Cliché as it sounds, travel is indeed therapeutic – a journey to somewhere foreign tend to transform, change, mature or even inspire oneself. So here are the top places found in the region that we believe are both inspiring and educational.
1. Sipadan Island, Malaysia
Situated off Borneo’s south coast and just an hour by boat from Semporna lies the tropical island of Sipadan, a designated national marine park blessed with colourful coral reefs and spectacular marine life. But did you know that Sipadan was also created out of an extinct volcano? The island is made up of essentially coral that has been growing from the cone of the volcano, developed over thousands of years. This volcanic history contributes to its world class ecosystem consisting of more than 3,000 species of marine life and hundreds of species of coral, making it one of the richest marine habitats in the world.
That is why Sipadan is ranked as one of the best dive sites in the world and better known for its wall dive, where the reef is only located a mere 20 metres from the shore and then drops off to an underwater cliff face for about 600 metres. In an effort to protect this pristine island and surrounding waters, there are no resorts at all on the island. Divers are required to stay on neighbouring islands such as Mabul or Kapalai and take the daily boat over to the Sipadan dive sites. Please take note that snorkelling or diving in Sipadan requires permit so as to limit the number of humans accessing the site.
2. Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Perhentian Islands, located around 25km from Kuala Besut on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, comprise Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Basar. Both are hugely popular with snorkellers and divers, but as the names suggest, Perhentian Besar is bigger in size. Plus, the resorts on Perhentian Besar are more expensive and cater mostly to couples or honeymooners. In contrast, Perhentian Kecil’s two main beaches are perfect for the backpacker set, with the quieter Coral Bay as a sunset-watching haven, and Long Beach that is renowned for its party scene. The best time to visit Perhentian is from March to October, outside monsoon season. Travellers can get there in 40 minutes by using speedboat from the Kuala Besut jetty, or by chartered boat from the nearby Redang and Lang Tengah Islands.
3. Kinabatangan River, Malaysia
Kinabatangan River is one of the most popular destinations within Sabah due to it possessing the largest concentration of wildlife in South East Asia. Other than being home to Borneo’s indigenous orangutan and proboscis monkey, the surrounding forest is also one of only two known places in the world where 10 species of primates are found. A trip up the river also gives a higher chance of bird sightings such as the snakeheads, herons, Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Jerdon’s Baza, Violet Cuckoo, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish-Eagle and the eight species of hornbill found in Borneo. The river can be visited all year round, though it is often flooded during December and January, Sabah’s wettest part of the year. The main flowering and fruiting season, from April to October, is generally fairly dry and a good time to spot many birds and animals.
4. Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia
The Royal Belum State Park is a pristine forest within the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex (BTFC), which is one of the oldest rainforest in the world dating back over 130 million years. The park encompasses a forest, small areas of grassland, and abandoned agricultural plots, including large man-made lake, Tasik Temengor, making it excellent for trekking, bird watching and animal sightings. This is the place where travellers would be able to spot at least three different Rafflesia species, all 10 hornbill species found in Malaysia including large flocks of the plain-pouched hornbill, Asian elephants and Malayan tiger. Travellers should also arrange a stopover at the nearby Orang Asli (Malaysian aborigines) village. They are the Jahai people belonging to the Negrito tribe and they will welcome visitors with a heart-warming ancient rhythmic beats played on the Sewang ceremony.
5. Bario, Malaysia
Known as the ‘land of a hundred handshakes’, Bario is a home to one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak called the Kelabit and other tribes such as the Penan and Lun Bawang. It is located at an altitude of about 3,500 feet above sea level in the north-eastern corner of Sarawak. Most tourists visit the highland to do jungle-trekking, mountain-biking and sightseeing. Those who up for a more challenging activity, they can hike up to the peaks of Pulong Tau National Park. Every year, there is an international Bario Food Festival held in the month of July, celebrating the unique food, farming, forest and cultural heritage of the Bario community. The place is accessible by 16-seater Twin Otter planes operated by MASWings, but, locals are given preference due to it being the main transport in and out of the highlands. Thus, travellers are advised to book early online at www.maswings.com.my/en.
