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The Banda Islands are the original 'Spice Islands'.  <img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click for full image
Travel Guide > Asia > Features

7 Islands You Must Visit in Southeast Asia

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Asia has over 20,000 islands, more than even the most avid traveler can handle.

Which islands are worth visiting? We give you the best: The 7 most beautiful islands you must have seen.

The islands here stand out because of their natural beauty and cultural heritage. If you are looking for beautiful beach islands, we also have the Top 8 Beaches for you.

Top 7: Langkawi (Malaysia)

Langkawi's cable car viewing platform offers views over to Thailand.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

While Langkawi has a few okay beaches, we recommend you visit mainly for its mountains and landscapes. Find a hotel along on Pantai Cenang beach and use it as a base for daytrips around the island.

Rent a car or motorbike and drive up the winding road to Gunung Raya, Langkawi’s highest point at 881 meters. Then visit Pantai Tanjung Rhu beach for a view over to Thailand and a boat ride through the mangrove forest. Finally, save the best for last and take the Langkawi Cable Car up to the large viewing platform on top of Gunung Machinchang (at 708 meters).

Our GuideGecko Rating for Langkawi:

Beach: * (1 of 5 stars: There are better beaches on Malaysia’s East Coast and in Thailand further up north)

Water: * (1 of 5 stars: You are still in the Malacca Straits, which means the water is muddy, no comparison to Koh Lipe just a few kilometers up north)

Diving & Snorkeling: - (nada: The Underwater World aquarium doesn’t count)

Landscapes: **** (4 of 5 stars: Mountains and views - that’s what you come here for)

Culture: - (nada: Nothing worth mentioning)

Mood: Weekend trippers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore

Top 6: Wayag Islands (Indonesia)

A view to die for: The Wayag Islands in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

With dozens of green clothed rock islands emerging from the sea, the uninhabited Wayag Islands offer a magic, fairy tale landscape. It takes a full day trip by boat to reach them – and that is only from Raja Ampat, itself a couple of hours by boat from Sorong and six hours by plane from Jakarta. Yes, this is really far away!

As anywhere in Raja Ampat, there is great snorkeling and diving, but you really come to the Wayag Islands for the scenery. Don’t miss climbing up the little pathway, the view is fantastic.

Raja Ampat is a premier dive destination - probably Southeast Asia's best dive spot. It is a pitty that many divers in Raja Ampat are so focused on diving, they miss out this spectacular highlight. Make sure you are not one of them!

Our GuideGecko Rating for the Wayag Islands:

Beach: **** (4 of 5 stars: Great beaches, but you won’t have much time)

Water: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Super clean)

Diving & Snorkeling: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Raja Ampat is one of the top dive spots in the world)

Landscapes: ***** (5 of 5 stars: One word - stunning!)

Culture: - (nada: Well, the Wayag Islands are uninhabited)

Mood: Divers and locals on a daytrip

Top 5: Flores (Indonesia)

Flores offers stunning landscapes and three-colored volcanic lakes.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Great landscapes, stunning volcanic lakes and the world’s best diving at its doorsteps: Welcome to Flores in Indonesia!

The only thing missing on Flores is a really nice beach, but that’s not what you come here for. Instead, you recharge your camera, rent a minivan and go on a trip all the way from Labuanbajo to the Kelimutu volcanic lakes. These three small lakes shine in different colors, because of different minerals dissolved in each one. The colors even change over the years!

Back from Kelimutu, you organize a day trip to Komodo Island to get close to the Komodo Dragon, and just relax and have beer with the sunset over Labuanbajo’s west coast as the backdrop.

Our GuideGecko Rating for Flores:

Beach: * (1 of 5 stars: Flores is huge, so maybe you find a nice one?)

Water: - (nada - Its clean, but what’s the matter without a beach?)

Diving & Snorkeling: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Huge schools of fish, Manta Rays and everything else. World class. And on land you have the Komodo Dragons)

Landscapes: **** (4 of 5 stars: Flores green hills offer spectacular views, and Kelimutu adds that little extra)

Culture: * (1 of 5 stars: Flores is mainly catholic, and the churches offer an interesting twist in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.)

