The Nature Lover’s South East Asia Itinerary

Each itinerary in this series might take up to six or seven months to complete, but if you’re rushed, you could probably race through it in three or four. We spent eight months in each continent (South America, Asia), and covered off all the places in these itineraries at quite a leisurely pace, so go figure. 

All destinations mentioned here link to our full travel journals, so if you want to find out more detail about these wondrous places, click on the place name to be taken to the detailed portrayals of our adventures…

THAILAND

  • Krabi & Railay: Railay was the closest we came to finding the beach you imagine when you think Thailand. A tiny island reached only by longtail boat, Railay West beach is a little slice of heaven. All karsts, clear seas, white sands and incredible sunsets. There are a fair few expensive resorts here, but you can still find cheap backpacker places – just ask the boatmen who drop you off.
  • Ko Lanta: We’ve heard Ko Lanta is a great place to bike around (we were too scared!) as there’s a sea gypsy village on one side of the island that’s apparently great, but we spent a relaxing few days just chilling on the wide peach sand beach and eating in the great (untouristy) restaurants in town and hitting up the Moon Party for fire-spinners and general revelry.

LAOS

  • Luang Prabang: Pretty, French-influenced river-side town of Luang Prabang hosts some wonderful temples; great massages, and the best food you’ll eat in Laos. Try a set menu in a riverside cafe or the buffet stir-fries/bakery goods on the market. Great nearby days out include stunning turquoise Kuang Si Waterfalls where you can trek and swim in the falls; and for a night out you can’t beat the post-curfew bowling lanes!
  • Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands): A place to drop hat and chill for a few days, Si Phan Don is a rustic set of islands that have been adopted by hammock-swinging stoners. Watch the Mekong float by for a few days, but make sure you hire a bike to explore all the islands on a day trip, as the views en route (and the little villages) are really cool. There are also little beaches and waterfalls (and beer places) to stop cool off en route!
  • Tad Lo: Adorable sleepy Tad Lo is a popular stop on a famous biking route, and is the epicentre of some really great waterfalls nearby. Give yourself a few days to properly unwind, drink some coffee (this is a coffee growing district!) and go sunbathe/swim at some pretty falls. Town itself is great for a potter around – cute goats and pigs cross the little roads and hang out at the temple as locals wash clothes in the river.

PHILIPPINES

  • Ifugao Rice Terraces: A bit of a trek from Manilla, but totally worth it. Spend a few days touring the towns of the Ifugao Rice Terraces: Banaue is a natural first stop to see the lookout at the top of town, and meet some travel buddies to go onwards to Batad which was our favourite town – a stunning amphitheatre of rice terraces with a tiny village in the middle, a bracing waterfall, and hostels with great views. We also visited Bontoc for a more authentic town, which had a great Hill Tribe museum. Also heard Sagada was great.
  • Coron: Coron arguable offers some of the best nearby beaches, lagoons and snorkelling in the Philippines, and we regret not staying here longer. The island itself is cute but lacks beaches as it’s on a jutting rocky peninsula, but high quality boat trips take you to all the best spots in the vicinity (there are about 5 popular tours – we’d recommend Tour B!). There’s also amazing wreck diving here.
  • El Nido: A must for any Philippines itinerary, El Nido is a tourist hub for overnight boat tours to visit pretty (if crowded) lagoons, beaches and snorkelling spots. We took an unforgettable tour (A+C combined tours) camping overnight on a tiny desert island with unlimited rum and inevitable skinny dipping! The tour stops are really stunning, and town itself has a decent beach – Coron Coron – a short drive from town.
  • 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.
  • Bohol: cutesy jungley Bohol is a great place to unwind for a few days, and there’s a few fancy jungle hut lodges on the river to choose from (like Nuts Huts). If you fancy day trips, check out the adorable tarsiers at the local sanctuary, the firefly trees or the weird phenomenon of the ‘Chocolate Hills’! Failing that, just swim in the river and swim in the hammock for a few days and watch the world go by.
  • Siquijor Island: Another favourite from our 1.5 months in the Philippines, Siquijor is a gorgeous island full of adventure. A fantastic place to ride a motorbike (or tuk-tuk) around, you can visit its ancient Belete Tree, ancient Lazi Convent and its adjacent church, stunning Cahugay waterfalls and many little beaches. There’s a super laidback friendly vibe here, with plenty of streetside barbeques and karaoke bars.

