One of the top appeals of Southeast Asia are its excellent array of islands and beaches. Where should a beach bum head?
The opening of Burma’s stunning coastline is one of the most exciting things to hit tourism in the region in recent years. While it's still very much an early work in progress, it's worth watching and considering. The beach scene here is conveniently split into two main segments: the northern Andaman Sea (so accessible from Yangon), with locations including Ngapali, Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung, and further down the coast, out from Dawei, Myeik and Kawthaung.
Ngapali is by far the most developed (and most expensive); if you’re after comfortable (albeit regionally expensive) beachside lodgings, angle towards here. Those who want more of an adventure and have a bit of time on their hands should consider heading south towards less-developed Dawei and Myeik. We’ve seen some breathtaking photos of the islands out from these ports.
Burma has no seriously surfable surf; as with Thailand’s Andaman coast, think calm lapping waters and no shortage of palm trees. Unlike Thailand, many of the beaches in Burma are still primarily working beaches—meaning fishing communities will be making a living along the same stretches of sand that you might be planning to sunbathe on.
This means two things. Firstly, the beach may be a bit dirty: Perhaps a fisherman is stripping paint off his boat with a bucket of chemicals just up the beach from you or fishing nets (or the catch) are laid out to dry. For many, this will be more interesting, but our advice is simply to not expect blissfully deserted sand. Secondly, and more importantly, bear in mind local sensitivities when on the beach. Nudity and topless sunbathing are absolute no-nos. When you’re walking around, guys and girls, please put some clothes on to keep everyone comfortable.
For years Cambodia’s beach scene was largely reserved to the strips of sand around Sihanoukville and Kep. Of the two, Sihanoukville had the better beaches, but they were always far from world class, especially when compared to the beaches on the islands just over the border in Thailand. Over the last decade though, Cambodia’s islands have taken off and changed everything.
While this burgeoning scene faces complex development challenges, some of the beaches on Koh Rong Samloem and Koh Rong are A-grade ace—comparable to some of the best beaches on Ko Kut in Thailand (which is home to some of the best beaches in Thailand, in our opinion).
These are the archetypal white-sand, turquoise-water deals, with a wobbly but photogenic pier slicing out into the ocean. In season the millpond waters are bathwater warm, forming the backdrop to the kind of scene where you find a hammock in the morning and all of a sudden it's dinner time and Frodo is still in the Shire.
In off season, the seas get very rough, some resorts close and the ferry timetable drops off in frequency. Could you surf? Maybe, but we wouldn’t pack a board.
With well over 10,000 of them, Indonesia is no slouch when it comes to islands, but for the majority, little to no infrastructure makes them challenging to visit. With a few exceptions, notably Bali, Lombok’s Gili Islands, a few islands off Flores and Sumbawa, and Sulawesi’s Togean Islands, islands and beaches in Indonesia tend to be of the working variety. This means tourism is an afterthought (if any thought at all). If your primary goal is calm waters, white sand, a beach umbrella and (increasingly) a cold beer, Thailand is often a better choice.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a surf beach, then you’re in the right part of the world. Indonesia has some absolute world-class waves, and even for a non-surfer, these make for great spots to relax.
Despite the accolades, when it comes to sheer beauty, Bali’s beaches are far from the best in the country. But if you want a pretty beach with all the creature comforts, then it can tick a lot of boxes. Bear in mind that many of Bali's beaches are of the black sand variety. Also, during the monsoon, Bali’s beaches (and all of Indonesia’s beaches for that matter) can be filthy (see more below). At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, using Bali as a centrepoint, the further east you go, the better the beaches become.
While Laos doesn’t boast any white-sand beaches with lapping waves, it does boast a series of islands in the southern reaches of the country. Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon all form a part of what is known as the 4,000 Islands, a popular locale for hammock swinging and watching the Mekong River slide by. While there isn’t any surf, you do still need to be wary of currents—that river will whisk you down to Cambodia in no time.
As with the working beaches in Burma and Indonesia, Laos’ rivers are very much of the commercial variety, so expect to see plenty of fishermen, and at times other extractive activities, we’ve seen people gold panning with mercury on the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Vientiane—not a great idea for healthy swimming.
