The vast continental land mass and thousands of islands of Asia are home to many of the best surfing locations on earth. Locations range from the frigid waves of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan and the even colder waves in Pacific Russia to the steamy equatorial reef breaks of Maldives, The Philippines and Indonesia, three of the world’s best surfing countries.
With both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as well as the smaller South China Sea and Andaman Sea supplying swell from various directions year round, the Asia region has more quality surfing locations than anyone can explore in a lifetime.
Let’s take a look at the ten best surfing countries in Asia.
Since quality surfing waves and conditions were first documented on the Kamchatka Peninsula, around the city of Vladivostok and in the Kuril Islands in the 1990’s, the Pacific side of Russia has slowly been developing a surfing profile.
With there now being surf schools on the volcanic black sand beaches in Kamchatka in the summer months with stoked Russian surfers on soft tops and with more international surfing expeditions traveling to this vast and remote area, more of the many unridden waves of Pacific Russia have been documented.
The area is certain to reveal new wave discoveries in the future as new roads are built through the trackless wilderness and surfers, both Russian and foreign, are among the first adventurers into new areas of extremely remote coastline.
With a long coastline on the south China Sea, bathtub warm water and a lively scene of friendly local surfers, Malaysia is underrated as a surfing destination. With seasonal swell from the northeast, including the odd typhoon-generated swell from the south China Sea, Malaysia has a six-month surf season on the east coast with hundreds of surf spots on the mainland and offshore islands, including reef breaks, beach breaks and point waves.
In addition to ocean surfing, Malaysia also has the wave pool at Sunway Lagoon in Petaling Jaya just outside Kuala Lumpur, where several surf film sequences and magazine cover shots have been produced with jet ski assistance on artificial wave pool waves.
Surfing arrived in Vietnam in the early 1960’s with the United States military, mainly the US Army, who established several rest and recreation (R&R) facilities on the coastline during the Vietnam War.
US involvement in the war reached a peak in 1968 with over 500 000 troops and associated personnel and the coastal R&R facilities at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay were very popular. Their history inspired an American television series “China Beach” starring Dana Delany as an Army nurse which ran from 1988 to 1991 and details military life at a fictional R&R facility during the war, including surfing as a form of combat therapy.
The beaches outside Da Nang in particular established a reputation for surfing during the Vietnam War which it still has today at China Beach, although the US military facilities were replaced long ago with hotels and guesthouses for an international clientele of visitors.
China Beach can get quality beachbreak waves from the northeast monsoon from November to March and during typhoon season with offshore southwest winds. With this vast white sand beach having many places to stay and hundreds of peaks to surf, it is never crowded.
Other surfing locations include areas around the popular holiday towns of Nha Trang and Vung Tau, where there are numerous beachbreaks and several quality left point setups that take a big swell to work.
The sleeping giant of Asian surfing is India, which despite its long coastline and population in the billions, has never produced a native Indian surfer of any distinction nor are there many well-known surfing areas in the country.
Perhaps the best-known surfing areas in India are on the offshore islands, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east and the Laccadive Islands in the west.
While the Nicobar Islands remain a highly restricted area impossible to visit with a foreign passport, both the Andaman and the Laccadive Islands have clear tropical waters and high-quality coral reef waves that have featured in numerous editorial articles and video sequences since the first surfing project in the Andaman Islands in 1998.
Another offshore island of India which definitely has reef waves is North Sentinel Island, made famous after the delusional Christian missionary John Allen Chau visited the island and was killed by arrows fired by angry tribal people in 2018. The island has been surfed before in 1999, but after the negative publicity of the missionary killing, North Sentinel will likely remain unsurfed for the foreseeable future.
Other areas have been surfed and documented by intrepid surf travelers like The surfEXPLORE Group, such as the limestone reef waves and beachbreaks of Diu Island near Gujarat state on the west coast and the right point waves in the large state of Andhra Pradesh on the east coast. There have long been groups of expatriate surfers in the southwest in both Kerala and Maharashtra states but with difficult travel conditions and bad roads, large portions of the Indian mainland remain something of a mystery for surfing.
