Fortunately, there are wonderful innovators in hospitality that have enabled a unique model of conservation in action that can be incredibly transformative for the beneficiaries, as well as for you, the traveller. Going on a holiday has never been so life-changing!
I have selected below some of my favourite eco-lodges in Asia that offer an utterly immersive and authentic travel experience. All of them are small and independently owned, driven by passion more than profits and make a positive impact. Each lodge’s deep personal commitment to long-term sustainability and conservation of their region shines through everything they do, which will make your stay far more special and memorable.
A nature lover’s dream destination, this eco-conscious lodge is located in blissfully remote Gal Oya National Park in the eastern part of Sri Lanka. There is no internet or telephone connection here, so it is a perfect place for a complete digital detox and a sublimely raw nature and wildlife experience.
Home to Sri Lanka’s largest inland reservoir and over 25,000 hectares of lush evergreen forest and open savannahs, Gal Oya offers unique outdoor experiences. You can go on a hike with the Vedda, the last remaining forest-dwelling, indigenous people of central Sri Lanka or take jeep safaris in the jungle, boat safaris on the lake to observe birds as well as the iconic swimming elephants, enjoy leisurely bicycle rides, a night walk in the forest, an early morning trek to the top of Monkey Mountain, as well as an opportunity to learn about the ongoing research and conservation projects.
With just 10 rooms including 9 bungalows and a two-bedroom villa, the lodge offers a very intimate experience and is small enough for an exclusive buyout for a group of friends or a family. Built using locally sourced materials, each bungalow features a spacious bedroom with a king-size bed and en-suite facilities, and a sitting room opening onto a private veranda.
Right from inception, the lodge has remained true to its commitment to the surrounding environment.
In addition, the lodge is actively involved in wildlife research and conservation initiatives and the owners have established The Jim Edwards Wildlife Research Centre for both in-house naturalists as well as guest scientists to carry out a range of wildlife monitoring and research activities in the park. Guests are encouraged to visit the centre during their stay for a much deeper insight into the regional flora and fauna.
Although Wilpattu and Yala offer a much higher chance of spotting leopards, the real charm of Gal Oya for me is the totally crowd-free experience it offers, along with the chance of spending time with the Veddas and seeing the elephants swimming across the lake! If you love nature and wilderness, combining Gal Oya with either Wilpattu or Yala national parks would make for a complete safari experience.
According to the renowned marine biologist and coral reef ecologist Dr Mark Erdmann, Misool in Raja Ampat represents one of the most pristine reef systems left on earth and is one of only a handful of places on Earth where biodiversity is improving rather than declining.
Located in an incredibly remote part of the Indonesian archipelago off the coast of West Papua, this region is blessed with astounding natural beauty both above and below the water - a dream come true for those interested in diving, snorkelling and sailing.
Fringed with powder-white beaches and incredibly rich coral reefs, Misool is one of my all-time favourite eco-resorts for a holiday in Indonesia. Set on an idyllic private island, Misool is surrounded by hundreds of uninhabited islands and its own 300,000-acre private marine reserve. For those seeking remoteness, there are few places on earth that are more naturally isolated than Misool!
With long-term sustainability and conservation at its core, the resort is the brainchild of Andrew and Marit Miners, who are passionate about promoting ethical and eco-friendly tourism, and protecting Indonesia’s fragile ecosystem. In partnership with the local communities, Andrew and Marit established the Misool Marine Reserve in 2005 and created Indonesia’s very first ‘No-Take Zone’ where all types of fishing, reef bombing, shark finning, and harvesting of turtle eggs and shellfish are prohibited.
The reserve is maintained and protected by Misool’s own foundation, which is primarily funded by the income generated through Misool Resort and works very closely with the local communities to encourage and empower them to protect Misool Marine Reserve and its surrounding environment. Some of their pioneering initiatives and measures include:
Misool offers truly exceptional and transformative experiences that have proven that sustainable tourism and community-based conservation can be mutually beneficial, and that there is a far better alternative to harmful logging, mining and fishing industries.
Named after the beautiful Palash tree commonly found in Central India, the Flame of the Forest is an intimate riverside lodge located on the edge of Kanha National Park – one of India’s finest tiger reserves and one of my personal favourites. With just four exclusive cottages, the lodge is designed and run with heart and soul by its owners Karan and Isa. Each cottage has a deck with a stunning view of the river and the forest beyond.
A trained naturalist and an expert wildlife photographer, Karan has spent many years working in the Himalaya researching and leading snow leopard expeditions, as well as in many other national parks across India.
His heart was captured by the magnificent landscapes and the variety of wildlife Kanha has to offer, which lead him to make it his second home when he decided to set up his own lodge. His wife Isa is deeply interested in Yoga and wellness and has set up a dedicated Yoga Shala at the lodge where she conducts Yoga and meditation sessions offering a unique and truly holistic combination of safari and wellness.
Passionate about conservation and sustainability, Karan and Isa are entirely focused on offering the most eco-conscious safari experience to their guests, much more than simply chasing tigers. The lodge was entirely hand-built by the locals using locally sourced materials, their 100% organic food is sourced from local farms, and the whole team is involved in a wide range of initiatives focusing on community welfare, women’s empowerment, and nature and wildlife conservation.
