5 of the best places to learn to dive in Southeast Asia

Keen to get Open Water (OW) certified? Congrats! Getting your diving ‘c-card’ won’t just open up a whole new realm of travel experiences for you, but it will also introduce you to a whole new travel community – a pretty great one, in my experience.

As an Advanced Open Water (AOW) diver with 15 years’ experience diving all over the world, I think I have a pretty good idea of what separates the world’s best diving destinations and most professional operators from the not-so-good. So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge in Southeast Asia – a great place to learn thanks to its warm water, varied marine life and favourable exchange rates – here’s a little guide to help you nail down where to get certified.

Keep your yes peeled for hairy squat lobsters in Timor-Leste © Desmond Lee / Aquatica Dive Resort
Macro marine life fans will love diving in Timor-Leste © Desmond Lee / Aquatica Dive Resort

Before you sign up for a course anywhere, it’s important to meet the instructor. Ask them how long they’ve been teaching, how big their groups sizes are, what time of the day they dive and where you’ll be diving – these questions should help you get a sense of whether you’re going to be comfortable diving with them. All good instructors will be happy to produce their own c-card for your inspection, and let you check the dive gear to ensure it’s in decent condition. Many dive schools offer accommodation deals for divers, so it’s always worth asking.

It’s also good to know a little bit about the key diving certification companies: PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and SSI (Scuba Schools International). Most new divers I meet seem fixated on getting certified by PADI, but both certification cards will allow you to dive anywhere in the world. It could be argued that SSI, which tends to run smaller group sizes and spend more time on scuba skills during courses, is a better option for nervous novices, while those planning to train through to Dive Master or Instructor levels may prefer the flexibility of PADI (SSI instructors must be affiliated with an actual store, while PADI instructors can operate independently). I was OW certified by SSI in Byron Bay, Australia, and AOW certified by PADI in Ko Tao, Thailand, but I chose the courses based on the dive school and instructor in each destination rather than the type of certification that was offered.

Without further ado, here are five top spots in Southeast Asia to consider getting certified.

Nudibranches spotted on a Koh Tao dive. Image by Mika Hiltunen / flickr
Nudibranches light up the reefs surrounding Koh Tao. Image by Mika Hiltunen / flickr

Koh Tao, Thailand

Pros: It’s Thailand’s most popular learn-to-dive spot, but Koh Tao (which is easily accessed by boat from the mainland and neighbouring islands Koh Phangan and Koh Samui), remains the best both for its diversity and accessibility of dive sites, and its sheer volume of dive schools. With more than 50 dive schools to choose from, you can generally always turn up on this Thai Gulf island any day of the week and find a course starting the next day.
Cons: It is virtually impossible to escape the crowds here, though dive schools do work together to minimise congestion at popular sites. Expect to fend off a throng of dive school touts upon your arrival on the island.
Choosing a dive school: If you’re confident in the water and keen to make friends, a big school like Bans or Big Blue will probably suit you. People looking for more personalised attention may be better suited to a smaller school like Sairee Hut or Rocktopus, while medium-sized schools like Scuba Junction and New Way offer the best of both worlds.
Cost: Expect to pay between 9,000 and 10,000 Baht for a course including three nights’ accommodation; the deals are so competitive it’s worth bunking where you dive in Koh Tao.
Where you’ll be diving: At some schools you’ll practice basic scuba schools in a pool, while others train in shallow, sandy sites in the ocean before graduating to beginner-friendly sites such as Japanese Garden.
Dive season: Year-round, but most dive shops shut up shop during the November to December rainy season.
When you’re certified: If you’re staying on to do some fun dives or your AOW course, try to clock an immersion at Chumphon Pinnacle, a huge pinnacle that attracts all manner of sea life, including whale sharks. For those moving on, consider signing up for a liveaboard trip to the unspoiled Similan Islands on the Andaman side of Thailand which operate out of the beach resorts of Phuket and Khao Lak.
Beyond diving:
There are plenty of restaurants, bars and Thai massage outfits on Ko Tao and if you’ve got time, it’s worth renting a scooter for a day to explore the island (bring your snorkel).