6) Sri Lanka
While far smaller than its giant neighbor India, Sri Lanka has a long history of hosting surf travelers since the hippie days of the 1970’s, when Arugam Bay on the east coast became a favorite stopover for surf travelers.
With cheap accommodations, plenty of hashish and delicious local food, Arugam Bay became very popular indeed with the hippie surfers of the period during the southwest monsoon from July to October. The pleasant holiday town of Hikkaduwa on the west coast became the surfing location of choice in Sri Lanka during the November to April surfing season.
While the conflict did not directly affect popular surfing locations in the south of the country, the 26 years of civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese government forces and the Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the north of the country, starting in 1983 and finally ending in 2009 with the decisive military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, stifled most tourism development in the Sri Lanka for decades.
Since the end of the war, tourism investment in the country has boomed with more surfing orientated bed and breakfast places popping up in the south, with Sri Lanka being particularly popular with intermediate level European surfing and yoga enthusiasts.
5) Taiwan ROC
The large island of Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, was a latecomer to surfing in Asia. Surfing and all recreational beach activities including fishing and swimming, were illegal on most of the island until the end of martial law in 1987. The entire coastline of the island was wrapped in barbed wire and under the control of the Army, to repel the expected invasion from mainland China that has, thus far at least; not happened.
After martial law was repealed, expatriate surfers took the lead in exploring the possibilities for surfing in Taiwan. There were many foreigners working on the island and few locals had boards, knew how to swim or had any ocean knowledge or experience at all.
Many waves were found, with the best locations in the south in Pingtung County around Kenting National Park and up the east and west coasts.
Since 1987, the surfing population of Taiwan has exploded, with there now an estimated 25 000 surfers in the country. There are also a large number of expatriate surfers from the USA, Australia, and Japan, with more new surfers and surf shops springing up every week.
Several professional contests have been held in Taiwan and with waves on both the east and west coasts for much of the year, the surfing scene in Taiwan continues to grow.
4) The Philippines
Like Vietnam, surfing arrived in The Philippines with the considerable presence of the United States military. The US once operated many bases in The Philippines, among them a US Navy facility at Wallace Air Station on Poro Point on the south China Sea, which was decommissioned and returned to Philippine control in 1991.
The base was heavily utilized in the Vietnam period in the 1960’s to monitor the south China Sea and one of the perks for the sailors stationed there was the presence of several quality right point waves in La Union Province. The sailors quickly saw the potential of the consistent waves in the November to March northeast monsoon season and began surfing in earnest, on longboards shipped in from the US mainland on military flights.
It took longer for the Pacific side of The Philippines to be introduced to surfing, supposedly during the filming of “Apocalypse Now” when Director Francis Ford Coppola consulted with several military dependent high school surfer kids at the US Naval station in Subic Bay to get directions to the surfing locations around Baler on the Pacific Coast. Coppola got the lowdown and filmed north of Baler, the epic battle scene at “Charlie’s Point” where Robert Duvall as US Army Lt Colonel Kilgore makes his famous declarations “Charlie Don’t Surf!” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”.
Several boards were left behind in Baler after the shoot and locals took up surfing with enthusiasm, mainly at the Baler town waves of Sabang Beach and Cemento Reef.
With swell on both the south China Sea side of the archipelago and from the Pacific Ocean, particularly in typhoon season from August to November, The Philippines has seen a large increase in local surfers in the past decade. With more regional travel and contest experience, Filipino surfers are fast catching up to their peers in Indonesia and Japan in producing winning competitive surfers.
