring out at the sunset. The two of us sat there quietly; time passed. I could have sworn he gave a nod when I eventually drove off.

In its simplicity, the incident seemed to sum up my time on Cambodia’s south coast. On two wheels, special moments came thick and fast. Young kids, all smiles and excited hellos, appearing at every village; tiny piglets causing roadblocks; buffaloes trudging through rice paddies; women in traditional krama headscarves overtaking this dawdling Brit; bundles of fresh crab being hawked by beach vendors; green mountains framing the scenery. Every time I turned the ignition and rolled onto the road, there was the promise of a new experience, and cruising around in the sunshine made me want to whoop at the beauty of it all.

After the adventures of the open road, there were thrills of a different kind to be had further north, in the form of the mesmerizing temples of Angkor. Nothing quite prepared me for the sheer scale of the complex — there were around 100 temples in total, ranging from rubble-strewn foundations to breathtaking set pieces with soaring towers and bas-reliefs. This was more than a mere attraction, it was a whole world; somewhere you could lose yourself in the past. I spent days exploring the complex and the surrounding forest, gawping at the artistry and trying to re-imagine ninth-century workers constructing them.

Each temple had its own character. The overgrown, vine-draped ruins of Ta Prohm were hugely atmospheric, but my most abiding memory came early one day at the Bayon, an intricately decorated temple built around eight centuries ago. I arrived there before the crowds built up, and in the bright morning sun I was hypnotized by the 200 giant faces gazing out from its towers.

It was a magical week. The bars and guesthouses of nearby Siem Reap provided home comforts in the evenings. I learnt many things from my time in Cambodia, but perhaps the most important was this: there are few more pleasant experiences than reflecting on the staggering glories of an ancient civilization over an ice-cold beer.

PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2012 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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