As your boat inches closer, the deep ocean transforming into crystal clear shades of vibrant blues, a sea breeze blowing gently; welcome to paradise! No trip to Thailand is complete without a few days switched over on to island time; letting the hours pass leisurely, toes in the sand watching the sun set slowly on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Islands are plentiful and your choices on which to visit abundant, so here’s a comprehensive guide to help make picking the best of the bunch slightly easier. Note that this guide doesn’t include every island in Thailand, there are literally hundreds. Some of those missing are the Similan Islands, Koh Lipe, and Koh Lanta, all of which I am yet to visit… Time to start planning my next trip!
Koh Chang and Koh Samet:
Favored by Bangkokians – Thai and expatriate alike -, Koh Chang and Koh Samet are both a perfect weekend getaway, ideal for escaping frantic daily life in the bustling metropolis. Slightly off the average travelers radar, these islands are less developed than those on the beaten path. Locals are protective of their ‘secret’ spot and it’s easy to see why; with beaches equally as beautiful as those found on the more southern islands, both islands are easily reached, under 300km from Bangkok. The savvy crowds know why they choose to come here. Koh Chang is the larger of the two, and whilst this means more accommodation options etc., it’s also quickly becoming a tourist favorite – especially as it’s a quick journey from Cambodia as well. Koh Samet isn’t doing too well at escaping change either, but given the majority of the island is a national park, it is widely protected in the face of looming overdevelopment. The government recently imposed an 11pm noise ban – a.k.a the music stops – in an attempt to lessen disruptions… So if you’re looking for all night parties, this isn’t the place. On the other hand, both are great options for families or couples looking to avoid the vodka red-bull toting backpackers partying beyond the early hours.
CHOOSE THESE IF you’re looking for a relaxation filled beachside escape minus the nonstop music, and only have time for a quick trip out of Bangkok – buses run frequently from the city, including from Suvarnabhumi, to the two piers servicing the islands, from where it is a short ferry ride to paradise.
A diver’s dream, Koh Tao is nestled in the midst of aquamarine waters that house some of the country’s most intact and liveliest coral reefs. Busiest every month before and after the full moon – as backpackers make the trek from neighboring Koh Phangan after attending one of the world’s most epic beach parties – it is hedonism’s ultimate antidote… But that doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had. Sairee – the main town – is lined with charming beach bars that lend to the laid back atmosphere, and fear not, most hotels and hostels further afield in the smaller villages tend to have their own bar set up in place… The perfect place to unwind after a day soaking up vitamin sea.
CHOOSE THIS IF you love the ocean/want to complete your PADI certification at a bargain price with the added reassurance of international dive instructors. It’s also perfect if you are looking to detox post Full Moon Party, comfortingly reassured that if you recover faster than expected the local nightlife won’t disappoint!
One of the Gulf of Thailand’s larger islands, Koh Samui also houses an airport, meaning that – if your budget permits – nauseating ferries can be skipped! Koh Samui screams foreign tourist destination, from the luxury resorts with their private beaches to the multiple McDonalds and Haagen Dazs that line Chaweng’s main road. Nevertheless, it’s a great place to visit and warrants some acclaim; its natural beauty still manages to shine through. If you’re mid gap year or are backpacking across South East Asia, you’ll want to stay in Chaweng. Home to spots like ArkBar – as famous for their pool parties as their nightly beachside blowouts – and Green Mango, it’s the perfect warm up before hopping over to Koh Phangan in time for the full moon to rise. Bophut and Lamai are smaller villages both under ten minutes away by taxi – one north, the other south -, making them close enough to the action but slightly more exclusive and significantly quieter. Koh Samui caters to all, making it easy to plan a trip that keeps the whole group happy.
CHOOSE THIS IF you want an island that doubles as a complete holiday destination. It’s easy to spend a week plus on Koh Samui, a great base from which to explore the neighboring smaller islands and Ang Thong National Park. P.S. whilst they can’t compete with the splendors of Bangkok’s temples, Wat Plai Laem and Wat Phra Yai – or the Big Buddha Temple -, both 10 minutes north of Chaweng, are colorful examples of modern buddhist temples and worth stopping at if you’re passing by.
