Spectacular, Underrated Southeast Asian Islands You Need to Visit

Skip the crowds and add these lesser-known gems to your Southeast Asia Island-hopping list

June 14, 2023 8:54 am

Leaving city life behind and heading to the islands is a rite of passage for anyone traveling to and through Southeast Asia, but there’s more to see than Phuket and Bali. While that isn’t a particularly hot take, figuring out where to go in lieu of some of the more obvious and heavily-touristed destinations can be a bit difficult.

When planning my own trips, I look for islands that offer it all: the wonderful beaches and beautiful, natural surroundings of their more popular neighbors, luxury resorts to indulge in and all the food, and activities and diversions required to satiate every desire.

Put these push pins into your personal map to reap the rewards while avoiding the masses.

Pangkor Laut
Pangkor Laut

Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

Far off the radar of most American tourists, Pangkor Laut Island is located halfway up the coast between Kuala Lumpur and Penang. It’s an islet off the coast of Pangkor Island, and it offers much of the landscape, climate and style that travelers look for from Thailand’s Andaman Sea to the north, yet from a destination within the Strait of Malacca that’s reachable via car from the Malaysian capital.

The entire island serves as the home to a private 300-acre property, the Pangkor Laut Resort, which boasts villa accommodations including spacious overwater bungalows with stone soaking tubs overlooking the sea. The drive from your likely starting point, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, takes about three and a half hours, and the resort will handle your transfer service to the waiting lounge in their private marina, from which you’ll hop onto a speedboat to head ashore.

The Small Luxury Hotels of the World property is home to a range of dining options, a large infinity pool atop a slice of sandy beach, hiking trails and plenty of outdoor recreation. Its Spa Village is a destination unto itself with immersive treatments incorporating rituals from around the region, adding to the appeal of the island as an indulgent escape for uninterrupted rest and relaxation, and an ideal counterpoint to the sometimes clamorous environs of Kuala Lumpur.

For a bit more action elsewhere in Malaysia, farther up the same coast is the more well-trodden Langkawi, which requires a connecting flight from the city to reach. The island is home to a bevy of five-star resorts, including options from St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons.

A turboprop jet landing on Pamalican
A turboprop jet landing on Pamalican

Palawan, Philippines

Palawan refers to an island in the Philippines as well as its surrounding province. Within the archipelago, the one name you absolutely must know is Amanpulo. The stunning Aman property, located on the private Pamalican island, features some of the whitest, most powdery sands and vibrant shades of seas you’ll find anywhere on the planet.

You reach the island via daily flights aboard a 14-seat turboprop the resort runs from Manila, and as it comes into view, Pamalican appears as a four-shade painter’s palette of almost-neon aqua, jungle green and white sand so pure it’s nearly-blindingly bright, and then the asphalt of the runway. Once on the ground, every new vantage and view is a postcard. Pamalican, and Amanpulo, is a tropical paradise.

Now, in my opinion, phrases such as “tropical paradise,” “escapism,” and “Robinson Crusoe” get thrown around too loosely these days. That said, Amanpulo may be the most definitive and true to life example you’re likely to find. After walking down the short, sandy path from my villa to the beach one morning, I looked around and didn’t see a single other person on the uninterrupted stretch of pristine coastline. It didn’t feel like a resort on a private island, it felt like my private island.

Unless you’re flying or yachting private — and rest assured, many of the guests do — you’ll have to connect through Manila, and you may as well build in a stopover to the bustling city. While the capital of the Philippines might have a reputation of being a chaotic and congested metropolis, you can find a quiet haven within the hubbub at the Raffles Makati.

The five-star hotel in the modern Makati district, a financial and commercial hub, shares its grounds with the neighboring Fairmont property. Suite-level guests receive access to a range of inclusive daily perks such as a private a la carte breakfast, afternoon tea and a happy hour that includes cocktails and canapes. If you happen to need something outside one of those ample inclusive windows, your personal butlers will, for example, send up an iced coffee or soda to the room free of charge.

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The property showcases a grand, gilded lobby, two outdoor pool decks and a huge, well-equipped fitness center. There’s also the Willow Stream spa, technically under the Fairmont brand; don’t skip the Holoti treatment, highlighting traditional Filipino techniques, where you’ll be covered with warm banana leaves while receiving a foot massage, preceding a full body massage with coconut oil.

Back to the islands, Palawan Island itself has different levels of accommodation to suit every budget, including a range of additional private island resorts. And the Philippines has no shortage of other scenic island destinations, either, with Boracay being the most well known. But when you’re in Manila and tell a local you’re heading to Palawan, that’s when they’ll light up. “I actually like Palawan more than Boracay,” a fellow patron at the Raffles Long Bar tells me. “It’s more diverse, less crowded and has more locals. You can do it all.”

Aerial View of Koh Kood
Aerial view of Koh Kood

Koh Kood, Thailand

Hey, I love Koh Samui as much as the next guy — maybe more. But it’s far from your only island destination in Thailand, alongside the aforementioned, and even busier, Phuket. Depending on which side of the coast you’re on, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao and Koh Pha Nagn are all on the tourist trail to varying degrees as well. The island which may not be (yet) is Koh Kood, also spelled as Koh Kut.

That’s in part due to its location. It’s close off the coast of Cambodia, south of the larger Koh Chang and far removed from most of the other locales on the Thai island-hopping circuit. But the location is also easily accessible via Bangkok, and offers a luxe resort well worth the trek even if it wasn’t: Soneva Kiri. Yes, that Soneva, the one with two incredible Maldivian resorts boasting enormous overwater villas with features such as water slides and roofs that slide open via remote for stargazing.

Soneva Kiri offers 33 private villas ranging up to five bedrooms in size. It’s a rainforest resort set amid an untouched beach, and you’ll get bicycles and buggies to maneuver around the property, as well as 24/7 butler service for when you don’t want to go anywhere. (And when you see these villas and their enormous private pools, you probably won’t, though, luckily, immersive private dining setups and exploratory activities on land and on sea are counted among the offerings.)

There are other four- and five-star resorts on the island, but when unfettered luxury combined with near-complete seclusion is the goal, Soneva Kiri checks all the boxes.

Pink Beach in Komodo National Park
Pink Beach in Komodo National Park

Komodo, Indonesia

Komodo Island forms part of Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, along with neighboring islands such as Rinca and Padar. The park was formed to protect its namesake, the Komodo dragon, with several thousand of the monitor lizards found across the region, growing up to about 150 pounds in size. Beyond a chance to view these captivating critters, Komodo and the surrounding isles is a renowned diving destination and offers incredible, rich biodiversity above and below sea level.

You can fly in from Bali or Jakarta, and the place to stay in Labuan Bajo once you arrive is Ayana Komodo, a property with 205 guestrooms and several large, resort-style pools. The brand also operates the biggest resort on Bali based on guest capacity, with a handful of distinct hotels operating within an expansive enclave in Jimbaran Bay.

Ayana Komodo, however, strikes a different chord, as it’s more remote, exclusive and well-positioned to capitalize on the best of its unique place in the world. The property operates a fleet of watercraft, whether for daytime snorkeling or castaway style lunch experiences, glass bottom ocean viewing, private charters or sunset cruises.

Elsewhere, other top choices on Komodo include properties such as Plataran Komodo Resort, Sudamala Resort, Angel Island and Meruorah Komodo.


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