Mountains in South-East Asia aren’t the untouchable ice-hells that the most hardened alpinists chase after. Yet mountaineering in South-East Asia would probably be the highlight of most holidays in the region.
That’s because climbing South-East Asian mountains is a unique and serene experience that so few non-locals know about: Without all the white icy stuff, the summits of South-East Asia’s mountains are left as surreal moonscapes that can be haltingly beautiful.
At Summits.com – a new website that wants to get people climbing mountains in South-East Asia – we think that the region’s summits come in five “flavours” that are well worth your sampling.
The surprisingly high mountain
The two highest of South-East Asia’s summits (not including Myanmar’s small share of the Himalayas) don’t quite make it to 5,000m. Yet they’re high enough to reach above the clouds and even the treeline. The rocky peaks that are left exposed are often twisted cowlicks of granite, like Mount Kinabalu (4,095m) Malaysia’s own jewel in North Borneo.
The lesser known Puncak Jaya (also called Carstensz Pyramid), at 4,884m is the highest point between the Himalayas and the Andes, and is the region’s contribution to the “7 Summits”.
It sits so remotely in Indonesia’s Irian Jaya province that fewer people have climbed it than Everest despite it being a whole Mount Kinabalu shorter.
It used to be covered in one of the world’s few tropical snowcaps, but global warming means the snow has just about disappeared.
Both mountains look as though they’ve been swiped-up into existence by the Almighty.
They’re just high enough to make the summit feel dizzying, disorienting, and unreal – as though you’re standing on an asteroid.
The angry old mountain
Some of the highest mountains in the region are volcanoes. Most of the time, they’re dormant, and sometimes they’re just casually puffing some smoke out of volcanic domes. Mount Bromo in Eastern Java, Indonesia, Mount Apo in the Philippines, and Mount Merapi on Sumatera (Indonesia) are good examples.
Then there are some that ooze and chunder lava with surprising regularity.
On some, you are almost guaranteed to see some sort of volcanic activity while hiking them. Take Java’s Mount Semeru, for example: Hundreds of thousands of people summit it each year, despite it essentially erupting every 15 to 30 minutes.
Yet to look at South-East Asia’s topography, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, is to realise that, actually, more cataclysmic volcanic eruptions can’t be completely ruled out, and that the “Big One” could well be just around the corner, or just under your hiking boot.
In early August of 2010, I hiked Mount Sinabung with two friends safe in the knowledge that it had been dormant for 400 years.
Yet by the end of the month, Sinabung had wiped out neighbouring towns and killed many.
The exploded mountain
Then there are volcanoes that were once truly, madly, deeply savage gardens of fire, the sort that prolong European winters and wipe out whole peoples and ecosystems.
Our whole world would end if the 100km-long Lake Toba on Sumatra is recreated. Some of these eruptions have left behind some of the most terrifyingly beautiful sites hidden behind their fractured calderas. The crater lakes of Mount Rinjani on Lombok Island or Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines will make you take a knee.
Or take the still living craters of Mount Agung in Bali, Mount Bromo in Eastern Java or the nearby Ijen Crater in Banyuwangi.
The mist-shrouded mountain
The middle peaks, like Doi Chiang dao in Thailand, Mount Tahan in Malaysia or Mount Aural in Cambodia, reward you with unique tropical alpine forests.
Get there in the morning and you might find that they have a comb-over of cloud, and jungle mists hiding in the shadows.
They’re high enough to be cool, and to have unique upper montane ecosystems. You also get to be above most of the mosquitoes and pollution.
Yet they’re warm enough that one can consider camping out to enjoy the stars and the sunrise the next morning without having to dress and equip like a polar explorer.
The sundowner mountain
But even the lowest peaks, such as Mount Santubong in Sarawak, Mounts Ophir (Ledang) and Lambak in Peninsular Malaysia, or Mount Popa in Myanmar and Mount Bintan on Bintan Island near Singapore, are just high and rocky enough to make agriculture infeasible, so they can offer untouched rainforests that are some of the world’s most rich and biodiverse ecosystems.
Even Bukit Timah, which is just a hill yet the highest point on Singapore island, has some of the most beautiful jungle greenery in the world, yet can be reached within an hour after getting off a flight from London or Tokyo.
And on these green hills and mountains, where you can set off in the afternoon with a cooler and have your ice unmelted by the summit, the sunset is best enjoyed with a cold drink and people you love. Find a perch to sit and watch the sky changes colour and then light up the jungle, the land, and the sea beneath you.