VIETNAM

  • Halong Bay: We are including this entry as more of a deterrent than a recommendation! Halong Bay was very disappointing, and we met lots of travellers with the same view. It’s over-polluted, over-touristed, and (on most days!) very misty and grey. Tours constantly under-deliver, and it’s tricky to do independently. Perhaps in great weather it could be ok, but there are far prettier karst bays elsewhere – like any in the Philippines!

THAILAND

  • Ko Pha-Ngan: We hit up Ko Pha-Ngan on our way from Cambodia to Malaysia, and found a quiet, stunning corner in the North West called Haad Salaad. We refrained from the Full Moon party after hearing bad things, but the beaches were really fabulous and we even found a (fairly!) ‘local’ vibe restaurant away from the tourist throngs. A nice place to wile away a spare week.

MALAYSIA

  • Cherating: Chilled surfer town Cherating boasts a wide, pretty beach and plenty of wooden beach hut chalets back from the main road. Unmissable: an incredible, magical tour of the local fireflies that live in trees lining a river. You can take a boat out and learn all about the asynchronous fireflies’ lifestyles from an enthusiastic expert, and watch them light up the blackness. Really spectacular!

INDONESIA

  • Ubud: known as the cultural centre of Bali, Ubud has sold out a little in the last few years, so expect lanes full of boutiques and overpriced cafes, but Ubud still retains some of its original charms. Here you can find hippy warungs, the wonderful Monkey Sanctuary, homestays, overtouristed rice terraces, and great traditional dancing (though we opted to see this in Yogyakarta instead)
  • Gili Trawangan: Gili T is also a little over-touristed these days. A few years ago it was quite raw, full of psychadelic hippies, shrooms and dive shops. Now it’s quite fancy in parts – lots of private villas and spenny seafood restaurants. Snorkelling tours from here around the Gilis are good; you can also cycle around the island and check out late-night dancing with DJs playing on the strip outside Rudy’s.
  • Togean Islands: the closest we came to a slice of true paradise, the Togeans are notoriously hard to reach, but once you get there, prepare for nothing but pure relaxation. Stunning tiny islands of clear turquoise sea and blinding fine sands await, with rustic all-inclusive beach hut ‘resorts’ (tiny islands); great snorkelling and diving; a lagoon full of stingless jellyfish; BBQs on the beach with the freshest fish; and the friendliest locals.
  • 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 stunning Padma Island.

BORNEO

  • Sabah: heartbreaking deforestation caused by the palm oil trade is prevalent in Borneo, and much of its wildlife has sadly been destroyed. However, for a chance to see orangutans in the semi-wild, you don’t get much better than the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, where you might encounter them on a trail. There are cool jungle lodges to stay nearby, and plentiful tours (including river tours) but with mixed reviews.
  • Sarawak: Kuching was our favourite town in Borneo, as it most resembles a regular Malaysian town. There’s a lot to love here – good food; day trips to local (and faraway) museums and ‘living museums’; and very relaxed locals. There’s also nearby Bako National Park where you may be lucky enough to see the penis-nosed probiscus monkeys but you will definitely see snorting wild boars and lots of wildlife aside.

MALAYSIA

  • Pulau Perenthian: although pretty touristy compared to other islands like Rawa, the Perenthians are still undeniably beautiful and there are walks to deserted beaches and fishermens’ villages that make these islands still feel authentic, with largely domestic tourists here. Friendly dragon lizards roam; there are turtles and sharks to see whilst snorkelling; and you may be lucky enough to catch an exciting lightning storm!

The Nature Lover’s South America Itinerary

Each itinerary in this series might take up to six or seven months to complete, but if you’re rushed, you could probably race through it in three or four. We spent eight months in each continent (South America, Asia), and covered off all the places in these itineraries at quite a leisurely pace, so go figure. 

