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Travel Tips: Overdeveloped Beaches and Islands to Avoid in SE Asia

crowded Boracay Island - Philippines

Boracay Island – Philippines

Travel Tips: Overdeveloped Beaches and Islands to Avoid in SE Asia

Koh Bulon beach - Thailand

empty beach on Koh Bulon – Thailand

My idea of a great tropical island or beach is one that is ‘au naturale’. When I head to a beach I want to be completely surrounded by nature: sky, clouds, sun, sea, sand and trees. I want to hear nothing but wind in trees, waves lapping on the shore, birds chirping & insects buzzing.

I don’t want to see tall skyscrapers or a bunch of bars, restaurants & shops or a load of shabby souvenir shacks. I don’t want to be pestered by touts trying to sell me cold drinks, jewelry or massages. I don’t want to hear loud music or jet ski engines or people & children screaming on water rides.

When I head to a tropical beach or island I want to enjoy peace & quiet surrounded by pristine nature. I want a nature escape.

(Of course it’s convenient to have somewhere to eat, buy water and use a toilet nearby. But those aren’t essential and they certainly don’t have to be right at the beach. I can take my own drinks, food & beach gear with me. And a toilet is only essential if you’ve got major business to do. )

If your tastes match mine, then this post will serve you well. You’ll be extremely happy to avoid all of the places I mention below when you travel through SE Asia. Just tick them off your list right now. There’s no reason to visit any of them – unless you want to be horrified at real life examples of human development gone amok.

Tarutao Island - Thailand

gorgeous Tarutao Island National Park- Thailand

On the other hand, if your purpose in visiting tropical beaches is to party your head off, hang out in surfing colonies, go shopping for luxury items and designer gear or hang out on a ‘city at a beach’ then instead of avoiding these places, you can use my list as a handy list of ‘must go beaches in SE Asia’.

In addition, any places you see listed in guidebooks as a ‘party destination’, ‘most famous beach’, ‘most popular island’ or ‘major tourist spot’ will be the places you like

But for those of you who like the same kind of unspoiled beach & island destinations that I do, here’s a very easy rule of thumb when planning your trip: Any beach or island that guidebooks refer to as a ‘major destination’, ‘main tourist destination’, ‘most famous island’, ‘most popular beach’… you can just plan on avoiding entirely.

As for my personal recommendations, following is my nature lovers’ list of beaches and islands in SE Asia to avoid at all costs, along with some alternative ‘au naturale’ places.

Patong Beach - Phuket - Thailand

Patong Beach – Phuket – Thailand

Thailand

Thailand’s major tourist islands are all excessively developed to the point of having been transformed into cities on the sea. They are crowded, expensive, full of noisy traffic and western stores, touts, scams, bars & restaurants. Many have crime problems.

They are all prime examples of tourism gone wrong. And it’s a crying shame because they are all once-beautiful islands with lovely tropical beaches, palm trees and calm waters. Too bad humans have destroyed them.

In my opinion they are the worst places in the country. I’ve spent 1-2 months in all of these places, way back in 1998-2001, when it was still possible to find little untouched nooks. But even then they were already over the top for travelers like me.

Since then, Thailand has had a decade to make them even worse, which they’ve done in grand style. I personally wouldn’t visit these places again if I were paid to.

Full Moon Party - Koh Phangan

Thailand’s famous Full Moon Party at Haad Rin Beach – Koh Phangan – great if you want to party, but not for quiet or pristine nature

Avoid:

Phi Phi

Phuket

Koh Samui

Koh Tao

Had Rin Beach on Koh Phanghan

Koh Lipe in Satun Province

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Borderline:

Koh Lanta

Koh Chang (near Cambodia)

These two islands haven’t been developed to the extreme point of the others, at least not so far. You can still find thatched bungalows and low-key independent travelers nooks. Personally, they are not my favorite places. They’re ok, but that’s about it. I don’t plan to return.