Mood: Divers and Adventurers

Top 4: Luzon (Philippines)

Southeast Asia's most scenic rice terraces. In Batad, northern Luzon.   <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

The Philippines feature 7107 islands, there must be some exceptional ones. Our pick is Luzon – not because it is the largest, but because of its magnificent rice terraces around Banaue and Batad.

Unfortunately, it takes an all-nighter by bus to get to the rice terraces in Luzon’s northern part, but the views are really worth it. Forget the rice terraces on Bali, this is the real thing. Make your base in Banaue, walk around the rice paddies near town, visit the viewpoint, and organize a day trip to Batad – the latter offers the most stunning terraces.

Luzon has more than just rice paddies: Manila offers some city sightseeing, and at Luzon’s southern end, you will find Mount Mayon, a perfectly shaped volcano.

With spare time, consider visiting the Caramoan Peninsula, also located in Luzon’s southern part. Off the beaten track and difficult to reach, the Caramoan Peninsula looks similar to Krabi and Koh Phi Phi - think lime stone cliffs and beautiful beaches. It is also one of the filming locations for the Survivor TV show.

Donsol, even further south, offers the possibility to snorkel with whale sharks. But unlike previous years, sightings are not at all guaranteed.

Luzon is huge and distances are long. Traveling from the rice paddies to Manila takes 12 hours by bus, and another 10 hours on to Mount Mayon or Donsol. The Caramoan Peninsula is another 8-10 hours from Mount Mayon or Donsol.

Our GuideGecko Rating for Luzon:

Beach: *** (3 of 5 stars: Pristine beaches in the Caramoan Peninsula, but difficult to reach)

Water: **** (4 of 5 stars: Again for the Caramaon Peninsula)

Diving & Snorkeling: ** (2 of 5 stars: 5 stars if you spot whale sharks near Donsol, 0 stars if not. We give that 2 stars in total)

Landscapes: ***** (5 of 5 stars: The most beautiful rice terraces in the world)

Culture: * (1 of 5 stars: Manila’s “Intramuros” old town is mostly destroyed, but worth 1 star)

Mood: Relaxed trekkers and Backpackers

Top 3: Java (Indonesia)

Get up early for this view of Gunung Bromo on Java, Indonesia.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Java is home to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. That is not the reason Java is listed here though. In fact, try to get out of Jakarta as quickly as possible.

Java’s highlights are Yogyakarta and Mount Bromo.

Yogyakarta is a cultural hotspot, located on central Java. You can spend a full day visiting the city with its royal compound and temples. But the real highlight here is Borobodur, a temple complex that looks like a small version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. After Angkor Wat and Pagan in Myanmar/Burma, Borobudur is Southeast Asia’s most magnificent ancient monument. Also visit Prambanan, an impressive Hindu temple complex nearby Yogyakarta.

Java is huge, so you need to travel a fair bit of distance to get to its other highlight: Mount Bromo on Java’s far east. This volcano-inside-a-volcano is worth a trip on its own.

Visit Mount Bromo early in the morning to admire the magnificent view from the caldera, then head to the inner volcano, climb up the stairs and gaze into the smoke. But don’t inhale!

Our GuideGecko Rating for Java:

Beach: - (nada: Sorry!)

Water: - (nada: So Sorry!)

Diving & Snorkeling: - (nada: So so sorry!)

Landscapes: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Gunung Bromo, we love you!)

Culture: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Borobodur = Angkor Wat - the Masses)

Mood: Globetrotters mixed with budget-airline weekend trippers

Top 2: Bali (Indonesia)

There is a temple in every corner on Bali.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Something for beginners: If you haven’t been to Asia, then Bali is a top option.

Bali offers something for everyone: Great temples, mystic culture, beautiful landscapes and decent beaches. Oops… only decent beaches? Unfortunately, yes – Bali’s beaches are simply underwhelming when compared with other beaches in Asia.

