Paradise found: 12 crowd-free Asia island escapes

Story highlights

  • As tourism booms in Asia, a handful of islands have stayed under-the-radar
  • From India to Indonesia, here are 12 of Asia's most raw and remote islands

(CNN)Finding an empty beach in Asia was a breeze a few decades ago, but it's not quite so easy anymore.

As zealous souvenir hawkers follow busloads of tour groups to Asia's most famous islands, discerning travelers must look farther afield for more authentic getaways.
The good news? Whether your idea of paradise involves a tropical beach framed by palm trees, or wildlife encounters in the woods, Asia has an island for you.
    From Indonesia to India, we've singled out a dozen of the best throw-back islands -- places where traditional cultures and unspoiled landscapes will transport travelers back in time.

    Koh Rong, Cambodia

    Koh Rong is lush and lively.
    Hidden away off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Rong feels like a trip through time.
    The low-key island offers a glimpse of what Ko Samui was like 30 years ago.
    While both the American and French versions of "Survivor" TV show were filmed in Koh Rong, the island is still far from the typical tourist track.
    With 23 beaches, Koh Rong offers plenty of options for sun, sea and sand, while the heavily forested interior beckons those in search of raw nature.
    Most of the accommodation options on the island are backpacker-friendly while the upscale Song Saa Private Island resort appeals to island-hoppers looking for all the creature comforts.

    Pangkor, Malaysia

    A tiny island off the west coast of Malaysia, Pangkor is overshadowed by heavyweight destinations like Penang and Langkawi.
    But that's a good thing for anyone who longs for a more authentic experience.
    Pangkor's east coast is spangled by stilt houses in old-fashioned kampong villages, where fishing and boat-building are still the main occupations.
    Meanwhile, the gorgeous west coast offers white-sand stretches wrapped around turquoise bays.
    Among local landmarks are the ruins of the 17th-century Dutch Fort and Fu Lin Gong Temple, with its extravagant Taoist sculptures and miniature version of China's Great Wall.
    You can crash at one of the modest beach bungalows along Coral Bay or splash out at the posh Pangkor Laut Resort.

    Lampi, Myanmar

    The largest island in a marine national park of the same name, Lampi blends virgin rainforest, secluded beaches, coral gardens and local maritime traditions.
    The area is teeming with wildlife, running the gamut from pangolins (like small, scaly anteaters) to colorful hornbills, flying foxes, "dugong" manatees, sea turtles and dozens of coral and tropical fish species.
    In addition to wildlife, Lampi is also a refuge for the Moken "sea gypsies" -- one of Myanmar's smallest ethnic groups -- who have lived on the island for generations.
    Within the national park boundaries are five Moken villages, as well as several related spiritual and cultural sites.
    The largest Moken village is located on neighboring Bo Cho island -- part of Myanmar's first marine national park, established in 1996.
    To protect the park, Italian nonprofit group Oikos has partnered with Myanmar officials.
    The institute maintains a research station on Bo Cho with a small museum dedicated to Lampi's flora, fauna and Moken heritage.

    Andaman Islands, India

    Framed by the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, the Andaman archipelago is a mash-up of modern mainland India and old-world keepsakes -- not to mention countless beaches, bays and coral reefs.
    In this tropical backwater, visitors can mingle with the early morning cows and fishermen on Corbyn's Cove Beach, or scuba in the warm waters of Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, and soak up the exotic sights and smells of Aberdeen Bazaar in Port Blair -- the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
    Once a far-flung bastion of the British Empire, the Andamans are flush with colonial relics.
    Explore the jungle-shrouded ruins on Ross Island, the gallows on Viper Island and the infamous Cellular Jail -- where murderers and political prisoners were once incarcerated.
    Just looking to relax? A short ferry ride from Port Blair, Havelock Island has transformed in recent years from a backpacker hangout into a hub of chic boutiques like the Barefoot at Havelock resort.

    Palawan, The Philippines

    Palawan: fillled with natural treasures.
    Anchoring the southwest corner of the Philippines, Palawan is a largely undeveloped island that channels the wild vibe of nearby Borneo, in Malaysia.
    The island's natural treasures include eerie Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River and the pristine coral gardens of super-remote Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park -- both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
    Along the northwest coast, Long Beach near San Vicente is the longest white-sand strand in the Philippines -- eight miles (13 km) of pristine shoreline that's so far unsullied by anything resembling a high-rise hotel or modern resort.
    That's not to say there aren't cool places to crash nearby.
    El Nido Resorts offers over-water bungalows at four secluded locations along Palawan's northern coastline.

    Tokunoshima, Japan

    One of the Amami islands south of the Japanese mainland, Tokunoshima is known for its bloodless bullfighting.
    The bovine equivalent of sumo wrestling, the events see massive bulls try to push one another out of a ring surrounded by cheering farmers -- many of whom placed bets on the beasts.
    Aside from quirky past times, Tokunoshima also draws those in the know to its pristine coral reefs -- as one of the most secluded places to scuba or snorkel in the western Pacific.
    Empty beaches, weird coastal rock formations and obscure World War II landmarks add to the island's offbeat allure.
    Tokunoshima is famous for yet another reason: longevity.
    The island is home to the world's highest percentage of people living beyond 100 years.
    Japanese centenarian Shigechiyo Izumi (1865-1986), who reached the age of 120, claimed a daily swig of shochu -- local sugarcane wine -- was the secret to his ripe old age.

