The Best Beaches in Southeast Asia: A Very Incomplete Listing

May 22, 2007

In four months, I have been to twenty-two beaches in four countries.

In the guidebooks and on internet forums, it’s easy to find information on beaches in one particular country. I would estimate that half of the posts in Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum go to discussing which Thai island or beach provides the perfect strip of sand. Still, it was a challenge finding international comparisons. Yes, Thailand’s west coast beaches are glorious, but how do they compare to Vietnam’s? When the Cambodia guidebook says so-and-so beach has fine water, do they mean in comparison to the Cambodian coast or to every beach that particular author has ever been to?

From the first moment my toes hit the sand, I began comparing. I wanted to decide absolutely and without prejudice (okay, maybe a little prejudice) where the best beach in Southeast Asia was.

I’ve ranked beaches according to three factors: Water, Sand, and Atmosphere, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. I’ve also written the time of visit, as things can change depending on the monsoons. For the best overall beach, you’ll have to read towards the end.

Vietnam: Phu Quoc Island (February 2007)

pq-long.jpgLong Beach
Water:3 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 4
Phu Quoc’s “main strip” where all of the hotels and restaurants are located. For being the most built-up beach on the island, it was extremely quiet and relaxing. Calm waters with the occasional jellyfish. Coarse, shell-less sand squeaked under my feet whenever I walked on it.

Sao Beach
Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 5
An hour motorbike ride away from Long Beach down red, dusty road, this beach was worth the trip. Gloriously isolated, except for two restaurants serving fresh, cheap, and the most delicious seafood on the island, Sao is surrounded by green hills. There was no boat traffic in the bay at all.

Cambodia: Sihanoukville (March 2007)

sihanoukville.jpgSerendipity Beach
Water: 2 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 1
Had the water and sand not been filled with garbage, this beach might have gotten a better score. Combined with the nearly constant flow of beach vendors trying to sell you everything including the kitchen sink if they could carry it on their heads, this beach gets my vote as worst in Southeast Asia.

 Thailand (April 2007)

Railey: Phra Ngan
Water: 4 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3phra-ngan-railey.jpg
Glorious green water, clean sand, dramatic cliffs on the one hand, and on the other, kids trying to sell you cold beers every two minutes and hundreds of sunburnt Europeans.  The beach is best before 10:00 a.m., where you can savor all of the former without all of the latter.

Railey West
Water: 2.5 Sand: 2.5 Atmosphere: 2.5
Went here for about ten minutes. Didn’t like it. Went back to Phra Ngan. Everything is twice as expensive as Railey East.

Phi Phi: Long Beach
Water: 3.5 Sand: 2.5 Atmosphere: 3
Rough waves combined with dead coral on the beach made for an uncomfortable beach-going experience. The morning, with less crowds, less longtails, and calmer seas, was much more pleasant.

Phi Phi: Tonsai
Water: 4 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 1
Muddy sand littered with broken beer bottles.  Crowded and constantly filled with the sound of longtails.

pp-monkey.jpgPhi Phi: Monkey
Water: 4 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 3.5
Visited on a snorkeling trip, this beach had truly stunning turquoise waters made a bit milky because of the rough surf. Great snorkeling offshore. Too bad the beach was lined with boats from other snorkeling trips.

Lanta: Klong Dao
Water: N/A Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
Approaching the monsoon season, this beach was very quiet and the waves were rough. Tacky restaurants line the beach, most of whose menus didn’t look very appealing at all.

lanta.jpgLanta: Kantiang Bay
Water: 2 Sand: 3 Atmosphere: 3.5
Billed as one of the best beaches in Lanta, this beach disappointed. Muddy sand, murky waters, and a rough tide. However, development was pretty inconspicuous, with trees surrounding most of the bay.

