Getting to Know the Thai Islands

One of the hardest decisions you’ll have to make while traveling around Thailand is what beaches/islands you’re going to visit. Each island has a different vibe and different personality, so what you’re looking for will likely dictate where you choose to go. With that said, however, they’re all pretty amazing so you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Here’s a list of all the islands we’ve visited in Thailand (organized by location) and a little description of each to help you with your decision:

Islands/Beaches Near Bangkok: If you don’t have a ton of time in Thailand but you still want to get a taste of what the islands/beaches here are like, check out one of these areas, all of which are just a few hours from Bangkok.

Pattaya and Koh Larn (East of Bangkok) – Pattaya is Bangkok’s #1 beach weekend getaway. It’s two hours from the center of the city (a little closer than Hua Hin), but if you live anywhere north or east of Bangkok (which many, including us, do), you can be there in as little as an hour. Most people either love or hate Pattaya. It’s loud, it’s seedy, its beach isn’t great (though Jomtiem, just south of Pattaya beach is much nicer), but it probably has more bars per capita than anywhere else in the world. And, it sure is fun. Pattaya is like Vegas. It’s great for a couple nights, but after that, you need to get out. It’s like a constant bachelor party and is notorious for prostitution and old white men with their young Thai girlfriends/wives. Pattaya also has great golf courses and whatever cuisine you’re in the mood for. Patong Beach in Phuket is like a mini Pattaya. Pattaya’s claim to fame is the “Walking Street” at the end of the Beach Road. It’s about a half a kilometer filled with girly bars, bars, and nightclubs. Near the walking street is a pier from which you can take a day trip or an overnight trip to Koh Larn about 15 minutes off shore from Pattaya. It’s a very small island, but fun to motorbike around for half a day. The main beach, like Pattaya, is better for its daytime scene of boozing and eating seafood than it is for the actual beach. We’ve never stayed the night but thought it would be fun to try it. We imagine it’s pretty quiet at night, the opposite of Pattaya.

Koh Samet (East of Bangkok) – Koh Samet is not only the nicest island within a few hours of Bangkok, it’s also one of the nicest islands in Thailand. It’s tiny, but you still need a motorbike or be very good on a bicycle to get around, as it’s surprisingly hilly. The main beach (within a 10 minute walk from the main and only pier) is as nice of a beach in Thailand and has everything you could want in the island nighttime experience (whisky buckets, fire show, seafood BBQs – the trifecta). Koh Samet is also particularly popular among local Bangkokians, with a lot of young couples looking to get out of the city for a weekend. Combining a night or two in Koh Samet with a night or two in Pattaya makes for the perfect weekend/long weekend getaway.

Hua Hin and Cha Am (West of Bangkok) – About two and a half hours from Bangkok to the west, on the way to all the famous islands in the South, Hua Hin is a lovely beach community with great dining options and lots of daytime activities to do in the surrounding country side. It also has a great night market and a terrific beach, although unfortunately, it doesn’t have the usual nighttime activities on the beach like in many of the islands. For the daytime, you can golf, explore two different national parks, or just stay around the city and see the local temple filled with monkeys and plan your dinner at one of the many good restaurants. Hua Hin is like a more refined Pattaya with a nicer beach, but a little further from Bangkok. Cha Am is about 30 minutes closer to Bangkok before Hua Hin and is the Thai version of Hua Hin. Whereas Hua Hin is very westernized and mostly filled with foreigners, Cha Am is super local and mostly filled with Thais. The beaches are similar and Cha Am still has a good amount of Western choices, but not nearly on the scale of Hua Hin. If you’re only in Thailand for a limited time, we would skip Cha Am and go straight to Hua Hin, unless you’re truly after a more local experience.

Koh Si Chang (East of Bangkok) – On the way to Pattaya and just off the shore for Sriracha (yes, home of the famous sauce) is Koh Si Chang, not to be confused with Koh Chang, three hours further East and is much larger and much more fun (see below for description). We only spent a few hours here and that’s all we needed. It’s got some good history and local flavor, but the beaches aren’t very nice and the main one in the back of the island was so crowded and dirty that we didn’t even want to swim. Don’t come here on your two week Thailand vacation.

Andaman Sea Side (from North to South): The Andaman Sea side of Thailand has by far the largest selection of islands, both in number and in variety. If you want to see the most in the shortest amount of time, this is definitely the spot for you.

