Indonesia has an estimated 17,508, (when they last counted) The Philippines 7107, (7100 at low tide), and Thailand’s not doing too bad either with a tropical island paradise to suit every taste. There’s no doubt that South East Asia’s got more than its fair share of beautiful tropical islands.
Maybe it’s down to the cool sea breeze, the sound of the waves coming into the shore or perhaps the laid back vibe, but there’s a certain sense of magic about island life that you just can’t seem to replicate inland.
Wherever you backpack in this part of the world, the lure of the isles is never far away and each sparkling gem seems to offer something just a bit different from the next. Here are some of the most popular islands amongst backpackers in South East Asia.
Where will you find your tropical island paradise?
1. Koh Phangan, Thailand
Perfect for: Ravers and Bohemian Beach Bums
Get your face paint and glow sticks at the ready for what is probably THE best beach party in the world. Each month, thousands of backpackers hit the sands from dusk until dawn at the Full Moon Party in Haad Rin. As If that wasn’t enough, there are also the Half Moon and Black Moon festivals now too! This is party paradise. Yet for those backpackers willing to stick around a while, you may discover there’s more to Koh Phangan than meets the eye. As the majority of revelers move on as the Full Moon Party ends, take the chance to explore the rest of this tropical paradise. You will be rewarded with gorgeous deserted beaches, cascading waterfalls and some amazing snorkeling. As well as beautiful countryside, Koh Phangan is also a haven for yoga and meditation – perfect for those backpackers wanting to get in touch with their spiritual side when in South East Asia.
Want to find out more?
- Read our Travel Guide to Koh Phangan
- Find out Full Moon Party, Black Moon and Half Moon Dates for 2011-12
2. Si Phan Don, (Four Thousand Islands) Laos
Perfect for: Stoners and Bookworms
Take it easy, relax, then just chill out a bit more! There’s little else to do here in this backpacker hang out, Don Dhet, just one of the tiny islands sprinkled on the vast Mekong River in Southern Laos. Days are spent reading and lazing about in a hammock. You can also try your luck at spotting the rare and endangered species of Irrawaddy Dolphins that inhabit the waters here. When you get fed up of relaxing, you can rent a motorbike, head over the old French Railway Bridge to explore nearby island Don Khon. Those feeling adventurous can follow the tricky dirt track to visit the biggest waterfall in South East Asia, ‘Khone Phapheng’ – dubbed the ‘Niagara of the East.’
3. Cat Ba Island, North Vietnam
Perfect for: Karaoke Experts and Mountain Hikers
Cat Ba is the largest island of the spectacular Cat Ba National Park in Northern Vietnam, home to UNESO World Heritage site, Halong Bay – perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in the whole of Vietnam! Most backpackers land on Cat Ba Island from a 3-day Halong Bay trip from Hanoi and their first glimpse of the island is the touristy ‘Cat Ba Harbour’ which, complete with a prom, feels like an ‘oldy worldy’ English Resort – except with lashings of Bia Hoi! The resort is also popular amongst Vietnamese ‘weekenders’ which explains the abundance of karaoke bars on offer. For those willing to get away from the tourist town, Cat Ba reveals itself into a jurassic wonderland, complete with golden beaches, mountains and dense jungle. There are plenty of treks that which offer magnificent views of the incredible karst landscape of Cat Ba National Park. A jungle covered adventure playground with kayaking, rock climbing and trekking, Cat Ba National Park is also home to many endemic species of plants, birds and mammals, including the world’s most endangered primate, the golden-headed langur. The mammal is not found anywhere else in the world and sadly today, due to continued poaching, there are an estimated 60 left.
Want to find out more?
4. The Gili Islands, Indonesia
Perfect for: Sun Worshippers and Party Animals
The Gili Islands are located off the coast of north east Lombok – a ferry ride away from Indonesia’s most popular tourist magnet, Bali. There are three islands, Gili Air, Gili Trawangan and the smallest, Gili Meno and each one is blessed with powdery white sand and incredibly clear turquoise waters. No wonder backpackers have been calling these islands paradise for years. And, there are no cars, no motorbikes, no dogs and no police to interrupt the bliss! Snorkeling and diving here is heaven in the translucent clean water that is warm like a bath. Many backpackers arrive here with the plan to stay for a few days and end up spending months on the islands! For those looking for some fun, head to Gili Trawangan where you’ll find chilled out backpackers and locals partying on the beach every night. There are rumoured to be only 800 permanent residents in Gili Trawangan. Will you make it 801?
