By Justin Calderón
Jan 19, 2022
THE BEST PARADISE ISLANDS TO to visit in Southeast Asia are often synonymous with secluded coconut-tree-fringed beaches, impenetrable rainforests and impossibly crimson sunsets.
But the most famous islands in the region have grown in reputation thanks to their unique cultural history, tropical vegetation, and intimate connection with surrounding waters. Luxury-lovers and adventure-seekers alike will be happy to know that both overwater villas and underwater caves are frequent finds in the region’s top paradise island destinations.
It’s no wonder that most of Southeast Asia’s paradise islands are best-kept secrets located in part of the Coral Triangle – a region consisting of more than 500 species of reef building corals, spread out across the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Preserved by multiple ecological organizations around the world, the Coral Triangle is a globally recognized hotspot for marine biodiversity, including six of the world’s seven marine turtle species and more than 2,000 species of reef fish.
This list of Southeast Asia’s top paradise islands covers what we consider to be the best places that represent that perfect mixture of tropical seclusion, natural wonder and local hospitality.
Disconnected from the rest of the world, these paradise islands also provide a Robinson-Crusoe-like experience for those that seek it, including camping under the stars and trekking through dense jungles, or going barefoot-luxe with it and sipping Champagne on a whitesand beach.
Read on to dive into the best tropical gateways to experience Southeast Asia’s most beautiful atolls, coral reefs and nature.
Raja Ampat is an archipelago of 1,500 islands located off the coast of New Guinea in Indonesia’s West Papua.
This far-flung group of islands has an untouched beauty that is rarely parallelled in the region, offering opportunities to explore virgin beaches, secret lagoons and mysterious underwater caves. Located in the famed Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat is home to an internal ecosystem of 600 species of hard corals, about 75 percent of all globally known coral species.
Indeed, in Raja Ampat it is not uncommon to find rare reef sharks and spotted manta rays swimming in the shallow water. Pygmy whales, sperm whales, and dugongs are also likely sightings for divers exploring the deep marine crevices of the islands.
The history of Raja Ampat is steeped in history and mythology. Raja Ampat was originally a part of an influential southeastern sultanate, the Sultanate of Tidore. In 1562, it was captured by the Dutch, who influenced much of its cuisines and its architecture. That’s the more boring origin story. A colorful local tale talks of a woman who was given seven precious eggs, of which four (‘ampat’ in Bahasa Indonesian) hatched into kings (‘raja’).
An island in the Andaman Sea of Thailand, south of powerhouse destinations Phuket and Phi Phi, Koh Kradan is a natural menagerie of rocky and sandy beaches, rubber and palm trees, and mountain ranges and rivers.
Of the best paradise islands to visit in Southeast Asia, Koh Kradan leads our list because of its turquoise waters excellent for snorkelling and stunning sunsets on the undeveloped west side that famously light up the skies over the Andaman Sea.
A part of the Hat Chao Mai National Park, Koh Kradan hosts an annual underwater wedding festival on Valentine’s Day, which attracts adventurous couples from around the world. The flat waters and beautiful natural playground are popular among daytrippers, so those who actually stay on tiny Koh Kradan will feel extra smug strolling home to their beachfront bungalows and waking up with paradise on their doorstep.
Where to stay: The Seven Seas Resort in Koh Kradan is on Paradise Beach, the only populated stretch of shore on the island. From beachfront villas to picturesque hideaway cottages, this resort provides options of five different rooms.
Once recognized as one of the most beautiful islands of the world by Time Magazine, Tioman Island in Malaysia is teeming with exotic aquatic species and tropical birds. Because of the unique wildlife found here, both the water and the rainforests of this volcanic island are protected as national parks and sanctuaries.
Long-tailed macaques, the majestic frigatebird, and walking catfish can all be spotted easily in the island’s dense rainforests. The coral reefs in the waters of the South China Sea surrounding the island are 6,000 years old and home to marine species as adorable as clownfish and green and hawksbill turtles, and as bad-boy as blacktip reef sharks and spotted stingrays. All of which make Tioman Island a mecca for scuba divers.
For centuries, Austronesian fishermen have used Tioman as an important navigation point. Traces of trade from China, Arabia and Europe can be found on Tioman’s beaches in the form of ground up pieces of porcelain. Hidden in plain sight, the island is accessed only by public ferry from the mainland a couple of hours away with sailing times that vary based on the tides, making it truly feel like a secret paradise once you arrive.
Where to stay: Japamala by Samadhi, a boutique resort on Tioman Islands, offers a rustic eco-luxury experience with delicious locavore dining. “Nestled between the jungle and a private beach, it has 16 recycled wood villas — all built without cutting a single tree,” says Federico Asaro, the general manager of Jampala, which – bonus – has a private boat to transport guests.
Deep mountain forests, river plains, white beaches and an aura of dramatic history make Vietnam’s Phu Quoc one of the best paradise islands to visit in Southeast Asia.
Commonly referred to as ‘Pearl Island’ due to its pearl farming industry, Phu Quoc also does brisk business in what is widely considered the most delicious fish sauce in Vietnam, which is produced there. On this diverse, still mostly rural island, you’ll find temples, beach clubs, craft beer bars, and the longest cable car in the world over the sea.
The island was originally part of the ancient Funan Empire, a maritime meld of Khmer, Chinese and Vietnamese people. Over the years, Cambodian, Siamese and French invaders fought over the island’s fertile soils and long coastlines. In one 1853 event that would impact the culture of the island forever, the then-Cambodian king offered Phu Quoc to Napoleon III in exchange for protection. Hence its endurance today as part of Vietnam.
