Bali and beyond: Asia's other incredible islands worth visiting

Australia's love affair with Bali knows no bounds. It's easy to get to, offers something for every budget, has incredible food, centuries old culture and some of the world's most welcoming people. For many of us Bali is a habit we can't, or simply refuse to, quit. Other idyllic isles and atolls attempt to lure us away, yet Bali draws us back with its emerald green rice fields, wide smiles, blazing sunsets, chic beach clubs and the vibrancy of everyday life.

But, as much as we do adore it, always choosing Bali comes at the expense of discovering Asia's other incredible islands. While some travellers are venturing beyond Bali to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Japan our go-to tropical destination remains the Island of the Gods with Australian travellers set once again to become Bali's No. 1 source market for tourism. Yet, surely, scattered across Asia's vast oceans, seas and straits there has to be other islands worthy or (heaven forbid) perhaps even a better option than Bali?

"The rise of low-cost carriers, new airline routes and airport developments across Asia mean there's never been more opportunity for Australian travellers to look beyond Bali as their destination of choice for their next beach or island holiday," says David Galt, chief executive of Webjet.

Indonesia alone offers several enticing options, Galt says, and with the opening of 15 new airports across the country since 2017 travellers not only have increased choice of where to fly into but easier access to destinations previously thought of as too difficult to reach.

China's Hainan Island, Vietnam's Phu Quoc, Japan's Okinawa and Indonesia's Bintan and Nusa Lembongan are Asian islands fast emerging as holiday hotspots says Cameron Holland, Luxury Escapes' chief executive.

Traveller digs deep and scours Asia for 10 alternative islands to Bali just begging to be explored. And if you simply can't shake the Bali bug, we've got tips too on how to get the best out of your next trip to our perennial island home away from home.

THE 'I STILL WANT TO PARTY LIKE BALI' ISLAND

KOH RONG, CAMBODIA

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IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... The party's just getting started on Cambodia's largest and fastest developing island off the coast of Sihanoukville. Don't expect Bali's famous beach clubs such as Ku de Ta and Cafe del Mar, rather nightlife revolves around organised pub crawls, full moon parties and dancing on a palm-fringed beach, drink in hand.

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TELL ME MORE No roads, patchy Wi-Fi and, so far, limited development yet watch this space as Koh Rong's idyllic islands are being touted as the next Thailand. High end resorts Alila Villas Koh Russey, Six Senses Krabey Island and Song Saa Private Island have opened on private islands off Sihanoukville. On Koh Rong you'll find rustic guesthouses, cheap hostels and beachfront bars. Once the sun goes down the beach strip of Koh Touch lights up with revellers, while parties happen twice weekly at Police Beach. Think a more chilled- out version of Thailand's famous full moon parties on Koh Phangan.

DON'T MISS Hike through lush rainforest and find yourself on one of Koh Rong's 20 plus beaches. At certain times of the month there are tours to see bioluminescent plankton.

DETAILS Ferries run from Sihanoukville. Peak season is November-February. See tourismcambodia.com

THE 'I STILL WANT GREAT BEACHES LIKE BALI' ISLAND

KOH KOOD, THAILAND

IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... Thailand's fourth-largest but least populated island may be a little tricky to reach but the upside is its stunning string of beaches are largely devoid of the throngs that flock to Phuket and Bali.

TELL ME MORE Untamed jungle, fishing villages and pristine beaches are the main drawcard of this sleepy island off Thailand's well-worn tourist trail. There are tumbling waterfalls, snorkelling and diving and your accommodation can range from humble homestay to a hedonistic resort. While away time in a hammock swung between coconut trees or enjoy a no-frills massage on the white-sand beaches. It's like Thailand 30 or 40 years ago.

DON'T MISS If the budget extends, Soneva Kiri delivers the ultimate in barefoot luxury from $US875 a night. Guests can choose from authentic Thai experiences: fishing with locals, cooking classes with local chefs, visits to Khlong Chao waterfall and nature walks along island trails.

DETAILS Thai Airways flies to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne with connecting flights to Trat Airport with Bangkok Airways. An hour-long speedboat transfer takes travellers to Koh Kood. Soneva Kiri guests meanwhile can fly direct from Suvarnabhumi Airport on the resort's private plane. The best time to visit is the dry season (December to March). See thaiairways.com/en; tourismthailand.org; soneva.com

THE 'I STILL FABULOUS TERRIFIC FOOD LIKE BALI' ISLAND

PENANG, MALAYSIA

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IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... This exotic island off the north-western coast of Malaysia may not boast big name chefs nor multimillion dollar restaurant fitouts but does offer what's considered south-east Asia's best hawker food. Eat your way through UNESCO World Heritage listed George Town's ethnic quarters of Little India, its Malay kampungs (villages) and Chinese and European communities with their mind boggling eateries, hawker stalls and fascinating wet markets.