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Koh Adang beach

Koh Adang beach – Thailand

Instead I recommend:

small islands of Trang & Satun Province, particularly:

Koh Tarutao

Koh Adang

Koh Bulon

Koh Mook

Koh Libong

Koh Sukorn

Koh Jam near Lanta

Koh Chang & Koh near Ranong

Most of these islands are so small that they don’t have roads or vehicles, which greatly limits their development. They are much less known and generally not visited by mainstream tourists. Instead, independent travelers, couples, solo travelers and some families choose these islands.

A few sad exceptions are Koh Ngai, Koh Kradan and Koh Lipe, which have become ‘discovered’ by mainstream Thai tourists. If you go way off-season, they might be lovely.

I’ve written several posts about many of these islands, based on my 2013 2-month island hopping trip. My favorite was Koh Bulon. Find details on others here.

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Boracay Island traffic

typical Boracay Island traffic

Philippines

Avoid:

Boracay

I should have known better when I read that Boracay was the Philippines most popular and famous island, that it was a big party escape from Manila. Sadly, I didn’t heed my own advice & instincts and so was treated to one of the worst island experiences of my life. Even worse, I ended up staying there four entire months, trying to earn a living scuba diving, hating it the whole time.

Read all about it here.

Alona Beach - Panglao - Philippines

Alona Beach – Panglao – Philippines

instead visit:

Bohol

Panglao

Palawan

Luckily, before I left Philippines I did squeeze in a short trip to cute little Panglao Island, off the tip of Bohol Island. As a result I know that the Philippines still offers lovely, quiet laid-back places. I’d return to Panglao in a heartbeat.

I’ve read and heard that Bohol, Palawan and other small islands around the Philippines are still pristine and laid-back.

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Kuta Bali has hundreds of streets full of souvenir shops like these

Kuta Bali

Bali

Avoid:

Kuta-Legian-Seminyak-Cangu sprawl

This vast coastal sprawl in south Bali is the epitome of tourism gone wrong. A once beautiful coast, lined by lush rice fields, has been transformed since the 1970s into a tourist nightmare. For 10 km it’s jam-packed with thousands of souvenir stalls, restaurants, bars, shops, designer stores, touts, rip offs, traffic clogged roads, smog, chaos and noise. (Actually I could use this description for all of Thailand’s major tourist islands as well.)

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who read about Kuta in their guidebooks or whom I advised not to go there but did anyhow. They all absolutely hated it. They all told me, “Oh, Lash, you were right about Kuta/Seminyak.”

A couple of them were even experienced world travelers, including travel bloggers. Some of them concluded then & there that Bali is terrible. Some of them departed the island pronto, never venturing out to see the real Bali. It’s a real shame because Kuta is not Bali. Several other areas of Bali are absolutely wonderful.

I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again: Just don’t even go to the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak sprawl. You’ll enjoy Bali much better if you don’t experience that disaster on planet Earth.

Sanur beach - Bali

pristine Sanur Beach – Bali

Borderline:

Sanur

Sanur is developed, but in a much more refined style.It’s beautiful 3-km long beach is backed by tasteful upscale resorts with lush Balinese gardens and many Balinese artistic touches. A walkway runs along the beach for pedestrians and bicycles. There are no motor vehicles.

Views are spectacular, the sand is powdery, sea good for swimming and snorkeling.

I personally love Sanur, but I’ve met several travelers who found it too developed. It does make a huge difference where, exactly, you stay in Sanur. For instance, the far north en beach is a mess of souvenir stalls, touts and vehicles. The remaining 3-km beach is much more refined.

Bali's north coast at Amed - Mt Agung - Bali

Bali’s northeast coastal road near Amed with view of Mt Agung

instead head up to:

Amed

Bali’s remote northeast coast consists of a series of small beach lined bays separated by headlands. Each bay retains its original fishing village and inhabitants, who go about their traditional daily lives. Scattered amidst them are low-key boutique resorts, dive shops and a few restaurants.