All destinations mentioned here link to our full travel journals, so if you want to find out more detail about these wondrous places, click on the place name to be taken to the detailed portrayals of our adventures…

ARGENTINA

  • Puerto Iguazu (Iguazu Falls): Take an early local bus to avoid the tours, take the first train in the park and run along the walkways to the Devil’s Mouth for jaw-dropping views. Take a walk along the various trails for high panoramas and low trails for close-ups of the falls. It will be REALLY busy, but trails such as the 3.5K to the falls where you can swim offer some respite. If you have an extra day and cash for the visa, check out the Brazilian side for the best panoramas.
  • Puerto Madryn & Punta Tombo National Reserve: Head to this tiny seaside town to tour (or drive) into the Punta Tombo park for an unforgettable encounter with hundreds of thousands of penguins, from fluffy baby chicks to adults. Walk along the trail and pause whilst they cross in front (there are no barriers!); watch them swim and waddle; look into the distance and see nothing but endless penguins. Cuteness overload.
  • El Calafate & the Perito Moreno Glacier: Town itself is essentially just a tourist trap, but El Calafate is worth the trek for its star feature, the Perito Moreno glacier. You can reach it by local bus (don’t get drawn into a tour!) and go late in the afternoon, when the glacier is hottest and you’re likely to see a huge chunk of marbled white-blue ice (the size of several houses) smash down into the turquoise lake. There’s also great hiking in nearby El Chalten, but our knees were ruined after Torres del Paine so we skipped it.

CHILE

  • Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine National Park: This cool outdoorsy town full of micro-breweries and tasty Patagonian lamb is a great place to base yourself before trekking the ‘W’ route in the Torres del Paine park. Stunning glaciers, unreal turquoise lagoons, pebble beaches, bluebell woods and vibrant green mountains await as you scale mountainous peaks, ending with the granite ‘Torres’ spires themselves.
  • San Pedro de Atacama: Prepare yourself for a desert that’s 2438m above sea level. It’s dry, hot, and (at first) difficult to breathe, but this landscape rewards you in abundance. Numerous brilliant tours – from star gazing; to visiting geysers at dawn as they explode in the sunrise; thermal springs; salt caves and flats; jaw-dropping desert-scapes dotted with alpacas and desert foxes; and stunning Valle de la Luna. Also, eat llama! Delicious.

BOLIVIA

  • Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats): Needing little introduction, Salar de Uyuni is one of the best experiences of South America. Four days spent exploring deserts, stunning lakes of white, green and pink, flamingos flocking and flying, competing with llamas for attention, driving through quinoa fields and staying in hotels made of salt. That’s without mentioning the mesmerising flats themselves, Fisher Island made of cacti, the old railway cemetary, and the crazy fun bond you’ll make with your fellow jeep mates. Unmissable.
  • La Paz & The World’s Most Dangerous Road: We weren’t huge fans of La Paz as it’s quite built-up and polluted, but there’s the Witches’ market for textiles and llama fetuses (!) and a cable car for great views. Our favourite activity here was cycling the ‘Death Road’ – from high altitude to jungle – on death-defying hairpin bends with sheer drops (and no barriers!), under waterfalls, through stunning mountain sides and local farming communities. A truly white-knuckle unforgettable experience!
  • Coroico: A great place to end the ‘Death Road’ cycle, or just for some R&R. Coroico boasts several eco-reserves set in semi-tropical paradise in this jungle town. Kick back by the pool, star gaze, go tropical bird-watching, swing in a hammock, do some yogo, or do nothing at all. Bliss.
  • Isla del Sol: Beautiful Isla del Sol is the closest Bolivia has to a sense of the sea, as it’s set on gigantic Lake Titicaca which extends beyond its horizon. Spend a few days climbing Inca steps, walking through pretty farms and cornfields, saying hello to backyard llamas, eating fresh trout, and watching the unique ‘moon rises’ on the clear horizon. Take plenty of sunscreen and jumpers as you’ll get burnt in the day and freeze at night!

PERU

  • Cañon de Colca Trek: When we heard about the Colca Canyon, I imagined dusty rocks and a gravel path, but this couldn’t be more different. Verdant green mountains snake around trails, with buzzing wildlife, springs to bathe in, cacti and tiny villages where you can eat local delicacies like alpaca and sleep in huts. We even gained a little furry trekking buddy in the form of Perro, a stray dog, who walked with us for three days!
  • Machu Picchu: Undeniably a highlight of South America, this ancient Inka site is a true marvel, perched high above Peru seemingly floating, surrounded by incredibly advanced irrigated farming. There’s many ways to do it, but we conquered the trek independently for £45, walking through jungle, rivers and train tracks, stopping at little guesthouses en route. We even built in time for hot springs! You can usually buy entrance tickets the night before you want to go in nearby Aguas Calientes. Download offline maps (maps.me) and go for it!
  • Slow boat to Iquitos (Amazon Jungle): There are quicker ways to get to the Amazon Jungle, but the long boat is arguably the most immersive and atmospheric. For a crazy cheap price, you can spend 2-3 nights travelling down the Amazon, passing stilt villages to drop off/pick up cargo, mingle with local families, swing in a hammock in the open breeze and watch the best sunsets you’ll ever see. See our blog article for details.
  • Amazon Jungle Lodge: An absolute must for Peru, the Amazon is just incredible. Book a lodge for 5+ days, and you’ll spend your days on boats cruising the river with guides pointing out exotic creatures like monkeys, sloths, giant lizards, pink and grey dolphins and (if you have the stomach) adders, tarantulas and bats! You can trek the jungle for giant bugs and killer snakes, swim in the river, and fish for piranhas. We had an amazing guide and stayed in an excellent Lodge (Libertad) and we learnt and saw so much. We will definitely return!

