8 unforgettable wildlife experiences in Southeast Asia

A rescued bear at Phnom Tmao
A rescued bear at Phnom Tmao
Child riding a buffalo in the highlands of Sapa

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are home to some magnificent scenery, including lofty mountains, lush jungles, wide plains, vast lakes and verdant river deltas. This amazingly varied topography has allowed a diverse array of wildlife to flourish – from great elephants to delicate orchids.

There are a great variety of ways to get out into the countryside and interact with all this wildlife – but we’ve chosen a few of our favourite experiences to get you started:

1. Spot dolphins on the Mekong

Vietnam is one of only a few places in the world to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in its natural habitat. Heading out from Kratie in Cambodia, you’ll float out on a small boat skippered by a local fisherman to an area 15 kilometres north of the town – one of the best places on the Mekong to catch a glimpse of these elusive mammals.

The Irrawaddy dolphin population once numbered around 1,000 in this area, but after being hunted for their oils during the civil war there are now thought to be only 70 left.

On the way to spot Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie.
On the way to spot Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie.

2. See baby turtles hatch in Con Dao

The Con Dao Islands are a tiny pocket of paradise just an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the islands in the archipelago have national park status, and on the main island there is a protected breeding site where visitors can watch as hawksbill and green turtles inch their way up the beach to lay their eggs. Visit at the right time, and you may even be able to assist in the release of recent hatchlings!

N.B. The nesting season is from April to September.

A turtle on the beach on Con Dao Island.
A turtle on the beach on Con Dao Island.

3. Go bird-watching on the Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, located at the heart of Cambodia. During peak season, the lake swells to an incredible six times its average dry-season size, engulfing the surrounding fields and forests and concealing the teetering supports of the area’s stilt houses.

For those with an ornithological bent, Tonle Sap is a great place to spot all kinds of bird life, including black-headed ibis, painted storks, milky storks, greater and lesser adjutants, spot-billed pelicans, grey-headed fish eagles, cormorants and snakebirds. Visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary for a chance of spotting these fascinating creatures.

Snakebird spotted at Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.
Snakebird spotted at Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

4. Gibbon sanctuary in Nam Cat Tien National Park

On “Monkey Island”, deep in Vietnam’s Nam Cat Tien National Park, is the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre. An offshoot of a UK-based NGO, this sanctuary rescues gibbons, loris and langurs from poachers or the pet trade, rehabilitates them in large enclosures and compounds, then releases them back into the wild. Depending on the animal and its history, this process may take a number of years.

Since the focus of the sanctuary is on rehabilitation, visitors cannot have close contact with the primates – but you can view them from a distance and watch them interact in their natural environment.

One of the gibbons at Nam Cat Tien
One of the gibbons at Nam Cat Tien

5. Meet the elephants in Cambodia & Laos

One of the most exciting, hands-on wildlife experiences to enjoy in Southeast Asia is a meeting with the largest land animal in the world: the elephant. We have three favourite elephant sanctuaries where you can rest assured that the elephants are happy, healthy and well looked-after.

In Mondulkiri, Cambodia, the Walking with Elephants Project exists to provide a home for retired working elephants – as well as to protect the natural habitat of the country’s few remaining wild elephants.

In Laos, meanwhile, animal-lovers can head to the Elephant Village, a conservation project 40 minutes from Luang Prabang, or the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre, which is supported by the non-profit charity ElefantAsia. Feed, ride, wash, and learn about these amazing animals while helping to support conservation efforts!

An elephant at the elephant sanctuary in Sayaboury.
A resident of the sanctuary in Sayaboury.

6. Visit a bear sanctuary in Phnom Tmao

Run by the charity Free the Bears, this sanctuary 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh in Cambodia rescues bears from restaurants, poachers, hotels, bile farms and the pet trade. The sanctuary has 21 enclosures built over seven hectares of land, housing a mixture of over 100 sun bears and Asiatic black bears. All of the enclosures are spacious, with climbing frames, toys and vegetation to keep the bears occupied and happy.

7. Night safari in Nam Cat Tien

Visit Nam Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam for one of the best wildlife experiences around – a night safari through the jungle and the Nui Trong grasslands, where your guide will use a spotlight to search for wildlife from your jeep. Amongst other animals, you might spot samba deer, wild boar, civets, fishing cats, loris, pangolin, gaur and nocturnal birds.

The Forest Floor Lodge in the national park offers eco-accommodation and runs night safaris, as well as exciting day treks to nearby Crocodile Lake.

Nam Cat Tien National Park as the sun begins to set.
Nam Cat Tien National Park as the sun begins to set.

8. Diving at Nha Trang or Con Dao

Last but not least, Southeast Asia has an incredible array of underwater life – and you can get up close and personal with it on a scuba diving trip to the magnificent reefs surrounding Vietnam. Our favourite spots for snorkelling and scuba are found at Nha Trang in central Vietnam, and the Con Dao Islands.

Divers silhouetted in the water.

If you’ve been inspired by these wild experiences, get in touch with one of our Southeast Asia travel experts to start planning your trip.

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