Best Wildlife Watching in Asia (10 Great National Parks)

Wildlife watching in Asia header image. Kevin Hayler on the Kinabatangan river. Oxbow lake by drone
Yours truly on the Kinabatangan River

Where can you actually SEE the best wildlife in Asia? Many parks in Asia are fantastic on paper. You get excited, turn up, and see virtually nothing.

In this post, you’ll discover the best wildlife watching in Asia. I’ve visited each park personally over the years and they are full of glamorous stuff.

  1. Kanha NP in India for Tigers
  2. Kaziranga NP in Assam, N.E.India for One-Horned Rhinos + Elephants
  3. Periyer NP in Kerala, S.India for Elephants + Gaur (Indian Bison)
  4. Bardia NP in Nepal, for Rhinos
  5. Yala NP in Sri Lanka for Leopards + Elephants
  6. Gunung Leuser NP in Sumatra, Indonesia for Orangutans
  7. Kinabatangan NP in Sabah, Borneo for Pygmy Elephants + Orangutans
  8. Komodo NP in Indonesia for Dragons + Manta rays
  9. Khao Yai NP in Thailand for Gibbons + Hornbills
  10. Raja Ampat Is in Papua, Indonesia for Diving + Birds of Paradise

When I say Asia, I’m referring to the Indian sub-continent and SE Asia as a whole. 

If wildlife is your thing, it has to be said that most of the best safaris are to be had in India.

I could’ve listed the top 10 Indian parks and with the exception of a few, they’d all be better than you’ll find elsewhere.

In the end, I had to make some choices, and in compiling a list of ten, I’ve tried to include ease of access, affordability, and a variety of different species to watch and enjoy.

With that in mind, let’s start with 3 of the best Indian National Parks for wildlife watching.

Kanha National Park

Wildlife watching in Asia. A tiger crossing a track in Kanha national park in India
Tiger watching in Kanha NP, India

I’ve visited Kanha NP many times over the years and seen it progress from a cheap sleepy secret in the back of beyond to a wildly popular expensive free for all to the park it is today, a well organized modestly priced wildlife haven that gets better and better and not worse.

Wild tigers are at the top of everyone’s wish-list and in Kanha sightings are not only likely but in the hot season, it’s virtually guaranteed.

There are two open seasons, the pre-monsoon and the post-monsoon and both have their attractions. The park closes for the duration of the monsoon.

The park opens from November when the trees are in full leaf, the grass is tall, lush and green.

This is when the animals are having their young. Deer fawns are everywhere and the birds are nesting.

Further Reading: How to Find Wild Tigers on a Budget

The landscape at this time of year is at its most beautiful but sightings are more difficult. 

My first visit was back in the ‘90s and I arrived in November in November. It took me 11 safaris to see my first tiger. But at that time I also saw a leopard, wild dogs (dholes) and a wild cat. Hardly wasted time.

In the post-monsoon, winter season the morning drives are surprisingly cold. If you come prepared with a wind-cheater and even some gloves and a woolly hat you’ll be thankful.

As the season continues and the days get longer and hotter the sightings improve.

By March the landscape is mostly brown with only the damper areas having any color.

The best wildlife viewing is between March and June before the park closes for the monsoon.

As the foliage dies back and the Sal trees lose their leaves the landscape is opened up and the watering holes attract the wildlife.

As the monsoon approaches, temperatures soar and the land bakes. Midday is oppressively hot and you’ll be desperate for AC.

If you are lucky this is when tigers are more likely to rest up in the watering holes.

Wildlife that you have a high chance of seeing include

  • Tigers
  • Leopards
  • Wild dogs (dholes)
  • Barasingha deer
  • Spotted deer
  • Barking deer
  • Wild boar
  • Jackels
  • Gaur  (Indian Bison)

For a more comprehensive article about Kanha read all about it HERE

Kaziranga National Park

Best rhino watching in Asia. One horned rhino in Kaziranga National Park. Assam
Indian one-horned rhino in Kaziranga NP

If you want to see Indian one-horned rhinos in large numbers head for Kaziranga in the state of Assam in NE India.

The best time to visit is after the elephant grass has been cut in March.

Locals are allowed to harvest the grass once a year and this opens up the otherwise hidden world.

That’s not to say it’s pointless visiting when the grass is high but it does mean its more open to luck what emerges from the undergrowth.

I’ve had some great sightings there. Rhinos and elephants are guaranteed. Deer abound and tigers exist in healthy numbers and are seen regularly, usually as they cross the roads.

