Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Great National Park Off

I'm not much of a city person. As much as I loved the steep cobbled hills of Edinburgh, I don't have any interest in shopping, fine dining, nightlife or any of the other criteria cities are usually judged by, and if I had some kind of horrific accident or illness that meant I couldn't travel any more (or had kids or something), I'd favour a quiet rural village or mountain town close to pleasant natural sights. So even if I couldn't use my legs any more, I could at least stare wistfully out of the window and curse my frail body. I know, I'm a dreamer.

I've sought out nature in most countries I've visited, after shaky and uncertain beginnings that saw me miss out the Tuscan countryside completely when travelling down Italy on a self-imposed tight schedule (it looked nice out of the train window at least) and being too scared to head out into the desert plains of Egypt without a minibus.

Here are some of my favourites (so far), which I'll try to contrast with each other despite their fundamental differences, though I'll probably just end up forgetting like I did with the museums.

The Lake District,

The Lakes were within easy reach right through my university years, when a lack of funds and even greater paucity of ambition meant that even a trip from Lancaster to neighbouring Morecambe felt like an epic voyage. Even after moving to Edinburgh I didn't pay much thought to travelling, until my girlfriend suggested Keswick for a weekend break and I fell in love with nature.

That was an eye-opening weekend for me. For the first time, I understood the lure of the open air and that there was some truth in that insipid copy I churned out for hotel companies promoting 'edifying country escapes' after all. Plus there's a pencil museum, I don't know what more you could want.

Access: There are several rail stops, and you can presumably go by car and bus. Towns like Keswick are great places to stay.

Would I go again?: If I ever move back to England, I might live here.

Taroko Gorge,

The limestone pareidolia of Yeliu was a nice day trip from Taipei, but it was when I headed along the mountainous east coast to Taroko that Formosa really impressed me.

Access: Easy to get there from Hualien, which is on the rail and highway routes. I got confused by bus timetables and was worried I'd have to spend the night under the stars until an expensive, semi-English phone call advised me on where to catch the bus.

Would I go again?: After making it three quarters of the way around Taiwan's perimeter I headed back the same way so I'd have an excuse to go again. After 10 weeks there, I think I can tick Taiwan off my to-do list though.

Mu Koh Ang Thong,

Thailand has plenty of ace scenery, but they don't make the most of it, especially as most people head to the less impressive, over-developed islands. My day trip from Koh Samui around the islands of the Ang Thong National Marine Park was one of my favourite experiences in the country, especially as it meant getting away from the motorbikes for a few hours. Good for snorkelling too.

Access: Boats leave all the time from Koh Samui and nearby islands, or you can probably go direct from the mainland. Shop around.

Would I go again?: Eight months later I took a day trip from Koh Chang around the marine park, which was same same but different. If there are other places, I'll give those a go.

Taman Negara,

It feels like the wild centre of Malaysia has been left that way more out of laziness than a desire for conservation (even that name is just the Malay for 'national park,' it doesn't even have a name). But heading along the Tembeling River is a fun excursion into the wilderness (where you can still find internet cafes and cars).

Access: Three hours up-river from the closest major town, but there are plenty of travel agents eager for your business.

Would I go again?: If I come to this side of Malaysia again, but there are more places to see on Borneo.


I came to Java specifically for volcanoes and was really spoiled by this trinity, it's a great memory.

Access: I booked a day trip from nearby Probolinggo (with heavy negotiating), but there's nothing worth seeing in East Javanese cities so you can probably arrange an overnight trip from Bali, though it's a long way.

Would I go again?: There are hundreds more volcanoes to explore in Java, so that would just waste time on the 30-day Indonesia visa. Ijen Crater was even better.

South Korea

Korea's favourite national park felt a little sterile after spending so long in South East Asia, but it was still one of my favourite places in the country. On the whole, I think I liked Taroko better for its mountain temples and tribal heritage - there you go, an actual comparison!

Access: Sokcho is the closest town, there are direct buses there and back. The House Hostel in Sokcho can be considered mandatory, it might be my favourite place I've stayed anywhere, largely thanks to the bath.

