Phuket, Bali, Koh Samui and Langkawi are popular for good reason–they offer beautiful beaches and plentiful activities, while mostly maintaining the standards of living that Westerners are accustomed to. But there’s something to be said for breaking away from the beaten path, even if it requires a little bit more initial effort. Away from the tourist trail, quiet, clean beaches, deserted waterfalls and thriving dive sites await.
The following ten secret Southeast Asian islands aren’t necessarily undiscovered, but they’ve so far remained unspoiled by the overdevelopment. And if true relaxation is the goal, that can make all the difference.
This private, one-resort paradise is actually made up of two island gems – Koh Ouen and Koh Bong – in the Koh Rong Archipelago off of Cambodia’s major port and tropical tourism centre, Sihanoukville. A 35-minute boat ride brings guests to Song Saa, where rainforests and tropical reefs are the only neighbours of the resort’s over-water, jungle or ocean-view villas.
The Song Saa resort is committed to sustainability and as a result, the waters around the Ouen and Bong islands have been designated as Cambodia’s first marine reserve (to the benefit of snorkelers, of course). Guests have reign over the two islands and can choose to dine in secluded spots, join rainforest encounters and island safaris, and even indulge in yoga practice at sunrise.
Looking for an island escape? Check out the Luxury Escapes offer for Song Saa resort in Cambodia here.
Indonesia’s Moyo Island may only be a helicopter ride away from Bali, but its vibe couldn’t be any more different. Moyo is another one-resort island and that resort is Amanwana–an upscale tented camp from the Aman brand that could convince even the most luxurious traveller to ditch the brick and mortar.
Time spent on Moyo is all about mingling with wildlife and exploring ancient fishing villages. The island is a designated nature reserve and is home to cheeky macaque monkeys, wild pigs, deer and feral cattle, while its strips of forest are dotted with bat caves and limestone waterfalls. The waters off of Moyo are equally as exciting and the island is surrounded by pristine coral reefs that have turned this into a legitimate diving destination.
Also in the Koh Rong Archipelago off Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Sanloem is the little sister of Koh Rong, and it’s where off-the-beaten-path travellers are heading to avoid the crowds that Kong Rong has become accustomed to hosting. Sanloem’s main beach, the crescent-shaped Saracen Bay, boasts three kilometres of white sand and a selection of hotels and bungalows, while the local fishing village at M’Pai Bay is a good choice for budget travellers.
Across the island from Saracen, the lost-in-time Lazy Beach has just one hotel with basic bungalows, mosquito nets, hammocks, some board games, and not much else. Sanloem is surrounded by bio-diverse dive sites and crisscrossed by trekking and biking trails that reveal attractions like a historic lighthouse and waterfalls.
With some very basic accommodation options, Mabul Island may not sound like your first choice for a tropical escape off Malaysian Borneo. But, as it’s surrounded by sandy flats and silty slopes, this unlikely spot has become known as one of the best niche diving destinations in the world.
The nearby Sipadan Island might be your best bet if you’re looking to drop in on larger creatures and vibrant coral, but at Mabul, the name of the game is muck diving, and the miniature players include various colourful species of scorpionfish, frogfish, nudibranchs, cuttlefish, octopus, shrimp and seahorses. The island is also home to a village of nomadic Bahau people – sometimes referred to as Sea Gypsies for their water-based lifestyle.
Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island measuring in at over 40 kilometres from north to south, and is arguably home to the country’s best beaches. It’s also closer to Cambodia than to Vietnam, but don’t mention that contentious fact while you’re there. Despite its location, ferries reach the island only from several points in Vietnam, but an international airport means that the destination is accessible from near and far. Phu Quoc is best known for its production of fish sauce, which is made from the abundant populations of anchovies that ply the island’s waters. Visitors can also visit black pepper and pearl farms, local night markets and take part in unique squid fishing tours come nightfall.