5. Koh Tao, South Thailand
Perfect for: Divers and Friends of Divers
Travelling is all about trying something different and seeking out new adventures and most backpackers head to this small island in the Gulf of Thailand for one reason – to DIVE! 3-day PADI courses here are amongst the cheapest in Thailand and there are over 60 schools on the island that will take you out to sea and give you your first taste of the underwater world. Spot turtles, puffer fish, barracuda, sting rays, trigger fish, nemo and at certain times of year, even catch a glimpse of the giant whale shark which graces Thailand’s warm waters from March-May and again from September – October. Many people who try diving for the first time are bitten by the bug and end up staying a lot longer than they planned! Koh Tao seems to have some kind of magnetic charm which draws a fun-loving expat community who spend their days diving and nights sipping beers in one of the cool candle-lit bars of Sairee Beach. Not a bad lifestyle! For non-divers there is plenty to do from sunbathing on gorgeous sandy beaches, fishing and sailing trips or for the more active, rock-climbing and even a trapeze school!
Want to find out more?
- Read our Travel Guide to Koh Tao
- Read our Koh Tao Dive Site Guide
- Read our article ‘Taking the First Plunge, learning to dive in Thailand.’
6. Pulau Samosir, Sumatra, Indonesia
Perfect for: Culture Vultures and Intrepid Explorers
Most travellers arrive on the island of Pulau Samosir after a string of uncomfortable chicken-bus rides from elsewhere in Sumatra. Wherever your travels have taken you so far in Indonesia, be it to the depths of the jungle to spot orangutan or to the peaks of steaming volcanoes, rest assured that Pulau Samosir is a place where you can relax. Placed like a pebble in the centre of the largest crater lake in the world, Lake Toba, Pulau Samosir is a small island with a big personality. The island is home to the friendly, fun-loving Batak people whose hospitality will make you feel right at home and local cuisine will blow your mind! A motorbike ride around the island will reveal its’ wonders. Discover a landscape of luscious green mountains, sprinkled with waterfalls and hot springs. Traditional Batak houses shaped like boats, ancient tribal village sites and Dutch colonial churches give the island a distinct character in Muslim dominated Indonesia and a rich cultural heritage that is unique to this special island.
Want to find out more?
7. Komodo, Indonesia
Perfect for: Bear Grylls and Bruce Parry
You’ll feel like you have stepped into a scene from Jurassic Park on this isolated, untamed island which makes up part of the Lesser Sunda Island Chain of Eastern Indonesia. With the island of Flores to the east and Sumbawa to the west, Komodo is part of Komodo National Park and is a far cry from the Thai islands in terms of popularity! There are no full moon parties here. Some backpackers book a trip to Komodo as part of an organised boat tour from the Gili Islands or Lombok. As you land on the island and gaze at the rugged unforgiving terrain, you half expect a dinosaur to pop his head around a tree. Oh look one just did! The island of Komodo is famous for the giant monitor lizard, the Komodo Dragon and adventurous travellers can take a trek into the wilderness to seek out these prehistoric beasts. It’s a risky business however, as rumours say that one bite from the lizards can instill enough bacteria to kill a human in days! Aside from its most famous resident, the island itself is a haven for nature lovers with mountains to climb inland and pristine coral reefs to dive offshore.
8. Koh Chang, Thailand
Perfect for: Hippies and Bangkok Expats
Just a 5-hour bus journey from Bangkok, Koh Chang is the perfect island getaway after all the sight-seeing and too much bucket drinking in Bangkok! The persistent sound of the frog lady will begin to disappear as you step onto the shores of Koh Chang. Most backpackers make a bee-line for Lonely Beach with it’s hippie vibe, cool live music venues and rustic feel, it’s a great place to chill out and cheap too! The floating fishing village of Bang Bao is just a motorbike ride away and offers a different feel than Lonely Beach, with cute bakeries and local fresh fish restaurants. Coral reefs offshore offer great diving and a jungle-clad interior make this a great island to explore and the perfect break from Thailand’s hectic capital.
