There are literally thousands of islands in South-East Asia, ranging from tiny, uninhabited atolls to heavily populated slices of land, larger than some European countries. It would take a lifetime to explore all the islands in the region but these are 10 islands I think all tourists should have on their must-visit list:
Thailand’s largest island is an obvious choice but it is where I fell in love with Thailand, so it has a special place in my heart even if it’s running the risk of over-development. A big bonus is Phuket’s International Airport, which makes the island easy to get to, plus there’s a range of beautiful beaches where you can relax, swim, snorkel, jet-ski, go paragliding or just get a massage. There are many night-time entertainment options such as Phuket Fantasea, a high-tech extravaganza of acrobatics, comedy and dance, as well as bars and clubs in Patong to suit all tastes. Phuket is also an ideal base for day trips to some stunning smaller islands in Phang Nga Bay and the Andaman Sea.
Phuket's Famed Beaches
Vietnam’s largest island is mountainous and forested with white sandy beaches. Despite recent development I still think it is the perfect tropical getaway. You can relax in a picture postcard setting and I love kayaking around the quiet inlets or diving the coral reefs. If you want to explore the island (most of it is a largely untouched national park) you can hike or ride motorbikes on the dirt roads. At night I like to just relax with a fresh seafood meal and a cocktail on the beach watching the sun go down.
Sunset off Phu Qhoc Island
The largest island off Sumatra in Indonesia, Nias is a surfer’s paradise with, consistently good waves. The swells are sometimes too big for me however you don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy Nias as there are picturesque bays with white sandy beaches. It’s also a party island with friendly people and unique celebrations. War Dances are performed regularly and you may also see Stone Jumping, a manhood ritual where young men leap over two meter stone towers.
Don Dhet/Don Khon
Landlocked Laos is not famous for islands but Don Khon and adjoining Don Dhet lie in the middle of the Mekong River near the Cambodian border. These islands offer a taste of Lao life, with reminders of the region’s French colonial past mixed with the traditional rural villages. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets make these islands good places to relax in a hammock, but I recommend cycling and hiking around Don Khon and visiting the Li Phi waterfalls. Take a boat cruise on the river and you might see some uber-rare Irrawaddy dolphins off Don Khon’s southern coast.
Ko Russei is an hour’s boat ride from Sihanoukville and I think it’s one of Cambodia’s hidden gems. It’s got golden sands, a relaxed vibe, lots of bamboo (“russei” is Khmer for bamboo) and, somewhat bizarrely, some antique Russian guns between the beaches. The tiny permanent population and only a handful of resorts means it’s perfect for those that don’t like crowds. Ahh, the serenity…
The Philippines is an archipelago so wherever you go, you are on an island. My favorite is Mindoro because of the spectacular Apo Reef which is a brilliant place for scuba diving. The reef is 34-kilometers long, making it the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world. Even if you don’t like diving, Mindoro has Mount Iglit-Bacu National Park where you can see tamaraws (similar to carabao) and wild animals found nowhere else on Earth.
The Similan Islands are nine uninhabited islands in the Andaman Sea around 50 kilometers from Khao Lak. They have spectacular beaches and some of the best diving and snorkeling spots in Thailand but there are no resorts or stores so don’t expect to spend a long time in paradise. There are a few bungalows so it is possible to spend the night, but during rainy season (May-November) Similan becomes almost inaccessible.
The Sisters’ Islands
Sentosa is Singapore’s main tourist island but I prefer a more relaxing time on the Sister’s Islands which offer great sandy beaches and coral reefs only 15 minutes from the city center. Separated by a narrow channel, Big Sister Island (Subar Laut) faces the sea while Little Sister Island (Subar Darat) faces mainland Singapore. There’s a rich variety of marine life around the reefs while lying in the sun on the golden sands will make you forget the crowded metropolis nearby.
Rinca is a small Indonesian island near the famous Komodo Island. Being lesser known and visited it is a much better place to see enormous Komodo Dragons in their natural environment. I think a day trip is all you need but those freaky lizards will make it a day you won’t forget.
I live in Bangkok and occasionally need to escape the crowds and traffic jams. My favorite refuge is Koh Samet, 3 hours away by taxi/van and speedboat. If you go mid-week you can have one of the beaches to yourself but it does get crowded on weekends and holidays. Days are for relaxing and swimming (or join the locals playing volleyball or football if you like); nights are for dining and drinking on the beach while watching one of the fire dancing shows.
Weekend at Koh Samet
Stuart Clarke is a freelance writer based in Bangkok who has written articles for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers and Rolling Stone magazine.