    Raja Ampat, Indonesia

    Southeast Asia meets the South Pacific in this exotic archipelago, located off the west coast of New Guinea in far eastern Indonesia.
    Considered one of the world's top dive spots, Raja Ampat is home to largely untouched coral reefs that are teeming with biodiversity.
    Though scientists are still studying the ecosystem, the WWF counts more than 1,300 species of coral reef fish and five species of rare and endangered sea turtles among the wealth of sea creatures.
    Above the surface, Raja Ampat's dramatic karst topography -- think southern Thailand without a thousand hotels -- is ripe for jungle walks and rock climbing.
    But it takes some work to reach this scuba divers' paradise.
    The islands can be reached via a six-hour flight from Jakarta or small ship-adventure cruises offered by the likes of Coral Expeditions.

    Ulleung-Do, South Korea

    Floating far out in the Sea of Japan, this remote volcanic island can only be reached by ferry.
    Despite its isolated position about 75 miles east of mainland South Korea, Ulleung-Do has been inhabited since 300 BC.
    Today, the island sustains a thriving fishing community and budding tourist industry.
    MORE: 8 ways to experience Tongyeong, South Korea's coastal gateway
    Adventure travelers appreciate the island's silver magnolia forest and steep volcanic terrain.
    There's also a 43-mile (70 km) bike path, as well as an opportunity for scuba diving and sea kayaking along the dramatic sea cliffs.
    Ulleung draws a following for its unique culinary traditions too.
    The must-try dishes include fresh-off-the-boat raw seafood, organic barbecued beef bulgogi from island-bred cows, and "sanchae bibimbap" -- steamed rice served with wilds herbs, vegetables and roots foraged on the island.

    Con Dao, Vietnam

    Get to tiny Con Dao before the rush.
    Once a penal colony known as the Devil's Island of French Indochina, this 16-island archipelago off the Mekong Delta has turned to more peaceful pursuits in modern times.
    Reachable by flight from Ho Chi Minh City or ferry from Vung Tau, Con Dao offers coral reefs, palm-shaded beaches, rainforest trails and chic beach hotels like the Six Senses Con Dao.
    History buffs will revel in the island's role in the age of ocean exploration -- Marco Polo allegedly stepped ashore at Con Dao on his long return journey to Venice.
    To learn more about the island's war-plagued past, travelers can explore the Revolutionary Museum -- located in the former French commander's residence -- or tour the old prisons on the main island.
    The best way to get around Con Dao is via motorbike, easy to hire from most hotels or a local rental outfit.
    Con Dao is a haven for outdoorsy types too, with plentiful scuba, snorkeling and fishing opportunities.
    Between May and October, visitors can watch sea turtles lay their eggs, while the infants hatch and scramble into the sea.

    Koh Phayam, Thailand

    Thailand's beach scene is constantly changing, as resort areas expand to accommodate increasing tourist numbers.
    But one island that continues to retain its retro past is Koh Phayam, off the coast of southern Ranong province in the Andaman Sea.
    There is much debate about whether the island -- when seen from above -- resembles a giant manta ray or a massive kangaroo kicking its feet into the air.
    But one thing is for sure: Koh Phayam is blissfully empty compared to Thailand's better known islands.
    Phayam has a year-round population of just 500 people -- and there aren't many tourists either.
    Accommodations are modest yet charming, including beach bungalow hotels like King Paradise Resort.
    Most of the action centers around crescent-shaped Aow Yai Bay -- also known as Long Beach or Sunset Beach.
    It's the go-to venue for beachfront dining, as well as after-dark parties.
    Between May and October, the Indian Ocean churns up surfable waves along Aow Yai.
    No matter what the time of year, Koh Phayam offers scuba and snorkeling, cycling, motorbiking, kayaking and surf fishing.

    Samosir Island, Indonesia

    A stop on Southeast Asia's old hippie trail, Samosir Island in north-central Sumatra offers a trip through time to the 1970s and '80s.
    The volcanic island is known for its stunning location -- in the middle of Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world.
    The lakeside cafes, bars and bungalows of Tuk Tuk village cater to a mix of young backpackers and intrepid older travelers, fhe latter in search of a place that summons snippets of the days when Bali had a similar carefree -- and budget-friendly -- vibe.
    Samosir is also a stronghold of local Batak tribal culture, as well as a great place to hire a scooter for a cruise through the nearby rice paddies.
    A meandering coastal road leads north from Tuk Tuk to the megalithic monuments of Ambarita -- an ancient Batak tribal village -- and the museum complex in Simanindo, where travelers can catch daily Batak dance performances.

    Hokkaido, Japan

    Away from Hokkaido's cities, travelers will find stunning wild landscapes.
    While much of Japan's huge northern island has been developed, a few corners of Hokkaido still offer a wild, untouched atmosphere.
    Inhabited by brown bears, sea eagles and a host of other creatures, the island's diverse landscape features snow-capped volcanoes, hot springs, lakes and temperate northern forests.
    The trees explode with color each fall and shed a sea of blossoms each spring.
    The raw natural beauty of Hokkaido's national parks -- especially Daisetsuzan, Shiretoko and Akan in the northeast -- feels more like Alaska than what you would expect to find in Asia.
    Another draw is the traditional Japanese onsen -- hot spring -- culture.
    Hokkaido boasts 23 hot spring areas and 11 different types of onsen, from simple thermal and sulfur to lesser-known radium, ferruginous (iron oxide) and cupriferous (copper) springs.