Whether you are a passionate athlete whose idea of a great vacation revolves around a sport, or a traveller looking for an active holiday, Weekend Journal has found the place for you. Here are the best spots in Asia to pursue four warm-weather sports: sea kayaking, scuba-diving, biking and hiking.
Sea kayaking By Steve Mollman
You would be hard-pressed to find a better way than sea kayaking to combine travel with an upper-body workout. That is because the vessel’s only engine is you—in particular, the muscles of your arms and upper back. Depending on how far you go and how hard you push yourself, sea kayaking can be a great cardiovascular workout as well.
Be fit: Sea kayaking is a great way to explore wildlife while getting a thorough cardiovascular workout.
It helps to be in good physical condition. But the sport is only as hard as you choose to make it, which means it is a good option for beginners and veterans alike. Sea kayaking on an organized tour is usually done at calm water locations, whereas river kayaking can involve rapids and rocks.
Surrounded by azure waters and limestone islets, “it felt like we were in the middle of the movie The Blue Lagoon,” says 33-year-old contracts manager Anna Larsen of her sea-kayaking honeymoon trip to Thailand in January.
Sea kayaking is a great way to sneak up on wildlife—parrots or monkeys in a mangrove forest are less likely to be startled by a quietly gliding kayak—as well as to explore sea caves. These often vast chambers make for an other-worldly experience of eerie echoes and strange rock formations.
Aside from a sense of adventure, here are some items to bring on a multi-day trip: quick-dry clothes, sunscreen, sandals, motion-sickness medicine if needed, sunglasses, lip balm, shorts with zip-on legs, a waterproof camera and a hat with side flaps and a long back for sun protection.
Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar
Use the Myanmar Andaman Resort on Macleod Island (www.myanmarandamanresort.com) as a base. Four nights in a beachfront air-conditioned cottage cost about $500 (Rs20,500). Extra Divers Worldwide is based at the resort and offers trips on an escort boat. You can also rent a kayak and just paddle off on your own. Fly from Yangon to Kawthaung on Air Bagan, a domestic carrier. The resort staff will pick you up at the airport. November to early May is the optimum time to go.
Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
For day-trippers, Phang Nga Bay near Phuket proves that mass tourism and outstanding scenery can co-exist. Kayaking operators are easy to find, but because the barriers to entry are low, quality varies. A few good bets are John Gray’s Sea Canoe (www.johngray-seacanoe.com), Sea Canoe Thailand (www.seacanoe.net) and Paddle Asia (www.paddleasia.com). See seakayaking-thailand.com/ holiday-deals.htm to learn more. The best weather is from December to February.
HaLong Bay, Vietnam
HaLong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin, offers a large area to explore and has hundreds of islands and caves. Sea Canoe Vietnam operates tours with local guides. Two to six day tours cost between $250 and $2,500. Trips can be booked through Inserimex Travel (www.inserimextravel.com.vn). The best times to go are April-July and September-November.
SCUBA-DIVING By Cris Prystay
UK-based Tony and Barbara Ford have taken eight diving holidays in the past five years, all in Asia. “If there’s one spot in Asia that no recreational diver should miss,” says Ford, “it’s Sipadan island, off the East Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo.”
Marine magic: Sipadan Island is a don’t-miss spot for recreational divers.
Indeed, the Fords have travelled to Sipadan three times in the past five years, most recently in August. “The profusion and concentration of species and of specimens, including sharks, turtles, barracuda, corals, is the overriding reason for going there,” says Ford, a lawyer with International Business Machines Corp.
Routinely voted as one of the world’s top dive sites by diving magazines, Sipadan was described in the 1970s as “an untouched piece of art” by famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Malaysia’s only oceanic island—of volcanic origin, unconnected to the continental shelf—it rises 700m from the sea floor and is a magnet for all kinds of marine life in the open sea. Its sheer undersea walls provide numerous breathtaking sites for divers of all levels and abilities. Novice divers can see spectacular creatures at shallow sites, while advanced divers can follow the steep underwater cliffs down to more adventurous depths.