One ethical dilemma that you may face is whether or not to ride an elephant.

One way of being absolutely certain of getting close up to the rhinos is on elephant-back.

A jeep restricts you to the tracks and the watchtowers and the wildlife can be far away or frustratingly out of view. 

I can’t tell you how well they treat their elephants but I suspect they use the same methods as elsewhere. I’ve seen elephant training in Nepal and it was brutal.

That said, the ride is for one hour only in the early morning in two shifts and over flat ground.

The elephants are also allowed to graze and socialize within the park. Compare their lives with temple elephants and I know which have better lives.

Tough call.

I chose to have a ride well before it became a known welfare issue and yes I saw rhinos close up and believe it or not, I also saw a tiger!

Expect to see the following wildlife:

  • Rhinos
  • Elephants
  • Barking deer
  • Swamp deer
  • Hog deer
  • Wild water buffalo
  • Wild boar.

You may well see:

  • Hornbills
  • Otters
  • Bison

Hope to see:

  • Tigers
  • River Dolphins
  • Leopards

Periyar National Park

Early morning walk past Periyer lake in Periyer national Park, Kerala, India. 
Reflections over the lake
Periyar Lake in the early morning

At the other end of the country in the southern state of Kerala, lies a reserve that was once such a poor experience that visiting was a farce.

Times have changed and Periyar has had a renaissance. The management has enacted that most successful of formulas by employing the poachers as gamekeepers.

Now they act as guides leading groups out for 3-hour treks in the mornings and in the late afternoons. 

In addition, there is overnight camping, canoeing, and night patrolling.

Plus the popular cruise boat around the lake.

The great joy of Periyar is being able to walk in the park. Few reserves in India allow such freedom and seeing wildlife on foot has an excitement you can’t get in a vehicle.

Periyar is most famous for its elephants and you’ll be certain to see them, but Periyer offers so much more.

The big cats are present if elusive. I missed a sighting by minutes on a morning walk when another group of hikers took great delight in telling us they’d just seen a black panther.

I did see a wild dog dash past me, so that was a consolation.

Expect to see:

  • Elephants
  • Sambar deer
  • Barking deer
  • Gaur (bison)
  • Wild boar
  • Short clawed otters
  • Nilgiri Langur (black monkey)
  • Giant squirrel

Hope to see:

  • Tiger
  • Leopard/black panther
  • Dholes (wild dog)
  • Lion-tailed macaque

Bardia National Park

A male blackbuck stands his ground in a blackbuck reserve near Bardia NP in Nepal
Blackbuck in the reserve near Bardia NP

Back up north for this park and over the border into Nepal.

This park is not to be found in the mountains but in the Terai, the lowlands that border India.

Overshadowed by the popularity of Chitwan, Bardia has retained its charm.

Chitwan is cursed by the proximity of Kathmandu and Pokhara and has developed unsympathetically. 

Thankfully Bardia is further away. It takes another day to reach and escapes mass tourism. No bars along the river here.

Village life still goes on around the park. It’s a scene of rural beauty where traditional buildings still dominate and concrete has yet to destroy the atmosphere.

Walking and camping are permitted in the buffer zone and jeep safaris will take you into the core areas.

It was on our camping trip that I saw the biggest Asian bull elephant I’ve ever seen. It was an enormous tusker with a great domed head. In profile, it could’ve been a mammoth.

The guides were very wary and led us away to a safe distance at speed. Very exciting.

We disturbed two rhinos wallowing in a mud hole too as we walked around and saw a family of otters incredibly close.

We didn’t see any big cats but when we were camping our guide pointed out the pugmarks from a tiger that had walked past our tents during the night.

A couple of detours nearby the park gives you the opportunity of seeing gharial crocodiles lying on the banks of the Karnali river. I saw them from the main road.

And I rented a pushbike and visited a Blackbuck sanctuary.

The males have got to be the most striking antelopes on earth.

They have a black upper body, a white underside and white rings around the eyes, and they sport the most amazing spiral horns.

The herd is in a small reserve that looks more like a municipal parkland than a sanctuary. 

Dotted about the grasslands are great trees that add drama to the scenery and provides some wonderful backdrops.

Well worth a visit in my view. 

I didn’t see a tiger when I was in Bardia but I was assured that my timing was the main reason for that, and they are commonly sighted.

My visit coincided with a tiger census and the park was inundated with researchers and the cats had gone to ground.

As poaching has been effectively controlled within the park I have no doubt the chances of seeing a tiger are high.

