That’s it, you have decided, it’s time to get wet and discover the underwater world. But where? South East Asia is heaven and very diverse for marine life and dive spots. It’s also a relatively inexpensive place to start. I have listed here my 8 perfect scuba diving destinations for beginners.
Update May 2022: I added Tioman island as my 8th recommended spot in Malaysia for beginners.
How did I select the below destinations?
I must have been there and done scuba diving there too. It must be destinations that allow you to do diving combined with other activities. It is safe to say that for first timers, it’s rare that you would dedicate the whole of your holiday for diving if you have not tried before. Pricing is also a factor; diving is already an expensive sport and doing a certification even more so. Therefore, it might be better to look at locations that are not too expensive to get to or where scuba diving is cheaper. And since it’s a holiday, well it must be a good place to relax and enjoy – especially if you end up not diving or are travelling with only snorkelers!
How long should you dedicate of your holiday to start scuba diving ?
The Open Water Course of PADI (or it's competitor SSI) can take as short as 3 days but honestly you would want to hone those newly acquired skills and get more practice. I would recommend at least 4 days so that you can have, at minimum, one extra day of just fun diving after the certification.
Not sure if you will like scuba diving ?
It’s alright, you can give it a try and have a feel of how you can accept the equipment and breathing through a regulator. Most dive centers offer discovery dives, which is one dive with an instructor at a very shallow depth in aquarium conditions. If you like it, this dive can even count for your certification practice dives would you continue with the certification immediately after! It’s often affordable (and even sometimes free!).
Scuba diving in Thailand for beginners:
Koh lipe is a small island at the border between Malaysia and Thailand – it has great beaches and beautiful, almost no current, sites (probably only one has some current but most sites are just very easy and full-on colorful soft corals). Excellent visibility almost all year round. Thailand is an inexpensive travel destination & easy to combine with other famous sights in a longer itinerary. Koh Lipe is a little outside of the main touristy route so it doesn’t feel too crowded. Dive centers are of small to medium sizes guaranteeing a more personal service and care from the instructor. Yet the destination is big enough that there are a lot of foreigner dive instructors, so you increase your chances of one speaking your language would that be more comfortable for you.
Dive centers I dove with: Forra diving
So we have been to Koh Tao once, and even though I didn’t dive there, I think a post on scuba diving destinations for beginners wouldn’t be complete without it.
Koh Tao is the cheapest place to learn scuba diving – there are so much competition on that island that prices of courses are rock bottom and so are the fun dives. It ticks all the boxes when it come to island paradise ( blue water, white sandy beach and all the bars & nice relaxed beach shacks ). It’s also cheap because many dive centers will offer free accommodation in dorms when you dive the same day with them.
It’s a major hub with easy access from Bangkok with Lomprayah ferry+bus combo from Khao-san road (the backpacker hub of Bangkok). It also guarantees that with such an amount of operators, you will find for sure someone speaking your language there.
Scuba diving in Philippines for beginners:
Malapascua island, Cebu
Malapascua had NO current at all and absolutely fabulous diving with all the small critters and rare specimens (thresher sharks! ). It’s one of my favorite spots. The island in itself is beautiful with white sandy beach and clear waters. Combined with the other visits in Cebu & Bohol and you have yourself a nice 2 weeks itinerary here with some diving in the middle. You can review this article – I have done the itinerary for you 😉
We dove with Evolution diving
Scuba diving in Indonesia for beginners:
Bali in itself has a couple of spots to dive and since it’s well, BALI, you can easily spend time combining diving with other sights & temple visits. We did our Open Water certification in Amed ourselves with my husband. And this is my FIRST choice of destination for any beginner diver. Why?
- Really not crowded and not touristy
- Amazing snorkeling (for your non-diver travelling buddies) just like 10 m away from the shore. (one can even see turtles, lion fish and bumphead parrot fish while snorkeling!)
- Most dive sites are shore diving:
- If you are afraid of jumping in the big blue. This is a slow in and slow out of the water.
- It’s cheaper both for fun diving and certifications – no gas and boat fee.
