Southeast Asia is a region of remarkable natural beauty, warm locals and delicious beach weather. With so many islands, it is hard for first time travelers to Asia to know which islands are the best to visit. There are so many islands, that even people who travel often within Southeast Asia might see places on this list that they have yet to visit. Here are 12 islands you won't want to miss on your next trip to Southeast Asia.
12 Islands in Asia to Add to Your "Must-Visit" List
Singapore is a great place to start this list because it is the perfect middle between Western comforts, styles and foods and their Asian counterparts. This island city is tidy, with clean streets and polite locals. The downtown area of the island is more similar to Manhattan than to some of the other islands on this list. Singapore offers great shopping and the island is a large market for luxury goods. Singapore is probably the most expensive island on our list, but it’s worth every penny.
Koh Rong is the jewel of Cambodia. The small island is just off the coast of Sihanoukville. While many of the islands in the region have gotten a reputation as party islands, Rong stands out for its natural beauty. This island has those beaches that so often make it to our computer desktop backgrounds. The white soft sand and sapphire water are really second to none. Rong is relaxing and peaceful. Another benefit of the island is that it is close to the border with Thailand.
Koh Phangan is the ultimate Thai party islands. Every full moon, it hosts a massive dance party on the beach that starts three nights before the full moon itself. During those few hectic days you should expect to have more fun than at any other party in your life. The weird thing about Phangan is that it doesn’t need to be a party island to get visitors to come because the natural beauty of the landscape is undeniable. The landscape of rocky hills covered with jungle that stick out into the sea is very beautiful.
Once upon a time, Koh Samui was a small fishing village on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, but now it is a thriving tourist destination. I would love to have listened to that conversation in which some visionary looked at the unbelievably gorgeous natural setting and said “we should bring tourists here!”. In my opinion, that guy deserves a Nobel Prize or something. Samui gives you the best of the Thai islands in one place. While not as unbelievably gorgeous as Phi Phi, you’re still going to have a hard time believing that such a beautiful place as Samui exists. The nightlife and party in Samui is second only to Phangan, which is not necessarily something bad if you’re looking to have fun but still retain your liver. Samui is also a popular destination for ‘LGBT tourism’.
Koh Phi Phi gained a lot of fame from the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio which was filmed there. The audience saw the natural beauty of the setting with disbelief that there was such a beautiful place in the world. Phi Phi is actually split into two islands, and the beach from the movie is a national park called Maya Bay that can only be visited during day hours by water taxi. Phi Phi Don, the island that is inhabited, is not any less beautiful than the famed Maya Bay. There are many things to do like swimming with phytoplankton or visiting monkey island. The parties in Phi Phi are not bad either.
Phuket is Thailand’s largest island and third most populous city. While the other Thai islands are known for partying and beauty, they are also very secluded. Phuket offers all of the amenities that you could want from a city. There are large malls, foreign restaurants, nightclubs and much more. The beaches are not bad at all. As a matter of fact, the only reason that they’re not famous is because the standards of beauty for Thai islands is higher than for the Miss Universe pageant. Phuket is a good place to start a trip to Thailand and offers many of the luxuries that don’t make it to the smaller islands.
Koh Tao is our choice for wildcard. The tourism industry in the island is not as developed as the industry is in the other Thai islands on our list. This means that a trip to Tao is more rustic, down to earth and relaxed. The number one thing to do in Tao is getting under water for a scuba dive or snorkeling. Since the island doesn’t get as many tourists as some of the others, the reefs are in great condition. Tao can be reached by car so that is also a big plus.
Bali is the jewel of Indonesia. The island is famous with tourists for packing in everything that you might want to experience in a Southeast Asian nation. The island has many temples nestled in the forest as well as rice paddies which dot the landscape. Bali is basically like visiting a post card. The beach is spectacular. I hate making this list because some of these islands are so beautiful that they are impossible to describe, such as Bali. The landscapes around this island are just as good as the diving (there’s a WW2 wreck just offshore) and many people go to Bali for great surf.
Lombok is our second choice for Indonesian Paradise. Lombok and Bali are neighbors, but don’t let their proximity fool you, they are quite different. Lombok has become known as the ‘unspoiled Bali’ since the area is much less exploited for tourism. This island will offer a glimpse of what life used to be like back in the day. Lombok is about going to relax in some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is also about exploring a different culture and maybe stepping out of your comfort zone. Something that might surprise you is that the ecosystems of the neighboring islands are totally different. Bali has Indo-Malaysian vegetation, Lombok has Australasian species.
No good list of Southeast Asian islands could omit the best of the Philippines. The whole country is just a massive collection of islands and we could make an entire list just for the Philippines (but we didn’t). Boracay is just four miles long but it packs in a lot. The beaches are spectacular and many are beautiful and secluded beaches which are perfect for honeymooners. Boracay is probably in the top 5 list for most beautiful beaches in the world. Don’t forget to visit the Bat Cave, which is a cave full of bats.
Many people visit Palawan because it makes logistical sense to stop there on your way to or from Borneo. However, don’t imagine that this is some railroad town, Palawan is a world class destination. It is known for the delicious food that can be found in the town of Puerto Princesa. As with many of the other islands in this list, the beaches in Palawan are gorgeous. There are many islands and villages that can be visited from Palawan, so you might find that this island is as much a gateway to a new adventure as it is a destination within itself.
Omitting Malaysia’s natural beauty on this list would border on being a crime against humanity. Langkawi is actually an archipelago with 99 islands. Palau is the largest of these islands and the place where you would most likely stay. The beaches are beautiful but you might not spend too much time laying on them. There are so many activities in the archipelago that you will be surprised. Much of Malaysia still retains its natural beauty and the country’s tourism is not as developed as it is in Thailand or Bali. This means that a trip to Langkawi is a trip to a different world, a trip back in time, a trip to a tropical paradise.
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This article was written by Amid Bennaim.
Hero image by Jonny Clow.