Mountains in Southeast Asia aren’t the untouchable ice-hells that the most hardened alpinists chase after. But mountaineering in Southeast Asia would probably be the highlight of all holidaymakers.
That’s because climbing Southeast Asian mountains is a unique and serene experience that so few non-locals know about: Without all the white stuff, the highest summits are left as surreal moonscapes that can be haltingly beautiful.
At Summits.com – a new website that wants to get people climbing mountains in Southeast Asia – we think that Southeast Asia’s summits come in 5 flavours that are well worth your trying…
1. The Surprisingly High Mountain
The two highest of Southeast Asia’s summits (not including Myanmar’s share of the himalayas) don’t quite make it to 5,000m, yet they’re high enough to reach above the treeline. The rocky peaks that are exposed are often twisted cowlicks of granite, like Mount Kinabalu (4,095m) in Borneo. Puncak Jaya (also called Carstensz Pyramid), at 4,884m is the highest point between the Himalayas and the Andes, and sits so remotely in Indonesia’s Irian Jaya province that fewer people have climbed this lowest of the “7 Summits” than Everest. With global warming, it’s 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.
2. The Angry Old Mountain
Some of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia 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, Mount Apo in the Philippines, and Mount Merapi on Sumatera 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 Southeast Asia’s topography – particuarly 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 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, it had wiped out neighbouring towns and killed scores.
3. The Exploded Mountain
Then there are volcanoes that were once truly, madly, deeply savage gardens, the sort that prolong European winters and wipe out whole peoples and ecosystems. These 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 Agun in Bali, Mount Bromo in Eastern Java, or the nearby Ijen Crater. Our world would end if the 100 kilometre long Lake Toba on Sumatra is recreated.
4. 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 might also be above the mosquitos and the pollution. Yet they’re warm enough that one can consider camping out to enjoy the stars and the sunrise.
5. The Sundowner Mountain
But even the lowest peaks, such as Mount Santubong in Borneo, Mounts Ophir and Lambak in Peninsular Malaysia, Mount Popa in Myanmar, or Mount Bintan on Bintan Island near Singapore, are high enough to make agriculture infeasible, so they can offer untouched rainforests that are some of the world’s most rich and biodiverse ecosystems. Bukit Timah, which is just a hill yet the highest point on Singapore island, has some of the most beautiful jungle in the world, yet can be reached within an hour of 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 G&T 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.
About the Author:
Pete Silvester is the CEO of Summits.com – a website for mountaineering in Southeast Asia. Pete has spent about 7 years in Southeast Asia as a traveller, a social scientist, and an entrepreneur. He would be more than happy to receive your questions or feedback at [email protected].