TELL ME MORE While Penang has seaside resorts at Batu Ferringhi (Lone Pine the sister property of the Eastern and Oriental hotel is the pick) most visitors make a beeline for historic George Town with its shophouses, galleries, mosques, Chinese temples and incredible meld of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Baba Nyonya and Peranakan fusion cuisines. Try Hokkien prawn noodles (the hawker stall at Presgrave Street is considered the best), kuih (sweets) and laksa at Moh Teng Peow, char kway teow in the Chinese quarter and nasi kandar, mee goreng and pasembur (Malaysian salad, also called rojak) dished up by the street vendors. Great local coffee can be found at Toh Soon or try an espresso with a side of churros at The Alley in Stewart Lane.

DON'T MISS The new Prestige Hotel melds colonial architecture with contemporary design, or stay in one Australian hotelier Chris Ong's four properties including his latest addition Jawi Peranakan Mansion. See theprestige.my; georgetownheritage.com

DETAILS Malaysia Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur with connections to Penang. See malaysiaairlines.com; malaysia.travel

THE 'I STILL WANT AMAZING CULTURAL EXPERIENCES LIKE BALI' ISLAND

SUMBA, INDONESIA

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IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... A world away from Bali's yoga studios and beach clubs, Sumba's fascinating culture remains intact. The Sumbanese people live in traditional thatched clan houses clustered around megalithic tombs, warriors ride bareback on wild horses and women produce exquisite ikat weaving.

TELL ME MORE The Sumbanese have retained their culture and Marapu religion which, along with the island's raw beauty and barrelling waves, is one of the island's drawcards. Enormous stone tombs stand outside each house and animal sacrifices to honour the dead are de rigueur. The annual horseback, spear throwing Pasola festival in western Sumba is a must. This once lethal tournament between tribes, in which blood needed to be spilled to ensure a successful harvest, is now largely figurative (spears are blunted) yet it remains a fascinating spectacle of colour, tradition and tribal life.

DON'T MISS Remote and off the grid, Nihi Sumba, twice voted the world's best hotel, is a enclave of active adventure, immersive cultural experiences and serious extravagance. The luxe clifftop Lelewatu Resort Sumba, meanwhile, is the latest addition to this lush island paradise. See nihi.com; lelewatu.com

DETAILS Nam Air and Lion Air offer one-hour connections between Denpasar Bali and Sumba's Tambolaka Airport. See flynamair.com; lionair.co.id; indonesia.travel

THE 'I STILL WANT GREAT NATURE LIKE BALI' ISLAND

LANGKAWI, MALAYSIA

L'hôtel The Datai Langkawi. The Els Club Teluk Datai Golf Course.
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The Datai, Langkawi. Photo: Eric Martin

IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... Nature and luxury collide on this quintessential tropical island minus the crowds. Located off Malaysia's north-western coast, its secluded bays, coastal mangroves and lush interior with deep valleys and ancient rainforest make it ideal for nature lovers.

TELL ME MORE Aside from its languid beaches on the Andaman Sea, Langkawi boats south-east Asia's first UNESCO Geopark. Take in the island's soaring rock formations, explore its fascinating mangroves home to sea otters, hornbills and monitor lizards by kayak and join a guided jungle trek spotting kingfishers, bonnet macaques and pythons. Afterwards take a cooling dip in a freshwater pool.

DON'T MISS Panorama Langkawi SkyCab will zip you to the top of Mount Mat Cincang (708 metres) for an aerial perspective of Langkawi and surrounding islands. Snap a selfie on the 125-metre long Sky Bridge at the top. Accommodation options include the Datai, Four Seasons and Bon Ton Resort by Australian expat hotelier Narelle McMurtrie. See panoramalangkawi.com; thedatai.com; fourseasons.com; bontonresort.com

DETAILS The best time to visit is the dry season between January and March. Malaysia Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Kuala Lumper daily with connections to Langkawi. See malaysiaairlines.com; malaysia.travel

THE 'I STILL WANT FABULOUS RESORTS LIKE BALI' ISLAND

PHU QUOC, VIETNAM

IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... This emerging holiday hotspot off Vietnam's south-west coast, the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand, not only offers 20 beautiful beaches and a mountainous interior but a crop of luxurious new beachfront resorts.

