It seems remarkably unreal that one destination should boast so much, yet behind all its ancient landmarks, exotic culture, glitzy metropolises and delicious food, Asia is blessed with nature unlike anywhere else. From the world’s highest mountain to an emerald bay dotted with limestone islands, here are Asia’s five best natural attractions.
Halong Bay – Vietnam
Few places have been photographed as much as the Heritage-listed Halong Bay, famous for its towering limestone karsts and isles surrounded by the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The bay is dotted with traditional junks and modern cruise vessels filled with travellers exploring the various islands and grottoes for days at a time.
There are so many visitors these days that swimming is banned to help protect the environment from sunscreen and other toxins. You can still immerse yourself in the mesmerising nature while kayaking or walking through the many caves such as the otherworldly Hang Thien Cung.
Halong Bay is home to almost 2,000 islands and countless species of wildlife such as the endangered golden-headed langur on Cat Ba Island, which also boasts the picturesque Lan Ha Bay and Cat Co Cove.
Zhangjiajie – China
The world of Pandora in the film Avatar has nothing on its real-life inspiration, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. This collection of towering quartz-sandstone pillars rising from subtropical forests attracts more than 20 million people each year.
Visitors can walk the main trails and see more than 3,000 unique plant species along with a diverse array of fauna such as macaques, giant salamanders and water deer. The park is split into five distinct areas including Tianzi Mountain, which is renowned for the mists and clouds that turn the pillars into floating islands.
The undeveloped Laowuchang area is perfect for nature photographers, while Yangjiajie offers challenging hikes and pristine scenery. The 326-metre-high Bailong Elevator and the newly-built Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge both deliver memorable outlooks over the peaks, spires, karst pinnacles and lush forest below.
The Himalayas – Nepal
The name ‘Himalaya’ comes from the Sanskrit words hima (snow) and alaya (abode), which was how many pilgrim mountaineers of old saw the world’s greatest mountain system. These days it’s considered a must-see attraction and an unparalleled challenge with more than 110 peaks exceeding 7,300 metres in elevation, including Mt Everest, which stands as the world’s highest mountain at 8,850 metres.
The Himalayas stretch across Asia for about 2,500 kilometres, covering numerous countries including China, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal. Many visitors strive for one of two Everest Base Camps, either in Tibet or Nepal, which sit at 5,150 metres and 5,364 metres high, respectively. It’s an arduous trek that requires months of prior training.
Trekking through the Himalayas reveals a wealth of nature. Juniper trees and various mosses grow in the alpine zones, while bamboos, oaks, Himalayan screw pines and Nepalese autumn poppies can be found at lower heights. Black bears, langurs, goat antelopes and leopards also frequent this region.
Even some of the most experienced travellers haven’t heard of Palau, which is one reason this relatively unknown Asia destination displays so much untouched natural beauty. The archipelago is comprised of about 250 limestone and volcanic islands with lush rainforests. Clear, azure water surrounds each one, giving way to some of the world’s best scuba diving sites.
Palau has been given the moniker ‘Underwater Serengeti’, and it only takes a few minutes under the surface to realise why. Popular dive sites such as Blue Corner, Chuyo Maru, Helmet Wreck, German Channel and Blue Holes bring divers up close to manta rays, Word War II artefacts, shipwrecks, schools of colourful fish, grey reef sharks and more fascinating marine life.
Those who prefer to stay dry can explore the islands via kayaks, 4WDs and ATVs, scenic flights and hiking. Each island reveals an array of unique nature and culture such as natural pools with waterfalls, local villages, pristine rainforest and open lookouts with uninterrupted ocean views.
Mt Bromo – Indonesia
Rising up from a plain called the ‘Sea of Sand’, Mt Bromo is an imposing sight. The 2,329-metre-high active volcano has been attracting adventurous travellers for many years and remains one of Indonesia’s most visited natural sites. Travellers can hike to Mt Bromo or take a guided jeep tour from the nearby villages of Cemoro Lawang or Probolinggo.
Mt Bromo is very active and has erupted multiple times over the last 10 years. This is part of its appeal and one reason why on the 14th day of the Hindu festival, Yadnya Kasada, locals from Probolinggo trek up the mountain and give offerings of food and livestock.
For the best views of the volcano, organise a sunrise trip to the nearby Mount Penanjakan, which has a set lookout with panoramic vistas. Or to avoid the crowd, hike up to King Kong Hills.
By Ben Stower