With such an enormous collection of islands in Southeast Asia to choose from, as a traveller - how do you know where to start?
There are islands here that we’ve never even heard of, let alone visited! While the Philippines boasts more than 7,000 islands, Indonesia takes the lead with 17,000. Reading through the list, you’ll learn about the many remote and unspoilt island paradises in Indonesia, the country that landed the most spots on the list. Thailand gets a few in there, as does Cambodia and Malaysia... but shockingly, not one island in Vietnam made the top 50! From top to bottom, leaving you in suspense about which island made the number one spot... The time has come to see which 50 islands made the cut. (Drum roll please!)...
50. Koh Kradan, Thailand
In 50th place, just making the cut, it's the tiny Thai island of Koh Kradan. Stock up on what you need before heading here, as the island has no medical supplies or ATM! Beautiful snorkelling and swimming will be the word of the day, as you interrupt your activities only to relax on the soft sand or watch a romantic sunset.
49. Koh Mak, Thailand
The biggest privately-owned island in Thailand, Koh Mak is very safe, and is still rather unknown to mainstream tourism, so plan your trip before this gorgeous landscape is overrun with tourists! Dive, hike and relax your way through your days on Koh Mak.
48. Guimaras, Philippines
Guimaras Island attracts travellers, domestic and foreign alike to see its beautiful scenes and views, but also to eat its famous mangoes. They even have an annual mango festival 'Manggahan Festival'. You’ll enjoy eating the sweetest mangoes in the world, as you sit on a white, sandy beach on a secluded islet. How does that sound?
47. Pulau Tioman, Malaysia
Tioman Island is the type of paradise that you would imagine when planning your getaway. With beautiful waters perfect for snorkelling, swimming, and sailing, beach bums will enjoy every moment on this island gem. Nature is in full swing with waterfalls, jungles, and endless green vegetation to feast your eyes on.
46. Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia
Just off the southeast coast of Bali, Nusa Lembongan is becoming more popular and developed of late. You can now take your pick of surf-shack or boutique hotel for your stay. This is a bucket list destination for surfers, and the mellow vibe still rules the island. If you’re returning to Nusa Lembongan after some time, prepare for more traffic!
45. Pulau Palambak, Indonesia
The fourth largest island in Pulau Banyak, Pulau Palambak does offer opportunities for snorkelling, but they’re not the best you’ll find, as dynamite fishing has damaged the coral. You will love walking along the beaches and coconut-covered island, and simply relaxing and taking it all in.
44. Kri Island, Indonesia
For memorable diving, get yourself to Kri Island. The diving spots around this island are world famous because of the interesting and diverse marine life. You will find yourself surrounded by many types of coral, fish, and even manta rays. Bring your underwater camera.
43. Gili Asahan, Indonesia
If you find yourself on Gili Asahan, you will be part of a small number of guests staying in the small island’s one resort! Take yourself to a deserted island and allow disconnection from the modern world. You’ll find that the beaches and sunset fulfil you on their own.
42. Sipadan, Malaysia
If diving is your main goal, then Sipadan is a destination you must visit, at least once, as it sits in the top 10 dive destinations in the world. The small island has a large diversity of marine life to be discovered, and lush greenery to explore.
41. Rawa Island, Malaysia
Popularized by the resort Alang’s Rawa, Rawa Island is a very small island, which is like a slice of heaven. Your time on Rawa Island will be spent taking in the colour of the water and beaches, while enjoying local cuisine. Rawa Island is great both for party-seekers and families.
40. Koh Phayam, Thailand
Though it is now making its way into the mainstream knowledge, Koh Phayam still remains an undiscovered diamond with white, sandy beaches where you can enjoy swimming and snorkelling in crystal clear waters. No need to be a total beach bum, as there are plenty of hikes to take on Koh Phayam.
39. Komodo, Indonesia
The largest island in Komodo National Park, Komodo’s pink sand from the red coral along the shore will stick in your mind forever. Spend your time trekking, snorkelling, kayaking and simply enjoying the beaches. Don’t forget to look out for the true patrons of the island - the Komodo dragons!
(If you're interested in exploring Komodo on a group tour, check out this 9-day adventure!)