TELL ME MORE World class resorts by international brands InterContinental, JW Marriott, Hyatt, Sofitel and Novotel have cropped up along Phu Quoc's 150 kilometre coastline. The InterContinental Phu Quoc (phuquoc.intercontinental.com) offers a palm-fringed location, fabulous restaurants, multiple pools, an incredible kids club and chic rooms, suites and club rooms. Nearby the whimsical and expansive JW Marriott Phu Quoc (marriott.com) by Bill Bensley sits on the languid waters of Ice Cream Beach. Expect dreamy suites, opera, dining and a choice of three beachfront pools. The Nam Nghi Phu Quoc (namnghiresort.com), part of Hyatt's Unbound Collection, meanwhile, is a serene and beautiful resort on the island's north-western shore with ocean-view rooms and waterfront villas, a spa, treehouse dining and its own island with bar.

DON'T MISS Head to the InterContinental Phu Quoc's avant-garde INK 360, the highest bar on the island, for sundowners followed by dinner at flagship LAVA restaurant housed in a striking bamboo pavilion by Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia.

DETAILS Vietnam Airlines flies to Phu Quoc via Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi (Australians need a tourist visa). Phu Quoc's peak dry season period is November to March. Avoid July which is peak season for domestic travel to Phu Quoc and generally coincides with the wet season. See vietnamairlines.com; vietnam.travel

THE 'I STILL WANT GREAT PEOPLE LIKE THE BALINESE' ISLAND

PALAWAN, THE PHILIPPINES

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IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... Spectacular scenery, countless white-sand beaches and towering limestone formations make Palawan your postcard perfect paradise. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was a fan, Alex Garland took inspiration for his book The Beach from Palwan's sandy shores while Travel + Leisure rates Palawan as the "Most Beautiful Island in the World".

TELL ME MORE Many say Palawan's beaches (El Nido and Coron are the most famous) rival the Maldives but its authenticity is what sets it apart. Warm, friendly and curious, locals are always ready with a smile, a wave and are wonderfully hospitable, elevating Palawan to one of Asia's friendliest tropical utopias.

DON'T MISS UNESCO's New Seven Wonders of Nature Underground River with its waterfalls and astonishing stalactite and stalagmite formations.

DETAILS Cebu Pacific flies to Puerto Princesa Airport via Manila. November to May is dry season. See cebupacificair.com; tourismphilippines.com.au

THE 'I STILL WANT AN EASY TO GET TO LIKE BALI' ISLAND

LOMBOK, INDONESIA

Tourists and locals gathering to watch the sunset on Bukit Merese Hill in Lombok's south.

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IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... Lombok is only a fast speed boat ride or short flight away from Denpasar. In the past year Webjet saw flights booked to Lombok double while direct flights from Perth with Air Asia have opened up this Indonesian isle even further.

TELL ME MORE Lombok has all the allure of Bali minus the crowds and the traffic. Chef Will Meyrick who owns Bali restaurants including Sarong and Mama san is currently developing an 80-room resort on Lombok's Torok Beach. "I want to be a pioneer again, re-engage with the community and be reminded why I love Indonesia so much rather," Meyrick says of his decision. The nearby Gili Islands has something for every Bali lover says Webjet's David Galt. "Gili Trawangan is the most developed of the three and its beachfront bars and restaurants make it popular with a younger crowd. Gili Air promises a laid-back local experience and Gili Meno draws couples seeking a romantic escape".

DON'T MISS Trek the active Mount Rinjani volcano which looms over the northern half of the island (now reopened following the earthquake on Lombok last year) or surf the uncrowded breaks around Kuta (not to be confused with Bali's Kuta).

DETAILS Daily flights via Denpasar are on offer from Sydney and Melbourne. There are also direct flights from Perth, Singapore, Malaysia and Jakarta. March to October is the dry season. See indonesia.travel

THE 'I STILL WANT AN EXOTIC AS BALI' ISLAND

OKINAWA, JAPAN

IT'S NOT BALI BUT ... While Japan doesn't necessarily spring to mind when it comes to tropical isles, Okinawa is known as the country's Hawaii. Powder-white sand and a string of islands give it a completely different look and feel from the rest of Japan.

TELL ME MORE Okinawa existed for centuries as part of its own kingdom, known as Ryuku, giving the island a distinct culture, dialect, and cuisine. It didn't become part of Japan until 1879. Okinawa's archipelago has strong ties to Taiwan given one of its islands is closer geographically to Taipei than Tokyo, while Korean, Indonesian and Thai influences are woven through its culture and food. You can catch the Naha Great Tug-of-War festival in October, see locals in traditional dress, explore jungles, waterfalls and swim in beautiful turquoise seas.