Sipadan is in a marine park. In 2004, the Malaysian government decided there was too much pressure on the tiny 12-hectare island from the many dive resorts, and ordered all resort operators off the island. Now, tourists must stay on one of several nearby islands.
“The government’s plans are clearly paying great dividends,” says Ford. “This year, compared with our previous trip in 2004, before the current controls were imposed, it was obvious how much less crowded the island was with divers as well as with boats—and how much more prolific was the marine life.”
Asia also offers many other easy dive spots that are great to learn at, as well as of good value. Certified dive instructor Mathieu Meur recommends Redang, an island off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. “Diving and accommodations are very reasonably priced and it’s fairly easy to get to,” he says. “Waters are generally clear and there’s abundant marine life.”
Besides Sipadan, Meur’s favourite sites in Asia include Sangalaki Island, which is off Kalimantan, the Indonesian province on the island of Borneo. “Pretty much everything you could look for is there: manta rays galore, schooling jacks and barracudas, turtles and sharks, an enclosed saltwater lake with stingless jellyfish, as well as lots of (tiny animal) life—nudibranchs, flatworms, pygmy seahorse, harlequin ghost pipefish, mating mandarin fish,” he says.
Visibility is best between April and September. Fly to the Borneo city of Kota Kinabalu, then take a 50-minute domestic flight to the town of Tawau. Your resort will arrange transportation from there.
Where to stay: These dive resorts offer packages that include room, board, diving and instruction. On Mabul Island, 20-minute speedboat ride away from Sipadan, try Sipadan Mabul Resort (www.sipadan-mabul.com.my). There’s also Kapalai Dive Resort (www.sipadan-kapalai.com), a resort-on-stilts, and Seaventures Dive Resort www.seaventuresdive.com) —a deep-sea oil rig that has been refurbished as a 43-room floating dive resort.
The dive season runs from April to September-October. Fly Berjaya Air from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
Where to stay: Visit www.redang.org, a non-affiliated site, for information. Most resorts also run in-house dive shops. The one at Berjaya Redang Beach Resort (www.berjayahotels-resorts.com) charges $280 for a four-day open water beginner course. Room charges are extra. Redang Beach Resort (www.redang.com.my) offers a four-day open water course, food and accommodation in a basic chalet for $400.
Biking By Nellie S. Huang
All Fred and Ellen Kucker wanted was a drink of water. So the Colorado couple, who were in Vietnam on a cycling trip, stepped off their bikes.
On the move: Northern Thailand offers the best rides with a mix of hills, resorts and rich culture.
“We stopped in front of a house where there was a large group of people,” says Kucker, who was on a tour with Butterfield & Robinson, a Toronto-based active-travel company. “A wedding (was) taking place and we were all invited to join the party. An experience like that...is why I like to do bike tours,” adds the 64-year-old private investor.
Touring Asia on two wheels, it turns out, is about more than just the challenging rides, even for exercise fanatics. It is about soaking up the culture, too.
Says Christina Hudson, a veteran holiday-cyclist who has biked all over Asia and Europe: “You see and feel more” on bike trips and make firmer connections with the local people. Plus, after a hard day’s ride, she says, “trying local cuisine and wine is much more enjoyable when you have more than earned your meal”.
Some areas in Asia are better seen astride a bike: Visit Angkor Wat by bicycle and you can pedal from temple to temple, passing through small Cambodian villages, replete with houses on stilts. The same goes for parts of Myanmar, says Christian Chumbley, who has biked throughout Asia on his own. At the ruins of Bagan on the Ayeyarwaddy river, about 60km southwest of Mandalay, “you can spend two, three, four days just cycling from ruin to ruin,” says Chumbley, whose day job is running Asia and Africa trip operations for Backroads, a California-based touring company.
