Travel Tips: Overdeveloped Beaches and Islands to Avoid in SE Asia
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.
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.
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.
Had Rin Beach on Koh Phanghan
Koh Lipe in Satun Province
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.
Instead I recommend:
small islands of Trang & Satun Province, particularly:
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 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.
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.
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 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.
instead head up to:
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
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.
instead chill out on:
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
Batu Ferringhi Beach on Penang
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 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.
instead go to:
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.
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.
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!
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?