- Amazing dive sites of great varieties for beginners
- The USAT Liberty shipwreck in Tulamben is shallow enough
- Some nice coral gardens with sculptures
- Wall diving closer to Jemeluk bay
- No currents
We did this with Bali Fab Dive who also offer free accommodation in their dorm for divers. It’s a small and simple dive center. Most dive centers are about that size on this stretch, so you are certain to have a more private experience.
Sanur & Padang Bai, Bali
Well, if getting all the way to northern Bali can’t fit in your holiday plans. Staying around Sanur (or even Kuta/Seminyak) enables you access to the dive sites for Manta Rays and in season the famous Mola Mola ! Padang Bai is an easy day trip diving from Sanur as well.
Pros are: easily accessible from main transit hub (Kuta/Semiyak/Sanur), loads of great dive centers, great spots for guaranteed Manta, if lucky Mola Mola, overall, no real currents.
Cons: If you are there during Bali’s winter ( for the Mola Mola) water temperatures are quite cold ! ( we went as low as 18 degree celsius once when chasing the Mola Mola and I was wearing long suit AND my shorty on top) It’s quite expensive (boat diving) and the manta points can be crowded with divers.
We dive with: Neptune dive center in Sanur
Scuba diving in Malaysia for beginners:
Mabul island, Borneo
It’s a great end (or beginning) of holidays if you are on a loop in Borneo. ( you can compliment this by a trip to Sandankan or the Kinabatangan river). All the dive sites are within 5 min boat from the island, which means you are doing your surface intervals ( between each dive, you have to stay outside of the water for about 1 hour ) in your hamoc on land. If you are subject to sea-sickness it is a good destination. The water is transparent, the conditions are ideal and there are enough dive centers to find someone speaking your language.
Be aware that the beaches on Mabul island are not very clean, therefore for non-divers it’s not a great spot to get lazy on the beach (but good for snorkeling). You should ask in advance the hotel or resort you would be staying to know what they are doing to keep their stretch enjoyable.
In Bonus – worldclass diving in Sipadan national park when you book for 4 days. Most accommodations are full board with diving package – so you will have to stay a minimum number of days to get there. It requires that you are committed to diving if you decide to start there.
We dove with Scuba Junkie.
Perenthians island, Peninsular Malaysia
This is if you are not planning to visit Borneo, when traveling to Malaysia, and are looking for a dive & island destination on the mainland. The Perenthian islands are well traveled and easily accessible with ample accommodations for any budget. I dove there with at least 4 dive operations and on both the small (kecil) and the big (besar) island. I have a soft spot for coral bay on kecil which is small and caters to less crowd but it’s easy to just stay on Kecil and travel/dive on both sides during your stay. (You can walk from one side to the other)
Diving wise it was pretty easy and no current at all. Malaysia is affordable and the dive centers have a good crowd of instructors with many different languages available.
Tioman island, Peninsular Malaysia
Tioman island is the easiest and cheapest diving destination to reach from either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. The island combines stunning beaches, relaxed vibes and complete calm. Coral reefs are beautiful and the current is very mild, making it another perfect spot for beginner divers. It's home to a great number of reputable and serious dive operators, as well as hotels for every budget. From guesthouses to luxury accommodations, without losing of its authenticity. ( we are very far from the Thailand islands for example). I wrote a more in-depth article here.
We dove with B&J Diving on Kampung ABC
I hope the above recommendations have giving you some pointers towards finding your perfect scuba diving destination to start this journey. Just to tell you more about mine? I started with the open water course in Amed, Bali – then did my advanced open water course part in Koh Lanta and part in Pattaya for additional specialties. I did my rescue course theory in Kuala Lumpur and the practice in the Perenthians island. My nitrox course was done on-board my amazing liveaboard experience with the MV Giamani to the Similan islands. I have been diving for about 5 years now and I am completely addicted! Trying it, is loving it ! Happy diving !
Credits for the photos used in this article:
Blue ring octopus: Photo by Kris Mikael Krister
Tulamben in Amed: Photo by Jeremy Bishop
Banner photo: Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri
Manta ray photo: Photo by Max Gotts
Koh Lipe photo: Photo by Maksim Shutov
Koh Tao photo: Photo by Valeriv Ryasnyyanskiy
Pulau kecil photo: Photo by Nur Syafiqah
All above photos come from Unplash