Looking to spend some time on a tropical island? Then most sources will point you to places that are no doubt amazing but also very expensive, such as the Carribbean or islands like Fiji, Bonaire and French Polynesia (to name a few). It’s not uncommon to have to spend upwards of $300/night for a hotel in some of these upmarket destinations.
But what if you are a budget-conscious traveller? Fortunately there are still some amazing options for you. The best tropical islands listed in this post aren’t filled with high-end resorts—in fact, a couple in this list are nearly uninhabited. But of course that makes them all the more interesting for the independent and adventurous traveller looking for something different. And remember: you can be in the sun all day, go snorkelling or scuba diving, and enjoy great food on these islands even on a modest budget.
1. Koh Rong, Cambodia
Best Tropical Island For: Having A Beach To Yourself (For Now)
Just off the coast of Sihanoukville in Cambodia is the island of Koh Rong, a place where you can feel truly off the grid. There is little here but some basic cabin accommodation and one or two dive shops. Electricity comes from generators. But if you don’t mind going back to basics a little, you will love this island paradise. The waters are clear as glass and if you walk away from the docks for ten minutes you can easily have an entire beach all to yourself (though this may change in the future). I had to pinch myself a few times while I was on Koh Rong, and it remains my favorite tropical island.
See Also: Cambodia Backpacking Guide
2. The Gili Islands, Indonesia
Best Tropical Islands For: Laidback Vibe & Great Bar Scene
The Gilis in Indonesia are a group of three islands that aren’t nearly as busy as Bali, but they are close enough to Bali (about 2 hours by speedboat) to make them extremely accessible from anywhere in the world. What’s also wonderful about the three Gilis is that each of them has a different character: Gili Trawangan is known as the party island, Gili Air is more relaxed and popular with couples and families, while Gili Meno is the smallest and most quiet island where you can feel a bit like a castaway. You can hop between them in about 5 minutes while enjoying the view of volcanoes on Bali and Lombok in the distance.
While development is taking place (Trawangan is now home to at least one luxury hotel), the gilis remain very cheap. In 2013 I had a room with AC, modern interior and ensuite bathroom on Gili T for just $10 a night.
By the way, writing “gili islands” is a bit like writing “ATM machine”, because gili already means island in Indonesian. It’s just the name that stuck…
3. San Blas Islands, Panama
Best Tropical Islands For: ‘Castaway’ Feeling, Meeting The Indigenous Kuna People
The San Blas Islands is a group of islands which are located just off the Caribbean coast of Panama. They are very easily reached by boat from the mainland, and you can get to many of the islands within about an hour. This makes the San Blas Islands perfect for day trips, but it’s even better to stay on the islands for a while. The islands are very unspoiled so accommodation options are limited, though you can find a range of hostels as well as rustic lodges built on stilts above the water.
The San Blas Islands are home to the indigenous Kuna people, and when I was there I visited a Kuna family who lived entirely off of the coconut trees on their island. Seeing how the Kuna people live adds an interesting cultural element to staying on the San Blas Islands.
Many backpackers who travel between Colombia and Panama do so by sailing boat which typically stay at the San Blas Islands for a couple of days—this is an amazing option as you’ll be visiting some truly unhabited islands that you can keep all to yourself.
4. Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines
Best Tropical Islands Best For: Discovering Gorgeous Hidden Beaches And Lagoons
The Philippines is home to an incredible 7,107 islands, and it’s not a surprise that many seasons of the TV show Survivor were filmed here. The Bacuit Archipelago is still a relatively undiscovered gem, which only in the past few years have seen increased visitors internationally.
Many will make their base in the seaside town of El Nido on Palawan, or on the island of Coron further north, both home to many accommodation options. But the true highlight are the many uninhabited islands that you can find nearby, reached only by small catamaran boats called bankas.
Many of these smaller islands feature stunning azure lagoons filled with marine life, craggy karst cliffs that rival the likes of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and secret beaches accessible by swimming through caves. Adventure tours also frequently leave from El Nido, passing many islands on the way to Coron and letting you sleep in tents or hammocks on the islands and have freshly grilled fish for dinner every day.
5. Koh Tao, Thailand
Best Tropical Island For: Learning To Scuba Dive
Compared with the other islands mentioned so far, Koh Tao (“turtle island”) in Thailand is much more developed and affluent with plenty of shops, hotels and dive centres. However unlike many resort areas in Thailand, Koh Tao has maintained a very pleasant laid-back atmosphere, ensuring a true tropical island feeling far from the hustle and bustle found elsewhere.
Koh Tao has some beautiful beaches and sunset views, though many visitors come to Koh Tao for the wonders found underwater. Koh Tao is one of the best, cheapest and easiest places in the world to learn to scuba dive, with a whopping 50+ dive shops on the island. More experienced divers will probably want to go to better dive sites elsewhere in the world, but if you want to spend time on a tropical islands and give scuba diving a go, then Koh Tao is one of the best options around.
A daily backpacker budget for Koh Tao might push a bit above $30/day these days, though there are still many inexpensive food and accommodation options to be found.
6. Utila, Honduras
Best Tropical Island For: Scuba Diving And All-Night Partying
Honduras is not a prime tourist destination yet owing to a poor safety reputation on the mainland, but the island of Utila (one of the three Bay Islands) is the exception and for many it’s the primary reason for coming to this country. The island is consistently ranked among the best diving destinations in the Caribbean, with lots of incredible reefs and a good chance of seeing huge whale sharks. The beaches are not always that great (as sand flies can be a problem), but there is some fantastic snorkeling to be had and there’s a big nightlife as well. Utila tends to attract a young backpacker crowd looking to party as well as to enjoy the underwater wonders around the island.
7. Four Thousand Islands, Laos
Best Tropical Islands For: Mekong River Sunsets, Hippie Vibe
Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, yet it is also home to a large island group situated in the middle of the sprawling Mekong river. While you may not have an ocean view, the little river boats and houses on bamboo stilts create a wonderful scenery. There is not much to do around Si Phan Don, but that is largely the point: the Four Thousand Islands are famous for being a remote backpacker retreat where you can just get away from it all. The island of Don Dhet is the main hangout and a perfect place to read a good book or lazy about in a hammock. The nearby waters are inhabited by the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins, and a short ride away you can find the biggest waterfall in Southeast Asia, Khone Phapheng, which some have called the ‘Niargara Falls of the East’.
See Also: Laos Backpacking Guide
More island ideas
Some more tropical islands listed in no particular order:
- Phu Quoc, Vietnam. While Vietnam isn’t known for having all that great beaches, the island of Phu Quoc is an exception. While there are grand plans for commercial exploitation of this big island similar to Phuket in Thailand, for now it’s relatively undeveloped.
- Koh Lanta, Thailand. An alternative island destination in Thailand. There’s a small bar scene, but mostly it’s pretty laidback. It has some of the best dive sites of Thailand nearby.
- Caye Caulker, Belize. You won’t quite be able to survive on $30/day here (around $50 is probably more accurate), but as Belize’ main backpacker island it is worth a mention. Go here for the rasta vibe, excellent snorkeling and diving, and delicious fresh lobster.
- Koh Phangan, Thailand. Famed for its monthly Full Moon Party, probably the biggest beach party in the world.
- Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Island archipelago with many beaches and water sports activities. Easily reached from the Panama mainland as well as nearby bordering Costa Rica.
Thanks to Simon for contributing additional information (I’ve been to many of these islands, but not all!)