6. Gili Islands, Indonesia
Be it for party or family destination, Gili Islands are rapidly becoming one of the most popular stopovers for visitors to Bali and Lombok. Only a few kilometres off the northwest coast of Lombok, the idyllic Gili islands consist of Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air. Gili Trawangan is the most popular of the three with the largest number of accommodations and enough bars to keep dedicated party-goers well satisfied. On the contrary, Gili Meno being the smallest island makes it arguably the most family-friendly. Gili Air is more popular among the upscale market due to its sophisticated scene. Expect to be involved in a lot of fun activities here including island-hopping for around Rp20,000 to 23,000 one way, motor and non-motorised water sports, yoga, golfing, party on a boat, watching a Presean tournament (a traditional combat) and visiting the turtle sanctuary. With no cars or any form of motorised vehicles available on land, getting around is only by cidomo (horse cart), bicycle or on foot.
7. Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia
Being a part of the famed Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat archipelago is a world-class diving site rich in wild marine life, specifically with more than 3,000 species of fish and 537 species of corals. The islands consist of over 1,500 unique small islands with four main islands being the Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. All travellers alike flock to this region because it offers a true tropical hideaway, welcoming them with unspoiled setting, plenty of water activities and unfussy beach accommodations away from the modern world. One of the most sought after resorts here is the Misool Eco Resort where it is built on a private island 165 km away from the nearest port. They even have their own 1,220 sq km Marine Protected Area that is patrolled by their rangers regularly. Besides the usual diving and snorkelling activities, the resort offers several excursion packages designed to bring guests closer to Raja Ampat’s flora, fauna, and people through excursions like the village tour, ‘Romantic Beach Castaway Experience’, ‘Ancient Petroglyphs and Labyrinthine Lagoons’, ‘Light Birdwatching Cruise’ and ‘Mangroves and Deserted Beaches’.
8. El Nido, Philippines
Perched in northern Palawan, Philippines, El Nido is bordered by the Linapacan Strait in the north, the Sulu Sea in the east, and the South China Sea in the west. This secluded place boasts rich flora and fauna, making El Nido one of the most sought after destinations, especially by those who are looking for special romantic getaways. With over 45 islands and islets, the place presents endless opportunities for adventure and nature appreciation via scuba-diving, snorkelling, kayaking, cliff-climbing, mangrove tour and caving. Seafood is also a local speciality here; in fact, most of the daily catches are exported to Manila and to other South East Asian countries. So be sure to try out the restaurants scattered around the town, which offers diverse menus to suit various palates.
9. Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 for its outstanding cultural, historic and architectural values, striking harmonious balance between nature and built environment. It shows travellers a glimpse of the old, unspoiled Asia. Here, they are bound to fall for the glistening temples, crumbling French provincial architecture and multi-ethnic inhabitants. Most travellers explore the place at a leisurely pace; but if they are pressed for time, the must-do activities include sightseeing around the old city, wandering around the lively morning market, visiting the Royal Palace Museum and Wat Xieng Thong temple, taking a boat up the Mekong River, and watching the morning alms giving ceremony as dawn breaks.
10. Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Located approximately 120 kilometres away from the bustling city of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi was once the setting of an epic World War II tragedy, making it ideal destination for history and war tourism buffs. Important historical sites such as the Bridge over The River Kwai, the War Cemeteries and the Hellfire Pass promise to enlighten travellers with information on the dark period ever faced by Kanchanaburi. Those who are not into history or world wars need not fret – they can always enjoy the pristine national parks and cavernous caves found abundantly in the area. One of the must-visit national parks here is the 550 square-kilometre Erawan National Park, which features the mesmerising seven-tiered Erawan Falls. The entrance fee to this park is 300 baht for foreigners.