An introduction is likely to be unnecessary; Koh Phangan is home to the notorious Full Moon Party. Once a month, hordes of travelers descend on Haad Rin Beach for a night of hotly anticipated, unparalleled raucous debauchery. Occasionally things can get ugly and out of hand, but generally speaking, for most it remains the party of a lifetime. Accommodation in Haad Rin itself is, at best, sub par; one of the only selling points for most of the shoddy ‘hotels’ and hostels in the area being that they are within walking distance from the action. Beachside resorts are scattered across the island but most of these are a 30 minute drive from Haad Rin, along precariously steep and windy roads. Sadly, Koh Phangan is now pretty much known just for the Full Moon Party and not much else…
CHOOSE THIS IF you want to go to the Full Moon Party and don’t fancy catching a speedboat back to Koh Samui at 5am after pulling an all nighter. Whilst the island is beautiful, there really isn’t much else happening that you wouldn’t find on the other islands… Expect to spend a lot of time unwinding at the beach, but really, who’s going to complain about that! P.S. if the Full Moon Party left you feeling slightly worse for wear, head to Amsterdam Bar for a mountaintop lazy day spent lying poolside lapping up the incredible views, or INFINITY Beach Club, where the private pool and hammocks enticingly strung between the palm trees are the perfect contrast to the hungover hubbub of Haad Rin. Both are reachable by taxi.
Koh Phi Phi:
Phi Phi is unequivocally my favorite; I may no longer provide an impartial opinion, but after four visits, it still never fails to leave me spellbound. I don’t know whether it’s the absence of cars and the fact everything is within walking distance, or the carefree laissez-fair atmosphere that engulfs you in its easiness, but something changes for the better every time I set foot on the pier. Phi Phi Don – the main, and only inhabited, island – is a large, clustered rock formation covered in rugged jungle jutting out from the azure waters. If you asked me to define paradise, I’d pull out a picture of Phi Phi. Yes, it’s succumbed to development as tourism increases, but at its heart everything’s the same. The twin crescent beaches flanking the village are still lined with adorned traditional long tail boats, the ultimate postcard picture. It’s not hard to see why the islands were chosen as the filming location for the The Beach. Side note: even though the Leonardo DiCaprio may have graced the sands of Maya Bay, the beach really isn’t worth the 200 baht per person entrance fee; mass popularity means the waters are pretty polluted and tourists flock by the speedboat load on tours departing from nearby Phuket. Avoid Maya Bay and instead rent a long tail boat from anywhere on the island, making sure to stop off for a swim with the monkeys – who literally jump in the water, just remember to bring some fruit – on your way to Phi Phi Leh Lagoon – the shallow depths and white sand combined result in some of the bluest waters I’ve come across. No trip to Phi Phi would be complete without journeying up to the viewpoint. Whilst a trek – I warned you, the steps are killingly steep – the view is simply unbeatable, no close seconds. Afterwards, walk back down through the jungle, following the signs, for a well deserved swim at the secluded Long Beach.
CHOOSE THIS IF you want to feel like you’ve stumbled across an uninhabited island, a guarded secret amongst those in the know. Whilst Phi Phi is no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, untouched, it does still hold the charm of an era pre mass tourism. P.S. it’s also a major diving hub, so don’t kick yourself if you can’t get out to Koh Tao, here’s as good a place as any to get PADI certified. Whilst some argue the corals are more damaged, the visibility definitely trumps.
It’s hard to think of Phuket as an island given its size, however it is still, by definition, one. Although not a first choice if you’re looking to escape from modern civilization, it has its perks. The resorts here are larger and more plentiful than on any of the other islands listed above; you’ll find everything from malls filled with western brands to multiple golf courses, and as of July 2016 even an Elephant Sanctuary – cue round of applause, read a previous post on the cruelties of elephant tourism for more -, scattered across the island. Patong’s nightlife rivals some of Bangkok’s strips – literally – with everything from bars and clubs to, you guessed it, the infamous Ping Pong shows on offer along the neon lit Bangla Road. It’s full on, and whilst a lot of fun, some may find it slightly overwhelming. If you fall in to the latter category, head a little up the coast to Surin and Kamala or south to Karon and Kata, where you’ll find more luxurious sprawling resorts and a slightly less overbuilt, westernized facade. No time to overnight on Phi Phi? Fear not, multiple day tours are on offer from Phuket. Another option is James Bond Island, amongst others, equally as beautiful and well worth visiting.
CHOOSE THIS IF you want to escape, but not without leaving all the perks of modern conveniences at home. Phuket is, like Koh Samui, a great base providing you with plenty of opportunities to get out and explore Thailand’s true beauty.
*Thailand has recently received a lot of air time in the international media after the elections, which in short voted in favor of continuing support of military rule. Whilst I can’t offer any insight on this outcome, the military first staged a coup in 2014 – a time during which I was in Thailand and felt no risk to my personal safety – and has held power ever since, with little disruption to daily life. The multiple synchronized organized bombings in last week follow the Bangkok bombs in August 2015, both of which are ‘firsts’ in the country’s recent history. Whilst they indicate what could become a worrying pattern of terror, they’ll hopefully remain largely isolated incidents.