I’ve written heaps of posts about Amed here

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how to extend an Indonesian visa so you can stay 6 months

beautiful coastal road in west Lombok

Lombok

Avoid:

Sengigi Beach on the west coast of Lombok

Gili Trawangan and Gili Air Islands, just off the west coast

Sengigi is a tiny version of Kuta, Bali, with a thin strip of beach running along 3 km of highway, which is full of shops, restaurants, bars and mainstream type hotels.

The Gilis are three tiny sand islands just off the coast of NW Lombok. Trawangan is the heavy party island. It’s packed with touts, bars & dance clubs. Drug & crime scene.

Gili Air is a lower-key party island.

Boat at Gili Meno - Lombok - Indonesia

view of Lombok from beautiful Gili Meno Island

instead chill out on:

Gili Meno

This is the quiet island of the three, with very little nightlife and only a few sporadic parties.

Check out my photo gallery of Gili Meno

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Armenian Street- Penang- Malaysi

Armenian Street in UNESCO World Heritage City Georgetown – Penang Island

Malaysia

Avoid:

Perentian Islands

Batu Ferringhi Beach on Penang

Penang Island

The Perentians are highly publized in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks. Perhaps that’s why they’ve become so grossly over-developed, crowded and noisy. Their famed coral reefs have suffered greatly from over-use as well.

If you’re looking for beaches, Penang isn’t really what you’re after. Better to visit nearby Langkawi Island. Penang is wonderful for culture, history, heritage, architecture and Malaysia’s best street food. But it’s not what you think of when you think ‘tropical island’.

Cenang Beach- Langkawi- Malaysia

the gorgeous, empty western end of Cenang Beach- Langkawi

borderline:

Cenang Beach on Langkawi

Cenang is Langkawi’s most popular beach and party area. There’s a main street full of the usual tourist restaurants, travel agencies, bars, souvenir shops and so on.  It’s exactly the kind of beach I recommend avoiding.

However, the far western end, backed by a massive upscale resort full of trees and landscaping, has a long section of wide empty quiet beach. It’s also one of the best places to watch Langkawi’s gorgeous sunsets. And Cenang is the only area on Langkawi with budget accommodation, so you don’t have  much choice if you’re a budget traveler.

If you stick to the western end, Cenang is really quite ok. 

remote beach near Pulau Betong- southwest Penang

remote beach near Pulau Betong- southwest Penang

instead go to:

Tioman

Rendang

Langkawi

remote beaches on Penang

Tioman and Rendang Islands lie south of Perentians on Malaysia’s east coast. They are infinitely less developed and, thus, much more pristine, quiet and uncrowded. The reefs are all in much better condition than Perentians as well.

Langkawi has its small party beach at Cenang. Aside from that, the island is a nature-lovers’ paradise and offers several other low-key beaches.

I’ve written many posts about Langkawi here.

If you do head to Penang for culture, heritage and food but are yearning for a nice beach escape, you’ll find one in the far NW corner of the island. I’ve written about that spot here.

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Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville – Cambodia

Cambodia

Avoid:

Sihanoukville

This is a backpackers’ ghetto near the sea. It’s like a small Khao San Road near a the beach. The beach is a very thin strip of sand that practically disappears at high tide. It’s crowded with rickety beach chairs and dilapidated huts. It’s one of the worst beaches I’ve ever visited.

Sorry, I can’t recommend any alternatives in Cambodia. I was so appalled at Sihanoukville that I quickly fled the coast.

Summary

That’s my advice round-up for beaches & islands in SE Asia. Whether you’ll want to heed this advice or not depends entirely on what kind of tropical islands & beaches you prefer.

Happy island hopping in the tropics!

QUESTIONS:

Have you been to any of the islands or beaches I mentioned here? If so, what did you think of them? 

Do you have any other beaches or islands to add to this list? 

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15 comments

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  1. Jackie

    Great list but so depressing to see once beautiful places destroyed. I can’t understand why anyone would ever want to go to Phuket!

    I think I visited Bali 6 times before I set foot anywhere near the south apart from the airport.Being Australian I avoided it like the plague. Now the once beautiful, peaceful cultural Ubud has succumbed to the lure of the tourist dollar and after 13 visits since 96 I can’t go back.

