Why Climb Mountains in Southeast Asia?

Because it's there, and it's awesome too

May 21, 2019
The views from atop Mount Kerinci, Indonesia - Summits.com
The views from atop Mount Kerinci, Indonesia - Summits.com

George Mallory is often quoted as responding to the question of why one should climb Mount Everest with the retort, “Because it’s there”. But for those readers interested in going to Southeast Asia for their next vacation, the question of why one should climb a mountain is important, and I’d like to flesh it out a bit more.

Because if you are anything like the millions of travellers who come to Southeast Asia every year seeking a good book and a curry on a warm beach, you might quickly find yourself idle and sweaty with sand in your eyes and ears and sunburn everywhere else. At that point, the question of why one should climb a mountain becomes very relevant, because you will likely be within reach of a mountain, and because climbing it will probably be the surprising highlight of your holiday.

Thats because, like elsewhere, the mountains of Southeast 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 Southeast Asia. It doesn’t offer the icy white scenes that you might glimpse in mountaineering magazines and books. Rather, they have a charm, beauty, thrill, and challenge of their own, and we at Summits.com think they’re well worth your consideration.

So, why climb mountains, and why climb mountains in Southeast Asia?

A challenge, but a quick and convenient one

Climbing mounts can be a physical and mental challenge, and that is certainly the case in Southeast 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 Southeast Asia 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 Southeast 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. Kota Kinabalu airport is less than 2 hours from the Mount Kinabalu trailhead. Thailand’s two highest peaks are within taxi reach of Chiang Mai Airport. Malacca has Mount Ophir, Kuching has Mount Santubong, Manilla has Mount Pinatubo, Denpasar has Mount Agung, Jakarta has Mount Gede and Pangrango, and even Kuala Lumpur has Bukit Tabur.

For some of the mountains, you may want to get up and back quickly on account of the ever present risk of a volcanic eruption. 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. Yours truly 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 the 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 jungle 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 views at the top, but completely unique

What is the reward? Well, without being encumbered by ghastly snow and ice everywhere, Southeast 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 caldera lake of Mount Rinjani - Summits.com
The caldera lake of Mount Rinjani - Summits.com

The volcanos are topped with the most stunning treasures, like the pristine caldera lakes atop Rinjani, Agung, Pinatubo, or the Ijen Crater. Or smokey volcanic domes like Bromo, Apo, and Merapi. Even lava-spewing danger zones like Semeru and Singabung.

The highest of the non-volcanic summits are often twisted cowlicks of rock, like Mount Kinabalu, Mount Fansipan, or Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid). 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 upper slopes of Mount Kinabalu - Summits.com
The upper slopes of Mount Kinabalu - Summits.com

The lower peaks, like Doi Chiang dao, Mount Tahan, or Mount Aural, 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 Santubong, Ophir, Bintan, Lambak, or even Bukit Timah, 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 Southeast Asia are awe-inspiring, oddly therapeutic, and best enjoyed with a G&T and 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. Drinking a sundowner atop Mount Popa with old friends is where this writer would rather be right now.

Sunset atop Mount Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia - Summits.com
Sunset atop Mount Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia - Summits.com

Meeting great, local people

Mountain climbers 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 Southeast Asia too. And in Southeast Asia most people you see on the mountains will be Southeast 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, including with you. Many Southeast Asians are 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 in Southeast Asia on holiday, get off your plastic foldy beach chair, put on your sneakers, and walk up. If you’re planning a vacation to Southeast Asia, Summits.com will help you climb mountains.

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 travelling, studying, building companies, and climbing the odd mountain. He would be more than happy to receive your questions or feedback at [email protected].