ECUADOR

  • Baños: This pretty, quaint Ecuadorian town offers some stunning lookouts, as it’s in a basin surrounded by beautiful mountains. You can walk up to the ‘Bellavista’ white cross mirador; there are also local ‘chiva’ bus tours to surrounding countryside, and a swing positioned off the edge of a huge mountain. In town itself, we had a great time in the local hot springs, where you can duck under an exhilarating waterfall that flows right in.
  • Puerto Lopez: Tiny Puerto Lopez isn’t much more than a few dirt tracks, but the seaside town boasts some great sunsets, and also nearby Parc Nacional Machalilla which is really stunning and worth a daytrip, to see some beautiful deserted coastline, swim with boobies, and take n the miradors. You can also whale watch here (but we didn’t)
  • Montañita: Stoner surfer bliss, this little dusty town moves at a sloth-like pace, from beach to cafe, enjoying a chilled pace of life that proves addictive. We camped here for a week, sunbathing on the wide, beautiful beach and eating our weight in pancakes, fresh fruit and granola. There’s delicious fresh seafood, great bakeries and plenty of bars and clubs to keep you occupied. Kick back and relax!
  • The Galapagos Islands: Words truly escape me. Even if you think you can’t afford it, go. We did it independently and it was surprisingly affordable. The park entrance and any day tours are the main costs, but you can 100% do it easily without a cruise. Snorkel with sealions and giant Galapagos turtles; swim with a pyramid of golden stingrays and nurse sharks; meet the Northern-most penguin and tiny seahorses; see Sally Lightfoot crabs with their galaxy-patterned shells and pink lakes of flamingos; gawp at gnarly marine iguanas and unique blue-footed boobies; spend days on the beautiful sands and in the clear blue seas; go to the great free museums like the Darwin Centre and the Interpretation Centre; snorkel lakes with volcanic cores. This is only half of it! See our blog articles for full details. Oh, and be prepared for sea-sickness!

COLOMBIA

  • Salento: Epicentre of Colombia’s coffee district, Salento is a picturesque colonial town surrounded by mountains, with a permanent-holiday vibe. The town centre buzzes with stalls selling patacones and venues for playing explosive throwing game Tejah. Brilliant, cheap coffee tours abound at Don Eduardo’s plantation and nearby Valle de Cocora with its towering wax palms and hummingbird farm is an excellent day trip.
  • Sapzurro & Capurgana: A bit of a trek from Colombia, these tiny islands on the border with Panama offer a slice of hidden paradise for those who can brave the rocky boat to reach them. Avoid rainy season as it’s unrelenting, but otherwise these isles offer crystal clear water, white bays and hammock-hanging locals, and it’s easy to lose a few days here.
  • Tayrona National Park: Get lost in this beach and jungle paradise. Stay a few days (or a week!) and camp out under coconut trees, cook your meals on an open fire, and spend days wondering through the undergrowth spotting rainbow lizards and monkeys overhead. Swim in stunning turquoise bays, and sunbathe on peachy sands. The further you go, the more deserted the beaches, but this is firmly on the tourist map so don’t expect solitude!
  • San Gil: Gorgeous colonial town San Gil is a great place to base yourself for a few days of outdoor adventuring. Wild swim with ducks in Pescadito lake; raft down the terrifying class three rapids of the Rio Fonzo; daytrip on cheap local buses to the falls of Cascadas de Juan and sunbathe at the top with brave locals; relax in town and enjoy the great food markets, cheap lunch menus and people watching on the town square.