DON'T MISS Could Okinawa hold the secret to a long and healthy life? Ryukyu culture is still evident in Okinawa's food which is both healthy, delicious and believed to be responsible for the largest concentration of centenarians in the world. Meet these long living locals in the seaside village of Ogimi in northern Okinawa Island.

DETAILS Japan Airlines flies daily to Okinawa from Tokyo's Haneda Airport. Avoid the rainy-typhoon season between May and August. See au.jal.co.jp/aul/en/; visitokinawa.jp

THE 'I STILL WANT GREAT SPAS AND YOGA LIKE BALI' ISLAND

KOH SAMUI, THAILAND

IT'S NOT BALI BUT … Also known as "coconut island", Koh Samui has retained its rural charm in spite of the millions of tourists that flock to Thailand. Its secluded coves and relaxed beaches fringed by tropical jungle and coconut groves make it the ideal setting for Muay Thai boot camps, yoga and wellness retreats.

TELL ME MORE Hire a car or scooter (don't forget your helmet) and drive south through countryside where water buffalo graze on coconut and rubber tree plantations. Koh Samui offers a thriving Muay Thai culture and produces renowned coconut oil and coconut-based health products used in spas and retreats throughout Thailand. Buddhist monks have long favoured Koh Samui as a sanctuary for spiritual retreat.

DON'T MISS Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui's Secret Garden Spa with a menu focused on Thai ingredients grown onsite. The renowned Kamalaya wellness sanctuary and holistic spa resort, meanwhile, is found on the island's lush southern coast. See fourseasons.com/kohsamui/spa; kamalaya.com

DETAILS There are daily flights from Bangkok; high season is July to August and March to April. See tourismthailand.org

10 THINGS TO KNOW IF YOU JUST CAN'T SHAKE BALI

  • Veer away from the crowds and head for Bali's cultural interior, or the less visited east and north coasts.
  • Avoid peak travel times and subsequent high prices, steer clear of July-August (dry season) and late December-early January (wet season)/
  • Base yourself near places you want to visit and allow plenty of time to get where you're going.
  • Download handy apps including GoJek, Grab and the official Bluebird Taxis (Uber's south-east Asia operations have been sold to Grab).
  • Arrival into Denpasar Airport can either be a breeze or a nightmare. Book with Bali Fast Track to guarantee quick processing.
  • Stayz now operates internationally, including in Indonesia, with 12,000 villa and holiday home listings.
  • If you're staying in a villa in Bali and are travelling with small children you can hire temporary pool fences. See balivillapoolfence.com
  • Pack a reusable water bottle, refill it with filtered water from your resort or villa and help Bali tackle plastic waste pollution.
  • Bali offers some of the best beach clubs in the world with one to suit every demographic including the Cafe del Mar at Canggu.
  • Learning a few key phrases of Bahasa Indonesian will win you huge brownie points with the Balinese.

FIVE MORE ASIAN ISLANDS TO WATCH

SIQUIJOR ISLAND, PHILIPPINES

In the Central Visayas region south of Cebu, the lesser known Siquijor is an emerging island hotspot . Think white sand beaches, waterfalls, caves and forest walks as well as a rich history of healing and spiritual rituals.

BUSAN ISLAND, SOUTH KOREA

Known for its beaches, hot springs and nature reserves, Busan also has a thriving food scene. With Jetstar offering direct flights from the Gold Coast to Seoul from December 2019, interest in South Korea is on the rise according to Wotif.

RAJA AMPAT, INDONESIA

This remote archipelago with its string of 1500 jungle covered islands offers one of the planet's most biodiverse marine habitats on the planet, attracting divers, nature lovers and those wanting to get off the beaten path.

BINTAN ISLAND, INDONESIA

This tropical island, reached by high speed ferry from Singapore, offers stunning beaches, high end resorts, mangrove tours, snorkelling, mountain trekking and sea gypsy villages that are home to some of Bintan's earliest settlers, the Orang Laut.

SANYA, HAINAN ISLAND, CHINA

With lush rainforest, mountains, a year-round tropical climate and a plethora of beach resorts, Hainan island is touted as the Hawaii of the East. While most travellers to Sanya, located on the island's southern end, stay in Dadonghai Bay, uncrowded beaches and high end resorts including Ritz Carlton, Rosewood and One&Only are found at Yalong and Haitang Bay.

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