Rustic river retreat: Don Daeng Island, Laos
Most folks don’t think of beaches when it comes to landlocked Laos but, in the dry season from November to May, the 4,000 islets known as Si Phan Don appear as the Mekong river recedes. Further north is Don Daeng, a tranquil 8km-long car-free island that’s a 10-minute boat ride from Champasak town. The long golden sand beach here seems untouched by man, save for a bamboo walkway running up to the island’s lone resort. Besides relaxing and cycling, visitors can learn about basket weaving and rice farming.
Remote hideout: MacLeod Island, Myanmar
Beach escapism doesn’t get much better than this. The lovely white sand sprawl on MacLeod was, until recently, inaccessible. Located in the Mergui Archipelago, which opened to tourism only in the past few years, MacLeod is the first island to feature a resort with its own dive centre certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Expect to see everything from ghost pipefish to whale sharks on a dive in the waters around MacLeod. You can also hike up to its lone peak, go kayaking and even visit sea gypsies who live around the archipelago of more than 800 mostly unexplored islands. The island is a 90-minute boat ride from Kawthaung jetty.
Exclusive luxury: Koh Kood Island, Thailand
Known as Bangkok’s boutique island due to affluent weekenders from the capital city and the limited fancy resorts, Koh Kood features empty stretches of postcard-perfect white sand beaches. One of the most stunning, the private Soneva Kiri beach boasts sparkling white sand and turquoise water. From here, you can see Koh Mak and the other islands of the Koh Chang archipelago in the distance. Holidaymakers bob along the waters on paddleboards and kayaks and, when the weather is fine, windsurfing is also available. Koh Kood is a five-hour boat ride from Bangkok.
Eco getaway: Koh Thmei Island, Cambodia
Many of the islands along Cambodia’s south coast off Sihanoukville are being developed, so it’s best to visit before the tourist hordes arrive. The 210 sq km Ream National Park is home to Koh Thmei island, where you’ll find the idyllic Golden Beach. There are more than 150 species of birds on the island, including the endangered brahminy kite, as well as fishing cats and langur monkeys that can be spotted in the mangrove forests abutting the beach. You can also see dolphins in the waters just off the yellow shore. A 50-minute drive from Sihanoukville will take you to Koh Kchhang fishing village, from where you can catch a one-hour boat ride to Koh Thmei island.
Diver’s dream: Mabul Island, Malaysia
Situated off the south-eastern coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, Mabul is one of several islands in the Celebes Sea blessed with diverse marine habitats. While its unnamed beaches are small and used by local villagers who moor their boats here, they are blanketed by white sand and backed by palm trees. Metres from the shore, the island’s waters make up one of the best macro-dive sites on the planet. Here, you can see tiny creatures such as harlequin shrimp and pygmy seahorses on a dive, or giant turtles, parrotfish and whale sharks while swimming or snorkelling. Mabul is 45 minutes by boat from Semporna, a town in Sabah.
Secret surf spot: Lombok Island, Indonesia
While Bali’s Kuta and Uluwatu beaches get all the surf headlines, savvy boarders make for neighbouring Lombok, where an isolated bay winding along the south coast is backed by verdant rolling hills and cliffs. Known as Tanjung Aan, this lovely stretch of coastline that’s about 70 minutes from Mataram city by car remains largely unknown. While nearby Gerupuk Beach has bigger waves – you need a boat to reach them – Tanjung Aan’s swells can be paddled out to. Most beachgoers come here to surf, snorkel and hike up the cliffs to enjoy panoramic views of the turquoise water and pearly white sand. As the sand here can get a bit too hot for sunbathing, bring your own lounger for some relief.
Beach with a storied past: Koh Tarutao Island, Thailand
This is where those in the know come for what’s arguably South-east Asia’s most pristine beach. Koh Tarutao is a protected national park, meaning there is no development here, except for a few park service bungalows and tents, plus a restaurant to ensure you don’t starve. To get in, take a 45-minute speedboat from Koh Lipe. In the 1940s, the island was used as a penal colony. Most visitors stay by the boat pier on Ao Pante beach but, if you head 8km further, you’ll find Ao Son, an empty white sand beach backed by steamy jungle. If you are lucky, you can spot langurs, hornbills, crab-eating macaques and a diverse array of birds and butterflies.
Most dramatic landscape: Sabtang Island, Philippines
The crowds head for Boracay and escape to Palawan but, if you want a more unique beach vacation, visit Batanes. With its dramatic, windswept scenery, the northernmost province in the Philippines resembles Scotland far more than it does the tropics, and sits close to Taiwan. It is also home to three inhabited islands. Morong beach on Sabtang Island is a strip of powdery white sand that is backed by verdant rolling hills, which have been manicured and eroded into liveng, the local version of a hedgerow. Also on the beach is Batanes’ most photographed landmark, the Nakabuang stone arch, a towering geological formation. You’ll find traditional stone houses in the villages of the native Ivatan people. Sabtang Island is a 30-minute boat ride from Basco.
Urban Escape: Lazarus Island, Singapore
On weekends in Singapore, many people make a beeline for Sentosa Island, which is connected to the mainland. Yet, few know that just a 15-minute ferry ride from town is an urban escape called Lazarus Island. Completely undeveloped and without cafes or shops, the island requires you to bring your own picnic supplies. Access is via a walking bridge from neighbouring St John’s Island, which takes about 10 minutes. Lazarus features white sand imported from Indonesia, swaying coconut trees and truly deserted beaches, which is pretty impressive considering the urban sprawl is only minutes away. The Maldives it isn’t but, for a quick urban fix, Lazarus stands alone.
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, ALAMY, SONEVA KIRI
This story first appeared in Silverkris magazine.