Seeking out the best destinations in Asia for nature and the great outdoors isn’t an easy task. This continent ranges from the steppes of Kazakhstan to the pearly Pacific Ocean past the Philippines. Between its limits, you’ll find the full whack of geographical zones, from sandy deserts to snowy glacier fields to lush rainforests filled with endangered animals.
Yep, there’s been lots for us to think about as we whittle it down to just nine choices. But, here we are, with a selection that showcases what we think is the sheer natural majesty of the region, with a dollop of Bhutanese Himalayan peaks, a dash of exotic Japanese beaches, and good topping of Indonesian coral gardens for good measure.
Of course, this is just a taster of what’s on offer from this most incredible of continents. We realize we’ve had to leave out some pretty hefty players, whether that’s the isles of Thailand or the wave-washed shores of Sri Lanka. Still, there’s plenty of time to get to those once you’ve checked off this bucket list, right?
No list of the best destinations in Asia for nature could possibly skip out on Nepal. This is the home of the soaring Himalaya. It’s where the very roof of the world tops out at the summit of Mount Everest, some 8,849 meters above sea level. There are few spots on the planet that can match it for superlatives. Seriously, this is breathtaking (literally!), bucket-list stuff.
Trekking is the number one way to see it all. Popular routes can take you high up into the Sagarmatha National Park, where snow-mantled mountains loom above valleys carved by gushing waters. Summits like Tobuche, Nuptse, Everest, and Lhotse keep watch there, as mountaineers dreaming of the climb of their lives huddle in the tents of base camp below.
Next famous is probably the Annapurna Conservation Area of western Nepal. That’s spiked by 8,091-meter Annapurna I, a shark-fin of a mountain with ice-crevassed sides. There’s also Langtang National Park, the first protected area in the country, where glistening alpine lakes rest on plateaus above lush tropical forests.
The onetime home of the mighty khanates of Genghis remains one of the remotest corners of Asia. It’s a vast land that rolls from the Russian steppes of Siberia all the way to the Tian Shan ranges of northern China, linking up the undulating grass plains of the east to the Gobi Desert. Between those two extremes is plenty to entertain the nature-loving traveler…
You can head to live with the reindeer herders of the Tsagaan Nuur on the icy highland plains. You can trek the peaks of Uvs province or the rolling ridges of the Khangai Mountains. It’s possible to go on long-distance horse rides with the nomad peoples of the central plains. It’s possible to do three-week expeditions into the long-lost Shangri-La of the Altai.
Mongolia is one of the more off-the-beaten-track options on this list of the best destinations in Asia for nature lovers. But there’s a good way of arriving if you have the time: the Trans-Mongolian Express, a train that can bring you all the way in from Moscow in Russia.
Ditch those visions of uber-hi-tech Tokyo for a moment. Forget the buzz of Kyoto. Japan is a surprisingly wild country, where the tos-and-fros of all-night ramen bars quickly fade into nothingness the moment you decide to leave the metropolis. Come on, just look up – Tokyo itself is overshadowed by the hulking peak of Mt. Fuji; forever snow-capped and perfectly conical Fuji.
But there’s more than the famous volcano on the cusp of the capital. Much more. There are also the snow-doused mountains of Hokkaido in the north, which are hailed as some of the best skiing locations on the globe (finest powder of anywhere, apparently!). There’s the craggy coast and wooded peaks of the Daisen-Oki National Park, which hides the oldest Shinto shrine in the country.
We also think a special mention should be made of Japan’s gorgeous coastline. Once war-torn isles like Okinawa and Ishigaki actually come fringed with white-sand beaches that are just as shimmering as in the Maldives, not to mention sub-tropical temperatures to match.
China might get a bad rap for its carbon emissions and whatnot (China is now the biggest carbon emitter on the globe, in fact) but no matter how much coal this country burns, it really can’t take away from the fact that some seriously eye-watering natural wonders lie within its borders.
Let’s just scratch the surface a little, shall we? The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is a majestic showcasing of needle-like peaks tagged by UNESCO that’s said to have been the inspiration behind the fantasy world of James Cameron’s Avatar. There’s Tiger Leaping Gorge, a huge cleft in the Yangtze River tributaries that has gnarly hiking paths. There’s the Lushan Mountain of Jiangxi, once an inspiration for masters of Taoism and Confucianism.
All that combines with some serious geographical extremes. You can go from the snow-blasted steppes of Inner Mongolia in the north to the palm-fringed bays of Hainan in the south to the shifting sand hills of the Gobi Desert and not even have to go through passport control once.
Tajikistan, like many of the former Soviet states that surround it, is only just about entering the mainstream fold of adventure tourism. But it’s making some serious waves – proverbial waves, mind you, since this is a fully landlocked country, enfolded by China to the south and Kyrgyzstan to the north.
