Southeast Asia is forever spawning fresh, unique travel experiences. Dodge the crowded national parks and beach resorts over your winter break with this rundown of our new favourites.
Hyperventure’s Big Wall Rock Trip
Ever wondered what life was like for those unhumanly brave big wall climbers? Experience it this winter in the pristine forested mountains of Kanchanaburi. After making the bumpy, off-road journey there, you spend the night suspended 180 metres up a rock face while munching on camping fare whipped up by the boys. This is followed, come morning, by the potentially heart-stopping downward rappel. Once safely back on the ground, you trek through a bamboo forest, kayak the River Kwai and pamper yourself silly at a riverside resort and spa. Trips run weekends from November through March in groups of 6-8, with private trips also available. Breakfast on a portaledge, anyone?
Location: Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand
Price: B12,900 (3 days, 2 nights)
Bangkok Vanguard ’s Avatar Voyages
Stick your head out of the train as it chugs out to Bangkok’s green belt, cycle through lush coconut groves, visit the UNESCO protected canal market of Amphawa and go firefly watching come sunset… The latest tour by the idealistic young Bangkok Vanguards crew is a fully customisable showcase of nearby Samut Songkhram province. Most of its elements can be found on other tours, but this lot do things differently, seeking out truly pristine or mellow areas and stressing cultural conservation and eco-friendliness. The firefly watching, for example, is not done in one of those noisy, motorised long-tails but rather a 100-year old boat that you paddle yourself.
Location: Samut Songkram province, Thailand
Price: weekend package B7,450
Yoga retreat backdrops don’t get much more epic than Jungle Yoga’s. Classes take place on a floating wooden sala surrounded by the sheer limestone karsts and humming, critter-filled rainforest of Surathani’s Khao Sok National Park. And once you’ve finished perfecting your poses, you’re free to laze in a hammock on the porch of your floating bamboo bungalow, dive into the lake’s cool pristine waters, canoe, read a book or just gawp at the transcendental scenery. Add the seclusion – you can only get there by long-tail boat – and world-class line-up of gurus and you have a yoga retreat to daydream wistfully about. Note that sessions last a minimum of six nights and the season only runs from November through to April.
BKK – Mandalay
Air Asia has just started flying to Mandalay four times a week, making long weekends there a very convenient possibility. Rates start from B1,500 each way, including tax and fees. Why pick Mandalay, the former capital of Myanmar and still its second largest city, over Yangon? As well as being the economic hub of the north and a good starting point for trips to Bagan and Inle Lake, there are more than enough cultural sites to keep you busy, from the revered Maha Myat Muni Buddha statue and Shwenandaw monastery to Mandalay Palace and the longest teak bridge in the world. Also, its hotels aren’t nearly as packed or overpriced as Yangon’s, yet.
Tours on Wheels
Bangkok-based tour company Backyard Travel recently launched a range of tours that let you explore the region on a different set of wheels than the usual honking tourist buses. On the ‘Meander the Mountains’ tour you can spend three days exploring Bali’s volcanic areas in an open-top, amphibious VW jeep; the Saigon to the Delta tour is a half-day scoot around Ho Chi Minh on the back of a chauffeur-driven Vespa; and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, the seven-day Luxurious Myanmar tour includes a ride around Yangoon in a restored and very spiffy looking 1945 vintage Chevrolet, or ‘Elephant Coach’ (as well as visits to Bagan and Inle Lake).
Lao tour company Green Discovery’s take on zip-lining is winning rave reviews from everyone daring enough to try it. As is the norm, you glide like a flying squirrel from platform to platform, but the scenery here is something else… after trekking by foot deep into Dong Hua Sao, a protected area of evergreen forest and coffee plantations, you spend the day whizzing along cables cast across deep ravines, a roaring waterfall and swaying treetops almost within touching distance. The two or three-day adventure also includes a stay in an Evok village-like tree-house that can only be reached by – what else? – zip-line. It’s also notable for its eco-tourist credentials, as some of the proceeds go towards conservation and local villagers are employed as guides.
Mekong Discovery Trail
The Mekong Discovery Trail is a 180km long network of government-approved ecotourism routes through North Cambodia’s impoverished Kratie and Strung Treng Provinces, both of which are home to some of the wildest and most sparsely populated stretches of the Mekong. Designed to benefit and provide interaction with the local Khmer communities, each of the free trails is focused around life along the river and throws up opportunities for kayaking, Irrawaddy dolphin spotting, mountain biking, horse carting and trekking. You can download copies of the trails, which are designed to boost visitors and promote conservation, on the website.
Location: Kratie and Strung Treng provinces, Cambodia
Elephant Valley Project
There are scores of elephant ‘conservation’ camps in the region, but this one out in the forests of East Cambodia’s remote Mondulkiri province is the only one we know of that doesn’t work its nellies in any way whatsoever. Its founder, Brit Jack Highwood, developed the project as an “alternative approach to domestic elephant care in Cambodia”. Net result: your stint here – be it half day visit or month of volunteering – will include lots of time working closely with the mahouts (washing, feeding and shadowing the creatures as they roam the forest) and absolutely no elephant rides. Bear in mind, you might also need to get your hands dirty for the cause: help dig trenches, build water towers, etc.
Location: Mondulkiri Province, East Cambodia
Price: Half day $30 per person; full day $60 per person (including transport and lunch). Not open weekends.
Ock Pop Tok
Located on the banks of the Mekong in Luang Prabang, Ock Pop Tok is a grassroots organization offering visitors that chance to learn about, create and shop for traditional Lao textiles. They have a gallery and shop in town, but its centrepiece is the Living Crafts Centre just outside it. Here you can take classes in weaving, batik and the art of natural dyes. The truly dedicated can also stay in one of four, textile-festooned rooms with river views. Visitors enjoy a feel-good factor too: some of the proceeds from all the above feed into Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver Projects, which create economic opportunities for artisans in the countryside by teaching them handicraft skills.