Hiking in Southeast Asia: 7 Treks to Inspire Your Next Trip

Southeast Asia is home to some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. High volcanic peaks, cascading waterfalls, lush rainforests, and highly diverse flora and fauna abound. One of the best ways to reach these places -- while working to minimize environmental impact and contribute to the local economy -- is through a trek.

Depending on budget and location, trekking options span the spectrum of comfort. Guides and porters are required or strongly encouraged for some of the more daunting journeys, while others may require just a day pack. Similarly, accommodation ranges from a tree-strung hammock to cushier lodges with plumbing and a warm bed. In most cases, it takes forgoing some comfort for the adventure and experience at hand. Escape the noises of modern civilization and the impulse to check your smartphone for the sounds of pure nature and a star-filled sky. It’ll take some work to get there, but be assured that your sore muscles will be grateful for the rewards on these seven treks.

1. Banaue Rice Terraces, Philippines

Photo: Kevin Brouillard
Photo: Kevin Brouillard

The Banaue Rice Terraces are located in Ifugao, which is approximately eight hours north of Manila by bus. The local indigenous group’s ancestors completed the terraces some 2,000 years ago, carving them out of the mountains by hand (with stunning results), and sections are still being used today for rice and vegetable production. A series of trails through the terraces and surrounding forest connects small villages dotting the vibrant green hillsides and valleys. Here, trekkers can find accommodation at guesthouses and gain some insight into the local Ifugao culture. Trekkers will be glad to know that plenty of beds are available, but hot water is hard to come by. Most treks launch out of Banaue, which serves as the transportation and tourism hub for the region. For those more budget conscious, trekking trips can be negotiated with local guides upon arrival instead of booking with a tour company ahead of time. Be sure to include the village of Batad in your route for views of the amphitheater-shaped rice terraces unfolding below.

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2. Virachey National Park, Cambodia

This densely forested park is situated in the remote northeastern tip of Cambodia along the Laos and Vietnam borders. Fortunately, the road from Phnom Penh is now entirely paved, so expect an eight-hour drive. Travel time from Siem Reap is similarly about eight to nine hours. The region is mostly populated by several indigenous groups, who have their own cultures and languages with little relation to Khmer, the Cambodian national language.

The tiny provincial capital of Banlung serves as the departure point for most treks into Virachey National Park. A number of companies and independent guides will pitch their services to visitors, but we recommend Smiling Tours, as they offer a wide range of experiences on one- to seven-day treks. In Virachey, it is possible to see wild gibbons, spend the night and dine with an indigenous family, and build your own bamboo raft and swim alongside it as you meander downriver. There is still a wild elephant population within the dense jungle, with rumors of a fleeting tiger population, but don’t expect to catch a glimpse of either. However, their presence does indicate how wild and far-flung this place feels. Take note that accommodation is rustic and bathroom facilities are not available in the jungle, so pack wisely. One final insider tip: Be careful not to overdo it on the rice wine, as your hosts will likely be more than glad to keep the “sra saw” flowing.

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3. Sapa, Vietnam

The town of Sapa is settled in the mountains near the Chinese border in northwest Vietnam. This remote hill station can be reached via an eight-hour train from Hanoi. The town draws in visitors who are seeking to explore the surrounding picturesque landscapes and learn about the local hill tribes. These tribes rely on tourism for income, so many offer their services as guides or operate homestays in their villages. These homestays are usually not too shabby, with hot water showers available. This will be greatly appreciated in the high altitudes; Sapa lies nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. Make sure to pack some layers and waterproof clothing for an overnight hike.

Consider hiring a local guide on your own or recommended through your hotel in Sapa, rather than from a Hanoi-based company. This will ensure that more money is going to the local community and that the ethnic groups are being treated properly. Sapa’s natural and cultural attractions have led to quite a tourism boom recently, for better and worse. Local vendors are abundant and can be fairly aggressive at times with tourists. However, it is well worth going through Sapa to trek up Vietnam’s highest peak or to spend the night in a hill tribe village.

