Do you know any holiday destinations that have the complete package? As a total beach queen (I am a mermaid after all) I’ve come to the conclusion that Thailand offers some of the best beach holidays in the world.
But it’s not only my well travelled passport that has fallen for it. In 2017, Thailand was ranked as the most visited destination in the world. Can you see why?.
When I first visited Thailand in 2013, like many I stayed in the lovely island of Koh Samui. For most first timers, particularly families, Samui or Phuket are probably the best options. Apart from being easier to get to, both have loads of different accommodation types & food options, including family friendly resorts.
To distinguish between the two, Samui (located on the East coast) is more quiet and high-end, Phuket (on the West coast) is busier but offers more to do. Both have a great selection of smaller nearby islands too, to name a few favourites:
Near Samui: Koh Phangan, Koh Nang Yuan, Koh Tao.
Near Phuket: Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Similan Islands.
However, there are over 1430 islands in Thailand. Of course not all are habitable, but it does mean choosing one for a holiday can be a daunting task.
As an ex-expat in Thailand and frequent returnee, I’ve visited most of the top Thai islands (at least once). So sit back and stay a while. I’ll help you out 🙂
We all want something a bit different from our vacation so firstly you need to consider what you’re after.
- Do you want a bit of culture and heaps to see and do?
- Are are you looking for adventure- perhaps diving, snorkelling or kitesurfing?
- Or are you in need of that Castaway feel, with complete tranquility and seclusion?
It could even be a mix of all these. Thankfully Thailand caters for all types of holiday, including islands with luxury options or backpacker dorms.
The Top 5 Thai Islands.
5. Koh Chang
In a nutshell: Tranquility, chilled vibes for days and gorgeous beaches.
Getting here: Situated to the west of Thailand’s Gulf, Koh Chang is an easy getaway from most parts of the country. Flights take you to Trat, where you can hop on a ferry to the island. Or, if you’re not too far away (i.e. Pattaya- tried and tested route) you can drive to Trat and take your car over.
Lowdown: If you’re looking to visit a large, beautiful island in Thailand without the tourist crowds then Koh Chang is ideal. Even though it is the third largest island in Thailand (after Phuket and Samui) it has maintained its local feel, probably because its further away from the southern islands.
It will offer wide sandy beaches, a chilled atmosphere (for the lack of tourists) and space to unwind. I visited twice for some R&R and it did the job perfectly.
The island is not a party place; the regular nightlife scene mainly consists of watching a fire show on the beach or listening to hip tunes from a beach bar. Although it does liven up nicely during the Thai New Year; in fact, one of my favourite Songkran celebrations was on this island because of its small town, local feel.
For other activities, island hopping and snorkelling to nearby Koh Kood, Koh Mak and Koh Wai is a popular pastime (unfortunately snorkelling is not readily available on the island.) Or you can simply head out on a kayak to have some isles all to yourself!
Equally important for the foodies, I found the quality of Thai food on Koh Chang to be extremely good. It will also offer a pukka Mexican restaurant in town, which you must visit.
Another thing that really stood out for me about this island was the locals. Thai people are very hospitable and lovely anyway, but I found the people on Koh Chang to be even more so. I guess if you grow up on Koh Chang, then you’d wake up happy every day.
4. Koh Tao
In a nutshell: Great for parties, stunning beaches and adventure activities.
Getting here: It’s not the easiest to get to, but the best ones never are!
- 5* route: For the fastest trip, you’ll need to fly to Chumphon airport (about 1h10 from Bangkok – unfortunately no direct flights from KL), take a bus to Matapon pier (about 35mins) then grab a boat (about 2h45).
- 4* route: The next preferable option would be to fly to Koh Samui (cheap and quick from Bangkok, about 1h05 – expensive but quick from KL…unfortunately Bangkok Airways own the airport, so no Air Asia flights go to or from, sadly. It will cost about 1000 RM from KL.) The last leg is a boat to Koh Tao (between 1.5-3hrs, depending on the time of day.) There are numerous ferry operators and piers to choose from in Samui.
- 3* route: The last flight & boat option is flying to Surat Thani (about 1h10 from Bangkok – unfortunately again, no direct flights from KL 🙁 ) Then you’ll need to take a bus to Donsak pier (count for another 1.5 hrs) then grab a boat (about 4.5 hrs).
