Pack your bathing suit and sunscreen—these Southeast Asia beaches are some of the most popular tourism destinations in the region, attracting visitors with their white-sand beaches, clear waters, and sizzling nightlife. We've put together a list that represents Southeast Asia's best, covering a range of budgets and seasonal availabilities (beaches in Bali are wide open when beaches in Thailand are rained out, and vice versa).
You'll find some surprises in the list below: Phuket in Thailand makes it, as does Ngapali Beach in Myanmar, about as laid-back as Phuket is busy. Reopened Boracay keeps its place on the list (work in progress as it is), alongside up-and-comers El Nido and Malaysia's Perhentian Islands.
The islands of El Nido are, perhaps, one of the Palawan Island’s best places to visit. El Nido town looks out to Bacuit Bay and a collection of gorgeous limestone islets (ideal for several days’ worth of island-hopping and beach bumming).
There’s a lot you can do in El Nido, well worth the long jaunt to get here—kayaking at Miniloc's Big and Small Lagoons, watersports around Bacuit Bay, and hiking amidst the karst outcrops off El Nido town. At any time of the day, you can hop through El Nido town’s bustling restaurants, and cafes, and have dinner right on the beach after dark!
Thanks to the El Nido Pumpboat Owners and Operators Association, boat-hopping rates have been largely standardized, ranging from PHP 1,200-1,400 (US$ 23-27).
Visit El Nido from the months of November to May when the Philippines’ weather is at its yearly driest and coolest (relatively speaking). To get here, you can take a bus, van, or plane from the island capital Puerto Princesa, or ride a turboprop from Manila. Read about transportation to El Nido, and compare rates on El Nido budget resorts.
Perhaps the region’s most popular beach destination, this island – the largest in Thailand – offers plenty of fun within its varied terrain.
Its water sports activities are top-notch, befitting an island with some of the world’s finest beaches. Patong Beach is perhaps the island’s most popular tourist haunt, owing to its easily-accessible beachfront, raucous nightlife, and cheap shopping.
The influx of tourists has meant greater development for the island, and more activities as well. You can play golf at the island’s world-class golfing facilities, watch a muay thai (kickboxing) match, or enjoy a fine meal at one of the island’s many restaurants. If you want to see fewer people and less development, head on down to quieter beaches like Laem Ka or Naithon.
Phuket is best visited from November to February – the weather cooperates to give you stunning blue skies and clear waters. From May to October, the monsoon season means daily rain and dangerously strong currents. The island is accessible through its own airport, the second-largest hub in Thailand.
Bali is a prime destination for tourists seeking a rich local culture, beautiful beaches (Kuta Beach’s surfing is world-class), raucous nightlife, delicious food, and free-flowing Bintang Beer. The Bali away from the beach is interesting, too: visit Ubud’s galleries and food stalls to see what we mean.
You can’t help but be affected by the island’s culture – from the intricate kecak and fire dance in Pura Luhur Uluwatu to the profusion of picturesque temples, Bali’s traditions befit its status as the last remnant of an ancient Hindu empire. The paradox of Bali – its oneness with nature and its traditions, plus its energetic tourist scene – makes the island one of Asia’s most interesting places to visit.
Mui Ne, Vietnam
A few hours from Ho Chi Minh City, Mui Ne is quickly gaining a name for itself as Southeast Asia’s next big beach destination, a reputation being underscored by the growing number of boutique resorts and facilities in the vicinity.
Development only came to the area in the 90s, but Mui Ne is catching up fast. Sports enthusiasts can test their kite surfing and windsurfing skills along the beach – if green is more your color, you can tee off at the Ocean Dunes Golf Club on a Nick Faldo-designed course.
Alternatively, you can rent a jeep and explore Lotus Lake nearby and the fascinating Mui Ne sand dunes surrounding it. (Don’t leave until you’ve tried dune-sledding down the sandy slopes.)