Khao Lak – Khao Lak is a large beach town on the mainland of Thailand, a couple hours north of Phuket. This was one of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami in 2004. We read that it could be compared to Patong Beach but for people who want something a little lower key but still want all of the amenities offered by the big resorts, Western restaurants, etc.  It also seemed much more family-oriented than the Thai islands, though perhaps that was just the time of the year when we visited (April).  While we thought Khao Lak was a good stopover place for us on the way north from the islands to Khao Sok National Park, if you’re coming to Thailand just for a couple weeks and you’re coming this far South (unless you want to take a trip to the Similan islands or do a scuba diving live aboard – Khao Lak is the best jumping off point to book tours for both of those), we think you’re much better off heading to Phuket or one of the many other great islands around here (Kho Phi Phi, Kho Lanta, or even Ao Nang in Krabi on the mainland).

Phuket – Phuket, the largest and most famous of the Thai islands, is not on our list of favorite islands mainly because of the fact that it’s so big that it hardly feels like an island at all. Patong Beach, the most popular/famous beach (and the area with the best nightlife), is very seedy, and while there are a lot of restaurant/bar options, the beach itself is not very nice. It’s very similar to Pattaya if you’ve ever been there (a weekend beach getaway popular with Bangkokians). There are some great beaches both to the North (Kamala and Surin) and to the South (Karin and Kata) of Patong that have nicer beaches and may be better areas to stay (Karin and Kata have great towns as well, while Kamala and Surin are much smaller). Renting a car for a day or two is a great way to see the island and Phuket is a great place for day trips to other areas in the Andaman Sea, but overall, Phuket is so big that it almost just seems unmanageable. So, while this is probably the best known island in Thailand, it’s also the one that I would probably recommend the least, unless perhaps you have 3-4 days in the islands and don’t want to move around at all. Though even in that case, we’d recommend Samui over Phuket. But in an ideal world, if you’re coming to visit Thailand, you should try to check out at least 2-3 different islands, if not more.

Koh Phi Phi – Even though Koh Phangan is home to the famous Full Moon Party, we still consider Phi Phi to be the party island of Thailand (and it’s definitely the party island of the Andaman Sea). Phi Phi is all about fun and anything and everything you could want is right at your fingertips. It’s a very small island, so it’s very manageable and you don’t have to worry about hiring boats, tuk tuks, etc. to get around (unless you want to go on a day trip to see Maya Bay from the movie The Beach – which we highly recommend). Phi Phi also one of the most beautiful islands that we’ve ever seen. Hiking to the viewpoint on the island (viewpoint #2) is a must. The hike takes less than an hour and once you reach the top, you’ll see one of the most beautiful views you’ve ever laid your eyes on. Phi Phi has guesthouses and fancy hotels, cheap street food and nice Western/Thai food, and places to party and places to relax. For us, even though we don’t love staying out until 2am every night partying on the beach, we like having the option to do so, and there’s definitely always that option here. If you want to sleep at night though, make sure you stay a little bit away from the main beach/town, as it stays pretty loud pretty late into the night (or early in the morning, however you want to look at it). One other thing to note – at 27 and 34, Dave and I felt like some of the oldest people on the island. This island is mostly geared toward people in their low to mid-twenties, so if that’s not the scene you’re looking for, Phi Phi is probably not your best choice. Also, due to its size, Phi Phi doesn’t have the same menu of activities (eg, elephant trekking, ziplining, mini golf, go carts, etc.) that some of the bigger islands have. It’s strictly beauty and partying for Phi Phi, but they have both those qualities in spades.

Krabi – Krabi itself is actually not an island, but rather is located on the mainland. Krabi Town, where you’ll arrive into (regardless of your mode of transportation) is not very nice at all and we don’t recommend staying there. If you’re going to Krabi, you should stay in Ao Nong, which is the main beach area. Ao Nong is great because it has a nice beach and a great main street/area for shopping, eating, and drinking. There is a ton to do at night and also some great options for during the day. We took a day trip to Railey beach (about a 10 minute, 50 baht ride from Ao Nong – longtail boats leave every 15 minutes or so), which was beautiful and a perfect day trip. It’s also known for rock climbing, if that’s something that you’re into. Between the beach at Railey and the town in Ao Nong, you have a little bit of everything. But, one of my favorite things to do on all of the islands is spend a day driving around exploring, which is not really something that Krabi is good for. So, I missed that aspect of it. In Ao Nong, the restaurants are on the street which are setup just behind the sand, rather than directly on the beach so while you still get a great view of the ocean, we always prefer sitting/eating right on the beach. The restaurant choices in Ao Nang are top notch however.

Koh Lanta – The first time we visited, we stayed in the Phra Ae Beach area and unfortunately didn’t have the best experience with our guesthouse and also didn’t love the town. On our second trip, we stayed in Klong Nin Beach and liked that area much better. Koh Lanta doesn’t have the same party scene as Phi Phi or Koh Phangan (many say that people who love Phi Phi hate Lanta and vice versa) but it’s one of the prettiest islands to drive around. There are a lot of different beach and town options, so you can choose from a lot of different scenes. It’s very chill and relaxed but with lots of food and accommodation options. If beautiful and secluded beaches and a completely relaxed atmosphere is what you’re looking for, then Koh Lanta might be the place for you. Make sure to visit here during the high season, as in the low season the whole island is very dead and a lot of the restaurants/bars will be closed.