It’s all mountains, mountains, and more mountains. And we’re not talking low-lying ridges you can conquer in a day. We’re talking scree-doused, cloud-shattering rows of peaks that soar above 7,400 meters! The superlative summits are in the east, around the mighty Ismoil Somoni Peak. From there, the dusty Zarafshan Range goes westwards while the Pamir Mountains dominate the south. There’s trekking everywhere, some harder, some easier going; all of it almost totally deserted.
The lake of Iskander-Kul is one of the highlights for nature lovers. Some 2,000 meters above sea level, that shimmering eye of blue amid the mountains is a wonderful sight to behold as you trek in total solitude. It’s also a well-known birding area, with everything from saker falcons to vultures to Himalayan snowcocks in the skies.
The Korean Peninsula is carved through by soaring mountain peaks at its heart and fringed by beaches both bright and rugged. It’s a unique part of Asia where the highlands tumble almost immediately down into the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
In the south, the sylvan hills of the Jirisan National Park represent the oldest protected habitats in the country. They were designated as a reserve way back in 1967 and continue to reign as some of the most biodiverse lands in East Asia, a rep that’s only been further enhanced by successful projects to rejuvenate populations of the elusive Asiatic black bear.
Perhaps even more famous is the Seoraksan National Park. Now a UNESCO biosphere, that one encompasses the famous dagger-like back of Dinosaur Ridge, along with forests of dwarf pines and yew trees that host everything from musk deer to flying squirrels.
Bhutan isn’t just one of the best destinations in Asia for nature lovers. It’s also one of the most mysterious destinations on planet Earth. It was totally out of bounds to globetrotters for decades, but finally opened its borders in 1974 to just a handful of intrepid folks. It’s become more accessible since then, but still levies a whopping $250/day charge for the whole duration of your expedition.
The payoff is a country that’s arguably the most untouched on the continent. Yep, this one can match even the steppes of Mongolia with its vast Himalayan valleys where whitewashed dzong temples crown the ridges. Things to see include the Jigme Dorji National Park, where emerald rice paddies climb to the snow plumes of Masang Kang, and the woods of the Phrumsengla National Park, a haven for red pandas.
Bhutan doesn’t just look good, either. It’s just about as green as they come on paper, too. Move over Costa Rica, this country has 60% of its forestry protected by law, and it is officially carbon negative overall. It’s enough to make Greta Thunberg blush.
We often hear that Laos is like Thailand was 20 years ago. Only, we’ve been hearing that for about 20 years. Thing is, though, it’s true: Laos is nowhere near developed as its next-door neighbor and comes with a much more untouched backcountry. If we had to pick one nature hotspot in Southeast Asia, this would be it.
One vivid memory we have is hopping on a longboat down the Mekong back in 2013. After bidding farewell to the rickety port on the Thai-Laos border at Huay Xai, we were soon drifting down that snaking waterway through thickets of seemingly endless jungle. It was a montage of muddy water and emerald shades of green that went on for hours and hours on end.
Laos really is wild, too. Just check the map: There are certain parts of the country where roads simply do not go. They include the Nam Ka National Park, where visitors go to tread in treehouses in the company of gibbons, and the Phou Den Din National Biodiversity Conservation Area, a jungle on the cusp of China. Even Vang Vieng, a onetime party town, is now something of a nature lover’s adventure hub, with trekking and tubing on the menu.
Forget Bali. That’s the built-up part of Indo. You want to head to the lesser-known islands of this vast nation in between the Sulu Sea and the wide Indian Ocean. We’re talking places where the forests are thousands of years old and your only company on the hiking trails will pre-historic lizards that have their origins in the age of the dinosaurs. Yep, Indonesia might be the most populous Muslim nation on the planet, but it’s still indelibly wild…
Why not start by hopping ferries out to the Komodo National Park in the heart of the Lesser Sunda islands? A Mars-like land of dusty ridges and scrub hills that rises from a pearly blue tropical ocean, this is the only known habitat on Earth for the Komodo dragon, a fearsome reptile that’s listed as endangered by the IUCN.
Then there’s the mist-gathering rainforests of Mount Leuser and the South Tapanuli Regency. These primeval woodlands are home to uber-rare orangutan, along with a whole host of other simian species, snakes, strange flowers – you name it. They aren’t easy to reach, mind you, but there’s true adventure to be had on the trails.
Oh, and let’s not forget the coral reefs, all 51,000 square kilometers of em’! highlights for fans of marine biodiversity exist at West Papua and the Raja Ampat isles in particular. Those sit in the middle of a part of Asia known as the Coral Triangle, where you can meet sharks, rainbowfish, sea turtles, and more.
The best destinations in Asia for nature and the great outdoors – a conclusion
Asia certainly isn’t short of places that offer eye-wateringly wonderful natural locations and oodles of adventure for the intrepid traveler. The continent encompasses everything from the jagged Hindu Kush to the salty shores of Vietnam, the golden beaches of Sri Lanka to the windy tundra of Mongolia. We might have only listed seven places here, but the truth is there’s plenty of choice for the nature-hungry globetrotter in this corner of the world. You’ll love it!