38. Sumba Island, Indonesia
If you like the idea of Bali, but you're looking for a quainter experience, Sumba Island is the place to be. Here, you will unplug completely from modern luxuries. The undisturbed beauty of the island in combination with the warmth of the people and their unique culture will give you a memory to cherish.
37. Alor Island, Indonesia
One of the main draws to Alor Island is the reputation that the diving here may be better than that of the Caribbean! With a variety of underwater life to examine, the many dive spots of Alor Island are special, even for night-diving. Alor Island’s people maintain a traditional Muslim lifestyle.
36. Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Raja Ampat, translating to ‘The Four Kings,’ is an archipelago consisting of more than 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals surrounding four main islands. If you like to explore the underwater world, you’ll love exploring the waters of Raja Ampat, to discover more than 1,000 types of coral fish!
35. Sombori, Indonesia
This is one of those island groups we’d never heard of, but once you learn about it, it’s not to be forgotten. Sombori has something to offer everyone, from snorkelling and diving or relaxed canoeing to extreme climbing in beautiful surroundings. Take a moment to just breathe it all in!
34. Labengki, Indonesia
An ideal, secluded diving site, Labengki is an island with hardly any inhabitants and no facilities whatsoever! You will find yourself looking around at your wild surroundings as you dive for rare, giant clams. Bring good walking shoes as you change scenery from the beach to the hills covered in thick vegetation.
33. Molucas, Indonesia
The beginning of European colonialism began in Molucas, also known as the original "Spice Islands". This is a charming destination where you shouldn’t expect transportation to run smoothly, so bring your patience and curiosity with you. Instead of worrying about transport, enjoy the white sand and perfect reefs.
32. Kalanggaman Island, Philippines
Those postcards with photos of white sandy beaches and clear blue waters must come from Kalanggman Island! If you want to dive and use kayaks or paddleboards, try to have everything arranged in advance. This is a small gem of an island, which you can walk within an hour.
31. Bintan Island, Indonesia
For an organized and gorgeous getaway, consider the Bintan Islands, which have luxury resorts and world-class golf course in addition to the natural coastal beauty. Your mind will be kept entertained as you visit a number of historical sites on the island, and enjoy your time in the man-made lagoon.
30. Rabbit Island, Cambodia
Koh Tonsay, known as Rabbit Island, is an island of a different nature, and instead of white sands, you will find yourself experiencing chickens and cows wandering around, as you eat at any number of the cheap (and delicious!) restaurant-shacks. Enjoy the island by staying in a basic bungalow along the shoreline. And if anyone knows why it's called rabbit island, tell us in the comments below!
29. Pulau Weh, Indonesia
Pulau Weh is a remote island, which you will take a ferry to, transporting you to a land of charm and adventure. Whether you want to relax on the beaches or spend your days snorkelling and diving, Pulau Weh will leave you with that magical castaway feeling!
28. Koh Chang Noi, Thailand
If you’re ready for a blast from the past, Koh Chang Noi is your destination. This small and forested island (not to be confused with the larger Thai island of Koh Chang) will give you the feeling of being in the Thailand of twenty years ago. Relax on the beaches and when you’re ready for more adventure, explore the inland jungles.
27. Togian Islands, Indonesia
The Togian Islands are known for excellent diving, but you should know that the number of big fish has dwindled due to bad fishing practices. However, if you go out deeper, you will get the diving experience you imagined. Enjoy the modern life detox and absorb the relaxing vibes.
26. Koh Phangan, Thailand
Go on, picture the full-moon parties you imagine on Koh Phangan, but then clear your mind, because this island has a lot more to offer than buckets and glo-paint! Be smart about when you travel to Koh Phangan, and instead of a raging island party, you will find yourself in a tranquil beach paradise with a lively yoga and meditation scene.
25. Siquijor, Philippines
The small island of Siquijor is known for its mountain healers, called 'mangkukulam', and is viewed, even by Filipinos, as a place of mystery and witchcraft. Don’t let that scare you away, as beautiful waterfalls, caves, and diving experiences await you. Keep your flip-flops handy to avoid stepping on sea urchins!
