Not satisfied with the standard beach getaway? Some sand-and-sun destinations have a little something extra in store – if you know where to look. These are some of the best beach destinations in Asia with a cultural twist.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to escape the wrath of the winter months than a tropical beach in some far off, exotic destination. When battling the biting cold, chilly commutes and bundling up on a daily basis, minds tend to wander to daydreams of stretches of sand and swaying palm trees.
Luckily for us, Southeast Asia is the proud home to not one, but dozens of sand-and-sun spots – thanks to the perpetual summer that a whole swath of southern destinations enjoy year-round. But while the promise of a sandy paradise is certainly enough to warrant a last-minute flight and a whirlwind weekend getaway, flying half way around the world in search of sand and sun probably isn’t quite as tempting for those not in the region.
As it turns out, though, Southeast Asia isn’t just the best region for beautiful beach destinations, but a whole lot of culture, too – and those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to embrace to your inner beach bum and intrepid explorer in a single trip, and make that half-way-around-the-world journey well worth the plane ticket. These are our five picks for the best beach destinations in Asia to do it.
Ang Thong Islands, Southern Thailand
The stretches of sand that inspired the book-turned-Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” is truly one of the best beach destinations even today, but there’s a whole lot more to experience here than just beautiful scenery. This collection of 42 pristine isles is so beautiful that it’s a protected marine park – which means most of the islands are still mostly uninhabited. That is, except for one called Koh Paluay, which is home to an ancient ethnic group called the Moken.
Colloquially referred to as “sea gypsies”, this indigenous group speak their own language and practice their own distinct cultural customs. Most impressive, though, is the Moken people’s history of spending most of their lives (roughly 9 months a year) on boats rather than land. Although that’s changed in recent years, the Moken people still have a penchant for employing death-defying acts in the water – including diving up to 60 meters, using only a weighted belt, to search for valuable items on the ocean floor.
Learning about the lifestyles of the Moken people usually requires the help of a licensed tour guide in the area, who make sure that tourism here is sustainable and respectable. If you’re looking to inject a bit of culture into your visit to the beach, this is a great way to do it.
Phu Quoc Island, Southern Vietnam
If ever there was a beach paradise, Phu Quoc Island is it. Carefully built infrastructure here has kept most of the island’s beautiful scenery intact, which makes the scenery here like something right out of a daydream. But thanks to the islands abundance of fish, Phu Quoc is also an epicentre for the production of a certain Vietnamese condiment – fish sauce, or ‘nuoc mam’!
Between bouts of sun bathing, a stroll to the island’s Duong Dong Market and Nuoc Mam Hung Thanh distillery is the perfect cultural journey, and not like one you’d likely find on mainland Vietnam. As one of the country’s largest fish sauce makers, Hung Thanh distillery is home to a sea of giant wooden vats that hold enough fish sauce to sustain both domestic and international consumption. There’s plenty of tours that visit this incredible factory where you can learn how its made while having a taste yourself. And since fish sauce has the penchant of making its way into almost every Vietnamese dish, this educational experience is illuminating, to say the least.
Kep, Cambodia, Southern Cambodia
Although Cambodia’s Sihanoukville gets most of the attention, not far away is the smaller and lesser-known town of Kep, a coastal town that boasts both a beautiful beach and some of Cambodia’s coolest cultural spots. Kep and its outskirts are home to not one, but two fantastic attractions that deserve a departure from the sandy beach and into the village – and with a little something for the history buff and the outdoorsy type – a local butterfly farm, and the Bokor Hill abandoned casino.
The butterfly farm, nestled in the scenic Jasmine Valley, is a welcome oasis of peace and beauty, with thousands of butterfly species in one perfectly groomed garden. But for those looking for something decidedly creepier and historical, better to head to Bokor Hill – a French colonial ghost town whose history is interwoven with the Khmer Rouge regime and the nouveau riche from the days of yore. Now a bizarre collection of dilapidated buildings – including an eery casino and hotel – Bokor is so bizarre that it’s been the set of not one, but two horror movies.
Nha Trang, South-Central Vietnam
Nha Trang holds its place as one of Vietnam’s most famous beaches alongside another top spot – one of the best places in Southeast Asia for a glimpse at the country’s ancient history. About a twenty minute drive from Nha Trang’s main beaches is the Po Nagar temples, a collection of ancient temples dating back hundreds of years that were originally constructed by Vietnam’s original residents, the Cham.
Some descendants of the Cham people still live in the area, but as for remnants of the ancient culture, these wonderfully preserved temples are a fantastic cultural discovery through architecture. Ancient Cham temples are scattered throughout Vietnam – most famously at the My Son temple complex near Hoi An – but the Po Nagar temple complex boasts an arresting view over the surrounding water thanks to its hilltop perch. Visitors here could easily jump between a few hours on the beach to a wander around the temples within an easy day.
Explore some of Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches (with plenty of in-depth cultural elements included) on our 14-day Vietnam Beach Break, or head to incredible southern Cambodia on our Kep Beach Break. Better yet, experience both by customising your own beach break holiday here!