Islands Off The Beaten Track in Southeast Asia
One of the advantages of being in Singapore is the relatively easy access to thousands of tropical islands around the Southeast Asian region. As more and more visitors head to popular resort islands like Bali and Koh Samui, other lesser-known islands in the region are drawing visitors who prefer to travel off the beaten path.
Myanmar’s Lampi Marine National Park is the only marine national park in the country and covers over 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar. Lampi is the biggest island – and the core – of the park, featuring a rocky coastline and many beautiful beaches, bays and inlets.
Many fishing villages dot the area, including the Myeik archipelago which is home to indigenous Moken sea gypsies who are famous divers. Visitors can have a unique experience fishing with the sea gypsies; the men use spears to hunt big fish spotted from their boats, while women dive to the bottom of the sea to collect sea urchins with their bare hands.
Lampi Island has two rivers, both located on the west side of the main island. The surrounding mangrove forest is home to a rich variety of birds, reptiles and marine life. Over 200 species of birds thrive in Lampi, including the plain-pouched hornbill and the Wallace hawk-eagle. Lucky travellers may even lay eyes on elusive dugongs.
There are no official jungle trails in the forest, but you can follow the park rangers into lush vegetation, or climb to the top of Lampi’s hills for a scenic view. Keep an eye out for different mammals; 19 species live on the island, such as the Sunda pangolin, northern pig-tailed macaque and the lesser mousedeer.
Snorkelling and Diving
The Myeik Archipelago is rich in coral reefs, seaweeds and seagrass beds. A number of beaches around the marine park offer snorkelling opportunities – in addition to hard coral, you may spot sea turtles and even sharks.
Located in Myanmar, Lampi is accessible from both Myanmar or Thailand (Myanmar visa required). Licensed liveaboard cruises are currently the only way to visit this protected area. The park is open year-round, except between June and September.
Con Son, Vietnam
Con Son is the largest of 16 islands in the Con Dao archipelago, located 240km south of Ho Chi Minh City. Its charming streets are lined with French-era villas, tempered by the presence of several prisons, cemeteries and reminders of the islands’ historic role as a penal colony.
Con Dao National Park
Con Dao National Park covers both rainforest and a protected marine area. There are a number of different hiking trails to access throughout the mountainous park; the thick forest is home to endemic wildlife like the Con Dao black giant squirrel. You can also climb the highest mountain (577m) for panoramic views of the entire island.
Con Dao offers excellent diving and snorkelling opportunities; the ocean is home to dugongs and sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beach (March-August). Divers can also see giant coral heads, as well as other marine life like rays, barracuda, cuttlefish and other tropical reef fish.
Visit the Prisons
Formally known as “Devil’s Island”, Con Dao used to be a political prison where tens of thousands of political prisoners were held between 1862 and 1875. A number of prisons are open to the public; built in 1940 by the French, political prisoners were held in infamous cells known as the ‘tiger cages’.
Regular flights (45 mins) run every day between Ho Chi Minh and Can Tho airport on the main island. The dry season is between November and March when it is at its most crowded.
Koh Ron, Cambodia
What was once a jungle-clad island rimmed by swaths of white sand beaches and a few beach-hut resorts has now become popular with backpackers. While there are quiet areas the further you are from the village, there’s also the quieter Koh Rong Samloem island just a 10-minute boat ride south from here.
Because the light pollution is still low, conditions are ideal to see phosphorescent plankton which glow in the ocean when disturbed. A daily occurrence, it’s best observed in around 1-2m of water – you can take a short boat ride out and swim in the glowing water.
There are good diving and snorkelling both off the beach and at sites nearby. Almost all the dive sites are not more than a 20-minute speed boat ride from the ferry terminal of Koh Rong.
First Tree, Corner Bar, Last Tree
These three dive sites are located next to each on the western side of Koh Kon island. The marine life here include barracuda, trevallies, batfish, pufferfish, blue-spotted rays, and sea turtles.
Popular for its seahorses, the site is shaped like a horseshoe, allowing for consistently clear waters with little disruption from currents. Although lacking in reef, the site attracts larger fish such as tuna, trevallies, and if you’re lucky, a giant manta ray.
Koh Rong is located on the west coast of Cambodia. Speedboats from Sihanoukville run regularly (40-60 mins; US$20 return) to Koh Rong.
Siquijor Island, Philippines
Tiny Siquijor Island neighbours Cebu, Negros, Bohol and Mindanao in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines and is home to pristine white sand beaches, waterfalls, and caves. Known for its magic and voodoo, it is also home to some important cultural landmarks like the Lazi Convent (built in 1887), the largest and oldest convent in Asia.
Mt. Bandilaan National Park
Mt. Bandilaan National Park is a hilly region that’s home to indigenous flora and fauna. It’s crowned by Mt. Bandilaan (632m), which is culturally significant as a sacred place where healers and sorcerers take their herbs and perform their rituals. The hike to the top takes about 15 minutes, where you can have a panoramic view of the entire island from the observatory. The park is also home to a butterfly sanctuary, several caves and natural springs.
Due to the Central Visayas still being a relatively quiet region, the dive sites remain pristine. There are over 20 different sites around the island, all within a short boat trip.
Situated off the northeast coast of Siquijor, it ranges in depth from 5m – 25m. Snorkelling this site is also possible at the shoal (5m depth). The main attractions at this site are the two overhangs (20m-25m) and the large bucket sponges. Currents at this site vary and can be powerful.
Maite (muck dive/night dive)
This dive site can be reached either from the shore or by boat. Expect to see a bunch of nudibranch species, alongside pipefish, sea moths, frogfish, ribbon eels and even mandarin fish; these are only a tiny portion of the wildlife at this dive site.
Cantabon Cave is situated in the mountains of Siquijor, about 9km from Siquijor town. Among the more than 45 caves in Siquijor, the Cantabon Cave is most popular; at roughly 300m long, it is famed for its jewel-like stalagmites and stalactites that glitter in the dark.
There’s also a small natural pool of crystal-clear water in the middle of the cave, which will take about 2 hours to explore.
Ferries to Siquijor depart from Cebu. However, few operators travel between the two islands; most boats leaving Cebu will make stops before getting to Siquijor so allow 6-8 hours for the trip.
Samosir Island, Indonesia
Located in the centre of Lake Toba on Sumatra island, Samosir Island is only slightly smaller than Singapore, making it the world’s largest island within an island. Samosir is known for its Batak heritage, set amidst lush countryside with its steep, pine-covered slopes that descend into the blue water.
Discover the History
Samosir Island has a rich Batak tribal history – its heritage can be observed in the clusters of traditional houses with roofs that curve upwards like buffalo horns, white-washed churches, and ancient stone tombs and monuments.
The land rises steeply on the east side of the island from a narrow strip of flat land along the lake’s edge. You can climb up to this mountain plateau (780m) for a panoramic view over the lake.
From Medan, it’s a 4-hour drive to the town of Parapat which sits on the edge of Lake Toba where ferries run to Samosir.
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