Both East and West Malaysia have beaches and islands, though they’ve not developed in quite the appealing way of Thailand’s. Accommodation in particular can be very hit and miss. Penang, arguably Malaysia’s best-known island, is better regarded for its food than its beaches. If you are in Malaysia primarily looking for beaches, we'd head to Langkawi over Penang (though definitely go for Penang if you are into your food).
Other areas, such as the Perhentians and Tioman on Peninsular Malaysia, and the islands dotting the periphery of Sabah in Borneo, offer solid beach fare. You will find some surf on Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, with Cherating being the most popular spot for a wave.
The northeast region of Peninsular Malaysia is the most religiously conservative of the entire country. While the islands, notably the Perhentians, are pretty freewheeling, the mainland is not so; conservative dress is recommended. Alcohol also can be hard to track down, so don’t be heading to mainland beaches from Kota Bharu with plans for cheap beers under the palms.
As an island state, Singapore has plenty of coastline, but the beaches are far from world class. The two primary beach strips are Sentosa Island, and a long strip of beach running along the East Coast out towards Changi International Airport. The former is lined with fancy resorts and overpriced bars and restaurants, but does have reasonable swimming. The latter is more laidback, more affordable and ideal for kids, but it overlooks Singapore’s main anchorage and is not great for swimming. Neither is really a highlight of Singapore, but if you’ve got a few days up your sleeve and are all shopped out, there are worse ways to lose a day.
For travellers looking for an easy beach break, Thailand really is difficult to beat thanks to its broad choice of beaches and islands, well-developed tourism infrastructure and a reasonable price tag.
Islands range from heavily touristed, long-time favourites to the obscure; all are within an hour or so's ferry ride from the coast. The country has more than 30 islands that are inhabited to some degree and nearly all of them boast solid beaches and (in season) calm waters. This is, after all, where The Beach was set!
Thailand's southern reaches, both on the east and west coasts, are famous for their snorkelling and diving, but they’re also fine choices for easy and relatively affordable beach holidays. Most islands are quite well touristed, and the mainland beaches are likewise growing in popularity. Some of the islands and beaches have not developed in the most sustainable manner, but for those with a bit of time and flexibility, most tastes are catered to somewhere in the country.
While Thailand does have a monsoonal climate, there are enough islands, and they are well distributed enough, that you’ll be able to find a comfortable bit of dry sand almost any time of the year.
Vietnam is no slouch on the beach and island front, though the country’s best known island, Phu Quoc, is reeling under the weight of vast and fast development. Other nearby islands show promise for independent travellers, but the Vietnamese government’s on-again, off-again attitude towards access complicates the matter.
A short flight from Ho Chi Minh City lie the Con Dao Islands, which are growing in popularity and have much to offer. Up the coast, Cham Island out from Hoi An remains a popular destination both for its beaches and diving.
Vietnam’s mainland beaches, like Indonesia’s, are often working beaches first and trash can be a big problem, though there are some tourist enclaves where tourism is a local mainstay. Mui Ne, just a few hours from Ho Chi Minh City by bus, is one of Southeast Asia's top kite-surfing spots.
We do need to highlight again here that we’ve never been to the Philippines—and many agree the beaches there are wonderful.
Unfortunately, you can’t talk about beaches and islands in Southeast Asia without also talking about the trash.
No doubt you’ve seen the glorious photos of gleaming white sands lapped by teal waters (we have our share of them on Travelfish.org) but it is important to note that many beaches are not like this year-round. In off season, sadly, you may be as likely to find yourself counting as many sodden nappies as hermit crabs. Once you’ve been hit in the face with a nappy while body surfing you’ll never look at a nappy with the same eyes again—they hurt!
In season, along beaches where people make an effort to keep the sands clean, Southeast Asian beaches can be jaw-droppingly beautiful. But during the monsoon, expect trash, both natural flotsam and manufactured rubbish that's the result of inadequate waste management, either near the beach, or miles from it, thanks to ocean currents.
There are plenty of things you can do aside from looking at the trash and whining about it. Organise a beach clean-up yourself or donate a day to an organised beach clean-up—Trash Hero does great work across the region, for example. Use recyclables, such as a refillable drinking bottle. Don't litter yourself, obviously. If you smoke, keep your butts in your pocket. Collect any packaging you bring with you and take it away with you as well. It’s a cliche, but really, try to leave nothing but footsteps.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.