The story of how surfing arrived in Maldives is one of the most romantic and famous of any location in the world, covered in numerous magazine and video features. In 1973, Tony Hynde and Mark Scanlon, two surfers from Sydney set out from Sri Lanka on a sailboat bound for South Africa. The Captain was on drugs, had little knowledge of navigation or proper seamanship and in the dead of night the boat crashed onto a coral reef.
When the sun rose the next morning, Tony, Mark and the dodgy Captain were shipwrecked in Maldives. With the help of locals, they unloaded the boat, including their surfboards and made a camp on the beach. Making the best of the hand he was dealt, Tony stayed in Maldives for the rest of his life.
He married a local woman, became a Muslim and founded Atoll Adventures before he passed of a heart attack while surfing in 2008. Tony kept the secret of the waves of North Malé Atoll for fifteen years, but by the early 1990’s surfers were slowly arriving in the atolls. Many of them were brought there by Tony’s friends, who decided a business opportunity was more important than mateship and secret spots.
These friends had started Maldives surf tourism businesses and as Tony didn’t want to be outflanked and without a voice in the surfing development of Maldives, he had no choice but to do the same and founded Atoll Adventures in 1992.
Surfing has continued to grow in Maldives in the 2000’s with new surfing locations and resorts in the distant southern atolls and in the northern islands.
The waves of North Malé atoll have become some of the most popular and coveted tropical surfing locations in the world, with resort hotels like the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa and Cinnamon Dhonveli charging up to USD $1000 per night to stay on the islands in the area and surf the private waves of Pasta Point.
The vast Pacific archipelago of Japan has it all where surfing is concerned, with high quality point, reef and beachbreaks from the freezing north in Hokkaido to the far south, with warm-water coral reef waves on tropical islands like Okinawa and Amami-Oshima, near Taiwan.
If Japan doesn’t strike many American, Australian or European surfers as one of the best surfing countries in Asia, it is because the former high profile of Japan as a surfing country has shrunk dramatically from the days when 30% of the entire ASP Tour events were in Japan or funded by Japanese companies and every pro surfer had at least one Japanese sponsor, for either surfboards or wetsuits.
Today, surfing in Japan is a kind of parallel universe, where there are hundreds of thousands of active surfers and information and products come in from outside, but very little in the way of Japanese product or influence goes out.
There are few foreign surfers sponsored by Japanese companies these days and with no marquee professional events on the WSL schedule, few surfers visit Japan for any reason. The recent Tokyo Olympic games was a notable exception, with Italo Ferreira and Carissa Moore taking surfing’s first-ever gold medals in challenging waves at Shidashita Beach in Chiba Prefecture, one of Japan’s most consistent beachbreak locations.
With so many surfers, plenty of board builders and wetsuit makers and high-quality waves from one end of Japan to the other, perhaps the country will make a comeback in the future with additional professional events and more outside sponsorship of foreign surfers for Japanese-made products, we shall see.
It is without significant debate that Indonesia can be declared the best surfing country in Asia, as it is also the best surfing country in the world.
With over 18 000 islands straddling the equator, an area of tropical magnificence stretching from the northern tip of Sumatra to the western half of New Guinea island, the Indonesian archipelago is an incredibly diverse nation and the greatest island archipelago on earth.
If a serious website or publication were to make an authoritative survey of the fifty best surfing locations in the world, perhaps 20 or more of them would be in Indonesia, more than any other country.
While the nation is blessed with a plethora of high quality waves on both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific sides of the country, Indonesia is underrepresented by competitive surfers, with no Indonesia ever winning a world title or even a single championship tour event.
This record of under-achievement is changing fast with several young Indonesian surfers making progress and winning events on the Challenger Series and well-positioned to qualify for the World Surf League tour in coming seasons.
In the future we will see even more surfing discoveries from Indonesia, as there are still areas of this vast country with unridden waves that have never seen surfers and we will certainly see Indonesian surfers asserting themselves and making an impact on the professional ranks at the top levels of the sport.
Text © John Seaton Callahan
Images © John Seaton Callahan, unless otherwise credited