Southeast Asia’s islands draw millions of visitors each year, thanks to their variety of attractions, including world-class beaches, vibrant nightlife, unique flora and fauna, and much more. However, destinations such as Boracay and Koh Samui have shown the negative impacts of becoming too popular. Boracay was forced to close itself to tourism for months for environmental remediation, and Koh Samui is losing much of its coral reefs to pollution. With that in mind, consider venturing to one of these five underrated islands in Southeast Asia, instead of following the pack.
1. Sulawesi, Indonesia
Despite being the 11th-largest island in the world, Sulawesi still flies under the radar in travel circles. The distinct, starfish-shaped island sits just east of Borneo and northeast of Bali, making it a doable side trip from either of these popular destinations. Due to Sulawesi’s size and formidable topography, the population developed into unique ethnic groups with their own languages, religions, and cultural practices. Those who do make the journey often come for its wealth of diving and snorkeling opportunities. To the north, Pulau Bunaken’s coral reefs are chock-full of fish species and marine life. Pulau Togean is another prime dive site situated in the Gulf of Tomini. It requires a bit more effort to reach, so stay awhile, explore its deserted beaches, and mingle with the locals at a family-run guesthouse. The island’s stunning interior is worth a trip in its own right, too. Covering nearly 1,000 square miles, Lore Lindu National Park is home to tarsiers, pygmy buffalo, and a multitude of bird species. What’s more, massive megalith stones with mysterious carvings and etchings dot the lush forest landscape.
2. Koh Thmei, Cambodia
When heading to Cambodia’s coastline, most visitors flock to Koh Rong for its hedonistic reputation or Koh Rong Sanloem, which is quickly losing its identity as a peaceful alternative to the former. Koh Thmei lies a short distance south of Sihanoukville, the port from which ferries depart to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The island is incorporated within Ream National Park and has managed to maintain a pristine environment for 150 bird species and the endangered fishing cat. Despite this protective status, the Cambodian government has marked over 2,000 hectares for development, including nearly 100-year land leases to foreign companies. That being said, now is the time to enjoy Koh Thmei’s mangrove forests, golden-sand beaches, and seclusion before it’s (quite literally) stripped away. There are several walking trails crisscrossing the island, granting visitors the chance to see cockatoos, parrots, and a host of other colorful species. There are multiple spots to snorkel right offshore, while scuba excursions can be had at a fraction of the cost in neighboring Thailand. Currently, Koh Thmei Resort is the only accommodation option on the island, with less than a dozen rustic bungalows.
Often referred to as East Timor, this little-known country sits on the eastern half of the island of Timor, with Indonesia occupying the western half. Timor-Leste suffered years of conflict and hardship at the hands of Portuguese colonization and Indonesia occupation before achieving independence in 1999 and international recognition in 2002. Today, Timor-Leste is peaceful and safe for visitors. The government is prioritizing community-based ecotourism, and visitors are warmly welcomed and still seen as novelty (Asia’s newest country only had 62,000 international arrivals in 2015).
Avid snorkelers and scuba divers will be delighted to know that the incorporated island of Ataúro (just 13 miles off Timor-Leste) is one of the planet’s most biodiverse marine ecosystems. Conservation International, a global environmental organization, announced that the water around this island has the most species of reef fish per area. Dugong sightings aren’t uncommon either. Inland, Timor-Leste’s lush and rugged terrain is well-suited for trekking and bird-watching, especially in Nino Konis Santana National Park. The park is one of the healthiest stretches of tropical lowland rainforest in the world, providing habitat for 260 bird species (eight of which are only found on the island of Timor). Treks, which pass coffee plantations and craggy peaks, can be arranged between mountain villages. Mount Ramelau (Tatamailau in the local Tetun language) stands at an impressive 9,797 feet, with a statue of the Virgin Mary adorning the vantage point from the summit. Hikers should depart from the village of Hatobuilico, which fortunately kicks things off at 6,289 feet.
The capital, Dili, serves as the main entry point to Timor-Leste. Daily flights arrive from Australia, Bali, and Singapore. The modest capital is worth checking out, especially for its Resistance Museum, which helps visitors better understand the East Timorese history.
Ko Kut (sometimes called Koh Kood) is the ideal destination for families looking to escape the backpacker riffraff. At over 40 square miles, Ko Kut is the sixth-largest Thai island. Much of the island has dodged development, leaving miles of beaches and old-growth forests in pristine condition. Head to the west coast for the most secluded beaches, as many are only accessible by sea. Bang Bao Bay’s warm inviting waters are worth the effort. Heading inland, a hike to Khlong Chao Waterfall rewards with a forest-enshrouded pool, where visitors can take a refreshing dip. Further upstream, Huang Nam Keaw Waterfall affords another swimming hole below the cascading, three-tiered falls. Beyond the handful of resorts and guesthouses on the island, there is hardly any development outside the fishing villages of Ao Salat and Ao Yai. Here, you’ll find fresh seafood at a bargain.
5. Romblon, Philippines
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Romblon serves as the name for both the island and province comprising 20 islands in central Philippines. This often-overlooked region of the country boasts a stunning coastline, rugged terrain, and charming fishing villages. For such a small island, Romblon has plenty of idyllic stretches of sand to choose from. Situated on the northwest coast of the island, Bonbon Beach provides an uncrowded strip of white sand and azure waters. Be sure to visit Bonbon at low tide, when the narrow sandbar connecting Romblon to Bang-og Island emerges. The long sandbar offers stunning views and calm, shallow water to wade in. To the west, Tablas Island merits a visit. During your stay, dive into the pool below Mablaran Falls or scale the craggy peaks of Mount Guiting-Guiting. Until recently, the archipelago could only be accessed by a 12-hour ferry from Luzon or neighboring islands. Cebgo’s one-hour connecting flight from Manila to Tablas Island has made the trip easier than ever. Fortunately, the majority of travelers have yet to catch on.
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