The transfer from the airport and the boat takes ages, so only take this route if you have to!
- 1* route: The less fussy alternative would be to take a train or bus to the pier, from Bangkok or KL. However, I’ve been there, done that and wouldn’t choose to venture for round two (20s not 30s people!)
If you’re holidaying in Koh Phangan and have time to spare, then Koh Tao should definitely be on your list. When most people think of this island, they know its famous for its diving opportunities. Not only does it boast many great local sites to explore but there are heaps of schools to choose from. It’s as if you dived and went to haven for enthusiasts.
Tip: If you’re keen for a diving trip in Koh Tao, check out this great travel blogger Alex In Wonderland, for insights and low-downs.
Although don’t let that put you off if like me, you’re not looking to head into the big blue. Apart from being lined with some pretty amazing beaches (let’s not sell that short) AMAZING beaches, there are plenty of other adventure activities on Koh Tao guaranteed to thrill.
I really liked sports operator Goodtime Adventures. Of course they offer scuba diving, but they also have perhaps the second best activity on the island.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘I’m not acrobatic enough’. The sailor thought so too, but loved it as much as I did. We were both buzzing after a 2 hour session of complete adrenaline and fun. It also started a bit of a trapeze addiction.
This ‘school of adventure’ also offers: rock climbing and snorkelling sessions, powerboat handling courses, abseiling, party cruises, cliff diving. Excited enough?! Lets just say that diving is not the only thing to keep you busy here.
For me, another highlight of this island was again, Songkran. I stated in the nutshell that Koh Tao is good for parties and the Thai New Year jammed it up a notch.
We headed to Maya Beach Club where Goldie was playing a set.
- Partying on the beach- tick.
- Great tunes pumping from a top UK DJ- tick.
- Sweet vibes- tick.
Even though Koh Tao is quite small and I’m not into diving (yet), it was lots of fun. As it’s smaller and harder to get to, it doesn’t have the same tourists as Phuket and Samui. It tends to draw in a crowd more familiar with (or travelling within) Thailand and SE Asia who are looking to have a good time, respectfully.
In a nutshell: Lots to see and do, great restaurants & high-end options, parties and beaches.
Getting here: Getting to Phuket is a doddle. Book a cheap Air Asia flight from BKK (1h20) or KL (1h25).
Lowdown: Since living in Thailand, I’ve noticed that Phuket has a bit of a bad rep among the expat population here, with many people dubbing it as busy and a bit seedy. Then I realised that they stayed in the Patong area, which is a bit like a mini Pattaya. But, thankfully this is the biggest island in Thailand and there’s plenty more neighbourhoods and beaches to visit. Just stay away from Patong and you’ll have a great time 🙂
Phuket is a bit like a pick-a-mix in that it has a bit of everything. One thing it has over all the other islands is the old town. The historic centre is lined with characterful Sino-Portugese shophouses that have been converted into modern hotels, shops, restaurants and museums. It was fun to stay here for a few days and a completely different ambience to the rest of the island; it was like a Thai version of a quaint European town. There are also some top notch cocktail bars and restaurants not to be missed, as well as regular markets.
Another thing the island has going for it is the plethora of things to do; which I guess is why it’s number 3.
From family friendly fun, to thrill-seeking adventure sports, to basking on the beach- Phuket provides. Activities are not limited to: wakeboarding, zip-line fun, fly-trapeze, kiteboarding, water parks, shopping- you name it.
- There are tons of nice beaches to venture to, from the livelier Karon and Kata, to more secluded ones.
- As Phuket caters predominantly for foreign tourists and families en mass, the food scene is diverse and good quality.
- And for the partygoers out there, Phuket will keep you jamming all night.
Just when you thought Phuket isn’t missing a thing, it is lacking in one. That small island feel.
Thankfully though, this archipelago offers heaps of stunning isles to explore or stay for a few nights. It’s like the holiday gods are looking out for you. Popular ones are Phi-Phi, Similan and Lanta (tried and tested.)
Although I haven’t included Koh Lanta in the top 5, it is definitely worth a trip if venturing to number 3. It makes a nice haven for a few days after all the fun and games.
Think sunsets, white sandy beaches and tranquility.
2. Koh Phangan
In a nutshell: The complete package.