    Lanta was once lovely and low key as you say. Checked out a Lanta website yesterday and saw shops, atms, paved roads and a carpark way down south. Very different to late 90’s. Another place to cross off the ever growing list. Also sad to hear Gili Air is no longer beach shacks and no electricity.

    Thankfully Sumatra has pristine islands and wonderful jungles :) Love all the great info on your blog, thanks for sharing.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Jackie,

      My sentiments exactly! Sounds like we enjoy the same sort of unspoiled natural places. Bummer that they are mostly being destroyed – and pretty rapidly, too. :(

      At least it is possible to find some still unspoiled places in each country. You just have to go further off the main trails. :)

      Thanks for stopping by.

      cheers, Lash

  2. hanafi

    Hi lash,

    I’m planning to go to Bali soon, so i came across ur blog. Awesome writing btw. I enjoy reading what u write about Bali. I cant wait to go there.

    U see, im from Malaysia. I m very much interested to know what is ur opinion on ur beaches, so thats why i end up at this post of urs, and writing this comment.

    Actually, redang and tioman island is the one that overly developed by our government, while perhentian is still a laid back backpackers destination with no 5 star hotel, and fancy bar.

    But yeah, no family in Perhentian. Only youngsters.

    Cheers,
    Han

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Han,

      Great, I hope you love Bali as much as I do!

      Your observations about the islands in Malaysia are interesting. And quite different from my own personal experiences there!

      Personally, I found the Perentians MUCH TOO OVER DEVELOPED! Waaaayyy too many bungalow resorts, waaayyy too many boats and dive shops. It’s just over-run with tourists, resorts, restaurants and water-based tours.

      On the other hand, Tioman Island is still mostly undeveloped, with a major portion of the island just jungle with a few walking trails. Yes, there is a government presence there with the Marine Department Station, but they dont’ make much of an impact or interference there.

      I haven’t been to Redang yet, so I can’t comment from personal experience. But from what I’ve read adn heard from other Malaysian diver friends and travelers, Redang is even less developed than Tioman.

      In any event, thanks for stopping by and adding your views. :)

      Enjoy Bali!

      cheers, Lash

  3. Vix

    Great post! Glad to have stumbled upon some advice written by someone who appreciates the same travel experiences I look for! I am surrounded by resort lovers, so I was beginning to feel I was the only one. I will def refer back to your blog as I research places to travel in Asia – thanks!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Vix,

      Welcome!

      Awesome! Always great to hear from others who appreciate nature, quiet and off the beaten path travels. Glad to have you here. :))

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Hope to hear from you again as you read through more of my tips, destinations and travel stories.

      cheers, Lash

  4. Florian

    Hi Lash,

    Thanks for the information, very usefull. A friend and me want to go to a peaceful island in SE Asia soon, so I will inform myself about the islands you mentioned.

    I share your opinion about Sihanoukville – an aweful place, where unfortunately I had to spent a night twice to get to one of the islands.
    Totally worth was Ko Ta Kiev, which is pretty unknown as well. There are three little resorts where you can rent Bungalows or Tree houses right at the beach (I rented one of those for a short time and it was bautiful). Or you can live in a tent or hammock for very cheap. Food is good, of course little bit more expensive compared to the mainland. Unfortunately there is quite some garbage on the deserted beach that is on the other side of the island. Snorkeling was ok, but nothing special there.

    Koh Rong is beautiful, but quite touristy. I thinkI’ve been there during main season (informing beforehands would be useful) and it was aweful. Party all night long and expensive accomodations – left pretty soon afterwards.

    Greetings, Florian

    1. Lash WorldTour

      HI Florian,

      Welcome!

      Great, so glad this post was useful to you. Sounds like you and I enjoy the same sorts of beaches. :))

      I totally agree with you about Sihanoukville! I can’t understand why so many people do like it? Weird.

