Discover the Underwater World of Southeast Asia!
You’ve sunbathed on gorgeous beaches sipping a fresh coconut and you’ve zipped from island to island on a speedy long tail boat, but beneath the turquoise waters of Southeast Asia lies another world entirely… Open only to those adventurous enough to strap a tank to their back, don a mask and suck on a regulator, the underwater world lies untouched and undiscovered in comparison to the well-trodden ‘banana pancake’ route on land!
This guide is split into two sections:
1. SCUBA qualifications and how to get started.
2. Where to find the best diving in Southeast Asia.
SCUBA Diving Asia: How To Get Started?
Step 1. Discover Scuba Diving (1 Day) – 12-Metre Maximum Depth
Do you want to try diving for the first time? The best way to do this is by taking a one day ‘Discover Scuba Diving’ adventure which will allow you to dive (without a certification) alongside an experienced dive instructor in safe, shallow and calm waters.
This type of trip usually costs between $50-$100 USD and can be found in many dive hubs across Southeast Asia. On this one-day trip, you will learn some basic SCUBA diving skills and have the opportunity to dive up to 12 metres.
Remember, the Discover Scuba Diving is not a course or a qualification, it is just a day trip and a great way to decide if diving is for you and something that you want to pursue. If you want to continue your diving journey (and go deeper!) you’ll need to take your first certification course (see below).
Did you know? SCUBA = ‘Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.’
2. Get Qualified: Open Water Diver Course (3-4 Days) – 18-Metre Maximum Depth
Getting qualified as a diver means that you will need to embark upon a PADI, RAID or SSI Open Water Diver Course. These usually take around 3-4 days to complete and cost between $250-$300 USD. Some of the learning during the course takes place in a classroom and the rest out at sea on the boat.
You will have to take a short test on the second day of the course to ensure that you have retained the safety instructions before heading out to dive. Once qualified, you will be certified to dive up to 18 metres anywhere in the world. When choosing a dive school, you will want to make sure that they are certified by either:
PADI: PADI, the most common certification you will come across, stands for the ‘Professional Association of Diving Instructors’ of which there are many dive schools across the world currently holding membership. They ensure quality in education, equipment and experience, with consideration for the environment.
SSI: Not as well known, but just as reputable, Scuba Schools International (SSI) is an education support company for dive companies all over the world. Any schools certified by SSI ensure the “ultimate dive experience.” Today, SSI certify over 2,500 dive schools in 110 countries.
3. Advanced Open Water Diver Course (2 Days) – 30-Metre Maximum Depth
If you fall in love with diving in Southeast Asia (many do!), you may want to continue your scuba diving journey with a number of advanced courses. The first of these courses will be your Advanced Open Water Diver Course which allows you to expand the environment within which you can dive.
The Advanced Open Water Diver costs between $200-$300 USD. After this course, you will be certified to dive up to 30 metres anywhere in the world, and you’ll also complete a ‘navigation dive’ and a ‘deep dive’.
On this course, there’s also the option of learning about: underwater photography, enriched air nitrox diving, night diving, search and recovery diving and fish identification. On this course, you’ll really hone your skills as a diver and thing start to get really exciting!
“Refresher Course” – If you are like me, and you got certified to dive five years ago, but you’ve forgotten everything that you learnt in the classroom and on the boat. Then this one-day ‘reactivate’ course is for you!
The course is designed to refresh your memory on the skills that you previously learnt and have you back out in the water diving safely and confidently, in no time at all! After this one day course, you can then take your Advanced Open Water, go fun diving or take any one of the Specialty Dive courses on offer.
4. Speciality Courses
Specialty Diver Courses are for those who want to learn more about a particular aspect of diving. One of the most popular courses, the Deep Diver Specialty certifies divers up to a depth of 40 metres.
There’s also the Wreck Diver Specialty, which allows you to explore the inside of wrecks (Coron, in the Philippines, is famous for its WWII wrecks!), and the Enriched Air Nitrox, which allows you to dive on Nitrox all over the world. (For those who don’t know, nitrox allows you to extend the duration of your dive time up to five times the length that oxygen does!). Also, many people who are interested in becoming a dive instructor one day decide to take a Rescue Diver Course.
5. Divemaster Course
If diving is your passion then this is the course for you! After taking your Divemaster Qualification you’ll be qualified as a dive instructor able to teach diving in exotic locations around the globe. To take the DM course, you must have completed the Open Water Dive Course from a recognised training agency and you must be 18 years or older.