Kuta is the most popular beach and offers a wide range of budget accommodation options and good nightlife. Legian is more upscale, Seminyak even more. Sanur on the east coast caters more to families with kids. Nicer beaches can be found near Dreamland in Bali’s far south-west, but beware of high waves – this is surfer’s paradise.

Despite its somewhat mediocre beaches, you can still spend two weeks on Bali without getting bored. Make it a point to travel around, though. After a few days on the beach, move to Ubud, Bali’s cultural center. Rent a bicycle and visit the woodcarvers and cabinetmakers nearby. Then organize a day trip around the island, climb Gunung Batur’s crater rim and admire the rice terraces. Also visit Klungkung, the former capital. In the evening, watch a couple of dance performances. Finally, head to a less crowded beach such as Padangbai, or throw in some dives.

Then head back home, and plan your next trip to more off-the-beaten-track destinations in Southeast Asia.

Our GuideGecko Rating for the Bali:

Beach: ** (2 of 5 stars: Massaaaage, anyone?)

Water: * (1 of 5 stars – Good enough for bathing, but don’t expect to see your feet)

Diving & Snorkeling: *** (3 of 5 stars: The mola-mola season is the highlight on Bali’s dive calendar)

Landscapes: **** (4 of 5 stars: Beautiful rice paddies and stunning views down Gunung Batur’s caldera)

Culture: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Dance performances, temples, religious festivals. That’s the real Bali)

Mood: A melting pot of backpackers, luxury tourists and some leftover hippies.

And the winner is…: Banda Islands (Indonesia)

Banda has it all: Fantastic beaches, great snorkeling and diving, stunning views and good food!  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Ok, you get it by now: Indonesia wins 5 of 7 spots on the best islands list. In a country of over 17000 islands, is that surprising?

The Banda Islands are Indonesia’s top highlight. Partly because of their stunning scenery, and partly because they are so difficult to reach: You need to take at least two domestic flights from Jakarta, or spend days on Pelni boats to get there.

You are rewarded by a group of tiny islands offering spectacular views and landscapes, volcanos to be climbed (easily doable in half a day), good diving and snorkeling, and great beaches almost all for yourself. On top, the Banda Islands are part of the traditional Spice Islands, so expect a few lessons in local history and Indonesia’s best food. Try fried eggplant in nutmeg sauce - delicious!

There are new things to be explored in every corner of the islands. Overall, it is this mixture that makes the Banda Islands so special and a must-see for every keen traveler.

Our GuideGecko Rating for the Banda Islands:

Beach: **** (4 of 5 stars: Very nice, and sometimes all for yourself)

Water: ***** (5 of 5 stars – Super clean)

Diving & Snorkeling: **** (4 of 5 stars: No particular big fish, but very good overall)

Landscapes: **** (4 of 5 stars: Great views!)

Culture: *** (3 of 5 stars: Lots of history on the Spice Islands - Did you know the English traded one of the Islands for New York with the Dutch?)

Mood: Only die-hard travelers make it here – and they can be proud of it. While everybody is enthusiastically exploring the islands, the general atmosphere is very laid-back. Just nice!

Islands that didn’t make the list

Sulawesi, Indonesia: There are so many superb off-the-beaten track options in Indonesia. Sulawesi is not one of them.

Togean Islands, Sulawesi, Indonesia: We still have to find a single person to really like the Togeans – apart from Lonely Planet authors.

Camiguin Island, Philippines: Not too bad, but everything - including beaches, landscapes and accommodation options - is nicer on nearby Bohol. Camiguin offers a bit of end-of-the-world feeling, though. Just like its mountain road that leads to nowhere.

Sentosa, Singapore: You must be kidding, right?


Want more highlights?

Done island-hopping? Check out Southeast Asia's other highlights:


Agree with our best islands? Have a better suggestion? Let's discuss! 

Type: Feature
Location: Asia

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