Animals you can expect to see:

  • Rhinos
  • Swamp deer
  • Spotted deer
  • Gharial croc
  • Mugger croc
  • Wild Boar

A good chance:

  • Elephants
  • Tigers
  • Otters

Touchwood but don’t get your hopes up:

  • Leopard
  • Gangetic dolphins

Yala National Park

Wildlife watching in Yala National Park. Sri Lankan Leopard.
Sri Lankan Leopard

If you were to guess whereabouts in Asia you are most likely to spot a leopard you probably wouldn’t think of Sri Lanka.

The official park website states confidently that Yala contains the highest concentration of Leopards in the world.

I’m sure that claim is contestable but the leopards are so used to tourist jeeps, they make no attempt to hideaway.

There is a very good chance of watching leopards but you won’t be alone. Too many jeeps and not enough leopards to go round.

To have a nicer experience choose one of the less popular entry points and avoid the scrum.

You may well see a leopard anyway.

I have only visited one time and for one safari so I’m no expert on this park. I can say as a layman that the wildlife and feel of Yala NP are very similar to parks you find in  India, only without the tigers.

It may be true that many Sri Lankan animals are endemic subspecies but you have to be a zoologist to appreciate the differences.

Expect to see:

  • Elephants
  • Spotted Deer
  • Water buffalo
  • Sambar deer
  • Wild boar
  • Mugger croc

You might see:

  • Leopards
  • Jackel

Hope to see:

  • Sloth bears
  • Fishing cat

Gunung Leuser National Park

Wildlife watching in Asia. Baby orangutan in Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra
There are many orangutans in the fruiting season

A complete about-turn takes us to the jungles of northern Sumatra.

This is a park I know well. I include it because the chances of seeing wild orangutans are very high. Go when the fruits are ripe and you will see wild orangutans.

But I did have reservations about including this park. Why? Because I only recommend it for seeing wild orangutans in the fruiting season. At other times larger animals are scarce and you, as a casual visitor might think it wasn’t worth the effort.

If you don’t mind seeing semi-wild orangutans, then the rehabilitation centers at Sepilok in Sabah or Tanjung Puting NP in Kalimantan might suit you better. 

Gunung Leuser National Park and the ecosystem as a whole occupies an enormous area yet few people visit beyond the former rehab’ center of Bukit Lawang.

N.B. Bukit Lawang is a weekend getaway for city-folk to party, eat and feed the orangutans. It has no credible conservation value whatsoever. 

To get a better experience you should visit Ketambe Village, a day’s journey from Medan.

Unlike Bukit Lawang, I encourage you to visit Ketambe. Not only are the locals friendlier, the guides know more, and the prices are reasonable.

Fruiting season is Dec-Jan and Aug. With a well-timed visit in Dec or Jan, you can have the place virtually to yourself.

And Ketambe needs your help. This section of the park faces so many threats that without more tourist trade I’m not sure if this area has a good future.

Further reading: The Best Place to see Wild Orangutans

The orang sightings are mostly to be had in the Gurah forest adjacent to the far end of the village.

It’s a patch of old-growth rainforest joined by the tiniest of corridors linking the northern edge to the body of the park. Encroachment has all but severed this vital link.

If you are up to the challenge, trekking into the wild interior is perfectly possible. There are few other parks in Asia where this is as easily arranged and as affordable.

Camping by the Gurah river and day walks are the mainstay for most visitors. It’s adventure ‘lite’ and most people get to see their orangutans.

For an added side trip, consider going to Blankerjeren about 3 hours further along and higher up.

The weather is cooler, which is a Godsend and you can access the forest from the village of Kedah a 20 min ride from town.

Mr. Jali has his tiny jungle resort at the forest’s edge and there is a good chance of seeing orangutans, siamangs and white-handed Gibbons.

Expect to see: 

  • Orangutans
  • Thomas leaf monkeys
  • Hornbills

You might see:

  • Siamang gibbons
  • White-handed gibbons (not in Gurah)
  • Pig-tailed macaques

Wish to see:

  • Sumatran Tiger 
  • Sumatran Elephants
  • Sun Bear
  • Sumatran Rhino.
  • Clouded leopard
  • Marbled cat

With a 1 week trek, you do have a realistic chance of encountering elephants. There are many on the Kapi Plateau. 

You can find everything else too, all the rarest and most glamorous wildlife live in Kapi. Sadly they don’t like us, so getting a sighting is virtually impossible.