Where to Find the Best Diving in Southeast Asia
For the beginner or the expert, the year-round warm, crystal clear waters of Southeast Asia are home to exquisite corals teeming with aquatic life – an experience not to be missed – and once experienced – never forgotten! Here’s where you will find the best dive spots in Southeast Asia!
Diving in Thailand:
The Gulf Coast of Thailand – Koh Tao
Read More: Go even further in-depth with our Comprehensive Guide to Koh Tao Diving
If you’re on a backpacker budget, the tiny island of Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand, has long been considered THE place to learn to dive. With over 50 dive schools on the island, offering PADI and SSI courses at cheap prices, thousands of backpackers over the years have gained their underwater licenses here. From the impressive Chumphon Pinnacle to the Trident Wreck, there are many interesting underwater dive sites to keep beginner or advanced divers occupied.
The island is named Koh ‘Tao’, meaning turtle island in Thai, after it’s previously plentiful local population of hawksbill and green sea turtles. Despite their numbers having significantly diminished, turtles can still be spotted whilst diving many of the island’s famous 20+ sites. Mostly visited in the days following Full Moon antics on the nearby island of Koh Phangan, it’s reputation as a not only a diving hotspot but an island with a lively backpacker vibe has rocketed in recent years.
Watch out for: Koh Tao’s namesake, the hawksbill and green sea turtles, the rather protective ‘triggerfish’, plenty of ‘Finding Nemo’ and if you’re lucky, even the gentle giant – the whale shark, which graces Koh Tao’s waters from March-April.
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive in Koh Tao: Koh Tao’s ‘off-season’ is barely worth mentioning, though the best times to avoid are November and December when the visibility is lower and the swell can be a bit stomach-churning. March, April and May are divers paradise, with calm clear seas and the best chance of spotting a Whaleshark!
Worth noting: September and October are known as ‘quiet season’ with slightly lower water temperature but superb long days and perfect seas.
An Idea of Prices: If you just fancy wetting your whistle and seeing what the hype is about, then a One-Day or Half-Day Discover Scuba course is perfect for you. Done in just a day it is bound to get you craving more… and this taster only costs about 2,000 THB (50 GBP or $75 USD).
To gain your Open Water Diver Qualification (PADI or SSI) the price ranges from 9,000 to 10,000 THB. This takes about four days to complete and qualifies you to dive anywhere in the world up to 18-metres!
For the more experienced diver, there are heaps of speciality dive courses to be conquered, from wreck diving to underwater photography to rescue diving, Koh Tao has many different courses on offer (prices vary).
Dive Schools in Koh Tao
OUR PICK! PADI Dive School: New Way Dive School are one of the oldest and most established dive schools on Koh Tao and offer great value for money courses in small groups. Unlike some of the other schools, your learning takes place in the sea from day one, and in their words: “there’s no watching plasters and hairs float by in a swimming pool!”
They offer a range of courses from a one-day Discover Scuba Diving to the essential Open Water Diver Course, and if you’re looking to dive professionally, the Dive Masters Course, as well as wreck diving, rescue diving, underwater photography and everything in-between.
Check out this video of New Way Diving at Sail Rock!
RAID Dive School: Roctopus Dive School offers a fun, safe and practical 3-day RAID Open Water Learn to Dive Course. At the end of the three-days, you’ll be able to dive up to 18 metres and will hold in your hands a certificate which will enable you to dive anywhere in the world! The 3-day course includes all learning materials, dive equipment, taxi pick-up, 3 nights’ accommodation, and refreshments on the boat.
The Andaman Coast of Thailand: Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta
Hop to the other side of the mainland and you will find the gorgeous (but wildly popular) Koh Phi Phi, infamous for being the set of The Beach which starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Look further than the beaches of this tropical paradise and a real adventure awaits, with hundreds of Dive Schools eager to fulfil your every craving!
Located within a National Marine Park, the two islands of Koh Phi Phi Leh and Koh Phi Phi Don provide dramatic soft coral walls and an abundance of sea life, unlike Thailand’s other dive sites. Relax after an exciting day’s diving by watching the sunset from Koh Phi Phi’s postcard-perfect viewpoint. What could be better?
Look out for: Sharks – both the leopard and black-tip reef varieties!
