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It’s no secret that Southeast Asia nails the tropical island brief, but with predictably powdery beaches and cerulean waters come hordes of travellers seeking a portion of the same picture-perfect pie. Catering to the times when all you want is to fall into a sun-kissed stupor, these islands are yet to succumb to the pressures of overtourism and boozy backpackers. In short, these are the places where uttering the phrase “Full Moon Party” is considered blasphemy.
1. Mabul, Malaysia
Located just off the southeastern coast of Malaysia lies a tiny little island that’s an utopia for divers. Deep-sea voyageurs have been flocking to the islet since the late 1990s due to its proximity to one of the world’s best dive sites, Sipadan island. Whether you’re a PADI pro or just dipping your toe in, frolic with turtles, blue-ring octopus and hammerhead sharks. Negotiate with local fishermen for their best catch-of-the-day price before joining them for sundowners on Mabul Water Bungalows‘ wraparound terrace. Nicknamed the “Malaysian Maldives”, Tiffany-blue water surrounds the stilted bungalows while shores are tickled by swaying palms. It’s paradise without the price tag.
2. Koh Mak, Thailand
Steer clear of the well-trodden, tourist path that’s littered with cocktail buckets, UV paint and the gap-yah brigade and head to this community-oriented Thai isle – the closest you’ll come to living out The Beach fantasies. A group of four families privately own the island and are dedicated to maintaining its eco-friendly and sustainable credentials. Euro-pop blaring tuk-tuks have yet to make their way over (largely due to the fact there’s no car ferry in place) so peddle your way across from Ao Kao pier to the deserted Suan Yai Beach, where virgin sands are backed by sprawling coconut groves. On your way back, stop by the Seafood BBQ for fried soft-shell crab smothered in garlic and black pepper. Then, retreat to ramshackle Banana Sunset bar to sink punchy sundowners on the pier.
3. Koh Tonsay, Cambodia
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 (it’s just a 30-minute boat ride away from Kep) but due to its rugged charm it remains a haven for those seeking the simple life. Days are spent alternating between lounging in hammocks and dozing in sun-bleached sun loungers, before gorging on fisherman’s fare. Evenings are for swapping travellers tales or, more commonly at weekends, warming up the vocals and blaring out ear-splitting rendition of cult favourites from a pop-up karaoke bar to a bemused local crowd.
4. Hòn Nghệ, Vietnam
If Phú Quoc is the poster-child for gin-clear waters, fine-grain sand and refined resorts then Hòn Nghệ is its barefoot, unkempt little sister. Rarely featuring on itineraries, expect to be the only sun worshippers in the sweeping bays of this minuscule island. As with all Crusoe-esque islands, seafood cuisine rules and the raucous exchange and furious bargaining between residents and fishermen on the floating pontoon quickly becomes one of the day’s highlights. Pitch up under the stars and awake early to make the pilgrimage to statue of Guanyin, perched at the top of Hang Pagoda mountain, for sunrise. Barter with islanders to try your hand at squid fishing before falling hook, line and sinker for a bucket of mud clams.
5. Palawan, Philippines
Recently scooping the accolade for the “World’s Best Island”, Palawan is a postcard-worthy paradise akin to those you’ll find on a glossy holiday brochure – yet has somehow managed to stay somewhat under that radar. Rocky coves, sugar-white beaches and hypnotically warm waters give you reason enough to flee to this far-flung island where you can paddle between the piercing blue waters of El Nido Marine Parks deep lagoons. Check into Pangulasian Island where you’ll rule over your own slice of nirvana from the comfort of your own private pool. Boasting sunrise and sunset views, early risers should kayak out to the marine sanctuary, while night owls should take advantage of the in-room massage service and a lie in. The 750-metre stretch of bleached sand backed by verdant forests should satisfy Monday morning daydreams for at least a year to come.
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