Some of these initiatives include tree plantations and converting almost 20 acres of denuded land into a habitat for birds and animals, distribution of sanitary pads to women in more than 50 tribal villages around the forest, distribution of emergency lamps and medicated mosquito nets to forest guards, as well as running guide training programmes every year for the forest department.
One of their biggest contributions to the local community comes through Karan and Isa’s social enterprise, Hathi, which was set up specifically to focus on women’s empowerment through skill training and their wellbeing by creating awareness of the importance of menstrual hygiene.
There is never a dull moment with Karan and Isa around and they have an excellent team of naturalists who know Kanha’s flora and fauna exceptionally well. One of the biggest advantages of staying at Flame of the Forest during your safari to India is that it offers access to one of the prettiest, remotest, and least visited ranges of Kanha called Sarhi.
Imagine being in an ancient forest where there is no evidence of permanent human settlement or hunting, which is home to the tallest tropical trees in the world, and where you wake up to the wild whooping ‘song’ of the gibbons and soothing birdsongs as they greet the day… it sounds surreal doesn’t it? Welcome to the Danum Valley Conservation Area - one of the oldest and last remaining untouched primary rainforests in the world.
Located in the south-eastern part of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, two and a half hours from Lahad Datu and about four hours from Tawau, Danum Valley represents one of the richest biotic communities in the world, supporting some 2,000 species of trees. It is also the most researched rainforest in the world where insects are still being discovered and even the full distribution ranges of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are being constantly enlarged upon.
For wildlife enthusiasts, Danum Valley is said to have the highest concentration of orangutans in the world, making it the best place to see these majestic creatures in the wild.
Located in the heart of the forest, Borneo Rainforest Lodge offers dramatic views of the towering jungle looming across the Danum River. The accommodation – 30 individual chalets with en-suite facilities – stretches either side of the large main lodge with its open, airy bar and lounge area, all built-in wood and tastefully furnished.
The lodge was established in 1994 primarily through the efforts of Dr. Clive Marsh, a British rainforest ecologist and conservationist who was the conservation officer for Yayasan Sabah (Sabah Foundation). It has been a great success – both commercially and as a wonderful education and interpretation vehicle to aid long-term preservation of the rainforest.
The lodge follows a stringent green policy through a variety of initiatives including waste management, energy consumption and noise reduction to limit human activity and to minimise their carbon footprint and offers excellent employment and environmental education opportunities amongst the local communities.
Besides the orangutans, Danum Valley is a sanctuary to an incredible array of wildlife including pygmy elephants, clouded leopard, bay cat and about 340 species of birds.
Well beyond the crowded streets of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, hidden in one of Cambodia’s prettiest and remotest corners, lies Bill Bensley’s pristine nature sanctuary offering ultra-luxury, exclusive glamping experience focused on nature and wildlife conservation.
The seeds of this unique project were sown in 2010 when world-renowned resort designer and owner, Bill Bensley, came upon an unprotected wildlife corridor connecting the Bokor National Park and Kirirom National Park on the southern border of the Cardamom National Forest. His desire was to protect the pristine 865-acre river valley from illegal and uncontrolled poaching, mining, and logging, which lead him to acquire this concession in the park.
In the beginning, Bill had not planned to set up an eco-tourism project, but after a few other initiatives, it became clear to him that a high-yield-low-impact camp was going to be the most effective and sustainable way to protect the forest. Since 2018, Shinta Mani Wild has been luring the eco-conscious travellers away from the well-trodden trails around the Temples of Angkor into the heart of the Cambodian wilderness and has put this remote region firmly on the Cambodian travel map.
Set along 1.5 kilometres of river and waterfalls, the camp features 15 custom-designed tents offering plush accommodations with unparalleled views and experiences. Built and operated to cause minimal impact on the natural surroundings, the camp has a ‘no-single-use-plastic’ policy in place, all food is organic and locally sourced, and more than 70% of its 120 employees come from the nearby villages.
Shinta Mani Wild’s core mission is to protect its private forest and their partnership with Wildlife Alliance – previously known as the Global Survival Network – an international non-profit organisation, has transformed the area into a thriving sanctuary.
The profits generated from Shinta Mani Wild funds a dedicated Wildlife Alliance ranger station in the park and guests are invited to join the rangers in anti-poaching and anti-logging patrols, removal of snares, setting up of camera traps, and catching and rehabilitation of vulnerable animals.
The region offers incredible outdoor experiences including birdwatching, expedition boats on the river, foraging and cooking, hiking, mountain biking, picnics at waterfalls, sustainable fishing, kayaking, and ziplining.
Images by kind courtesy of:
Borneo Eco Tours, Shinta Mani Wild, Elise Hassey, Flame of the Forest, Misool, Shawn Heinrichs, Tobias Zimmer, Matt Oldfield, Jones SHimlock, Gal Oya Lodge, Campbell Brewer, Pano.