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive in Koh Phi Phi: Like Koh Tao, Koh Phi Phi can be dived all year round. However, the conditions are at their best from February to May when the temperature is warmer both in the sea and out of it. Other times of the year the dive sites are more limited due to the monsoon winds and increased swell, so most diving takes place on the island’s western coast.
An Idea of Prices: Probably due to the distance of the dive sites from the shore, the prices in Phi Phi are slightly higher than on Koh Tao. A Half Day Discover Scuba course can be snapped up for around 3,000 THB, while the four-day PADI or SSI Open Water Diver Course will cost you around 12,000 THB.
If you can’t stand the backpacker party vibes of Koh Phi Phi, then you might prefer to learn to dive on the nearby quieter island of Koh Lanta where many dive schools offer try dives or longer courses.
Koh Lanta, Thailand
We recently did a Discover Scuba Diving one day course with Scubafish, one of the longest established schools on the island. They took us to one of the most popular dive sites in the area, Koh Haa (which literally means five islands). About an hour off Lanta’s eastern shore, the five dive sites offer rewarding dives for beginners or more advanced divers with their colourful corals and pinnacles with their exciting tunnel-like swim-throughs.
The sandy, shallow lagoon between the five islands has calm waters and great visibility, perfect for beginner divers. There’s a huge diversity of marine life, even if you’re just snorkelling! Our dive group that day saw clownfish, angelfish, octopus, reef sharks, lobster, parrotfish, barracuda, banded sea krait (snake), lionfish, pufferfish, triggerfish, as well as loads of colourful nudibranch and larger sea slugs.
The week before they had seen a whalefish! The more advanced divers in our group were able to explore a whale skeleton (at 30 metres depth) and several enticing caves. (We just looked in from the entrance). Hawksbill turtles are often spotted here and even the occasional manta ray.
Other dive sites around Koh Lanta include Koh Rok, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. Prices are around 5,500 THB for a Discover Scuba Diving and 15,900 THB for an Open Water Course.
OUR PICK: Looking for a safe and fun dive school in Koh Lanta? After doing a Discovery Scuba Dive and a Fun Dive with Scubafish, we would highly recommend their trips, staff and boat. Their dive trips run out of the gorgeous 5-star Pimalai Resort in Kantiang Bay, (which a nice bonus for backpackers!) and their dive instructors and staff made sure, as beginner divers, that we felt safe and had a lot of fun. Read about our experience diving at Koh Haa here.
The Similan & Surin Islands, Thailand
Found 100 kilometres from the popular holiday island of Phuket, these nine granite islands provide another popular dive site in Thailand and are often regarded as the most diverse and unique place to dive in the country. Having gained National Marine Park status in 1982, the Similan Islands often make it onto the top ten dive sites, not only in Southeast Asia, but in the world!
For any budding underwater photographers, or those keen to learn, the weak currents and highly populated coral reefs are just waiting to be snapped! This may very well be the best diving Southeast Asia has to offer!
Look out for: Bumphead Parrotfish and white-tip reef Sharks.
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive in The Similan Islands: November to April is when the conditions are best here. Other times of year their exposed location makes them prone to heavy swell which can affect the conditions.
An Idea of Prices: The best way to truly experience the Similan Islands is to visit them on a liveaboard. Stay for four or five days and you won’t have to revisit a single dive site… unless you really want to!
There are so many liveaboards to choose from. If you’re strapped for time (or cash!) then one night options are available, by catching a speedboat from Khao Lak out to the main dive boat which will be your hotel for the night. Prices vary hugely for both options, depending on whether you’re a flashpacker or a budget backpacker, so the best advice is simply to shop around.
Diving in Vietnam:
Nha Trang is undoubtedly the country’s capital of diving and the place where many travellers choose to get their first diving qualification with a 3-day Open Water Course. The shallow, calm reefs of beautiful Hon Mun Island are the perfect place for beginners, so the whole of the three-day diving course is done out in the sea from the dive boat.
Look out for: A variety of colourful tropical fish from pufferfish to moray eels, parrotfish and butterflyfish.
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive in Nha Trang: The main dive season in Nha Trang is from January – October, with April – August offering the best conditions and visibility for divers.
An Idea of Prices: Learning to dive in Vietnam is low-cost with a one-day try dive costing around $70-$90 USD and a 3-day PADI or SSI Open Water Course costing $250-$300 USD.
Dive Schools in Nha Trang
OUR PICK: Check out the Russian-owned school, Nha Trang Fun Divers, who offer try-dives and Open Water Dive Courses at good prices.