Would I go again?: I had to, as my first visit was in the middle of winter when most of the park was unreachable. I went back on a rainy summer day, which was atmospheric but also not ideal conditions. Apparently it's spectacular in the autumn - if I happen to be in Korea at the right time, an autumn visit would be a must.

Ha Long Bay,

An essential sight in Vietnam, only slightly spoiled by the hassle you'll get trying to book the trip. Nicer water rocks than Thailand, more interesting caves than Laos and better island trekking than Malaysia, it may have cheated its way to Seven Wonders status but it's a worthy contender.

Access: Negotiate the hell out of it, make sure you know what you're paying for and remember that any images showed of elegant junk cruises and beach-side cottages will not necessarily bear any relation to your actual trip.

Would I go again?: Vietnam's culture of hassle and cheating pissed me off. If I put myself through this again, it'll only be to see the south.

Blue Mountains,

Yes, I know Uluru's the big attraction down there, but I didn't get round to it. While desert solitude would have been attractive for photos, I'm pretty sure the Blue Mountains north of Sydney would be the better day(s) out.

Access: A train or multi-pass covering zone three will get you all the way from Sydney in two hours. Though there aren't any barriers at Blue Mountains stations, so you can probably save money if you want to risk the ire of the ticket inspector (if they exist). You can drive too, if you know how to do that.

Would I go again?: I spent a few hours in Katoomba, Wentworth Falls, Blackheath and Mount Victoria on separate trips. I think I'm done here, there's a lot more of Australia to see instead.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River,

This was a relatively brief but enjoyable cruise down the world's longest underground river (it isn't actually the longest, but it'll be a cold day in Hell before Filipino travel agents recognise Mexico's Yucat√°n Peninsula). This one loses out in scope and versatility, though there are apparently some incredible caves in the parts where tourists aren't allowed.

Access: Every guesthouse and travel agent in Puerto Princesa can organise a day trip, it's about 90 minutes drive from the city and you join the conveyor belt of outriggers. The most annoying part is having to arrange a permit in advance, which could mean you're screwed if you arrive at a busy time on a tight schedule.

Would I go again?: Getting around in the Philippines is a bit annoying, so I doubt it.

Phnom Bokor,

This leisure town set up by the French in the cool Cambodian highlands as an escape from the stifling heat might have been pretty nice in those spiffing colonial times, not quite so nice when it hosted numerous conflicts in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, but then best of all in subsequent decades when these vacant, haunting ruins silhouetted against cracking views of the Gulf of Thailand. But now it's rapidly losing its bleak charm with the development of casinos and other resort activities.

Access: An easy half-day trip from Kampot, Kep or Sihanoukville. If you're too wussy to drive a motorbike yourself, you can sign up to a package tour in town.

Would I go again?: No, but it's made me more interested in seeking out other ghost towns.

But which one is the best?

Volcanoes are amazing, but you can't spend the whole day there unless you really like sulphur. Something's drawing me to the Lake District, which will always be a special place for me, but there's too much world left to see.


  1. I reckon the best natural parks in Australia are up in Kakadu, Northern Territory, but the Blue Mountains and Uluru are both very pretty. I like your tip about not bothering to buy a train ticket, but as a word of warning to anyone who is thinking about this, if you get caught in Australia without a valid ticket you get fined massively. Spoilsports.

    1. Even after reading this I chose the 'Mark as spam' option out of habit and had to go back and undo it. That's how long I've been without human contact on here. I don't even get hostile racist ones any more, I'd publish anything.

    2. I just remembered, Re: this, that when I went to the Southern Highlands a bus driver reflexively didn't accept my MyMulti pass until I insisted and he actually read it and let me board. He was apparently so used to seeing people cheat with the Zone One one rather than the Zone Three three. I always enjoy challenging people's assumptions.

      I bought the MyMulti 3 twice and made the most of it both times by taking long train journeys almost every day in those weeks. Stingy guilt is good motivation, maybe I'll get a limited duration rail pass in Europe some time.