24. Langkawi, Malaysia
Another island popular for its diving, Langkawi is a beautiful destination which offers travellers the opportunity to stock up on duty-free alcohol, chocolate, and other goods. The island’s shoreline is covered in powder-like sand, lined with coconut trees, and the interior is a combination of hilly jungle and paddy fields.
23. Sumbawa, Philippines
You may have heard Sumbawa talked about for having similar topography to Bali or Lombok in Indonesia, but this island is different: poorer, drier, and more conservative when it comes to tourism. The sprawling volcanic ridge landscapes which fall into the water in combination with the terrace rice fields give Sumbawa a remarkable aesthetic.
22. Similan and Surin, Thailand
The Similan and Surin islands are known for their superb diving opportunities. Home to one of the most beautiful and well-preserved coral reefs in Thailand, the Surin islands are ideal for shallow diving without equipment. Diving into the waters of the Similan islands, you’ll behold the dramatic underwater rock formations.
21. Koh Chang, Thailand
Although it's Thailand's second large island, Koh Chang is a lot less touristy than some of the other islands in Thailand, making for a very chilled out island experience. Whether you want to stay in a backpacker hostel or luxury hotel, Koh Chang has accommodations for your stay. You’ll keep busy exploring the island by scooter, scuba diving, and chasing waterfalls.
20. Malapascua, Philippines
If you crave the feeling of integrating with the locals and getting a taste of real Filipino food, Malapascua is the island to head to. Well-known for its amazing diving, Malapascua is the only place in the world to count on seeing thresher sharks. Malapascua’s underdevelopment tops off its charm.
19. Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia
Not to be confused with another island on this list (the larger Koh Rong), Koh Rong Samloen is a smaller island in Cambodia with unspoiled natural beauty and a peaceful energy. This island is the ideal getaway neighbour to Koh Rong, which is usually full of backpackers! The calming beaches are calling your name.
18. Lombok, Indonesia
First popularized as a surfing destination, Lombok has much more to offer, including spectacular scenery. The second highest volcano in Indonesia, Gunung Rinjani, attracts those interested in an unforgettable trekking experience. If you find yourself with any downtime on Lombok, take a guided fishing tour and see what you find.
17. Koh Lanta, Thailand
Considered one of Thailand’s most beautiful islands, Koh Lanta can be visited all year long. If you find yourself there during the Green Season (May to October), rainfall will last just a few hours a day. The crystal waters are revered for superb swimming and prime diving and snorkelling.
16. Nusa Penida, Indonesia
Located off the south-east shore of Bali, Nusa Penida is a rugged island where your diving experiences will take you close to manta rays and whale sharks. The island is covered in pure beaches and home to conservation areas with protected plants and birds. Keep an eye out for the traditional dance, Baris Jangkang. This is the least visited of Bali's offshore islands.
15. Banda Islands, Indonesia
Also known as the Spice Islands, the Banda Islands are surprisingly home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world, oh, and climbable volcanic mountains. When you take a break from your breathtaking scuba diving expeditions, make sure to eat some nutmeg, which is native to the Banda Islands.
14. Gili Air, Indonesia
SPOILER ALERT! Gili Air is the first of the three Gili islands to make the list, and is often overlooked, but is a favourite for budget travellers and those who love to explore. During your time on Gili Air, you will feel like a local, and enjoy the slow pace of daily life.
13. Flores, Indonesia
Outshined by Bali, Flores is home to wild lakes and waterfalls to explore. If you’re in the mood for a good dive, you’ll have your choice of more than 50 sites. The people of Flores are friendly and traditional, and you will enjoy their rituals as much as your exploration. There's also the awesome Kelimutu volcano, home to the tri-coloured Kelimutu Lakes.
12. Coron, Philippines
If you’re a fan of wreck diving, you don’t want to miss the chance to dive into the Japanese shipwrecks of the 1940s in Coron. Diving isn’t the only activity to partake in, though, Coron is a complete adventure destination, complete with horseback riding, camping, and jungle expeditions.
11. Boracay, Philippines
Despite being a rather small island, Boracay is the biggest tourist destination in the Philippines, largely due to the beautiful 'White Beach', which is four superb kilometres of white sand and crystal waters, lined with restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels. Boracay is an island that is always bursting with life!
