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Unsung Asian islands

Pack your bags for these eastern outcrops where fresh footprints in the sand and the local culture will leave a lasting impression, says Fleur Rollet-Manus

Mabul Island Malaysia

Until recently, Mabul was a closely guarded secret within the diving community. A beneath-the-waves utopia awaits between here and neighbouring Sipadan Island, which is hailed as one of the best dive sites in the world. A short speedboat ride deposits you at the edge of Sipadan-Ligitan Outer Reef, the island’s back garden. Here, enormous bumphead parrotfish barge past schools of big-eye trevally, while blue-ringed octopus stalk the seabed. Experienced divers will relish the opportunity to explore one of the richest marine destinations in the world, although it’s equally beautiful on dry land.

Nicknamed the Malaysian Maldives, the accommodation options here follow suit. Book in to Mabul Water Bungalows for the best chance of snagging a diving permit to Sipadan and a choice of 16 floating wooden bungalows smothered in creeping bougainvillea. After a day spent among hawksbill turtles, grey reef sharks and sparkling unicorn fish, retreat to your private terrace where your own technicolour aquarium darts in front of you. Fishermen float alongside bungalows offering the pick
of their catch for you to buy and take up to the hotel’s grill for cooking at a minimum cost. Only 120 diving permits are granted each day and staying here bumps you to the top of the list to get one (expect to pay about £27 per permit).

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Fly into Kuala Lumpur then on toTawau; it’s a 35-minute taxi ride to Sabindo Square, then a 90-minute bus to Semporna. The final leg is a 45-minute speedboat to Mabul, organised by the hotel.

Raja Ampat Islands Indonesia

Indonesia’s ‘Forgotten Islands’ are a cluster of 1,500 sparsely populated atolls scattered like gemstones across the crystal- clear waters. Part of the Coral Triangle that stretches from the Philippines to Timor and Papua New Guinea, these islands have been a mere whisper in the ears of travellers for years, largely due to a lack of quality accommodation. However, recently there’s been a surge of pared-back lodgings to give the destination a viable tourism economy. Raja Ampat offers good- quality homestays, displaying a vast range of simple sanctuaries. The archipelago has more in common with Fiji than the rest of Indonesia’s islands and hospitality is second to none: a welcome dance will greet you, followed by nightly banquets and bowls brimming with kuah (yellow fish soup). Dip your toe in from November to March when the waters are at their calmest. This is genuine, unspoilt paradise, without the price tag. Homestays from £17.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Fly from Jakarta to Sorong, then take a flight to Marinda Airport in Waisai (the capital of Raja Ampat).

Koh Mak Thailand

Much of the country may have been developed, but with some 1,400 islands Thailand still has plenty of shores left untouched. Just 50km from the mainland lies Koh Mak, an island owned by five families. Everyone who visits here pitches up and pitches in. Trash Heroes run a beach clean-up on Saturdays, Coco Café hosts an 8km bicycle tour each morning and local fishermen take you squid fishing on longboats – find them dozing at Laem Son, a sheltered cove in the north-west of the island. After reeling in dinner, take it to the beachside bar at Cococape where they’ll slice and dice it into a plate of sashimi. Float between beaches and swaying hammocks in a sun- kissed stupor at Seavana Beach Resort, before heading to Food Garden where a sizzling hotplate is laid out across communal tables to sear meat and vegetables. Koh Mak is certainly growing, but at a much slower (and more manageable) pace. Doubles from £70.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Fly from Bangkok to Trat, then take a bus to Laem Ngop. From here it’s a 45-minute speedboat to Koh Mak.

Togian Islands Indonesia

Tricky to access and even harder to leave, the Togians’ wild, scalloped bays and driftwood-dotted shores epitomise desert island clichés. Out of the 56-island archipelago, Kadidiri boasts the most resorts (three) with nightly bonfires accompanied by cold beers and flowing arak, a palm wine drunk by locals. If sun-drenched solitude is high on the agenda, then Island Retreat in Bomba is perched upon the best sandy stretch. Further afield, Lia Beach Bungalows is a two-room hideaway where stilted bamboo huts peer out from the cloak of shady palm trees. With temperamental electricity limited to a few hours a day and no phone signal, the only distraction you’ll find is the echo of falling coconuts. Be sure to visit the jetty from Papan to Malenge. Before the walkway was built, children travelled by boat to the only school in the area. When the boat wasn’t running, children swam across, clutching their uniforms above their heads. Doubles from £20.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Take a flight from Palu (well-connected with Jakarta) to Ampana before a ferry to Wakai (the main village).