      Thanks much for the tips on Ko Ta kiev and Koh Rong.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Much appreciated!

      cheers, Lash

  5. charles

    Hello there,

    I’m sorry but I have to add in something here by looking it from other perspective. It may be a bit off-topic but I guess it is related in some way. This is just my personal view though. I’m sorry if my English is a bit off in this writing. So here we go…..
    Some tourist expects a place/island/beach/forest to stay the same without any development for as long as they want. However, development is needed as it provide job for the local people. The local people need running water, road, school, electricity, hospital, etc and tourism provide this opportunity.
    I remember when I was a teenager living in a long house in borneo (Malaysia side), there was a group of traveller that came from England visiting to observe our way of living. They enjoy observing and experiencing bathing in a river, cooking in a bamboo, collecting jungle produce as food etc. After staying with us in our village for 4 days, the group says their goodbye as they are leaving to the city to catch a flight back home. Before leaving, they tell the village head “please keep the way you are living in this jungle, my friend from the UK would love to experience this”. I remember saying to myself, no way I’m staying like this forever, I would love to watch tv, ride a motorcycle to the city, have shower with clean water.
    My point is, don’t expect a place to stay undeveloped just for your enjoyment. Development is what had given the local hotel worker, beach boy, taxi driver, beach peddler, restaurant worker a job, which provide food on the table for their kids.
    I understand that we would love to have a quiet clean beach with blue sea water with turtle swimming around. I would love that too, but don’t despise the development that happens in Phuket, Bali and Boracay. Don’t expect Kuta beach in Bali to stay the same as Kuta in the 70’s when the street you are living in the city is populated with shopping malls, school and office building. Don’t expect the local in Phuket to stay as fishermen as it was 30 years ago while you yourself are climbing the corporate ladder.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hello Charles,

      Welcome!

      Thanks for stopping by and adding your perspectives. And really NO reason to apologize! Everyone is entitled to their views…and yours are great points.

      I agree with you completely about some development being a very good thing. Everyone should have running water, health care, sanitation, schools and modern conveniences. ABsolutely! And it’s clearly better for locals to have these modern life conveniences.

      Your point about wealthy westerners wanting poor people in other countries to continue living in basic poverty conditions is also a great point. Why should they expect – or want – others in the world to be suffering while they have a much better life?

      However, I do disagree with you about OVER development and BADLY IMPLEMENTED development, like at Boracay, Phuket, Koh Samui, Kuta and other places where development has gone waaayyy beyond peoples’ needs and has actually come to DESTROY the environment and communities. In my opinion that is not ok. It’s absolutely awful.

      In any event, everyone is entitled to their perspectives and opinions. Thanks for sharing yours here.

      cheers, Lash

      1. charles

        Hi Lash,

        Thanks for replying.

        Yes, i respect your opinion on the over development in some places. As you said, everyone is entitled to their perspective.

        I enjoy reading your blog anyway.

        Thanks – from Malaysia.

        1. Lash WorldTour

          Hi Charles,

          Happy to reply!

          Great, we agree on everyone having their own perspectives. :)

          thanks for stopping by again. Terima kasih banyak dari Sydney.

          cheers, Lash

  6. marja

    Hallo Lash
    I read on your website about koh libong and koh bulon we visite the two inlands they where verry butiful
    Thank you for your tip
    Because of your website we know the inlands
    Two paradise
    We had a wonderful time
    Thank you
    Best regards
    Eric and marja
    Good luce with your website and writing

  7. Will

    Lash,
    I just found your blog. Amazing! I love reading your well written articles. A huge inspiration.
    I’m wondering, is there any way to get rid of the floating share button? I never use share buttons – i just copy and paste the url to my facebook. But that button is really really annoying. Haha.
    Thanks for the great great work anyway!
    Will

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for taking time to write and point out the floating share button issue.

      Question: Are you reading my site on a laptop or phone or tablet? Would like to know on which platform(s) the button is a problem

      Thanks again! And great, glad my articles are useful! That’s the goal. :)

      cheers, Lash

  1. 2013 Travel Tips on LashWorldTour » LashWorldTour

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