If you’re unaccustomed to sitting on a bike for long periods, and unfamiliar with the local traffic conditions, go on an organized trip. That way, you can pedal for as long or as little as you like. An air-conditioned van that shadows the group will pick you up when you’ve had enough. Trip leaders guide you to local eateries you wouldn’t find on your own, then, at day’s end, escort you to a comfortable hotel. It’s a bona fide biking trip without the hassle of carrying panniers or a backpack, or worrying about where or when you’ll find your next meal or bed.
Backroads (www.backroads.com) and Butterfield & Robinson (www.butterfield.com) offer trips throughout Asia, including China, Thailand, Vietnam and India. Most are easy tours, so they are good for people who have never travelled by bike before. Backroads offers an eight-day trip to northern Thailand for about $4,000 (Rs1.64 lakh) a person, excluding airfares. Butterfield offers a 10-day trip to Thailand and Laos for about $10,000 a person, excluding airfares.
Both companies offer customized trip-planning services; prices for these trips vary.
Hiking By Anne Hyland
“It’s a place to cleanse the body, mind and soul,” says Tim Fischer about Bhutan. Fischer, a former deputy prime minister of Australia, first went hiking there 25 years ago; he’s headed back in September for his sixth visit.
Trekking in Bhutan is not for the faint of heart. Although there are short hikes, trekking is often for seven to eight hours daily, and the ascents and descents are steep. The great heights also mean there is a serious risk of altitude sickness; the remote reaches of Bhutan aren’t known for rescue services.
Fischer, 61, recommends taking it easy the first two days to adjust to the altitude. He also suggests packing a well-used set of hiking boots, and a laid-back attitude to fit in with Bhutan’s easy-going pace.
Fischer’s favourite hike is the Gasa hot-spring trek, which is of moderate difficulty. At the end of the trek, he says you can soak your feet in the warmth of a natural hot spring, have a beer and watch the sun set on the Himalayas.
For a bigger challenge, there’s a nine-day trek to Chomo Lhari mountain, which towers over Bhutan at about 7,300m. The trek begins at an altitude of 2,500m that almost doubles by the time you reach the base of the mountain.
If you are a first-time trekker, an abysmal athlete, or simply after an enjoyable and relaxing hike, then Laos is a natural choice. It is one of Asia’s newest—and, therefore, relatively undiscovered—trekking spots. Treks in Laos usually have a heavy emphasis on environmentally-responsible hiking; the Lao government is increasingly being viewed as an ecotourism leader among South-East Asian countries.
“There are quite a few treks of different degrees: easy ones where you visit the elephant park to more marathon ones of five days,” says Tara Gujadhur, 31, an anthropologist who has been working on community projects in Laos for three-and-a-half years.
A one-day trek from capital Luang Prabang that visits an elephant park, an ethnic village and includes three hours of walking on mostly flat terrain is a good option for a novice hiker to get a dose of Lao culture and some exercise at the same time.
The best time to go is from mid-September to early November. The all-inclusive, minimum daily tariff set by the Tourism Authority of Bhutan is $200 (Rs8,200) a person. If you want to splurge, take a look at Amankora hotel in Paro (www.amanresorts.com), where double rooms start at $1,189 a night. Yangphel Adventure Travel (www.yangphel.com) is one of the oldest and most experienced trekking agencies in Bhutan. Tel: 975-2323293. Himalayan Kingdoms (www.himalayankingdoms.com) also specializes in trekking tours. Tel: 44-1-453-844400
Go between November and February. Try the Lao Spirit Resort eco-lodge or the Boutique Hotel Les 3 Nagas (www.3nagas.com). Tel: 856-71-253888. Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures (www.tigertrail.travity.de) in Luang Prabang offers a variety of treks. Tel: 856-71-252655. Green Discovery (www.greendiscoverylaos.com) also offers treks. Tel: 856-71-212093
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