Phu Quoc is best known for its production of fish sauce, which is made from the abundant populations of anchovies that ply the island’s waters. Visitors can also visit black pepper and pearl farms, local night markets and take part in unique squid fishing tours come nightfall.
Bali’s neighbour used to be little more than a surfer’s paradise but today the tourism industry has picked up on Nusa Lembongan, and the island now offers a range of accommodation to suit both backpackers and families. But that doesn’t mean that the touts, taxis and tour guides of Bali have caught up. No, Lembongan is today what perhaps Bali was in the past: a slow-paced haven of relaxation with a side of beautiful beaches, coastal paths and seaweed farms.
Most hotels on Lembongan are concentrated around the island’s two main beaches: Jungut Batu and Mushroom Bay, while other parts of the island’s coast are dominated by walkable cliffs or mangrove forests ripe for kayaking. Lembongan’s clear waters encourage snorkelling, scuba diving and free diving; sea turtles, manta rays and oceanic sunfish are notable locals.
Malaysia may not be host to the region’s most lively party scene, but the fire shows, hookah bars and thumping music on Perhentian Kecil’s Long Beach could give almost any hedonistic Thai “hat” a run for its money.
The island and its quieter neighbour – Perhentian Besar – are almost completely closed down during the monsoon, so when high season comes around, you better have a booking if you plan to stay on any of the beaches. And you better bring plenty of cash–there are no ATMs here. The Perhentians are located in a designated marine park, and snorkelling and diving trips are available in droves. Most restaurants offer seafood barbecue meals and a couple serve beer.
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second largest island (smaller only than Phuket) but that doesn’t mean that it’s anywhere near as overdeveloped as its competitor. Located in the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border, Koh Chang is decorated on its west coast by numerous sandy beaches, while the mountainous interior of the island remains largely untouched. Lonely Beach is the centre of Koh Chang’s lively backpacker party scene, while White Sand Beach is overall the island’s most touristy and developed strip.
The island is included in the Mu Ko Chang National Park, which is made up of around 50 islands and attracts day trippers, divers, snorkelers and paradise-seekers. Most boat trips into the park leave from the pier at Bang Bao in Koh Chang’s south–a former fishing village that now hosts several hotels, souvenir shops and some seafood restaurants.
Off mainland Malaysia in the South China Sea, Pulau Tioman sits like an emerald green gem rising out of clear turquoise waters. The large island’s coast features various white sand beaches with different scenes and accommodation offerings, while Tioman’s rugged interior makes moving from beach to beach overland nearly impossible. A rough road (only accessible by 4×4) traverses the island between the main port town of Tekek (which has an airport and several duty-free shops) and the local village of Juara, where an interesting turtle conservation centre is located.
The island itself is known for its incredible biodiversity – inhabitants range from huge monitor lizards to black giant squirrels, while snorkelling just offshore can yield sightings of black tip reef sharks and banded sea snakes. The island can be reached by ferry from Mersing in Malaysia’s south, which makes Tioman a popular choice for weekend trips from Singapore.
Those who’ve spent time on Koh Kood (also known as Ko Kut) contend that it’s Thailand’s best island. It’s not plied by crowds, it’s not noisy with nightlife, and it’s not in tout territory. What it has been for years, though, is tour territory – Kood has traditionally stood strong on the package tour circuit, as the remote location can be tricky to reach independently. Today, more and more travellers are making the trek and being rewarded by pristine powder beaches and verdant jungles, where exactly one road runs from north to south (sometimes it’s even paved!) and two small villages subsist partially through coconut and rubber cultivation.
Koh Kood is Thailand’s easternmost island and is a neighbour of Koh Chang, but don’t expect the crowds, parties or general level of activity that the latter has grown to offer. Kood is best for those looking to lounge on the beach or maybe take a nap in a hammock… and not much else.
Koh Kood is Thailand’s easternmost island and is a neighbour of Koh Chang, but don’t expect the crowds, parties or general level of activity that the latter has grown to offer. Kood is best for those looking to lounge on the beach or maybe take a nap in a hammock.
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