Lanta: Koh Rok

Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 2/5
We visited Koh Rok on a snorkeling trip. Hands down, these two little islands provided the best snorkeling I had in Southeast Asia. Thekoh-rok.jpg beaches were superb as well. One drawback was that all of the snorkeling trips docked at the same time and same location, hogging up precious beach space and making for a loud, obnoxious time. However, walking a little ways away over a cluster of rocks, I found a lovely, deserted beach. The trip cost a whopping 1300 baht, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.


Lanta: Koh Kradan
Water: 3.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 2/4.5
Again, I visited Koh Kradan for only about an hour on a snorkeling trip, with very much the same situation as Koh Rok. Glorious beach marred by too many boats. Going further down the shore where there were less people paid off again. The sea here was a bit rocky, with leaves floating on the water.

Lipe: Sunlight
Water: 4.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere 4.5
Gorgeous water, soft sand, longtails parked all along the shore, lined with ratty-looking restaurants and bungalows. Decent snorkeling just a few hundred yards offshore.

lipe-pattaya.jpgLipe: Pattaya
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 4
The crystal-clear water and powdery sand was unluckily spoiled by trash and debris from a big storm a few nights before. The high tide made sitting on the shore difficult. While development in the central beach area looked run-down, the farthest ends of the beach looked a bit better.

Malaysia (May 2007)

Perhentian Besar: Perhentian Island Resort
Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 4.5
In particular, the west end of the bay, closest to the jetty, provided the most paradise-like beaches, with huge boulders and jungle framing sky-blue waters and powdery sand. The only drawback to this beach was the obstructive jetty and the occasional boat traffic. Good snorkeling, too.

per-mamas.jpgPerhentian Besar: Western shore by Mama’s
Water: 3 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 3
This beach is unsuitable for swimming because of all the dead coral. The bungalows lining the shore were pretty lowkey. I rarely saw people swimming or sunbathing on this beach.

Perhentian Besar: Western shore by Abdul’s
Water: 4 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
Nicer beach than Mama’s, with less coral. However, there were still rocks in the water. With the construction of a new jetty, the atmosphere was less-than-idyllic.

Perhentian Besar: Telek KK
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atsmophere: 5
Deserted beach on the southwestern shore. Clear, calm waters interrupted occasionally by boat traffic.

per-turtle.jpgPerhentian Besar: Turtle Beach
Water: 4.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 4.5
The mingling of the fresh water stream on the beach with the salt water caused strange things to happen to the water here. While turquoise and clear, the water on the eastern half of the beach looked blurry, for lack of a better term. Still gorgeous though. Coming to this beach is luck of the draw, however; when I arrived, it was deserted. When I left, I left with five other boats, each carrying three to four people per.

Perhentian Kecil: Long Beach
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 3
Beautiful water and coarse sand. This beach would be perfect if the development weren’t so haphazard and ugly.

Perhentian Kecil: Aur (Coral) Bay
Water: 3 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 4
Although the water was clear and blue, dead coral and broken shells littered the shoreline, making for a painful swim. The bungalows were more low-key than Long Beach and the offshore snorkeling was good, too

Tioman: Air Batang and Pernuba Bay
Water: 3 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
The coarse, golden sands on these beaches make the otherwise clear waters a softer, grayer blue than the island’s cousins to the north, the Perhentians. Rocky and shelly in some places, the southern end of the beach is the only place suitable for swimming. Bungalows and restaurants are cheap and low-key, although the power lines and empty pipes on the side of the road detract from the atmosphere.

Okay so after reading thus far, the top three beaches in Southeast Asia are:

3. Perhentian Island Resort, Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

2. Koh Rok, Thailand

1. Sao Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam



2 Responses to “The Best Beaches in Southeast Asia: A Very Incomplete Listing”

  1. Keiko said

    Wow that’s a lot of beaches. Holy crap! I hope that one day I can at visit your top three. Sorry I haven’t written you any comments lately. I’ve been busy this month. I’m not sure if I’ve been productive, but definitely busy!

  2. Great article. Thanks for the info. I will have to check these places out one day.

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