Indonesia's Gili Trawangan is a beautiful place to learn to dive © Timmy Page
Indonesia’s Gili Trawangan is a lush place to learn to dive © Timmy Page

Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Pros: There is some truly phenomenal diving to be had across the Indonesian archipelago, but the well-developed dive industry on Gili Trawangan makes it the place to be for first-timers. Located in a trio of three picture-perfect, coral-fringed atolls off the northwest coast of Lombok, tiny Gili T is Indonesia’s answer to Thailand’s Koh Tao.
Cons: When a fast boat service from Bali was rolled out a few years ago, the crowds came with it; it’s rare that you’ll be the only dive group at sites closest to Gili T. The reefs around the Gilis aren’t in stellar shape thanks to the effects of dynamite fishing, but turtles are so common you’re bound to see at least one during your course.
Choosing a dive school: There are more than a dozen schools to choose from on Gili T, all conveniently located on the main drag. Opt for a GIDA (Gili Islands Dive Association) member; founded by Blue Marlin, GIDA is a non-profit set up to promote environmentally aware business attitudes, a cooperative operational structure and a high standard of safety around Gili Trawangan. Most dive schools also support the Gili Eco Trust, a local non-government organisation created by one of the owners of Big Bubble to protect coral reefs from destructive fishing practices around the three Gili islands.
Cost: GIDA members typically charge 5,500,000 Rp for an Open Water course.
Where you’ll be diving: Similarly to Koh Tao, some schools practice skills in the pool before hitting the open water; most sites around Gili T are suitable for all levels of diver.
Dive season: Year-round, but the visibility is generally better during to May to October dry season.
When you’re certified: If you train through to AOW level, consider flying from Bali to Flores to spot some larger pelagics during a more challenging dive within Komodo National Park. 
Beyond diving: Trawangan is just as much a party island as it is a diving hot spot, so there are no lack of options for a post-certification booze-up. (If you prefer a quieter scene, consider getting certified on neighbouring Gili Meno or Gili Air, which have subsidiary branches of some dive shops on Gili T.) There are plenty of other things do on Gili T, from beach lazing to restaurant hopping, yoga classes to stand-up paddle-boarding.

A goby blends in with a sea fan at a dive site off Malapascua. Image by Klaus Stiefel / flickr
Play spot-the-goby while learning to dive off Malapascua. Image by Klaus Stiefel / flickr

Malapascua Island, Philippines

Pros:  The Philippines are widely regarded to have the best diving in Southeast Asia, but the best spots are generally suited to advanced divers. If you’re willing to put in the effort to this remote corner of the Visayas, tiny Malapascua island offers the best of both worlds with great diving for both beginners and serious divers in a relaxed, beautiful setting.
Cons: It’s a schlep to Malapascua; you’ll need to fly to the island of Cebu, take a taxi (3hrs) or bus (much longer) to Maya on the island’s northern tip, and then a boat (30mins) to Malapascua. If you don’t like being woken up by roosters every morning at dawn, bring earplugs.
Choosing a dive school: Evolution, Thresher Shark Divers, and Exotic Divers, based at the Exotic Island Dive Resort, are among the most reputable options.
Cost: Expect to pay about 19,500 Philippine Pesos for an Open Water course.
Where you’ll be diving: OW students practice scuba skills in shallow, sandy sites close to shore, with the last two dives at beginner-friendly standard dive sites.
Dive season: November to June generally brings the best conditions for diving; during the July to October typhoon season, it’s possible to get stranded on Malapascua if the weather is too bad for boats to run to the mainland.
When you’re certified: Progress to a world-class site on Malapascua itself: the thresher shark dive. Over on Cebu, you can dive with giant ‘tornadoes’ of sardines off Moalboal.
Beyond diving: While tourism has become more important to Malapascua over the past decade, most of the island’s 5000-strong population live a simple life based around fishing, so you can expect to stumble across some great photo opportunities.

A pristine dive site north of Dili, all to myself (and my dive group) © Sarah Reid
My dive group enjoyed this pristine dive spot north of Dili all to ourselves © Sarah Reid

