1. Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Spot: Komodo dragons
This UNESCO World Heritage site comprises three main islands plus numerous smaller ones, all arid and volcanic. These are home to rare creatures such as the Timor deer and orange-footed scrub fowl, though the star of the islands is the fierce Komodo dragon (below), the world’s largest lizard that can grow to more than 3m long. Despite tourist arrivals, the predatory reptiles with muscular tails – found on Komodo and Rinca islands – are well protected, as only around 10 per cent of the national park is open to the public.
Getting there: Take a two-hour boat ride from Labuan Bajo on Flores Island to Rinca island.
2. Mulu World Heritage Area, Malaysia
Spot: Wrinkle-lipped bats
Mulu World Heritage Area is one of South-east Asia’s top parks, with 17 different vegetation zones. There, you’ll find lush flora, a sea of sharp limestone pinnacles, caves, as well as an array of tropical wildlife. The park is not on any road, meaning most folks have to fly in – unless they wish to walk the challenging Headhunter’s Trail for several days – which adds to the magical feeling. Every night at dusk, you can see millions of wrinkle-lipped bats flying out of the Deer Cave. Trekking trails lead to the jagged photogenic pinnacles.
Getting there: Flights from Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu are available, or hire a guide and walk the famed Headhunter’s Trail for two days to enter the park.
3. Nam Ha National Protected Area, Laos
Nature seekers are drawn to this landscape of mountains, rivers and forest in Luang Namtha province, where only tours by registered eco guides are allowed. While you may be hard-pressed to catch a glimpse of the elusive tigers, elephants and clouded leopards that reside in the far reaches of the 222,400ha park, you may see – and hear – muntjac (above), a species of deer known to emit deep barks. Keep an eye out also for the more than 300 species of birds found in the area. The top activity here is kayaking down the Nam Ha river, which leads you to ethnic minority villages where you can spend the night.
Getting there: Take a 40-minute taxi ride from Luang Namtha.
4. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam
This 126,236ha speleologist’s paradise in Quang Binh province is home to 400-million-year-old karsts and prehistoric cave systems. While much of the park is off limits to the public, you can explore various caves and view wildlife, such as the clouded leopard and the critically endangered saola (Asian bicorn; above), while on foot. Recognisable by its two parallel horns, the deer-like creature with white markings on its face is the first large mammal discovered by conservationists in more than 50 years.
Getting there: The park is about an hour by car from Dong Hoi in Quang Binh province.
5. Hundred Islands National Park, Philippines
Spot: Giant clams
Tucked in the north-western corner of the Philippines, this remote park is made up of 123 islets, of which only three – Governor’s Island, Quezon Island and Children’s Island – have been developed for tourism. The main draws here are the white sand beaches and spectacular vistas of the islets from the peak of Governor’s Island. Boat trips are available for those who want to check out the outlying islets. Pristine corals, sea turtles and dugongs (cousins of the manatee) thrive in the surrounding waters. If you are lucky, you may also get a glimpse of giant clams (below), some of which measure more than 1m in width.
Getting there: Alaminos, the jumping-off point for the park, is about four-and-a-half hours from Manila by car.
6. Bako National Park, Malaysia
Spot: Proboscis monkeys
The oldest national park in Sarawak, Bako offers a fantastic mix of scenic attractions and wildlife. It’s the best place to encounter the pendulous-nosed proboscis monkey (below), found only in Borneo, while you are also likely to see silver-tailed langurs and wild boars there. Chance upon carnivorous pitcher plants in the jungle, explore mangrove swamps and grasslands, then hike out to sandy beaches and hidden coves. For a park that is so close to a major urban area, Bako is a surprising haven of biodiversity.
Getting there: The bus trip from Kuching to the Bako bazaar is about 45 minutes to an hour. From there, take a 20- to 30-minute boat ride to the park.
7. Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Spot: Asian elephants
Thailand’s first national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to more than 3,000 plant species and 300 types of birds. The herds of Asian elephants (below) there are majestic, as are the great hornbills crowned by large casques, which are easily spotted in the forest. You can go on a variety of guided or individual walks, camp in the park and look out for wildlife from viewing towers. There, you’ll find the Haew Suwat waterfall that actor Leonardo DiCaprio made famous by leaping off its top in the film, The Beach.
Getting there: The park is about a three-hour drive from Bangkok.
8. Nat Ma Taung National Park (Mount Victoria), Myanmar
Spot: White-browed nuthatches
Nat Ma Taung National Park, better known as Mount Victoria, features the remote and mountainous Chin state’s highest peak, which stands at 3,053m. It is most beautiful in winter, when rhododendrons bloom around the summit. A road, accessible by four-wheel drive, winds all the way to the summit, so don’t go there expecting a trek. While you can spot birds such as the white-browed nuthatch and larger predatory birds, don’t forget to spend time in Kanpetlet village below the peak, where you can meet some of the last women with tattooed faces in the Chin state.
Getting there: From Bagan, private drivers can get you to Mount Victoria in a day.
– TEXT BY DAVE STAMBOULIS
ILLUSTRATIONS: SAMUEL CASTANO
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.