Kinabatangan River

Sabah in NE Borneo has cut down vast swathes of forest but pockets remain, some virtually untouched, some selectively logged and others intact but way over-priced.

Kinabatangan is none of the above. It’s a linear sanctuary, pinched-in on all sides by palm oil plantations.

The reason it’s great for viewing wildlife is the result of its former destruction. The wildlife that remains has nowhere else to go.

A cruel irony, but even this remaining forest has a vital role to play. It acts as a reservoir of life should the opportunity arise for re-wilding.

Pygmy elephants on the Kinabatangan River
Pygmy elephants on the banks of the Kinabatangan River

That’s not pie-in-the-sky either. The state government of Sabah has legislated that all palm oil concessions up for renewal will have to return 50% of the land back to forest.

The future looks a little brighter!

Most sightings are made by boat. It’s the easiest spotting imaginable. The lower reaches are perhaps the best for sightings but a trip along the side channels and oxbows anywhere can get great results.

Proboscis monkeys are common, several hornbill species are seen, elephant numbers are increasing and encounters are getting more and more frequent.

Orangs are seen regularly but usually from a distance. If you’re hiking you may with luck see an orangutan feeding lower down.

Spotlighting at night is fun and can reveal crocs, fishing owls, sleeping birds, snakes, you never know your luck. I even spotlighted a Malaysian Hog Badger.

Expect to see:

  • Hornbills 
  • Proboscis monkeys
  • Silver langurs
  • Crocodiles
  • Kingfishers
  • Serpent eagle
  • Monitor lizard

You might see:

  • Pygmy Elephants
  • Orangutans
  • Otters
  • Slow Loris
  • Fish owl
  • Civet
  • Various snakes.

Good luck with seeing:

  • Clouded leopard
  • Marbled cat
  • Flat-headed cat
  • Leopard cat
  • Sun bear

Komodo National Park

Wildlife watching in Asia. A wild Komodo dragon awaits its prey
A wild Komodo dragon lays in wait

When I first visited Komodo NP back in 1990, they put on a macabre dragon show. A goat would be butchered and hung up for the dragons to rip apart.

Thankfully times have changed. Everything is well ordered, controlled and easier to reach.

The islands of Komodo and Rinca have better protection these days but inevitably the quiet charm has disappeared. My base in Labuanbajo was a fishing village in 1990 and now it’s a small town and a tourist hub.

Komodo offers you the chance of getting close to the dragons but most visitors are coming for some of the finest diving on the planet. Komodo has a lot to offer.

Your first encounter with the dragons will be at the Rinca HQ where they lie around basking all day long waiting for kitchen scraps. It can be underwhelming. Smaller than you thought and lazier. It’s not until you see them in the bush that they regain an edge. 

A dragon lying under a bush and ready to ambush passing prey has a very different feel to a pile of dragons scavenging around the HQ

On my last visit, I saw a dragon digging up a Maleo birds nest. A maleo is a ground loving bird that lays its eggs in a hole and piles earth up ontop to incubate the brood.

You can take some trekking routes for an overview of the islands. If you go in the rainy season you’ll see the park at it’s best. Rolling hills of green grass, dotted with palms. You’ll see feral water buffalo and possibly wild boar and rusa deer.

The archipelago is dotted with colorful coral reefs in clear water and the icing on the cake is the most spectacular diving.

Komodo has extraordinary currents and this attracts the big stuff. ‘Castle’ and ‘Crystal Rock’ are two pinnacles covered in corals, standing tall in the open sea.

You hang on for dear life as the currents try to tear you off the rock and watch as the grey sharks swim in and out of the blue. Anything might swim by, Napoleon wrasse, barracuda, mantas, giant trevallies. If you look one way, you’ll miss something on the other side. It’s that good.

The dragons are interesting and you’ll get most out of your trip by taking a long hike but I will return for the sea life.

Expect to see:

  • Komodo dragons

Possibly:

  • Water buffalo
  • Timor Deer
  • Wild boar.

Diving:

  • Mantas
  • Grey reef sharks
  • Blacktip reef shark
  • Whitetip reef shark
  • Giant Groupers
  • Napoleon wrasse
  • Giant Trevally
  • Barracuda
  • Eagle rays
  • Turtles

And the list goes on and on…

Khao Yai National Park

Great Hornbill flying in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Great Hornbills are common in Khao Yai

Underappreciated by the hordes heading for the beaches, Khao Yai NP is one of the best in Asia and only 2-3 hours from Bangkok.

