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Sure, Southeast Asia’s cities have an impressive hotchpotch of architecture and streets bursting with energy. But life speeds by quickly – close your eyes for a moment and everything’s changed. To catch your breath, slow down in the rugged rural climes of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
6 best hikes in Southeast Asia
Whether you’re a casual rambler or a hiker with miles of stories to tell, there are options for everyone. Without further ado, the best hikes in Southeast Asia, in no particular order…
This mountainous region in northern Vietnam is no secret, but it’s a firm favourite on the tourist trail for good reason. With a panorama of terraced rice paddies and stilted villages, it’s little wonder the French chose Sapa as the site for a hill-station back in the 1920s. Or that it continues to draw in the crowds today.
There are more tourists than the photographs would have you believe, and a panoply of wares are likely be thrust in your direction at some point. But don’t let that put you off! There’s a reason people return – the scenery is otherworldly and relatively straightforward to reach. Having attracted such attention in recent years, there are plenty of trails for all abilities and a greater range (and perhaps quality) of accommodation than in other remote areas.
Sapa’s famous views may be shrouded in mist during winter, and can be quite chilly. Take a jumper! To make the most out of your time, travel with a local guide and get stuck in; spend a night or two at a homestay and give the rural life a go by trying your hand at rice planting.
Ha Giang, Vietnam
If you sense you might find Sapa’s touristic turn disappointing, consider Ha Giang instead. This mountainous region in Vietnam, close to the border with China, is not dissimilar to that of Sapa with charming villages and panoramic rice paddies.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a hardy hiking type anyway, but bear in mind that lodgings may be a little more rustic than you’re used to. Their charm more than makes up for the simple decor – switch off from the trials of modern life and get to know local people at a homestay. While you can take longer walks, Ha Giang is a good place to take gentler strolls too, stumbling across village life as you go.
With towering limestone mountains, patchwork paddies, forested areas and a wide, vast valley studded with villages, it’s hard to believe that Mai Chau is just 139km from Hanoi. The town isn’t much to write home about, but it’s a good base to explore from.
If you’re in the area, don’t miss a trip to Pu Luong. This nearby Nature Reserve is a beautiful place to cycle between rice paddies and kayak past limestone pinnacles on the Nam Ma River.
If you’re really serious about trekking, look no further than the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area. Only recently opened to tourism, you may feel like a pioneer in these 4,229 square km.
By going for a hike here, you’re doing your bit for the planet too. In recent years, protection of the area’s delicate biodiversity (with endangered species including tiger, gaur, Sambar deer and white-cheeked gibbon) has increased; ecotourism activities have been incentivised for the neighbouring villages to encourage protection of these jungle residents. Take your pick of a two-, three- or (for the truly adventurous) five-day trek and track the wildlife with surreptitious cameras as you go.
Visit the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area on our Trekking Northern Vietnam & Laos Fully Tailored Journey.
Inexplicably, fewer people travel to Laos than Vietnam to go hiking, but the topography is equally impressive. Like Ha Giang and Sapa in Vietnam, Phongsali is just across the border from China and the influence is marked; the architecture and narrow streets in the town have more in common with their neighbours than Laotian villages, and some of the tribes in the area speak Chinese.
With sparse tourists, countless trails and the nearby Nam Ou River waiting – all under the watchful eye of Phou Fa (Sky Mountain) – Phongsali is a playground for outdoor adventure types. A remote outpost, it’s also a classic case of good things coming to those who travel – while not an easy place to reach, you will reap the rewards once you arrive. Being at such heady heights means it can be quite cold, and potentially a bit misty; remember your Long Johns!
Kulen Mountain, Cambodia
I would bet my bottom dollar that 9 times out of 10, Siem Reap takes centre stage on itineraries for first-time visitors to Cambodia. As the jumping off point for the incredibly impressive ancient Angkor Wat complex, and home to lots of bars, restaurants and hotels, a stay here makes sense.
But despite huge numbers of visitors to the area, not everyone makes it to Phnom Kulen; a mountain range only a two-hour drive from the bright lights of Siem Reap’s Pub Street and the crumbling ruins of the oldest religious monument in the world.
It was in this National Park that the Khmer Empire was officiated – way back in the 9th century. Take a break from temple tramping on the main haunts and take a two-hour trip to see tropical jungle, crashing waterfalls, rural villages, less frequented ruins and a pagoda with a reclining Buddha. A choice for those who like the fresh air and a hearty stroll rather than intrepid explorers looking for multi-day challenges.