Hon Nghe Vietnam

Unlike its flashy sister Phu Quoc, Hon Nghe’s coast is clear of oversized sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats. Instead, this wild island welcomes intrepid travellers with jovial fishermen, virgin beaches and year-round warm temperatures. Hosting some of Kien Giang Province’s most sacred sites, pilgrimages are popular as locals come to pray for prosperity and good health, particularly during Lunar New Year (5 February 2019). There’s little to no permanent accommodation available to tourists, so make like a local and hang a hammock between the palms on the beach for a night under the stars. Come morning, climb the stairs to Guanyin, a sacred statue that faces the sea and grants peace to those at prayer. During full moon, islanders flock here to throw a feast. As dusk settles, the whole island descends on the floating pontoon to haggle with the fishermen and beachside grillers for dinner. It’s the highlight of the evening and a tableau you won’t forget in a hurry.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Take a bus to Ha Tien Town from Ho Chi Minh City, then a coach to Nga Ba Hon Wharf for a ferry to the island.

Isla de Gigantes Philippines

The azure waters of Boracay and the sparkling sands of Palawan frequently grace the covers of magazines, but with fame brings crowds and these notorious nirvanas are no longer a secret. Ditch the hordes in favour of Islas de Gigantes. This cluster of ten islands is set to become the next Filipino hotspot. Head to Bantigue Island for a bucket of fresh scallops and ‘wasay-wasay’ oysters (expect to pay £1.50 for the lot) and eat them alfresco on the sandbar. After lunch, take a boat to Gigantes Sur where a steep trail leads to the top of limestone cliffs for impressive views. Cruise across to Cabugao Gamay, arguably the best-looking island and uninhabited bar a single lemonade stand, which also collects the conservation fee (£2). Accommodation is limited to a few tents and nights under the stars. If you need a hot shower, try new Solina Beach and Nature Resort near Bancal Port. Doubles from £48.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Fly from Ninoy Aquino Airport to Roxas City, then head to Ceres bus terminal. From Ceres, take the bus to Estancia then catch the ferry to Islas de Gigantes.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands India

Strewn across the Bay of Bengal 1,262km from the mainland is a chain of mangrove-cloaked islands that are revealing themselves to the world. Kingfishers soar, hermit crabs scuttle and the first five-star resort has just opened on Havelock Island. The Taj Exotica boasts a spa, 50m infinity pool, two superb restaurants and 50 villas set between banana plantations, jackfruit and mango trees. Take some time to look around Port Blair and remnants of the British colonial presence before exploring some of the 572 far-flung islands. Geographically, the archipelago is closer to Myanmar and Indonesia, which is reflected in the sweet and spicy food. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better tandoori grouper than at the Light House Residency. Tourism is the islands’ main income, but with the slow pace of life you shouldn’t expect a polished paradise – though there’s no denying their rugged charm. Doubles from £260.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Air India flies direct to Port Blair from New Delhi. Taj Exotica can organise a speedboat transfer.

Atauro Island East Timor

For years, this island 30km off the north coast of the capital Dili was left undisturbed. Long before marine biologists imparted conservation knowledge, villages worked together to create marine sanctuaries – clearly marking out no-fishing areas, banning nets and stopping motor boats. It was only recently when international researchers found over 315 endemic species of reef fish that it has started to see visitors. A stroll around the Saturday Market – which begins at Belo Port and winds down to bohemian guesthouse Barry’s Place – offers the chance to stock up on produce from the mainland, such as Timor coffee and wild honey. Nature is all around on the island, so look up to spot bar-necked cuckoo-doves, pink-headed imperial pigeons and oriental honey-buzzards. With only 10,000 residents here, they’ll likely be your neighbours too. Doubles from £27.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Local ferries run twice a week from Dili: one runs on Thursday (named Laju) and one on Saturday (Nakroma). The trip takes about two hours.

Kapas Island Malaysia

Translating as ‘Cotton Island’ and named for its fine, powdery sand, this island’s biggest draw is its insistence you do absolutely nothing. With an absence of modern infrastructure, get back
to basics and borrow one of LongSha Campsite’s tents, often decorated with dreamcatchers and coconut windchimes. You can cover most of the island on foot in about 40 minutes, with most of the places to eat, drink and stay found on one stretch of beach. Start your day with banana pancakes at Kapas Beach Chalets, stroll to Qimi for a chicken satay lunch, and head to Kapas Island Resort Restaurant for supper of yellow coconut curry and fresh lobster. The further away from here you walk, the better the beaches. Five stretches of powdery sand are connected by lemon-hued wooden walkways that snake around the rocks. Here you’ll find a creaking driftwood swing, weathered volleyball nets and the whole cast of Finding Nemo just moments from the shore. Doubles from £28.

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Travel Details

THE DETAIL Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu Airport, then take a short bus ride to Marang Jetty for the ferry.

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