10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Beach Paradises in Asia
Imagine an idyllic beach paradise: crystal clear water teeming with dolphins and exotic fish, waves kissing sand free of footprints, coconut palms swaying in the breeze, a hammock swinging lazily next to a bamboo bungalow. It's an appealing fantasy, and each year millions of people flock to the coastlines of Asia to chase it -- in Bali, Phuket, Fiji, and Boracay. Increasing masses of beachgoers have crowded and commercialized such destinations, and secluded stretches of sand are reserved for those who can afford a luxury resort with a private beach. But the vision of a pristine, secluded beach getaway with friendly local flavor (and low cost of living) is still accessible elsewhere in the region. Like all the best off-the-beaten-path destinations, the beaches on this list are not easy to reach. They require multiple steps by plane, bus, and boat, but the reward is untouched sand, surf, sun, and serenity -- and prices low enough to afford an extended stay.
Most beachgoers in Cambodia head straight to Sihanoukville peninsula and its surrounding islands. To avoid mobs of "flashpackers" (upscale backpackers) and the inevitable "foreigner tax" added to every purchase, head to Koh Thmei in Ream National Park. The pristine island is home to a few local families and a small shrimp fishery. The main accommodations are the eight little beach bungalows of the eco-friendly, solar-powered Koh Thmei Resort. Don't be fooled by the word "resort" -- the lodging is basic and prices start at $35 a night. Visitors can comb the golden beach for seashells or try to spot dolphins and more than 150 species of colorful birds. Rumor has it that a major Malaysian property developer has plans to build an upscale resort town with a bridge to the mainland, so visit Koh Thmei now to appreciate the simple, affordable beach life.
Tucked away on the remote southeast coast of Sri Lanka is a curve of golden sand known as Arugam Bay. A humble fishing village with a population of just a few hundred, it's basically one road running along the beach, dotted with small restaurants and guesthouses where a double room might start at $15. This little village on the Indian Ocean is known as the best surf spot in Sri Lanka, attracting an eclectic mix of travelers who mingle with local surfers. ("Best" doesn't mean big waves, though; it's ideal for beginners.) During peak surf season in July and August, it's not uncommon for an impromptu seafood barbecue to spring up on the beach, with music and plenty of the local coconut rum, while the Muslim call to prayer spirals across the village from the mosque. Many stretches of beach remain totally undeveloped and offer unobstructed views of rolling dunes and sweeping waves.
This tiny beach paradise is owned by the Sultanate of Johor. "Secluded," "remote," and "idyllic," are some of the words repeated by visitors and travel writers when describing Rawa Island. Ten miles off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, Rawa draws mostly Singaporeans looking for a weekend getaway. Rocky cliffs around much of the island drop straight into the ocean, making the coastline inaccessible, but the western side has a small strip of beach with two resorts (owned by two brothers). A standard room starts at about $100 a night. No shopping or tourist traps here; just white sand, excellent snorkeling, and a nightly buffet of fresh-caught seafood.
In a country that is already well off the tourist trail, Nabule Beach is a remote beach getaway in the vein of Robinson Crusoe. A golden stupa, or Buddhist shrine, sits atop a huge rock overlooking the deep blue water and a beach dotted with smaller boulders beckoning to be climbed. Boat tours, jet skis, fruit stands, and backpacker hostels are conspicuously absent. There's really no one trying to sell or buy anything at Nabule -- just the sound of the waves and the sand between your toes. (If the quiet gets to be a little much, a nearby beach with more activity is Maung Ma Kan. During colonial times it was a favorite spot for the English to drink tea seaside; now it's a popular weekend retreat where locals play football and float on inner tubes.)
Sprinkled in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are some of the most remote places on the planet -- and certainly the least visited on this list. Officially part of India, the islands are closer geographically to Thailand and Myanmar. Most of the hundreds of islands are uninhabited, and fewer than a dozen are open to tourists. The least visited is Rutland Island, on the southern end of the archipelago. Most of the island is heavily forested, but there's a resort with quaint huts and a fringe of stunning beaches. Your feet may be the first to imprint the sand on any given day and it's easy to see the sun set without having talked to another soul. Head to Baratang or Havelock Islands for a beach with slightly more amenities. For surfing, check out Little Andaman.
China's southernmost point is called "the Hawaii of China," but it's much cheaper and draws fewer visitors. Hainan is an island about the size of Belgium in the South China Sea where development has started only within the past 30 years. Money is pouring into construction of luxury resorts for China's moneyed classes, so now is the time to visit while prices are still low. Sanya Bay is the most popular beach and offers great people watching, with Chinese tourists singing, playing music, and enjoying the sand and surf. For something a little quieter (and cheaper), head to the beach towns along the east coast. Houhai Beach is a charming stretch of sand with a few small restaurants and fruit stands and signs of a burgeoning surf scene.
There's a reason Thailand is famous for its island beaches. Every island has something to offer, whether it's rowdy all-night parties, stunning scuba diving, spicy island cuisine, or laid-back fishing villages. Ko Mak is an idyll east of Bangkok, near the border with Cambodia. Dwarfed by the very popular island of Ko Chang, Ko Mak is much more serene than its neighbor. The family of a Chinese-Thai coconut baron owns almost the entire island, which is popular mainly among a small group of repeat visitors. Surrounded by palm trees and calm, shallow waters ideal for a relaxing swim, some sections of beach are completely undeveloped stretches of silky white sand without a hotel or restaurant in sight.
Just next door to overdeveloped, highly touristed Bali is a secret of the Java Sea: the three Gilis. Enchanting Gili Meno is tiny, with about 400 residents, and visitors can make their way around the entire island in about 90 minutes by foot on the coastal path. The local culture is an eclectic blend of Islam, aboriginal Sasak, and bohemian flair. The island is not easy to access, typically requiring a combination of bus rides, boat trips, and short flights (not to mention a ride on a horse-drawn cart once you reach the island), which is one reason most tourists skip it. But the journey is worth the chance to relax in a seaside hammock while gazing across the waves at rice terraces carved into the sides of the volcano of Lombok. Coral gardens around the island are feeding grounds for several types of sea turtles, and it's easy to spot them while snorkeling or diving.
A tiny, predominately Muslim country nestled on the island of Borneo, Brunei is far from the typical tourist itinerary. Oil and gas exports have made it one of the richest countries in the world. It's surrounded on all sides by Malaysian soil, except for a small stretch of coastline on the South China Sea, where there are several attractive beaches. Meragang Beach is the most unspoiled, with little commercial development to interfere with the breathtaking sunsets. Just offshore is Pilong-Pilongan Island, a tiny rocky island popular among divers in the know. Like all the best hidden spots, Meragang Beach harbors a few folksy mysteries -- for instance, it's often called Crocodile Beach by locals, although no crocodiles are ever seen there. Another nickname is 7-Up Beach, perhaps a reference to the fizzy bubbles that collect on the pebbly sand, or a soda can used by surfers years ago to mark the hard-to-find beach entrance.