Travelers in search of adventure are being lured by new offerings across Asia, from tiger safaris in the jungles of India to bird-watching in Cambodia's Northern Plains.
Cultural trendsetters have long flocked to Asia for a taste of exotic cuisine, bustling cities and mystical temples. Now adventurous travelers are turning to the region's wild frontiers for stunning natural landscapes and wildlife diversity. Here is a look at some of the newest areas opening to tourists.
Once a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, this remote region is one of the few remaining places in Cambodia where animals like Asian elephants, leopards and wild cattle roam freely. While commercial hunters and logging continue to threaten the region's forests and wildlife, the Wildlife Conservation Society has been working with the government of Cambodia to protect the area and the animals that live there, including critically endangered bird species like the giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis, which have nesting sites in Tmatboey, an isolated village in the Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northern Plains.
For the first time this year, Journeys Within, a boutique hotel and tour company based in Siem Reap, is offering three-day bird-watching tours to Tmatboey from $775 a person. And the Sam Veasna Center, a nonprofit ecotourism group that manages wildlife viewing trips with exclusive access to Wildlife Conservation Society sites across Cambodia, offers guided trips to a range of bird sanctuaries from $670 a person for a four-day trip.
Most tours of Thailand consist of a visit to Bangkok for its nightlife before heading north to Chiang Mai for elephant camps and trekking. Then they hit the beach at places like Phuket. But Thailand also has an extensive protected system of parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Recently built eco-lodges are providing visitors with new bases for exploring remote regions.
Wild Planet Adventures, for example, is using the Keereewarin floating aqua lodge, which opened last year near the Klong Seang Wildlife Sanctuary in southwestern Thailand, as a base for kayak excursions into the pristine Ratchaprapha Reservoir, which is surrounded by rain forest and massive limestone formations. Until the 10-cabin lodge was built, a trip to the sanctuary required either a two- to three-hour boat ride or a night spent in shack-style accommodations. Because of its isolation, Klong Seang harbors healthy populations of sun bears, slow lorises, white-handed gibbons, flying foxes and elusive clouded leopards.
In addition to the sanctuary, Wild Planet Adventures offers trips to the 51-island Tarutao Archipelago in the Andaman Sea on its newest tour, the 14-day "Hidden Thailand: Remote Rainforests & Islands," from $4,398 a person.
In the more popular Khao Sok National Park, Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp has opened 10 luxury safari tents in the middle of Cheow Lan Lake. Depending on the season, two-day packages start at about $363 and include meals, transfers to and from major tourist destinations in the south like Phuket, and guided jungle treks and canoe safari to spot gibbons and other wildlife.
A few years ago, Taj Safaris, a joint venture between the luxury group Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces and safari experts called & Beyond, created India's first luxury "tiger circuit" in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The circuit visits four lodges, including Mahua Kothi Safari Lodge in Bandhavgarh National Park, known for its high density of tigers and picturesque wooded hills. Tours, which begin at about $5,700 a person, are conducted on elephants or in four-wheel-drive safari vehicles.
In September, the Taj Group opened a 28-room Gateway Hotel at the edge of the Sasan Gir Forest, one of only two natural habitats of the Asiatic lion, which can also be booked as part of the circuit. The luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent is using the hotel as an outpost for four-day tours with naturalists and conservation experts from $2,830 a person.
IORA, a new retreat opened near the Kaziranga National Park in northeast India, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to the world's largest population of endangered one-horned rhinoceros. Rates start at 3,750 rupees a night (at 49 rupees to the dollar) for basic accommodations including breakfast for two. IORA is now available as an upgrade on Wild Planet Adventures' 19-day India itinerary, "Leopards, Tigers and Palaces," from $7,298 a person, which visits five national parks and wildlife refuges by jeep, elephant-back, camel-back and rickshaw, as well as the cultural and spiritual melange of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Agra and the Taj Mahal.
Wild China offers luxury overnight camping experiences in Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, in the northern part of Sichuan province, and treks through sections not open to the public. And for the past two years, WildChina has been offering a 14-day, $4,700 tour in conjunction with the Yosemite Conservancy to visit Huangshan and Jiuzhaigou parks, which share many of the same natural features as Yosemite National Park like massive waterfalls. The parks are largely off the radar of most American tourists.
For more adventurous travelers, WildChina is offering panda tracking in the Foping Nature Reserve for the first time this year. Travelers sleep in tents and are accompanied by trackers who communicate through whistling to imitate panda sounds. Five-day trips start at $2,200 a person, based on a group of four to eight travelers. "It's easy to overlook the solitary, wandering nature of these magical animals when we go to zoos and see cuddly, playful pandas that are raised in captivity from birth," Mei Zhang, founder of WildChina, wrote in a blog post. "Spending time in the natural habitat of the panda is an opportunity to understand the environment that created this iconic beast, as well as the environment from which China emerged."