9. Palawan, The Philippines
Perfect for: Rugged Adventurers and Nature Lovers
Not just one, but 1,780 exquisite pearls make up the narrow jungle clad strip that is Palawan. A far cry from the touristy shores of Thailand, the island attracts intrepid explorers and ecological enthusiasts. Most travellers arrive in Puerto Princesa, the islands charming capital and explore the city’s quirky vibe before heading out on a dusty, windy road that leads through jungle and promises more adventure. Jaw-dropping El Nido has been dubbed as one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world and its east to see why with jagged limestone karst, clear turquoise waters perfect for snorkeling and diving and white sandy shores. Once an undiscovered paradise, El Nido is becoming more popular with adventurous backpackers willing to make the journey. And as if that wasn’t enough for the island of Palawan, there is the beautiful Coron, famous for its wreck diving due to the large number of Japanese warships sunk offshore. Coron is also renowned for its breathtaking lagoons, bleached white sandy beaches and clear seas. For the adventurous backpacker, Palawan is an unbeatable island to explore…
10. Koh Phi Phi, South Thailand
Perfect for: Leonardo DiCaprio, Fire Dancers and Swedish Beach Babes
“It’s where they filmed The Beach.” is something that you’ll hear again and again in Southern Thailand. And it’s true that Koh Phi Phi saw Leonardo DiCaprio grace the sands to film the Hollywood version of Alex Garland’s classic backpacker novel, but there’s a lot more to Koh Phi Phi than this one beach. Koh Phi Phi is actually made up of two islands, Phi Phi Leh and Phi Phi Don. While uninhabited Phi Phi Leh is listed a National Marine Park, Phi Phi Don is where you will find the hotels, bars, restaurants and an extremely lively party atmosphere. No trip to Koh Phi Phi is complete however without a long-tail trip to explore the islands treasures. Jutting limestone crags, turquoise waters that are just teeming with tropical fish and golden beaches nestled in-between the cliffs – every bit as beautiful as the hype! And if you want to get away from the crowds, renting a kayak from the island’s main beach and paddling just an hour or two you can still find deserted shores where you can recreate your own version of ‘The Beach.’
11. Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Perfect for: Fish Sauce Enthusiasts and Motorbike Riders
From crazy Ho Chi Minh City, it is just a one-hour flight to the largest island in Vietnam, Phu Quoc. The sound of a million motorbikes and commotion of the city will disappear as you stroll mile upon mile of deserted white-sand beach front on this little-visited tropical island. Local markets, fresh seafood restaurants, sandy beaches and a charming laid-back atmosphere make this a great place to chill out for a few days after your travels in Vietnam. Hire a motorbike to explore the untouched countryside inland or head out with a diving company to discover the untouched reefs and abundant marine life that beckons just offshore. Famous for its traditional home-made products of fish sauce and black pepper, until recently, the island was only occupied by local fisherman, but in the last 25 years the population has increased by over 10 times! Rumours suggest that the island is currently being primed for mass tourist development with huge flashy resorts… Go now and see this empty utopia before it changes forever!
12. Pulau Perhentian Kecil
Perfect for: Shisha Pipe Puffers and Laid-Back Lovers
Not as difficult to pronounce as it is to get here, Pulau Perhentian Kecil is worth the effort on both accounts. This tiny island is situated on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia making up the beautiful Perhentian Islands. (Perhentian actually means ‘stopping-off point’ in Malay which refers to the role of the islands as an ancient trader base between Bangkok and Malaysia. Around a 6-hour journey from KL’s manic bus station, you’ll want to chill out the minute you get here… and you are in the right place! Kick off your flip-flops and relax on this palm-fringed crystal with stunning sandy beaches, hidden coves and translucent waters that are perfect for snorkeling and diving. You won’t find raging night-life here, however if sitting on the beach with a cocktail and shisha pipe in hand watching the sunset is your idea of paradise then look no further.
Other islands worth a peek…
- Koh Rusay, Cambodia: Just one hour boat ride away from Sihanoukville, you’ll find no TV or internet here. Also known as Bamboo Island.
- Koh Phayam, Thailand: Is this the real deal? Deserted beaches, little in the way of tourism and a burgeoning environmentally friendly approach.
- Koh Lipe, Thailand: Read our article ‘An Uncrowded Island Paradise.’
- Pulau Nias, Indonesia: Surf’s up on this isle off the Western Coast of Sumatra, once part of the 1960′s hippie trail. Rugged and beautiful and worth the wait for the weekly ferry from the mainland.
- Langkawi, Malaysia: An archipelago of 99 pearls with bright white beaches and amazing snorkeling. The beer is tax free too!
- Boracay, The Philippines: The ultimate beach holiday, white beaches and wicked party atmosphere that draws thousands backpackers and tourists alike.