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Finders keepers: Southeast Asia's natural wonders

Discover nature’s secret playgrounds across the region 

When Mother Nature set about creating the region’s varied landscapes she wasn’t in the business of cutting corners. Home to bountiful waterfalls, lush rainforests and pristine beaches, Southeast Asia’s natural assets are among the world’s finest. Vietnam’s limestone isles of Halong Bay consistently feature in revised lists of the world’s seven natural wonders, but it is the region’s lesser-known gems that prove to be wondrous of their own accord.
 

Nature’s secret playgrounds

 
Beneath the surface of the Sulu Sea and off the coast of the Philippines is a delicate ecosystem brimming with coral and marine life. From above, the Tubbataha atoll reefs resemble two links in a chain, each encasing an inner lagoon. Under the surface is a technicolour world with more than 370 species of corals, where gaps and crevices in coral clusters lead divers to nurse and leopard sharks, found resting in sheltered waters. The northern reef, also known as ‘bird island’, is popular for spotting tropical fish and manta ray, while the protected waters are a refuge for endangered green and hawksbill turtles that nest and raise their young within the safety of the secluded reefs.
One of the region’s best-kept secrets remained unchartered territory until 2009, when an expedition team first ventured into the hidden depths of Hang Son Doong, or ‘mountain river cave’.
Its gigantic proportions have earned it the title of the world’s largest known cave, an acclaim previously bestowed upon Deer Cave in Malaysian Borneo. Uncovered in the dense jungle of Vietnam’s remote Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Hang Son Doong is said to have formed between two to five million years ago when flowing river water caused mass erosion to the limestone structure. Today, the cave’s proportions are so vast at the passage it is said an entire New York City block of 40-storey units could fit inside.
Myanmar holds a unique position in the region, with the country’s natural scenery largely protected from the destructive hand of progress. Located in the southernmost part of the country, the Mergui Archipelago consists of no less than 800 islands covering nearly 36,000 square kilometres in the Andaman Sea. Small populations of local sea gypsies inhabit several of the larger islands, living on boats during the dry season and remaining on the land as they weather the monsoonal months. With a majority of the islands uninhabited by humans, the land and surrounding seas remain largely preserved, providing a haven for flora, fauna and marine life to thrive as nature intended.
It is said beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, as the host to some of the world’s purest landscapes, discovering nature’s wonder in Southeast Asia isn’t so much a question of aesthetics, but rather of ‘where to go first?’
 
 
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