Dili, Timor-Leste

Pros: Tourism in Timor-Leste (East Timor) might still be in its infancy, but if there’s one facet of the industry this tiny country is set up for, it’s diving. Nestled within the Coral Triangle, Timor-Leste boasts pristine reefs teeming with marine life, from pygmy seahorses to dugongs and even blue whales. Conveniently for first-timers (especially those who aren’t keen on boats), almost all dive sites are located just steps from the beach along the country’s north coast either side of the capital Dili.
Cons: Timor-Leste might be one of the world’s poorest countries, but travelling to and within the country can be expensive. Even flights to Timor-Leste’s closest neighbours (Indonesia and Australia) are pricey.
Choosing a dive school: There are several good dive schools in Dili that can teach you the ropes in a blissfully uncrowded setting. When I visited Timor-Leste last year I dived with Aquatica Dive Resort, and was really impressed by owner Des and his wife Jen’s professionalism and equipment. Dive Timor Loroase is another solid option; both operators offer accommodation and have attached restaurants.
Cost: Both schools mentioned above charge US$450 for an OW course.
Where you’ll be diving: Scuba schools will be practiced in a swimming pool before graduating to shore dives. If you’re all about coral, ask if it’s possible to do your second two dives at a north coast site rather than near Dili, where the visibility and reefs are not as good.
Dive season: Visit between the May to November dry season for the best diving conditions.
When you’re certified: Consider staying on in Dili to do a two-dive day trip to Atauro Island, 30km north of Dili, where you’re likely to see larger pelagics.
Beyond diving: Dili has several good museums (don’t miss the Resistance Museum) and plenty of spots to sink a sundowner by the sea. From Dili it’s easy to organise an overnight trip to hike Mt Ramelau, Timor-Leste’s highest peak, or a boat to Atauro Island. If you’ve got the time and money, consider hiring a driver to take you to Balibo, the magical north coast road to Com, and off-the-beaten track destinations beyond.

Clown fish spotted on a Perhentian Islands dive. Image by David Paccoud / flickr
Clown fish are regularly spotted on dives around the Perhentian Islands. Image by David Paccoud / flickr

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Pros: The diving in Peninsular Malaysia may pale in comparison to the offerings of Sipadan in Malaysian Borneo, but when it comes to learning, the Perhentian Islands – which are also home to Malaysia’s best beaches – have the edge. Surrounded by calm, clear turquoise water (with a maximum dive depth of 30m), the laid-back Perhentians, a four-island archipelago just 19kms off the north east coast of Terengganu, offers some of the best value dive courses in Southeast Asia.
Cons: While island life is more laid-back than in the conservative Islamic mainland states of Kelantan or Terengganu (the gateways to the Perhentians), don’t expect raging parties out here either.
Choosing a dive school: Most dive shops are located on the Pulau Besar, the slightly more higher-end of the two main islands, but it’s only a RM20 boat ride to the other main island of Pulau Kecil. There are at least a dozen dive schools to choose from, but I’ve heard consistently good feedback about Turtle Bay and Panorama.
Cost: Expect to pay about RM1000 for an OW course.
Where you’ll be diving: OW students practice scuba skills in shallow, sandy sites close to shore, with the last two dives at beginner-friendly standard dive sites.
Dive season: The diving season runs from March until the end of October; try to avoid the August to September busy season if possible.
When you’re certified: Sign up for a fun dive at the Sugar Wreck before you leave the island. If you’ve knocked off your AOW training too, consider heading up to Sipadan in Sabah for some serious diving. At the time of writing there were some security issues in that area, so check official advice (and the fine print of your travel insurance plan) before you travel.
Beyond diving: The Perhentians are said to have the best beaches in Malaysia. While you’re there, check out the wonderful Perhentian Turtle Project which is always looking for volunteers to help track turtles by day and guard nesting beaches by night.

Responsible diving in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to more than 30 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, but, sadly, human activities now threaten an estimated 88 per cent of them. As divers we have a responsibility to protect the fragile ecosystems we explore by following a few key rules such as making sure not to kick up sand or bump coral with our fins, managing our buoyancy, and resisting the urge to touch or crowd marine life. As the old diving adage goes, ‘take only pictures, leave only bubbles’, but as underwater cameras become ever more popular, it’s important not to lose sight of sustainable diving practices when lining up your next underwater selfie.

Keep a respectful distance from marine life like this diver in the Gili Islands. Image by Stefan Leitner
There’s no need to get any closer to a Gili Islands turtle than this. Image by Stefan Leitner / flickr

And one more thing…

Scuba diving is not dangerous as long as divers follow safe diving guidelines, use proper gear, and dive within their experience level. But at the same time it is an adventure sport that comes with an element of risk. There’s no harm in enjoying a post-dive beer or two at the end of the day, but don’t put yourself, others, or the environment at risk by diving drunk, or even hungover, as the dehydration, fatigue and lack of judgment that come with hangovers are just as dangerous as being drunk when you’re underwater.