Beyond Bali: Five Lesser-Known Islands in Southeast Asia To Visit

Beyond Bali: Five Lesser-Known Islands in Southeast Asia To Visit

So long, Phú Quốc. We’ve stepped off the backpacker trail and hit the cerulean waves on an island-hopping adventure across Southeast Asia to bring you five lesser-known locales for a winter sun escape

Asia nails the tropical island brief, but with its
predictably powdery beaches and cerulean waters come crowds of
barefoot travellers all trying to pinch the same section of sand.
Skip the overtourism – and the boozy backpacking droves – with a
visit to these five lesser-known locales that reflect the region’s
quieter side.

Splendid isolation: lesser-known Southeast Asian islands to

Mabul, Malaysia
Photo credit: Kaikpus /



Located just off the southeastern coast of Malaysia, this tiny
island is a utopia for divers: in-the-know deep-sea voyagers have
been heading out here since the late 90s, their Garmins navigating
them towards one of the world’s top dive sites, Sipadan island.
Whether you’re a PADI pro or prefer to simply dip your toes in,
Mabul delivers, with chances to spot marine magic both under and
above the waves. Once you’ve frolicked with turtles, blue-ringed
octopuses and hammerhead sharks, you’ll be negotiating with local
fishermen for their best catch-of-the-day price back on the beach.
Sundowners? Head to Mabul
Water Bungalows’
wraparound terrace. The property’s stilted
bungalows are surrounded by Tiffany-blue waters, while shores are
tickled by swaying palms. It’s paradise without the sky-high price

Koh Mook, Thailand

Koh Mook


Steer clear of the well-trodden tourist path littered with
cocktail buckets, UV paint and the gap-yah brigade with a visit to
this community-oriented Thai isle – the closest you’ll come to
living out your The Beach fantasies. Koh Mook is a small, car-free
island consisting mostly of deep jungle fringed by golden crescents
of sand (in fact, much of the island’s rugged interior sits within
the Hat Chao Mai National Park). Europop-blaring tuk-tuks have yet
to make their way over (largely due to there being no car ferry in
service), so pedal your way to snow-white Sivalai Beach to laze
under palm trees, or swim through Emerald Cave to explore an
isolated green lagoon with a breathtaking beach. Come evening,
we’re slowing down in the sleepy Baan Koh Mook village, where there
are a few low-key bars and laid-back cafés, before slipping into a
canopy-crowned bed at the idyllic Inhale Hill.

Koh Tonsay, Cambodia
Photo credit: Matyas Rehak /

Koh Tonsay


As far-flung Southeast Asian islands go, Rabbit Island (as it’s
more commonly known) is one of the more easily accessible options
on this list, being just a 30-minute boat ride from Kep, but its
rugged charm and rustic lifestyle remain unspoilt. Days here are
best spent alternating between lounging in hammocks and dozing on
soft sands (just don’t be alarmed if the odd chicken wanders past),
before scoffing fisherman’s fare in restaurant shacks along the
shore. Evenings are for swapping travellers’ tales or, more
commonly at weekends, warming up the vocals and blaring out
ear-splitting renditions of cult favourites from a pop-up karaoke
bar to a bemused local crowd.

Hon Nghe, Vietnam

Hòn Nghệ


If Phú Quốc is the poster child for clear waters, fine-grain
sand and refined resorts, then Hòn Nghệ is its barefoot, easygoing
sister. Expect to be the only sun worshippers on this minuscule
island, which rarely features on itineraries. Pitch up under the
stars and wake early to make the pilgrimage to the statue of
Guanyin, perched atop the hills, for sunrise, then head seawards in
the afternoon to try your hand at squid fishing. As with all
Crusoe-esque islands, seafood cuisine rules, so expect dinners
fresh from the waves.

Belitung, Indonesia



Side-step the Aussie-accented crowds in Bali with a visit to
Belitung. One of thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian
archipelago, this diminutive destination, just off the east coast
of Sumatra, promises honey-hued sands strewn with sea-washed
granite boulders, colourful Dutch colonial-built seaside towns and
not a nightclub in sight. Drop your bags at the
sustainability-focused Eco Beach Tent, then hop on a boat to explore
the more than 100 surrounding islets. Set sail for Lengkuas to spy
a 141-year-old lighthouse, slip into the sea to snorkel between
coral reefs, or head back to land to hike up the granite face of
Batu Baginda, accompanied by chattering monkeys and rowdy cicadas.
Note that the forested geopark surrounding this incredible rock
formation is currently under regeneration. Much of the island has
been scarified by palm plantations, but a Unesco designation in
2021 is raising hopes that Belitung’s unique geological features
can be preserved and protected.

This article was updated on 13 January 2023.

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