The weather is perfect for beach-lovers, as Mui Ne enjoys the lowest annual rainfall in Vietnam. While you won’t be able to grab a latte at a Starbucks in these parts, you can visit the Mui Ne Village Markets for cheap clothing, or venture into Phan Thiet City itself to indulge your craving for traditional Vietnamese crafts.
Travelers can reach Phan Thiet by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. More travel information is available here in the guide of how to get to the Mui Ne sand dunes.
Combine laid-back beaches with heart-stopping rock climbing cliffs, and you’ve got Krabi in Thailand. The province’s national parks – among them Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta – brim with jungles and gorgeous beaches, offering a varied menu of adventures on land and sea.
Two beaches on Railay Peninsula seem especially well tailored for climbers. Beginners visit Railay Beach while experienced ones find more challenging climbs at Tonsai. You can choose from over 700 bolted routes depending on your ability. You can even try the overhanging cliffs for deep-water soloing, where you climb without attachments until you have no choice but to let go and splash in the seawater below!
Climbers congregate on Krabi in the sunny months between October and April. Daily bus services go from Bangkok and Phuket to Krabi.
Ngapali Beach invites comparisons to Phuket – and comes out on top where good value is concerned.
Sure, it lacks many Phuket standard features like convenience stores, cheap beer, and go-go bars, but in exchange you get a white sand beach and crystal clear waters without the crowds and noise commonly associated with Thailand’s most popular beach.
Go to Ngapali to enjoy the beach experience, unspoiled by mass tourism—local seafood restaurants serving local dishes and low-rise boutique hotels close to the shore. The 18-hole golf course is perhaps the only attempt to be anything like a premium beach spot.
The closest airport to Ngapali is Thandwe Airport (SNW) which connects directly to Mandalay and Yangon (Myanmar’s two main international air hubs).
Located in Aklan province 200 miles south of Manila, Boracay’s beach scene is dominated by the two-mile stretch of sparkling sand that makes up White Beach, claimed by some to rival the beaches of the Caribbean. The water is shallow, the sand is powder-fine, and the facilities adjoining the beach cater to every need and budget.
On the other side of the island, Bulabog Beach caters to water sports enthusiasts – windsurfers and kite boarders take advantage of the beach’s relatively calm waters and a more laid-back environment. Both beaches are quite close to each other, as the island is only 1 kilometer wide at its waist.
Beach activities in Boracay and nightlife aside, you can look for adventure further inland, like horseback riding from the island’s Horse Riding Stables, or meeting fruit bats face to face at the Bat Cave on the western end of the island.
Boracay can be reached by air from Manila via Caticlan (10-20 minutes away by ferry) or via Kalibo (almost 2 hours away by bus and ferry). Hotels and resorts in Boracay come in all sizes and rates, from budget and mid-range accommodations to luxury hotels and resorts.
Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Another jewel on Malaysia’s east coast, the Perhentian Islands offer affordable scuba diving and laid-back island living amidst some of the region’s most crystalline white-sand beaches. The two Perhentian islands offer something for almost every budget—the value-minded tourists go to Perhentian Kecil while families, big spenders and flashpackers prefer the creature comforts of Perhentian Besar.
Despite the influx of foreign tourists, the Perhentians have kept things simple—no motorized vehicles, electricity provided by generators, and no buildings taller than two floors. In fact, there’s little to do that doesn’t involve the sea: swimming in it, diving under it, or skipping from island to island over it. You’ll get Wi-Fi at only the poshest resorts, while cellular signals are hard to come by on most of the budget establishments.
That forces you to get to know the island intimately by diving, snorkeling, island-hopping, or just taking in the local atmosphere from a hammock on the beach.
To get to the Perhentians, take a long bus trip from Kuala Lumpur to the small town of Kuala Besut, where you’ll ride a speedboat to your preferred Perhentian island stop.
Gili Islands, Indonesia
The powdery white sands of the Gili Islands – Trawangan, Meno, and Air – frame what is perhaps Indonesia’s most attractive beach destination. The Gilis, after all, are where beach bums go to avoid the crowds of nearby Bali. If it’s even better than Bali, you know it’s good.