Phu Quoc’s protected marine reserve is home to swimming crabs, leatherback turtles, and dugongs—some of the most endangered and threatened marine life to be found on paradise islands in Southeast Asia. These ecosystems allow experiences for divers and snorkelers to quietly move in and out to chance a glimpse of these rare species.
Where to stay: An all-suite and -villa resort, the Regent Phu Quoc is built in resonance with the island’s tranquil beaches and lush rainforests. Each of the resort’s suites have a private deck and infinity pool, and guests have access to a luxurious catamaran. “Serenity, a beautiful vessel built in Bordeaux, France, allows guests to experience a day on the water on their terms, from coastline cruises for families to romantic champagne sunset cruises to private charters,” says Juan Losada, general manager of Regent Phu Quoc, which was one of the most anticipated new resort openings in the region last year.
Located off the Malaysian port of Sempora, the tiny 16-hectare island of Sipadan sits in the Celebes Sea. As the country’s only island in the open-ocean, it is one of the richest marine habitats in the world, home to green turtles, schools of barracuda, and scalloped hammerhead sharks, among others.
Diving is the name of the game on Sipadan, whether you’re looking for big, showstopper fish or going muck diving, with an eye out for smaller, weirder, hidden underwater critters. Jacques Cousteau himself visited the island back in the 1980s .
Sipadan is a natural phenomenon that was created by living corals climbing a volcanic cone. At the interior of this coral island, you’ll be able to discover underwater limestone caves and deep sea labyrinths filled with some of the richest variety of coral species in Southeast Asia.
Where to stay: You can’t actually stay on this little speck in the sea, which is protected, but Sipadan Water Village Resort is located on Mabul Island nearby and is built using the traditional Bajau techniques of the region, and includes overwater villas on the sparkling Celebes Sea.
Among one of the best paradise islands to visit in Southeast Asia, Belitung is a postcard-perfect tropical Indonesian paradise located on the east coast of Sumatra in the Java Sea.
This island is uniquely defined by raw natural granite boulders that speckle its crystalline white beaches, providing a powerful contrast of earth and sand that has been compared to Seychelles’ coastlines.
Unlike many other islands on this list, Belitung has many rugged hills and rocky beaches. Its fame as a paradise island destination comes in large part from its seclusion in the Java Sea, and its ability to produce a consistent calendar of stunning sunsets and sunrises.
Belitung has one airport, which only caters to domestic flights, as well as three ports that allow passenger ferries. All international flights must enter through Singapore’s Changi Airport.
Where to stay: The Arumdalu in Belitung is an eco-luxury resort with private pools in each of its 10 bungalows. Set in the midst of a dense tropical forest, this resort recycles its own water and has an organic urban farm supplying native Indonesian ingredients to its kitchen.
No stranger to being mentioned among the best paradise islands in the region, Bali has maintained its prestigious status for good reason.
For many, Bali is not just a tropical paradise in a scenic sense; it is also one of the world’s most fascinating cultural destinations. The Balinese people are Indonesia’s only Hindu island, and thus have unique traditions, food and drink that makes visits here a world apart from surrounding islands.
While diving and surfing are two of the most photogenic activities in Bali, the island also hosts myriad temple complexes, dance ceremonies, local festivals, and spiritual retreats in its dense forests, beaches, and volcanic mountain sides.
Whether you go to Bali for the yoga or the beach clubs, the plant-forward restaurants or the shamans, the gushing waterfalls, famed rice terraces, turquoise lagoons, black-sand beaches offer all categories of tropical paradise scenes.
Where to stay: You know as well as we do that the accommodation options in Bali are endless, but if you’re looking for a dramatic composition of traditional Balinese architecture with ultra-modern luxury, head to The Edge, nestled on a clifftop in Uluwatu. With only eight villas, each with its own pool, The Edge is one of the most creatively developed properties on one of the most famous islands in Southeast Asia.
The Perhentian Islands in Malaysia were originally close-knit colonies of fishermen, but today they are a part of Pulau Redang National Marine Park, which aims to conserve marine life and now prohibits fishing.
A visit to the turtle conservatory or kayaking are two of the most popular activities offered on the islands. Shark sightings are also common amongst both divers and snorkelers, so keep your wits alive.
The two distinct islands, Besar (big) and Kecil (small), are enclosed by teal waters that wash over some of the whitest sand beaches in Malaysia. Unlike a lot of the untouched paradise islands in Asia on this list, the Perhentian Islands have a string of multi-cuisine restaurants and cafes ready to serve curious tourists and tropical nomads.
The Edenic archipelago of Palawan in the Philippines has become known as such a paradise thanks to its emerald karsts, sapphire-blue waters and starfish-lined beaches that it has held the top spot and is often named one of the best islands in Asia. But what makes the Palawan region unique on this list is its World War II shipwreck sites, which serve as natural undersea museums and are big draws for divers.
According to local legend, the name ‘Palawa’ originated from a Chinese term meaning “the land of beautiful harbors.” The islands are also the archeological site of the earliest Filipino civilizations, which archeologists can trace back to artistic drawings of marine life on cave walls on the island.
The Tubbataha Reefs National Park is a partly sunken group of islands in the Sulu Sea. A bucket-list find for divers and snorkelers, this atoll is home to hammerhead sharks, giant wrasse, and manta rays.
Where to Stay: Boasting a turtle and giant clam sanctuary, the Two Seasons Coron Island Resort and Spa is an eco friendly luxury destination, perfect for both honeymooners and families. This 42-bungalow property is developed in a traditional Filipino style and offers 200-meter-wide beaches on both the east and west sides of Coron Island.