Most of us feel daunted at the sound of the word “mountain”, and we feel you. Whilst hardcore mountain climbing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, we have found a few sweet spots in South East Asia that will still take your breath away (quite literally too) but are promised to be a lot less tough than Everest and the likes. Decathlonians seem to love hiking a whole lot (and we don’t see why not) so here are the top 4 must-do hiking spots that we have tried, tested, and absolutely LOVED!
Situated in the capital of East Java, Surabaya, Mount Bromo is the most well known active volcano in the area. Part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Mt Bromo sits in the middle of a “sea of sand”, attributing much mystery and grandeur of this almost surreal landscape. Standing at 2,329m, this volcano is best viewed from afar. There are a few viewpoints to catch the sunrise from, some more crowded than others, and several ways to get there.
The viewpoints can be accessed either by jeep or by foot – and of course, being the adventurers we are, the decision to hike up to Viewpoint 1 from Cemoro Lawang was an obvious one. (You may also take a jeep tour, but be aware that there will be many local drivers who will offer you jeep rides at steep prices if you did not book in advance.)
The walking route is extremely dark in the wee hours of the morning (we started at 4am), so be prepared with a good head lamp and proper shoes. Also, the temperature dips to a single-digit figure in the early morning so you need warm clothing. We wore a fleece with an outer-shell and a beanie to protect our ears. The initial part of the terrain was on tarmac, but slowly as we ascended, the roads became soft volcanic sand.
2 hours later, we reached Mount Bromo Viewpoint 1, just as dawn broke. The spectacular sunrise complemented the alien beauty of Mt Bromo perfectly. Watching the sun rise over the sand sea took our breaths away, causing all strands of fatigue to fade away from our bodies. We were lucky that this viewpoint was only accessible by foot so we need not wrestle with those on jeeps to get a good photo.
After 1 too many photos and selfies with Mount Bromo, we descended back to base camp in half the time. The afternoon was spent exploring Tengger Sand Sea, which was accessible from our lodging via donkey or jeep.
The crater rim is accessible by walking up a volcanic sand terrain and a final flight of steps. Towards the top, the smell of sulfur can be quite strong. Using a head scarf over our faces helped with the stench. The guides will also try to sell you face masks if you do not have your own.
Overall, Mount Bromo and the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park can be covered within two days. The hike is not steep but can be challenging, mostly due to the soft volcanic sand which can set one back a few steps with one step forward. The right gear definitely helps, so be adequately equipped and the rest will have to depend on your luck!
Ijen is also located in East Java, but in the Bangyuwangi Regency. Usually, people would do both Kawah Ijen and Mount Bromo on the same trip, and that was what we did too.
Picture credits: ijentourism.com
The Ijen volcano is well known for it’s blue fire, which is caused by the contact between sulfur and the surrounding air. However, to be able to see the blue flames, one has to hike up 2 hours to the rim of the crater, and another 45 mins to an hour down the crater to get near to the flames. As easy as it sounds, the actual hike can be quite challenging. Once the jeep drops you off at the starting point, it is sand and darkness all the way, for 2 hours. The terrain on this route is a lot more challenging than the Mount Bromo climb. Without a good light and tons of perseverance, it can get quite discouraging. The route nearing the crater also gets a little treacherous as the path gets narrower and only after daylight breaks do you realize that it was a steep drop right beside where you were climbing.
Getting down from the crater rim was not what we had expected at all. The climb was steep and rocky. Most of the time, we had to find our own route, watch for our own safety, and worry about the noxious gases coming from beneath. The other challenge was to do this as quickly as possible to beat the daybreak. The blue flames burn throughout the day but are most obvious in the darkness.
When daylight broke, we caught a glimpse of the highly acidic crater lake, considered to be the most acidic crater lake in the world. It was a remarkable sight, but with the noxious gases in high concentration, those with sensitive eyes may start tearing. Without a mask, it is near impossible to be comfortable. Whilst many chose to linger on, we made our way back up, the same way we came down. For those with weak knees, this part of the hike might prove to be the most challenging as the stepping motions can cause discomfort for a prolonged period of time. We recommend wearing a knee guard for better support and protection.
In good weather, one can even look forward to a beautiful sunrise from the crater rim, but unfortunately for us, the sky was slightly overcast that day. Without a doubt, Kawah Ijen is one of the most spectacular places on this earth and worth every effort and breathlessness felt throughout the climb.
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Mount Kinabalu is no stranger to most of us living in the region. Standing at an amazing height of 4095m, this mountain is no doubt one of the highest mountains in South East Asia.
There are 2 routes up to Mount Kinabalu: Timpohon or Mesilau. The main difference is that Timpohon is 2km shorter. We went ahead with the Timpohon route offered by our agency. You can rent walking sticks at Kinabalu Park for RM10, and trust me, it was extremely useful throughout the hike. If you do not wish to rent, you can get your own here.
Right at the beginning of the hike, you will be greeted by a never-ending flight of stairs. Thankfully, the path to Laban Rata (where we rest for the night) is pretty well paved. The route is 99% uphill, with a combination of stairs and huge rock steps. It was nothing to what I was used to at all, and I was seriously working not just my gluts, but also my mental strength. There are a couple of rest stops along the way but we kept it short and sweet, as we were afraid of losing our momentum. Remember to bring some high-energy snacks to perk you up along the way! Another key tip: wear proper shoes! The locals wear a special pair of rubber shoes fondly called Adidas Kampung. You can get them at any local convenience store back in Kota Kinabalu. Otherwise, make sure you wear good hiking shoes with good traction and support.
