Southeast Asia offers some of the most spectacular diving in the world. The region traverses where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet, with much of its eastern reaches encapsulated by the stunning and largely pristine Coral Triangle.
Divers can undertake a wide variety of dives and there are sites that will impress, and are suited to, all skill levels. Costs by international standards are very reasonable, though those looking for more creature comforts can spend more if they'd like to—fancypants liveaboards can be world class.
If you’re looking at getting underwater for the first time, Southeast Asia is a great place to learn. Introductory PADI and SSI courses are offered in loads of locations and you'll most likely be able to step into a course shortly after arrival. Popular destinations to do the first certification course, known as Open Water, include:
Cambodia: Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem
Indonesia: Amed (Bali), Gili Islands, Labuan Bajo and Togean Islands
Malaysia: Perhentian Islands and the Sipadan area
Thailand: Ko Tao, Ko Lanta and Phuket
Vietnam: Phu Quoc Island and Nha Trang
Burma’s dive scene is the least developed in the region thanks to country's long years of tourism isolation. Since the late 1990s, a nascent liveaboard scene has developed operating out of Phuket and Khao Lak on Thailand’s southwest coast. This situation is expected to change as tourism develops in Burma.
The diving in Burma is focused around the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea. As it is primarily liveaboard focused, the scene is aimed more at experienced divers than beginners. This may change as the selection of shore operators expands.
The diving season in Burma runs from October to May, with the latter part of the season considered to be better for whale shark sightings.
The diving scene in Cambodia was once based out of Sihanoukville on the country’s south coast, from where you’d visit the key dive sites surrounding the offshore islands. However as the island scene on Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem (and other islands) has developed over the last decade, plenty of dive outlets now operate on the islands themselves. You can still dive from Sihanoukville, but many are opting for using the islands as a base now.
It would be fair to say that thanks to unsustainable fishing practices in the past, including dynamiting, the diving in Cambodia is not in the same class as Thailand, and a significant step below that of Malaysia and Indonesia. Still, it's growing in popularity (as are the islands in general) and new sites continue to be unearthed. Sites for now are centred around Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Tang and Koh Prins. Much of the diving is in relatively shallow water, making Cambodia a good alternative to Thailand for those wanting to learn.
While it is possible to dive year-round, the primary dive season in Cambodia is November through to late May or early June.
Indonesia is home to some of the best diving in Southeast Asia, with Komodo National Park, Bunaken, Alor and Raja Ampat being four of the absolute highlights. The Togean Islands (also in Sulawesi), Bali and nearby Nusa Penida, and the Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok are also popular.
Indonesia offers dive sites suited to a range of levels. Bali and the Togeans, for example, are popular places to learn or accumulate early dives, but considerably more challenging diving is also available in the same areas. If you’re looking for somewhere just to learn and perhaps do a couple of casual easy dives, Thailand or Malaysia may be better options.
Straddling the divide of the Pacific and Indian oceans, an amazing throughput of water is responsible for an incredible underwater biodiversity. The eastern reaches of the country, essentially from Bali to Papua, forms the base of the Coral Triangle—recognised as a global centre for biodiversity.
Liveaboards, which range from affordable to extortionate, are a popular mainstay of the diving industry in Indonesia, but you do not have to do a liveaboard to dive. Dive resorts, and places that can just facilitate diving should you be interested, are scattered right across the archipelago.
Indonesia has no specific dive season—the country is so vast there will always be somewhere to dive.
Malaysia’s best diving is concentrated along the east coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. Here you’ll find the world class Sipadan, lying off the coast of Semporna. This is as great as diving gets in Southeast Asia. While there is more diving around the park, diving Sipadan itself costs a bit of money and involves booking well in advance, so factor that into your travel plans.
A long way down the scale from Sipadan, the Perhentian Islands, off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is also very popular, and far more affordable, though the diving is not of such an outstanding standard. Here you’ll find some of the cheapest diving in Southeast Asia and while it gets very busy (we once counted more than 40 divers underwater with us) the easy access to some wrecks and an easy-to-learn vibe similar to that of Ko Tao in Thailand brings in the punters.
Thailand has long been the most popular destination in the region for independent travellers to learn to dive. Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand is the epicentre of this scene. It gets busy—very, very busy underwater on Ko Tao. Other areas popular for diving include the Similan and Surin islands, Phuket, Khao Lak, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Lipe on the west coast, and on the east coast, Ko Chang and Ko Kut. Visibility is considerably poor on the eastern islands near Cambodia.
Thailand’s diving is not of the same class as Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines, but, well, if you’ve just learned in Thailand, it's all pretty impressive. Learning and fun diving in Thailand is also very affordable.
Thailand’s dive season runs year-round, but the peak diving period is between November to April. February to May is the prime time to see whale sharks.
As with neighbouring Cambodia, the diving should be considered a bit of a step down in quality from what you’ll experience in nearby Thailand (and a leap down from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines). Diving centres are located in all the above, along with more far-flung locations like Con Dao, so you will be able to easily learn to dive in any of these places, and conditions are reasonable for beginners.
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.