10. Koh Rong, Cambodia
The second largest island in Cambodia, Koh Rong gained popularity after American Survivor filmed two seasons there. The island remains quiet with no cars or electricity, and the feel of being in the jungle. Every day, you’ll walk to the white, sandy beaches, for another taste of ecstasy.
9. Gili Meno, Indonesia
Gili Meno, the middle of the three Gili islands, offers some of the best beaches to be experienced. You can walk the whole underdeveloped and pure island in just two hours, while enjoying the serenity. This island is ideal for escaping to a secluded paradise and enjoying snorkelling with turtles. Popular with loved-up couples.
8. Bali, Indonesia
The most popular vacation destination in the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is a controversial spot, as its beauty is now disrupted by large-scale tourism, not to mention lofty prices. Many group tours head to the island, as well as holiday-makers and budget backpackers. The island’s people and culture have earned their warm reputation, which matches the island’s natural exquisiteness. It’s a must-see destination for surfers!
7. Koh Lipe, Thailand
Koh Lipe is part of the Adang Archipelago, a group of otherwise uninhabited islands in the Tarutao National Marine Park, and you will find yourself surrounded by aquatic wildlife at every beach you go to. When you’re not snorkelling, you can spend your time eating Thai street food and relaxing! This is a controversial one for us here at SEA Backpacker as we recently described the island on Facebook as "uncrowded". God, SEA Backpacker that was like sooooo 5 years ago! Well, what can we say? The islands of Southeast Asia change fast! Despite the "crowds" the island has still managed to come in at seventh place...
6. Siargao, Philippines
If you’re a surfer, you must make your way to Siargo, the number one surfing destination of the Philippines, but don’t worry, there is plenty for non-surfers, as well! Prepare to enjoy the white sand and clear waters of the beaches and the natural wonders like waterfalls, rice fields, and caves.
5. Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
The duo Phi-Phi Don and Phi-Phi Leh make up Koh Phi-Phi. While Phi-Phi Leh is untouched and hotel-free, Phi-Phi Don is active and decadent. People are split on Koh Phi-Phi, with many saying it’s been spoiled by a partying backpacker culture. You’ll have to see for yourself!
4. Koh Tao, Thailand
Known as ‘Turtle Island,’ Koh Tao is the main scuba diving destination in Thailand. The white, sandy beaches and turquoise waters will provide full relaxation, whether you’re diving into the colourful reefs or spending your time enjoying the restaurants and nightlife of Koh Tao. Let the island’s seascapes entertain you. Check out some of the diving opportunities in Koh Tao here.
3. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia - 3rd Place
In third place! The largest of the three Gili islands, Gili Trawangan is a popular destination because it has retained its purity 30 years after being inhabited. No motorized transport is allowed, so you will get back to basics walking, biking, or riding pony carts. Relax and watch the sunset over clear waters and don't miss the amazing snorkelling where you'll make friends with these little guys...
2. Perhentian Islands, Malaysia - Second Place
In second place! Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil, create the paradise of Perhentian where you’ll leave modern civilization behind, there aren’t even any roads! Your choice of island will depend on your travel style. Perhentian Kecil is smaller and perfect for backpackers with great nightlife, while Perhentian Besar is more organized and family-oriented.
1. Palawan, Philippines – THE WINNER!
While the Philippines' capital city, Manila, was controversially voted as the 'worst place to visit in Southeast Asia' in a recent readers poll, we're pleased to see this country's island at the number one spot this time!
So there you have it! The skinny jungle-clad island of Palawan in the Philippines takes the winning spot! Called the ‘last ecological frontier’ of the Philippines, Palawan's natural beauty is undebatable. Waterfalls, jungle, mountains, cliffs, lagoons, diving, snorkelling, trekking... this island is a haven for nature lovers! Take in the jungle mountain regions and white sandy beaches, as you keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. The traditional way of life of Palawan’s inhabitants adds extra charm. Have you been to Palawan? If not, better start planning your trip to the best island in Southeast Asia!
About the writer: Hannah Rivera is a freelance writer and Clinical Psychology graduate student. She left the hustle and bustle of New York City and made her way to Athens, Greece for a tastier and more relaxed lifestyle. When she’s not writing, Hannah spends time volunteering and feeding Athens’ street cats and dogs. (www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-rivera)