It has the same impressive wishlist of animals you get for most parks but with a good chance of actually sighting them. Everything is possible, except tigers. Tigers should be present but there has been no sign of them for years. However, all is not lost.

Khao Yai is part of a Unesco world heritage site that embraces 5 adjoining parks. And the good news is there are good populations of tigers in nearby Thap Lan and Pang Sida National Parks. An underpass under a busy road now links Thap Lan with Khao Yai so maybe tigers will discover it soon.

Why they don’t relocate a few is a mystery to me but then I’m a simple soul.

You’ll see plenty of life. Gibbons are commonly heard and with patience easily seen. Sambar deer are unafraid and you’ll see barking deer too if you are quiet. You don’t have to go far before you see something.

Pig-tailed macaques are everywhere and as always are more of a nuisance than a pleasure.

Most visitors stick to the easiest viewing areas so getting away from the crowd is easily done. There are two self-guided forest trails and options to go further with a guide.

Visitors can overnight in chalets or rent a tent and sleeping bag and camp.

You’ll see more if you go spotlighting. Even around the campsites, you’ll see civets and porcupines. You will see plenty of deer. Sambar and barking deer are common and you might see a mouse deer if you are lucky.

Khao Yai is accessed from Pak Chong which is still 30 mins drive from the park entrance. It is possible to book tours and stay in a resort along the main highway or rent a scooter in Pak Chong and please yourself.

Expect to see:

  • Sambar deer
  • Barking deer
  • Pigtailed macaques
  • Wild boar 
  • Gibbons
  • Hornbills

You might well see:

  • Elephants
  • Civets
  • Porcupines

If you are lucky:

  • Gaur (Bison)
  • Otters

In your dreams:

  • Sun bear
  • Moon bear

Raja Ampat Islands

Beautiful tropical beach in the Raja Ampat Islands. Papua, Indonesia.
Just another day in the office

I couldn’t end this list without including paradise now, could I? 

A few years ago I flew to Papua and the unknown and it blew me away. It was the classic tropical beach cliche with soft white sand, palm trees, bamboo huts, and coral gardens right offshore. 

Days went something like this…

 Hammock-Eat-Snorkel-Repeat

What makes Raja Ampat so unique is the richness of its reefs together with a low key homestay program. This is your dream, realized. 

The profusion of life has to be seen to be believed. I snorkeled over reefs with more fish than I would normally see diving. Indeed I limited my diving BECAUSE the snorkeling was so good.

And most of the time you just swim from the beach.

The shoals can be big and so can the fish. Napoleon wrasses are everywhere, turtles are common too, barracuda, trevallies, reef sharks, wobbegong sharks, mantas, the list goes on. All can be seen while swimming.

Further reading: Raja Ampat, a Paradise for Divers, Birders, and Romantics

As it that’s not enough, the jungles teem with exotic birds. Parrots, black and sulfur crested cockatoos, hornbills and best of all 2 species of Birds-of-Paradise.

The locals know where they display and will guide you to the sites. 

The Red BOP display on the tops of dead trees. They zig-zag up and down the tall branches and flip over to shimmy their plumes.

The Wilsons BOP likes to clear a patch of the forest floor and call a female down where he dances for her with his iridescent feathers fanned out.

The Reds are not shy and clearly visible, especially with binoculars. The Wilsons perform their rituals just beyond the openings of primitive hides. So much for weeks in the jungle getting the shot. A few filmmakers should visit Raja Ampat.

Expect to see:

  • Mantas
  • Blacktip reef sharks
  • Giant Parrotfish
  • Turtles
  • Barracuda
  • Giant Trevally
  • Napoleon wrasse
  • Redbird of paradise
  • Wilsons Bird of paradise
  • Sulfur-crested cockatoo 
  • Black cockatoo

You’ll probably see:

  • Wobbygong shark
  • Walking shark
  • Hornbills

You might see:

  • Grey reef shark
  • Whitetip reef shark
  • Cuscus 

This area has some of the greatest marine biodiversity on the planet so the list is just the tip of the iceberg.

Conclusion

I wrote this list in frustration. I googled ‘the best parks in Asia’ and what a lame set of results. It was obvious to me that the authors hadn’t been to their suggested places or they were promoting their own tours. 

I knew I could come up with a more reliable list based on first-hand experience.

As I said at the beginning, most of the really good parks are in India so I could’ve swapped Yala in Sri Lanka for Nagarahole NP in India for instance. I didn’t, because I wanted a more inclusive list.

This selection should whet the appetite.


Before you go, check out these articles too:

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