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Tour on Asia's wild side

Tour operators are offering adventurous travelers new itineraries, including luxury tiger safaris in the jungles of India and bird watching in Cambodia’s Northern Plains.
Image: China Pandas
Giant pandas chew bamboo at the Chengdu Giant Panda breeding base in Chengdu, China's Sichuan province, last May.Diego Azubel / EPA
/ Source: The New York Times

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.

“People see a few temples and then want something else,” said Joe Walston, executive director of the Asia program for the World Conservation Society, which works to protect Asia’s wild places with governments and communities through ecotourism and other initiatives.

Tour operators are responding with new itineraries, including luxury tiger safaris in the jungles of India and bird watching in Cambodia’s Northern Plains. Here is a look at some of the newest areas that are opening to tourists.

The Northern Plains of Cambodia
Once a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, this remote and sparsely populated 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.

“Birders have been coming for a few years,” Joe Walston, of the World Conservation Society, said. But, he added, the Northern Plains are beginning to open up to tourists thanks to some local ecotourism efforts. While “it’s still relatively rustic,” he said, “if they want the feel of being truly out in the wild, then this is it.”

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 established in Siem Reap in 2006, which manages wildlife viewing trips with exclusive access to Wildlife Conservation Society sites across Cambodia, offers guided trips to a range of bird sanctuaries, including the Northern Plains from $670 a person for a four-day trip.

Thailand’s Southern Wilds
Most tours of Thailand consist of a visit to Bangkok for its night life 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, encompassing 15 percent of the total land area. 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 10,900 Thai baht a person, or $363, at 30 baht to the dollar, 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.

Luxury Safaris in India
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 282,860 rupees, or about $5,700 a person, at 49 rupees to the dollar, are conducted on elephants or in 4x4 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 has begun using the hotel as an outpost for four-day bespoke tours with leading 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 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 mélange of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Trekking and Panda Tracking in China
“After an inaugural trip to China’s larger cities and classic sites,” like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, said Nellie Connolly, who heads up marketing for WildChina, returning visitors want to go to “China’s less explored regions to see cultural and ecological diversity.”

In 2008, WildChina worked with the World Wildlife Fund to develop an eco-tourism strategy in the jagged Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, which lies in the southern part of the Min Shan Range in the northern part of Sichuan Province, training park rangers and consulting on a high-end eco lodge within the park. Now, the company offers luxury overnight camping experiences within the park and treks through sections that are not open to the public.

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, which share many of the same natural features as Yosemite National Park like massive waterfalls and high alpine valleys. While both Huangshan and Jiuzhaigou receive millions of Chinese visitors each year, 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, about a three-hour drive south of Xian, for the first time this year. Travelers sleep in tents and are accompanied by four to six 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 about her most recent tracking trip. “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.”

This story, "Tour on Asia's Wild Side," originally appeared in the New York Times.