Asia is a trekkers’ paradise, with trails spidering the continent – from the lofty Caucasus Mountains to the Japanese Alps, among the hilltribes of Indochina and the tea plantations of Sri Lanka – and of course through the vast Himalaya. Here’s a selection of accessible walks highlighting diverse aspects of this fascinating region.
Best for… walking among wildlife
This long, thin nation is, of course, dominated by the Himalaya – the world’s tallest mountain range forms the spine of the country, and hosts epic treks such as the Annapurna Circuit and the breathtaking hike to Everest Base Camp. But in the hotter lowland Terai region of Nepal near the Indian border you’ll find several other hefty draws – elephants, rhinos, sloth bears, marsh mugger crocodiles and, of course, tigers. For a chance to encounter these charismatic creatures at close quarters, take a walking safari with a local guide into the sal forests riverine grasslands of Chitwan National Park. Here you’ll spy chital deer, monkeys and birds in the woodlands, and a sighting of a majestic Indian rhinoceros is more than likely – and, if you’re very fortunate, Shere Khan himself might make a fleeting appearances.
Need to know: Walking in Chitwan is best in the cooler, dry winter season (roughly, October–February).
Best for… summiting a country
At 4,095m, Mt Kinabalu is the highest peak on Borneo and, indeed, in Malaysia – Sabah, in which the mountain rises, is one of two Malaysian states on the island. But though breathlessly high, it’s achievable for those with a reasonable level of fitness – albeit not one to be underestimated. The climb takes at least two days, and begins by traversing lush forests where you might glimpse (or smell!) the world’s largest flower, the stinky and short-lived Rafflesia, as well as swinging gibbons and the big-beaked rhinoceros hornbill. The trek takes at least two days, including a night at the Laban Rata refuge before an early start on summit morning – typically at 3am, to ensure you arrive at the pinnacle for sunrise. With variable weather – expect rain, even in dry season – head-poundingly high altitude and a steep haul, expect a tough challenge, but a beautiful reward as the sun rises over this spectacular island.
Need to know: Book several months in advance. The best months to climb are February–April.
Best for… a historic pilgrimage
The Kii Peninsula south of Osaka is laced with cobbled pilgrimage routes – the Kumano Kodo, used by devotees of Shingon Buddhism to visit sacred sites including the hilltop temple of Koya-San. The Nakahechi, or ‘Imperial Route’, became hugely popular during the Edo period (1603–1868); today the 40km, two-day stretch from Takijiri-oji to the impressive Shinto shrine at Kumano Hongu Taisha – site of the world’s largest torii gate – is one of the most rewarding hikes in Japan.
Need to know: Book an overnight stay in Nakahechi town to break up the journey over two days.
Best for… spectacular cascades
In the lush northern reaches of Laos plummet dozens of waterfalls – exactly how many, it’s impossible to say. Try counting them yourself on a day hike from the photogenic village of Nong Khiaw, guarded by high limestone crags to either side. Start with a peaceful boat ride on the Nam Ou River before climbing through humid jungle alongside a succession of cataracts, scaling bamboo ladders and pausing to cool off in the tempting pools. Only ‘discovered’ by tourists around 2008 (local villages have long used these trails), this one-day hike is a wonderful way of exploring remote areas of this gorgeous, friendly country.
Need to know: Be prepared to get very wet – wear suitable clothes and shoes for tackling slippery trails.
Best for… cultural immersion
Travel in India can be chaotic, hectic, even overwhelming, particularly in the cities and most touristed regions such as Rajasthan. But head to the Himalayan foothills in Uttarakhand state in the north-west and you’ll find villages where lives revolve around traditional agriculture, not tourism. A groundbreaking initiative with tour operator Village Ways has opened up the hamlets studding the forests of the Binsar Sanctuary and the higher reaches of the Saryu Valley – providing a wonderful opportunity to walk among these communities and share the lives of local people as they tend fields, spin yarn and – of course – drink sweet, milky chai (tea).
Need to know: Find out more about community-based treks at villageways.com
Best for… ancient remains
In AD 802, Jayavarman II declared himself a devaraja (god-king) and established his capital, Mahendraparvata, on the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen, 40km north-east of Siem Reap – and in doing so launched the golden age of the Khmer empire that spawned the magnificent temples of Angkor, Cambodia's biggest draw. This sprawling plateau, today the centrepiece of a national park, is studded with temples, elephant statues and the ‘river of 1,000 linga’ – a sandstone riverbed etched with sacred carvings. Hire a local guide to explore the jungle trails, spotting flying squirrels and silver langur monkeys as well as the pagoda of Preah Ang Thom, containing an impressive reclining Buddha, and a fascinating ninth-century temple, Prasat Krau Romeas.
Need to know: day-trips from Siem Reap are easy to find, but consider booking a tour with a community-based organisation to help local people.
Best for… island vistas
You’re unlikely to be alone on the trail up this sacred mountain in high season – the steep path is often thronged with both tourists and pilgrims, who for over 1,000 years have made the climb to the hilltop site of Sri Pada (‘Sacred Footprint’, where Buddha reputedly left his mark). And with good reason: the view from the top is spectacular, and best appreciated at dawn (which usually means a very early start). There are plenty of quieter options around central Sri Lanka – consider the shorter stroll up Little Adam’s Peak from Ella, or roam the Knuckles range.
Need to know: To reach the top of Adam’s Peak for sunrise, you’ll need to set out from Dalhousie around 3am.