Trang Islands – Listed as the number one island experience in the Islands and Beaches Lonely Planet book, the Trang Islands are a group of 4-5 very small islands between Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe. While the beaches are beautiful and you’ll find some good snorkeling here, they’re expensive to get to, expensive to stay on, expensive to get between, and don’t have enough action going on (particularly at night) to warrant more than a couple days, at most, and not at the expense of foregoing time on some of the other more highly touted islands. We stayed on Koh Muk, which is famous for the Emerald Cave, a cave where you have to boat/kayak to and then swim 15 minutes through the dark with a headlamp and probably guide to reach a tiny beach inside the cave, but open to the sky. The cave was definitely cool but we didn’t particularly love Koh Muk because you’re only two options for accommodation are at either end of the island, one being the main pier and local town, but with no good beach that at least we could see (maybe we were there during low tide), the other being at the opposite end of the island, which has a single resort (Charlie’s), which basically owns the whole beach (though anyone can use it) and a bunch of other not so great accommodation nestled behind in the jungle (where we stayed). As much as we faulted Koh Muk for not being set up so well (to get between the two ends of town you can take a tuk tuk for 50 baht pp), at least it had a road, which is more than you could say for Koh Ngai and Koh Kradan. Both Koh Ngai and Koh Kradan each have one single gorgeous beach but Kradan’s is much more stunning and was about 3 times the size. Unless you want to literally be stuck at your resort for your entire time in the Trang Islands, don’t go to Koh Ngai and don’t spend more than one night in Koh Kradan. Check out our POST to see a more detailed sample itinerary for the Trang Islands.

Koh Lipe – Tiny Koh Lipe is as beautiful as any island in Thailand. But unless you’re coming in the high season and combining it with trips to the other nearby islands (Koh Rawi and Turatao National Park), it’s a slog and expensive to get to and expensive when you get there compared to a lot of the other Thai islands. We made the mistake of visiting one week before the “official” high season began (on October 15) and we literally couldn’t visit any of the aforementioned islands. Normally in Thailand and SE Asia in general, paying a little more will get you whatever you want but in this case, the neighboring islands and national park literally don’t open until October 15 and end around May 1. Like Koh Muk, the island was essentially two great beaches separated by a single road, but this road was a very cute walking street with lots of cute restaurants and bars, though unfortunately many of them were closed during our visit. The water is as clear as anywhere else we’ve seen in Thailand but watch out for sea urchins on some of the beaches and while snorkeling around. You can also rent a kayak and ride over to Koh Adang a couple km away.

Gulf of Thailand (from West to East):

Koh Samui – Samui is the third largest island in Thailand (following Phuket and Koh Chang), but also probably the nicest and fanciest (though still very reasonably priced). Chaweng Beach is the largest beach on the island, and probably the best single beach we’ve seen to date. Between the beautiful (and huge) beaches, the great restaurants and bars (both on the beach and the main streets), the great shopping, and the more luxurious vibe, we immediately understood why this has become the island of choice for many honeymooners. From what we saw on our day driving around the island (the island is fairly flat and has one main road that goes around the whole island so it’s very easy to maneuver in a car or even motorbike), Samui doesn’t have the smaller, more private beaches that some of the other islands have, but Chaweng beach is so nice and so big (7km) that it sort of makes up for it. You could spend your whole trip just in the Chaweng Beach area and never run out of things to do, restaurants to eat at, bars to visit, or new spots along the beach to swim at. There’s also tons of activities in Samui outside of Cheweng Beach to keep you busy for days. I probably prefer somewhere a bit smaller than Koh Samui, but you really can’t beat the luxurious vibe that this island puts off. For the average adult traveler who’s not looking to party all hours of the night, Koh Samui is the best overall Thai island.

Koh Phangan – Ah, Koh Phangan, home of the world famous Full Moon Party. I’ll just say here and now that the FMP was one of the best nights ever and definitely the craziest and most fun party that I’ve ever been to. I loved Koh Phangan because on one side of the island you have Haad Rin (the beach where the FMP takes place), which is filled with bars, bars, and more bars (but is also a really nice beach). Then, on the other side of the island you have some of the prettiest and most chill beaches that I’ve been to. I like that you can get the crazy party vibe but also the relaxing island vibe here, though during the Full Moon Party time (and probably the Half Moon Party time, I assume), it gets extremely crowded and is filled with tons of young people just looking to party, party, party. But even during non-FMP time, we imagine this island still parties pretty hard though still offers the more relaxed, beautiful beaches outside of Had Rin. The one downside to this island is that it’s very hilly and thus very difficult to negotiate on a motorbike. Consequently, tuk tuks and boats charge a lot of money to get to different parts of the island. But we were also there for the FMP so perhaps prices are lower during other periods.