Diving in Malaysia
The Perhentian Islands
The beautiful coral-fringed Perhentian Islands lie just 10 miles from the Northeastern coast of Malaysia and are home to a number of species of turtle and shark (the non-man eating types, unless you look particularly tasty!). It is made up of two main islands, Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil, and a number of smaller uninhabited ones.
Besar is slightly more family-friendly, while Kecil is the most popular with backpackers due to its abundance of cheap accommodation. However, both of the islands are gorgeous and are both protected with Marine Park status.
Look out for: Huge Puffafish and Green turtles.
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive in The Perhentian Islands: Unlike the Thai dive sites which can be dived all year round, the Perhentian Islands are only open between April and October. For the rest of the year, monsoon season shuts the islands down entirely, making the seas too rough to cross.
An Idea of Prices: Here, Discover Scuba will set you back around 250-300 Malaysian Ringgit (approx. £65/2500 Thai baht), while to complete your PADI Open Water Diver course costs 1,100 Malaysia Ringgit (approx. £260/12,000 Thai baht) which is similar to Thai prices.
Diving in The Philippines
Coron Island, Palawan
Most famous for its Japanese wrecks which sank during World War II, Coron Island ’s give even the least experienced divers the opportunity to have the most amazing underwater adventure. With over twenty-five dive sites and twelve wrecks out of a possible 24 discovered, there are miles of exquisite ocean floor to keep you busy. Wreck dives do need planning though and some of the harder to reach sites are for the more experienced divers only…
Look out for: It’s all about the wrecks!
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive at Coron Island: Offseason spans from May to August, but the rest of the year conditions are great, with very little current within Coron Bay.
An Idea of Prices: Discover Scuba costs around 3,100 Philippine Peso (approx. £50/2,000 THB) and PADI Open Water rings in at 15,000 Philippine Peso (approx. £250/11,000 Thai baht). An opportunity not to be missed, gain yourself a ‘Wreck Diver’ speciality qualification for 13,000 Philippine Peso (approx. £200/9,000 Thai baht). Where better to learn than here, at World War II’s graveyard…
Diving in Indonesia:
Bali, Nusa Penida & Nusa Lembongan
The popular holiday island of Bali may be famous for its surf and nightlife, but under the ocean, there’s a whole new world to explore! The most famous dive site in Bali is Tulamben Bay, home to the USAT Liberty Shipwreck. This awesome 130-metre shipwreck lies just 20 metres offshore at a depth of 5-30 metres and provides an unforgettable dive site for either beginners or more advanced divers.
Another very popular dive site off Bali is Manta Point, Nusa Penida, famous for, yep you guessed it, Manta Rays! At this unique spot, the different currents of the two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian meet and there’s an abundance of phytoplankton, a manta ray’s favourite delicacy! You won’t be disappointed if you choose to dive here. Pssst…
As well as the two famous dives above, there are also several other dive sites which offer abundant marine life and colourful corals, such as Blue Lagoon, Jepun, Crystal Bay (the best place to spot mola-mola or ocean sunfish) and The Wall, Amed.
Look out for: Manta Rays and Mola-mola (ocean sunfish).
Best Seasons to Scuba Dive in Bali: The best season for diving in Bali is May to November. If it’s Manta Rats you’re after, go to Bali in April and May. If you’re looking to spot mola-mola try visiting July to September.
An Idea of Prices: A Discover Scuba Diver or a Fun Dive will cost from $140 to $200 USD. A PADI Course can cost up to $600 USD. For example, PADI Open Water Diver Course with AquaMarine Diving costs $495 USD, whereas Roctopus’s RAID Open Water costs $353!
Dive Master Courses in Southeast Asia
Do you want to take your SCUBA Diving Skills ONE STEP FURTHER?
Become a Qualified Divemaster – Can you imagine turning the thing you love into your job? If diving is your passion then this is the course for you!
The Dive Master internship is a two-month course and is the first professional dive qualification to allow you to become a qualified Dive Instructor. During your course, you will meet tons of like-minded people and become part of a friendly diving family, as well as getting a qualification that will change your life forever!
- 2-month Divemaster with New Way Diving, Koh Tao, Thailand (PADI) – $1,145 USD
- 2-month Divemaster Internship with Roctopus Dive School, Koh Tao, Thailand (SSI) – $979 USD
Make sure you have travel insurance before embarking upon adventure activities in Southeast Asia.