This is a mammoth itinerary, and each place could easily swallow up weeks (if you want to do a fair few dives / treks) so I would advise 6-8 months to complete (although you could whizz through it in less, these are some really world-class sites, so I wouldn’t recommend it!)
Click on the hyperlinks in the place names to see the full photo journal
- Mae Salong: Far North on the border with Burma, Mae Salong is a haven of hill-tribe trekking and Oolong tea plantations. Stay in a scenic guesthouse (like Akha) overlooking the mountains; eat spicy pork and wonton Yunnanese noodles; take self-guided walks through plantations and villages dotted with streams and water buffalo; eat local famous fried donuts dipped in hot soy milk on the early morning market.
- Ko Tao: Overall we found Ko Tao far too over-developed and expensive, but it’s a fantastic place to learn to dive. We went during shoulder season, and had an instructor to ourselves for our Open Water, and they even chucked in a private bungalow for free. Despite divers bitching about Ko Tao being rubbish to dive, we saw tons of sealife including spotted rays, moray eels, puffer fish, angel fish, clown (‘Nemo’) fish and loads more!
- Luang Nam Tha Trek: One of our toughest treks, Luang Nam Ha is not for the faint-hearted. It’s truly primary jungle, meaning your guide will machete your way though (there aren’t trails!); you’ll slip and slide your way through muddy jungle, huge trees and leech-filled rivers, but the rewards are worth it. Eating foraged jungle food; sleeping in rice fields; homestays in tiny Akha villages; kayaking wide deserted rivers. Unforgettable!
- Puerto Princessa to Dumaguette (long ferry): If you’re travelling on a budget and craving an authentic travel experience, this 2 day ferry via beautiful Cuyo island is a great way to experience the reality of slow travel around the archipelago. The sunsets are stunning, the (tiny) boat is sometimes very rocky out at sea, but it was definitely a local immersive experience!
- Apo Island: What this tiny rocky island lacks in sandy coastline, it more than makes up for in personality and world-class diving. The locals are crazily friendly, and the dive shop guys want to be your best friend. We did our first few dives here post-Open Water and it was a perfect place to take the plunge. You can also snorkel with turtles straight off the bay (they nest here!) and drink rum and catch live music at Mario’s homestay.
- Moalboal: We weren’t super keen on Moalboal itself – it’s pretty expensive and tourist-saturated- but there are some fantastic dives to be had here, like Pescador Island. It’s also the site of the ‘Sardine Run’ – a natural wonder where millions of sardines gather just off the coast, and you can snorkel or dive with them, darting into mesmerising shapes in front of you.
- Malapascua Island: Known for it’s thresher shark deep-diving, Malapascua is another dive hot-spot. We unfortunately couldn’t dive here as I got an ear infection (so annoying!) but we chilled here for a few days – the beach is pretty (albeit chocablocked with dive boats), and the village inland retains a ‘normal’ vibe in the face of encroaching dive shops. Go mainly for the dives, and be prepared to go DEEP to see the sharks.
- Bac Ha: Famous for its indigenous tribes and lively Sunday market, Bac Ha is a tiny hilltop village near famous hiking hot-spot Sapa. It was too cold to trek when we were here (it was snowing!) but we loved the market, with the pretty Flower Hmong tribeswomen selling their wares, animals on sale, and fresh pho and coffee on offer on the market. Be prepared for extreme weather in the winter!
- Cameron Highlands: cool, scenic Cameron Highlands makes for a good break from sweaty cities. Take a few days to hike in the hills, check out strawberry farms, take afternoon tea in the stunning surrounds of Boh Tea plantation, take pics at lookout Guning Brinchang, and check out colourful Sam Poh buddhist temple. Back in town, relax with local tourists and enjoy the street food (try the satay!)
- Teman Negara: sleepy, dry (no booze!) jungle town Kuala Tahan is your base for ancient jungle Teman Negara. We slept in a ‘hide’ deep in the jungle to wake to mad jungle chorus. Prepare to sweat and be worked very hard, climbing up and down ropes and across tricky, overgrown terrain! There are pretty rivers and ‘swim holes’ to cool off in, or you can always take the easy canopy tour and see monkeys near the entrance.
- Ijen Crater: almost definitely illegal, an overnight climb up and over the rim of the Ijen Crater can be a near-death experience (and was for us!) It’s a thrilling clamber, geared up with torches and gas masks, down into the rim, where you can see men mining the sulphur in extreme danger with changes in wind sending the poisonous fumes into you. The sulphur burns bright blue as it ignites and oxidises, which is stunning.
- Gunung Bromo: a sunrise trip to Bromo is one of the quintessential Indonesia experiences. As such, it’s quite overpriced and overcrowded, but if you can deal with jostling for space (or take an alternative lookout), it’s really quite something. Watching the mist clear over the majestic cone volcano with its surrounding fertile vertical farms is pretty cool. You can also drive nearby and climb the cone, but we opted out.
- Pulau Bunaken: underwater idyll of Bunaken National Park offers an incredible variety of marine life, meaning that even if you’re just snorkelling you will see TONS from firefish to giant angel fish, clown fish to white tipped sharks. We spent a few chilled days here snorkelling straight off the reef at Lorenzo’s, kicking back with home-cooked food and palm wine-fuelled live music, and of course, doing a couple of mind-blowing dives!
- Tana Toraja: prepare yourself to enter into the unique world of the Torajans, an indigenous group with truly fascinating belief systems. As a tourist, you’re welcomed into their world, where you can pay respects at days-long funerals that include animal sacrifice; visit caves of ‘tau tau’ (hanging coffins guarded by effigies of the dead); visit (or even stay in) a traditional Tonkian hut; bike or bus around enjoying the beautiful scenery.
- Komodo National Park: from its absolutely world-class diving (where else can you see mantas and white tipped sharks in one afternoon?) to its tours of the hideous, terrifying komodo dragons themselves, Komodo is unmissable. We wish we’d spent longer here. Snorkel or dive manta point for close-ups of these majestic beauties, and take the 2-day Komodo tour including Rinca, Komodo and a hike up Padma Island.