And it is—visitors to Gili Trawangan take advantage of the beachfront’s inviting waters and the no-motorized-vehicles rule that help keep the island tempo down. Formerly a backpacker destination, Trawangan’s vibe has seen more and more luxury resorts and bars take center stage, pushing the homestays and hostels inland.
From the beach, however, you can take boats to the nearby islands of Gili Air and Gili Meno, which retain the backpacker vibe that brought tourists to Trawangan in the first place!
To get to the Gilis, take a speedboat from either Lombok or Bali.
Located on the Philippines’ eastern flank facing the Pacific Ocean, Siargao Island benefits from consistent waves that make its beaches one of the region’s most-visited surf stops. The Cloud Nine surf spot challenges even the most experienced surfers, who contend with its powerful waves and dangerous reef bottom.
Not that surfing is the only thing you can do around the island – take a “habal-habal” or hired van to scenic spots like the Magpupungko rock pool, or ride a “pump-boat” to islands off Siargao, among them Daku (“Large”), Guyam and Naked Islands, which offer more swimming- and family-friendly beaches compared to Siargao proper’s rocky, wave-pummeled ones.
Airlines connect Siargao to Manila and Cebu; travelers looking for a challenge might try taking the ferry from Surigao City.
Phu Quoc, Vietnam
Visit Vietnam’s largest island for fun both above and under the water. Phu Quoc Island embraces nature and its potential for adventure, particularly the incredibly diverse aquatic wildlife. Scuba enthusiasts will come face to face with over 900 species of plant life, over 100 species of hard and soft coral and over 60 species of seaweed.
Phu Quoc is just one part of a 22-island archipelago off Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, cheek-by-jowl with Cambodia. The southern part – An Thoi district and its surrounding islands – offer the most authentic local experience, combining cultural encounters (shopping and visiting the local fish sauce makers) with island-hopping (the nearby An Thoi archipelago boasts of some of Vietnam’s most well-preserved reefs).
You can explore Phu Quoc, both north and south, via a boat-hopping tour or on hired motorcycle. Dive operators offer access to the local diving sites: Phu Quoc’s diving season takes place between November and March, coinciding with the most sunny months.
To get here, travelers catch a bus, ferry or plane from Ho Chi Minh City to the island.
What it lacks in size, Tioman Island on peninsular Malaysia’s eastern coast makes up for in beauty: lush jungles, crystal-clear streams, and dazzling white-sand beaches teeming with marine life. You may already have seen Tioman Island without even knowing it – the place stood in for Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific.
The profusion of white coral reefs around the island makes Tioman a scuba diver’s dream—clear waters to depths of a hundred feet provide an unobstructed view of multi-hued coral and tropical fish.
Tioman is not as developed as Bali or Phuket – good news for the backpacker looking for something off the beaten track. Juara Bay is as isolated as you can get: a quiet beach on the east coast, braced by three rivers leading to waterfalls in the jungle.
Accommodations range from Spartan to comfortable. You can rent a hut on the beach for about US$7 a night, or you could spend a bit more for an air-conditioned chalet. Rooms may be fully booked during peak season (Christmas breaks, and the Chinese New Year season), so it’s prudent to reserve in advance.
Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand
This island in the Southern Gulf of Thailand was once known primarily as King Chulalongkorn’s favorite vacation getaway. In the past 20 years, the place has developed rather rapidly from backpacker’s best-kept secret to tourist hot spot.
The tiny island has plenty to offer—pristine beaches made for swimming and snorkeling, accommodations to suit any budget, fun outdoor activities for adults and kids alike, and, for partygoers, Haad Rin’s notorious “Full Moon Parties” (described elsewhere as “a monthly ‘Burning Man’” with a surfeit of trance music, fire-spinners, drugs, and alcohol).
To get to Kho Phangan, take a bus from Bangkok; this will take you to the provincial capital of Surat Thani, where you can board a ferry to Thong Sala on Koh Phangan.