The climb to Laban Rata was projected to be between 4-6 hours, and we eventually reached the rest house around 4.5 hours. We were thoroughly exhausted and wanted to proceed to our dormitory upstairs, only to realise that the accommodation we booked was not in Laban Rata Resthouse building itself! As we booked our package late, we only managed to get vacancies at Gunting Lagadan Hut, a 5 minutes climb from the main Laban Rata Resthouse. Those 5 minutes seemed like eternity when you’re dead tired.
Tip: The dining hall is in the main building, so book your accommodations earlier in order to get a room there. It will be a lot more convenient when getting your meals.
The food served at Laban Rata’s dining hall was great, or maybe because we were terribly hungry. The package included all meals, so we basically had dinner, supper and breakfast here. You can expect a wide range from Asian dishes like rice and noodles to Western meals like pancakes and sausages. All in all, you will be well fed to prepare you for your climbs ahead. Aside from the buffet, you can also purchase meals, but be prepared for the exorbitant price tags. Our guide told us the reason for the price is because of the additional labour cost to bring the food up the mountain.
After our dinner, we took a short nap before waking up at 1.30am to meet our guide in the dining hall. There, he briefed us over breakfast on the dos and don’ts. It is imperative you have your headlamps with you. I got mine from Geonaute, our electronics brand. Another important item would be gloves, not just to keep you cold, but also to protect your hands while using the ropes along the steep ascent.
We started from Laban Rata, and the narrow pathway was way steeper than in the afternoon. It was a combination of stairs and rocky steps, so you really had to watch where you were going with the aid of your headlamp. There was a huge crowd as well, so we had to move slowly and carefully in the dark. Along the way, there will be some ropes to help in your ascend. After a couple of hours, the terrain went flat, and it made the trek slightly easier as we made our way to the summit under the blanket of stars.
At about 5.45am, we finally reached the summit, and we patiently waited for the sunrise. It was excruciatingly cold at the top, so make sure you have your fleece jackets ready! However, the sunrise was worth the cold and wait, every single second of it.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), what goes up, must come down. To our greatest shock, the descent was extremely steep! I could not believe I had climbed that same path up in the dark earlier. In my opinion, climbing down was a lot harder than climbing up. It rained on our way down, and this made the pathways extremely muddy and slippery. All in all, we reached Timpohon Gate at about 3pm in the afternoon feeling triumphant.
*This climb was done before the 2015 earthquake. Some of the routes shown and described here might be changed or different.
Mount Rinjani, Lombok
At 3,726m, Mount Rinjani is easily one of the most prominent active volcanos in Indonesia, on the island of Lombok. It is also very well known for its difficult volcanic sand terrain. Many who have climbed it have admitted that the climb is onerous, but none have regretted trying. Needless to say, our hiking enthusiasts had to try it for themselves.
The Rinjani hike began with an easy gradual climb, from Sembalun Lawang. Complacency can get in the way, if you are not careful. The deceivingly easy first part of the trek helped to lighten our moods as we started the climb, unbeknownst to us that we had a far greater challenge ahead. Without any porters to carry our bags, we had to manage our 40L bags with 2 nights worth of personal belongings, plus a stash of our favourite snacks.
The hike up to base camp took us 6.5 hours in total, inclusive of rest stops and lunch. The track is completely natural with no man-made steps or aids. Halfway through, we could not be more thankful for our Quechua hiking poles, which were our only saving grace. By the time we saw flat ground, we were completely sapped of all energy and all we wanted to do was to lie down. We quickly settled down in our tents which the porters had prepared, and enjoyed a simple dinner before nightfall. The view from our tents was amazing, with the crater lake to our left and the mountain ridge to our right. At night, the skies lit up with stars as we quickly dozed off to the sounds of nature.
The next morning was what everyone was looking forward to – the summit climb. Unfortunately, our hopes were doused by a long-winded rain which lasted 6 hours through the night. Our sunrise climb was a goner. With our experienced guide, we took his suggestion to do a mid-day summit climb instead. The next 4 hours were the toughest hours of our lives. Uphill incline with no solid ground and strong winds persisted to test our limits and patience. Again, without our hiking poles and high-cut hiking shoes, we would not have survived. Can you imagine the joy when we finally saw the end in sight? From base camp, we could hardly see our destination as it was way beyond the clouds. We would have stayed all day at the summit if not for the sun threatening to set on us. We knew we had to start our descent before it got pitch black. Thanks to our trusty Geonaute lights, we managed to reach back at base camp an hour after the sun had set. For most of the way down, we had to slide on our bottoms as the sand and our fatigued legs gave in on us. Needless to say, all of us slept extremely soundly that night.
The last day marked the end of our 3D2N hike in Rinjani. For some, the descent proved to be easier than the ascent, but for others with acrophobia (the phobia of heights), the journey down can be quite nerve-racking. With a bad knee, one might also experience acute pain if insufficient rest stops are taken.
Whilst we agree that the Rinjani climb is indeed an onerous one, we certainly echo the many who have embarked on this hike and do not regret the attempt at all. The view from the top IS amazing and the satisfaction of conquering the steep volcanic ash path is overwhelming. We highly recommend Rinjani as one of your must-dos on your hiking bucket list, but one must also be disciplined to train for it due to the nature of the terrain. Rinjani will not disappoint.
Now that we’ve shared our stories, we’d like to hear from you too. Do you have any sweet hiking spots to share with us?
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