How to Island Hop in Southeast Asia

See recent posts by Riley Kirkpatrick

Almost everyone who visits Southeast Asia makes several stops throughout their trip -- after all, no matter where in the U.S. or Europe you're traveling from, it's not a short voyage to reach the region...and there's so much to see you really don't want to miss any of the locales Southeast Asia has to offer. Of course, if we could recommend visiting every corner we would, but that's not always feasible. So today we're breaking it down for you and telling you the top seven islands you'll want to visit during your Southeast Asia trip so you can island hop around the area like a pro.

Ko Tao, Thailand

Ko Tao is an isolated, beautiful island in Thailand that offers some of the best scuba diving in the world. The island is known for being less crowded than some of the other Thai islands like Ko Samui, which makes for a more relaxed, “Cast Away” type experience (sans the whole having-to-make-friends-with-a-volleyball part). There’s amazing snorkeling right off the coast- – with Shark Bay being one of the best spots, and tons of people visit the area just to get scuba certified since it’s possible to do so here at a relatively low price. While the island has gained tons of accolades for the quality of the diving, there are also plenty of other activities like hiking, yoga retreats, cliff jumping, and even trapeze-flying lessons. There are no car rentals on the island, so we recommend renting a scooter to get around in true Thai spirit — but be careful!

Our Hotel Pick: The Haad Tien Beach Resort (pictured)

Related Link: 7 Amazing Dive Hotels Around the World

Ko Phi Phi Don, Thailand

Photo by Daniel Vinuesa, Flickr

Photo by Daniel Vinuesa, Flickr

Made famous by The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ko Phi Phi is now the iconic Thai island — and it hasn’t lost its charm. Some argue that after a tsunami devastated the island in 2004, it’s too built up and over-developed. But the nice thing about Phi Phi is that you can choose how secluded you want to be. There’s a nice main strip, filled with tourist shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and diving companies — but there are also a lot of hotels on the island that are only accessible by boat, and aren’t near the main strip at all. It’s a “choose your own experience” kind of place, and we’re into that. The most popular excursion from the island is a day trip to Maya Bay on nearby Ko Phi Phi Lee, the famous beach from The Beach.

Our Hotel Pick: Zeavola Resort

Koh Rong, Cambodia

Photo by Tom Perry, Flickr

Photo by Tom Perry, Flickr

Some people describe the Cambodian islands as what the Thai islands used to be like before mass tourism, and there’s definitely some validity to this. Koh Rong, nicknamed Monkey Island, is one of our favorites in Cambodia, as it boasts pristine white-sand beaches and clear, turquoise water and is, for the most part, undeveloped. The island is located about 15 miles from Sihanoukville, making it easy to reach by either ferry or fast boat. There are seven bays around the island that make for fantastic snorkeling and diving, and lots of chilled-out bungalow guesthouses for booking an inexpensive room. The island has very few roads, though, so plan to get around by foot or local fishing boat. 

Check Out 18 Awesome Cambodian Resorts

Cebu Island, The Philippines

Cebu is an island province in The Philippines made up of 168 islands and inlets. The main island, also named Cebu, is home to the oldest city in The Philippines — Cebu City, the capital of Cebu. Cebu City is a well-known center of commerce, education, and culture. The island as a whole is stunning and has a ton to offer. It is known for being long and narrow, with rugged mountain ranges running up the middle area from the north to south. There are many upscale beach resorts on the island, so you can choose between opting for luxury, or a more laid-back Filipino experience. We recommend trips to the Tumalog and Aguinid Falls to soak up some of Cebu’s natural beauty. An activity that absolutely can’t be missed, though, is taking a plunge in the ocean to swim with Cebu’s whale sharks;they’re very big, but they’re some of nature’s gentle giants and the experience will be unforgettable. 

Our Hotel Pick: Bluewater Maribago Beach Resort

Langkawi, Malaysia

Langkawi, nicknamed the Jewel of Kedah, is famed for its pristine beaches and exotic wildlife, and is a favorite among travelers from Malaysia and abroad. The island is part of the Malaysian state of Kedah, and is just over half the size of Singapore. While we definitely recommend beach-bumming on this island paradise, there are a lot of other offerings in Langkawi that make it totally worth a visit. Langkawi has stunning waterfalls, hundreds of exotic bird species, and a UNESCO-endorsed geopark. For the most part, the island is undeveloped, which only adds to its natural beauty. We recommend taking a ride up to Mt. Mat Cincang on the Langkawi Cable Car for panoramic views of the beautiful rain forests and crystal clear waters; and visiting one of the main beaches, Pantai Cenang.

Our Hotel Pick: The Andaman, A Luxury Collection Resort

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Photo by Roger Sargent, Flickr

Photo by Roger Sargent, Flickr

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea, and the largest in Asia. The island is divided unevenly between Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and has some of the oldest rain forest in the world. Borneo is famous for its incredible biodiversity, and is actually home to half of all known plant and animal species in the world. About 75% of the island is Indonesian territory, while around 25% belongs to Malaysia and only 1% belongs to Brunei. We recommend a trip to Tanjung Puting National Park, located in the southeast of the island in Indonesian Borneo. The park has become a very popular ecotourism destination and is home to orangutans, gibbons, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, sun bears, crocodiles, pythons, and tons of other species. While Borneo has incredible beaches, it’s the wildlife that sets it apart and makes it a must-see destination.

Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Photo by Col, Flickr

Photo by Col, Flickr

The Gili Islands are an archipelago made up of three small islands in Lombok, Indonesia — the largest of the three being Gili Trawangan. The three islands, and Trawangan in particular, are popular with tourists looking for a remote island experience. Gili Trawangan is now a popular mini-trip on a Bali vacation, but the Gili Islands definitely merit a visit in their own right. Gili T, as it’s nicknamed, has been steadily developing since travelers discovered it in the 1980’s, but it definitely hasn’t lost its bohemian, chill vibe despite its busy main strip. Snorkeling and scuba diving are amazing right off the coast and it’s not rare to spot sea turtles cruising around their preserved habitat. The island really has everything you need in an island getaway, whether you’re after a reggae-style beach bar or a yoga wellness retreat.

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