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4. Mount Rinjani, Indonesia

Mount Rinjani, standing at 12,224 feet, is the second highest volcano in Indonesia. It’s located on the island of Lombok, which is just a three- to five-hour high-speed ferry ride to the east of Bali. At the beginning of the journey, trekkers ascend 6,500 feet through the lush forest and reach the crater rim, where they’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view. Nearly 2,000 feet below lies a crater lake and the smoking “New Mountain” located on an island within the lake. Many trekking groups make camp upon the rim for the night in tents. It is worth waking up early for the sunrise and the colorful reflections on the lake below. A natural hot spring is just a short walk from the lake’s shore, which provides achy hikers with some much-deserved relaxation. Due to the high elevation and distances required to complete this trek, it is advisable that only those who appropriately conditioned take this journey. Anyone who maintains an active lifestyle should be able to reach the crater rim, and even the peak with some determination and proper planning. Guides are required for trekkers by the park, and porters are available to hire for cooking and carrying supplies. It’s quite astonishing to see these porters lugging over 50 pounds of supplies balanced on wooden poles, wearing just flimsy flip flops, on the same slopes that leave many tourists breathless. Remember to tip them accordingly.

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5. Champasak Province, Laos

Photo: Andrea Edman
Photo: Andrea Edman

The southerly province is home to a variety of attractions, most notably Vat Phou, a series of ancient Khmer temples listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors are also drawn by the impressive natural landscape, shadow puppet theater, and French colonial architecture. For those looking to mix some adventure into their trip, we recommend a zip-line trekking tour with Green Discovery Laos. Participants will zip-line through the forest canopy and past gushing waterfalls. Accommodation is provided in a treehouse equipped with local food and proper beds. Wake up to the echoes of the forest with some locally grown coffee and take in the superb views.  Most tours will launch out of Pakse, a town situated right on the mighty Mekong, which serves as the transportation and tourist hub for the region. Flights are available from Vientiane with Laos Airlines, otherwise you’ll want to pack your travel pillow for the night bus.

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6. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

With a top elevation of 6,666 feet, the Cameron Highlands are home to the highest point in Malaysia accessible by road. For those not willing to conquer the peak by foot, it’s certainly worth paying for a taxi ride to reach the observation tower atop the summit. From here the highlands, forests, and tea plantations fan out into the landscape below. Over a dozen trails meander their way through the highlands. Trekkers can make a go of it on their own or hire a local guide. Trails lead past waterfalls, mossy forests, tea plantations, and exotic flora, including the pitcher plant. Fortunately, the Cameron Highlands are incredibly accessible with frequent buses from Kuala Lumpur. The three-hour trip is a breeze, and the views along the way will build anticipation for the adventure that awaits.

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7. Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake is nestled in the Shan Hills at an elevation of 2,900 feet. This rather shallow lake is home to a variety of indigenous and ethnic groups who rely on the lake for their livelihoods. The local fishermen are recognized for their distinct paddling style. This athletic feat entails standing one-legged at the boat’s stern with the other leg wrapped around the oar. This technique became the norm so fishermen could gain a better view to avoid becoming entangled in reeds in the shallow waters.

The lake can be reached by regional flights to Heho followed by a one-hour taxi ride, but we think that an arrival by foot makes for a more memorable entrance. Several companies run treks with local guides out of Kalaw, which lies to the west of Inle Lake. There are multiple options for routes too, with most totaling 35 to 40 miles over a three-day journey. Trails meander through forests and tea farms, so expect to be greeted with some excellent brewed tea upon arrival at the overnight stops. Most treks utilize the local villages for homestays, which provides a more authentic experience and contributes to the community’s livelihood. Village accommodations lean towards the rustic side, meaning bamboo mats and a simple mattress upon a wooden floor. Additionally, bathroom facilities may be as simple as a bucket shower and hole to squat over. However, all ranges of accommodation can be found at Inle Lake once you’ve arrived, so you’ll feel especially rewarded after roughing it for a few days.

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