If you are one of the millions who choose to holiday in South-East Asia this year, you might be surprised how accessible, affordable, and rewarding climbing a mountain is. It may even be the highlight of your holiday.
Like elsewhere in the world, the mountains of South-East Asia offer the physical and mental challenge, the glowing feeling of accomplishment when you summit, the unique beauty of mountain environments, and the bonds you make when climbing with others.
But mountain climbing is different in South-East Asia. There are no icy white scenes that you might glimpse in mountaineering magazines and books. They’re not for the extremophiles. Rather, they have a charm, beauty, thrill, and challenge of their own.
So, why climb mountains, and why climb mountains in South-East Asia?
Challenging but convenient
Climbing mountains can be a physical and mental challenge, and that is certainly the case in South-East Asia. But whereas the challenge of climbing the highest of the highs is about battling the extremes of nature and human endurance over a sometimes prolonged expedition, the challenges of mountaineering in the region is more about convincing your legs to get you up and back in time.
In time for what? Well, day-hiking is very possible for many of South-East Asia’s mountains, meaning that getting back in time for dinner, or even lunch, is achievable.
For the true vertical athlete or trail runner, even some of the higher mountains can be conquered in a day of agony.
Many of the mountains are so close to major cities that peak-bagging can be snuck into even relatively short holiday itineraries, even before a flight. In Malaysia, there are already great, convenient options. Kota Kinabalu International Airport in Sabah is not more than a two-hour drive from the Mount Kinabalu trailhead. Johor has Mount Ophir, Kuching (Sarawak) has Mount Santubong and Selangor has Bukit Tabur (a hill, and not a high peak, or even a particularly safe one, but definitely a memorable hike for some).
Then Thailand’s two highest peaks are within taxi reach of Chiang Mai Airport. Manila in the Philippines has Mount Pinatubo, while Indonesia’s Bali has Mount Agung and Jakarta has Mount Gede and Pangrango.
For some of the mountains, you may want to get up and get back quickly on account of the ever present risk of a volcanic eruption.
Malaysia has only one dormant volcano. But Indonesia, in particular, sees hundreds of thousands of climbers every year attacking mountains such as Mount Semeru and Mount Merapi, which erupt so regularly that you are almost guaranteed some sort of volcanic action while you’re climbing them. Then there are the quiet ones – the volcanoes which choose instead to release a cataclysm every few hundred years. This writer climbed Mount Sinabung just two weeks before it emerged out of a 400-year dormancy in 2010 to wipe out a few nearby towns – a close shave, relatively speaking. Indonesia has been pockmarked with such events throughout eons. Most consider this more of an odd thrill than a turnoff.
Although the shorter and more conveniently located mountains mean a compressed mountaineering experience, that doesn’t take away from the physical and mental challenge. If you have climbed from sea level up through thick jungles to the treeline of a volcano, your legs will already be jelly as the slope gets steeper, the terrain more loose, and the volcanology more spine tingling.
At that point, the same key lesson in mountaineering comes into play: you must believe you’re going to make it, to strive to get to the top to claim the reward.
Remarkable, unique views
What is the reward? Well, without being encumbered by ghastly snow and ice everywhere, South-East Asia’s highest summits are left as surreal moonscapes that are terrifyingly beautiful. They’re places few even know exist, and fewer get to see.
The volcanos are topped with the most stunning treasures, like the pristine caldera lakes atop Indonesia’s Mount Rinjani, Mount Agung, the Ijen Crater or Mount Pinatubo. Or smokey volcanic domes like Mount Bromo, Mount Apo, and Mount Merapi, or even lava-spewing danger zones like Mount Semeru and Mount Sinabung, all of which are in Indonesia.
The highest of the non-volcanic summits are often twisted cowlicks of rock, like that of Mount Kinabalu, or Vietnam’s Mount Fansipan, or Indonesia’s Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) – the highest peak in South-East Asia if we’re not including the Himalayan stretches in Myanmar’s north. It’s as though the mountains were smeared or whipped or painted into existence, and being amidst such a landscape is an oddly inspiring experience.
The lower peaks, like Doi Chiang dao (Thailand), or Mount Aural (Cambodia), or Mount Tahan (Pahang) reward you with unique tropical alpine forests. They’re high enough to be cool, but warm enough to camp out overnight under the stars. But even the lowest peaks, such as Mount Santubong, Mount Ophir or Mount Lambak in Johor, or Indonesia’s Mount Bintan, are out of reach of modern agriculture and therefore offer you untouched rainforests that are some of the world’s most rich and biodiverse ecosystems.
As anyone familiar with the tropics would know, the sunrises and sunsets in South-East Asia are awe-inspiring, oddly therapeutic and best enjoyed with a cold drink, surrounded by people you love. Outside of the monsoon, they’re reliably unimpeded by clouds, and from the top of a mountain, they light up the landscape beneath you as well.
Enjoying sunset atop Mount Popa (Myanmar) with old friends is where this writer would rather be right now.
Meeting great, local people
Mountain climbers worldwide are a good sort. They’re confident, positive people who love getting out into the wild and challenging themselves. They also congregate into groups and clubs and make climbing a social event.
This is the tao of the mountain climber in the region too. And in South-East Asia most people you see on the mountains will actually be South-East Asian. They like to climb in big groups, sometimes to wear matching T-shirts that they’ve printed for the occasion, and to take selfies at every other opportunity. They’re often mad-keen runners, and most vertical marathon or trail running events are flocked to. They’re on holiday and doing something they enjoy, so they’re in a good mood and you’d be sharing a fun adventure with them. That’s how friendships are made.
So if you’re planning on taking your next holiday in the region, get off your plastic foldy beach chair, put on your sneakers and walk up.
Pete Silvester is the CEO of Summits.com, a website for mountaineering in South-East Asia.