Koh Tao – Koh Tao is known as the scuba diver’s paradise. This island certifies more divers than anywhere else in the world and at prices that can rival almost anywhere. Dave and I got our advanced scuba diving certification in Koh Tao (which came with 3 days of diving and free accommodation) and spent our spare time exploring the beautiful beaches on the island by ATV. Because this place is such a huge attraction for divers, the whole island is catered around the divers’ schedules. Happy Hour here is big (people like to have a few drink after getting back from a day of diving) but there’s not much of a night life here because people tend to not stay out as late when they have to get to their boats by 8am for diving. We stayed on Sairee beach, which is the main area on the island (and it was great!), and even that seemed dead during the day while everyone was out doing their dives and also late at night when everyone was sleeping to get ready for their morning dives. For us, this island ranked so high because of the awesome and very reasonably priced diving (plus the fact that the island is beautiful and we had a great time exploring), but that being said, we’re not sure we would recommend it to non-divers.

Eastern Islands: While this area is less poplar for tourists visiting Thailand, as it’s more isolated from the other popular islands in Thailand in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, this Thai island destination is just as good as any. Combining these three islands would make for a very well-rounded island experience with a little bit of everything.

Koh Chang – The 2nd biggest island in Thailand (after Phuket), Koh Chang has a lot to offer and is only a 5 hour ride from Bangkok. Similar to Koh Lanta, there are lots of different beaches and areas to choose from, and your choice will dictate what your experience is like. Koh Chang has a lot of restaurant and bar options and is a great island to motorbike around for a day. Also like Koh Lanta, this island has a little bit of everything and has two other totally different islands nearby. It’s also much more local than the Southern islands of Thailand but still westernized enough to satisfy all customers.

Koh Mak – One of the smaller islands we’ve visited, there isn’t much to do on Koh Mak other than kick back and enjoy the gorgeous crystal clear waters. This is one of the best swimming islands we’ve been to and a great place to spend a day or two. All the locals will tell you that you can rent a bike to ride the 14km around the island, but it’s very hilly, so a motorbike is a much better option. For our second day here, we rented a kayak and rode to Koh Rayong Noi, a 20 minute ride away. There’s a 100 baht fee to enter this small island, but you’ll get a beach chair and umbrella and you’ll pretty much have the whole island to yourself. Back on Koh Mak, there’s a small, but cute, walking street when you get into Ao Kao, the main beach on the island, with some good Western and Thai restaurant options. There’s not much going on right on the beach at night, however.

Koh Kood – Size-wise, Koh Kood is the 4th largest island in Bangkok, but it’s mostly comprised of fancy resorts. We were worried that there wouldn’t be much to do here or any good places to eat, but it turns out that we were very pleasantly surprised. We spent a whole day riding a motorbike around the island (though novice drivers should be careful as most of the roads leading to the beaches are very difficult to navigate on a motorbike), had a great lunch at Ao Yai pier, and found some great dinner/drinks spots about a 10 minute walk from our beach, Khlong Chao. This beach is one of the prettiest beaches we’ve seen, with crystal clear water and no shells or rocks on the sand. Sunset here is not to be missed. Koh Kood can be as luxurious of an island in Thailand as you want, so if you’re looking to splurge and/or for seclusion, this is a good spot. Many of the resorts have their own piers and are only accessible by boat.

So that begs the question, where should you go? Most people doing a typical 2 week trip to Thailand will spend 3 days in Bangkok, 3 days in Chiang Mai and then 6 or 7 days in the islands. You should be able to visit 2-3 islands in that amount of time. If you’re planning to visit more than one island, it probably makes more sense to stick to either the Gulf of Thailand side, the Andaman Sea side or the Eastern Islands if you want to stay closer to Bangkok, as you can get between those islands very easily/quickly by ferry rather than spending time flying (Koh Samui and Phuket both have airports) or taking ferry/bus combos. Whichever of the three locations you choose, they all have a little bit of everything and luckily, all the islands are beautiful, so it’s really hard to go wrong.

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2 thoughts on “Getting to Know the Thai Islands

  1. I love the photo from the Pee Pee Viewpoint. We have the same one. Your reviews are terrific. We’re so glad we know first hand about some of the islands.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Koh Mak & Koh Kood, Thailand | The Stave Diaries

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