Getting here: It’s a similar deal to Koh Tao but much quicker, with the easiest route being a flight to Koh Samui and a boat to Phangan (about 30mins.)
Lowdown: And like the rest of you, I nearly dubbed Koh Phangan as a party island with nothing more than the Full Moon Party. How wrong I was! I’ve visited this island twice for a holiday and it has quickly become one of my faves. It is SO much more than the Full Moon Party, trust me. If you visit after the FMP and stay away from Haad Rin beach (easy to do) then you’ll surely love it too.
The most prominent and surprising thing about the island was how many different types of retreats there are- yoga ones, detox ones, health ones. You’d be surprised that this place hosts the biggest full moon party on the planet.
Whilst great yoga is readily available throughout the island, a visit to the zen den wouldn’t be complete without some excitement too.
The island is made for exploring on a scooter and visiting as many gorgeous viewpoints that you can handle. The roads are in pretty good nick, not too busy and offer lust vistas to admire. (A super hire company is Easy Bikes if you go.)
Koh Phangan also offers ace conditions for kite boarders, particularly beginner riders. I’ve just recently got back from KP and did an IKO accredited course there. The waters are shallow, the wind consistent and it’s such a great setting. The experience truly made my holiday. (You can check out my review here.)
Whilst Koh Tao is synonomous with diving, it is not the only option. If you’re keen to get into it without the ‘meat market’ feel (huge crowds), then Koh Phangan is the place for you. As well as boasting many great local sites to explore, it’s easy reach of the ‘Sail Rock’ dive site (apparently a good one) and schools also head to top spots in Koh Tao, which is only a short ride away.
Want another surprise?
Koh Phangan has some of the best snorkelling in Thailand. Just head to Mae Haad beach to find out.
You’ll also be amazed at Koh Phangan’s beaches. There are so many gorgeous ones that you’ll be truly spoilt for choice. My faves are Bottle Beach (perfect for spending a few nights), Haad Yao and Thong Nai Pan Yai.
Now I promised parties and I know what your thinking- The Full Moon. In fact, NO. Unless you really need to check it off your bucket list. But, if you’d prefer some cooler parties, you could say instead: I’ve been to the Half Moon Party, The Waterfall party (set in the jungle- how cool!) or to one of the headlining DJ’s at Ku Club- As recommended by the locals.
The locals in KP make the difference too. There’s a great mix of Thai’s and westerners who have made this place home, who are super easygoing and genuinely lovely. If I were a digital nomad, I’d happily settle in KP.
1. Koh Lipe
In a nutshell: Tranquility, small-island vibes and gorgeous beaches.
Getting here: Perhaps the easiest Thai island to head to from Malaysia, during the dry season that is (October to end of June.)
- Dry season: Take a flight from KL (1h10) to Langkawi island (no direct flights from Bangkok unfortunately). Then take a boat to Koh Lipe (1h30.)
- Monsoon season (July to beginning of October): You’ll need to take a ferry from mainland Thailand at Pak Bara Pier.
Often described as the Maldives of Thailand, Koh Lipe is a piece of paradise.
The fact that it’s more out of the way works in its favour, as its not heaving with day trippers or large crowds.
The setting: beautiful beaches lined with super fine, white sand that crunches between your toes, like cornflour. Crystal clear, turquoise warm water to bathe, float and paddle.
This is undoubtedly the place you come down to for unwinding and lapping up paradise. I guarantee you’ll leave feeling zen and in love with the world again.
To make the experience even more unforgettable, splurge a little extra and go for a sea view room if you can. Then you can wake up to this:
In fact, waking up to this is pretty cheap compared to most other islands. This particular bungalow for 4 nights cost less than 600 MYR (about £112 GBP.)
As well as snorkelling on the beach and from a boat, there’s some top dive sites within easy reach, sunset and plankton trips.
Having this place 3 hours away from KL, door to door is a luxury. But if you’re further afield, it will be well worth the wait.
Koh Lipe Accommodation recommendations:
Castaway: The resort has a great restaurant and is a cool place to hang. I didn’t spot any sea view cabanas but you are steps away from a gorgeous beach.
Bayview Sunset: Located on the west coast, you’ll get the best sunset view and for a great price, a sea view cabana.
With years of travelling under my belt and a 2 year stint living in the land of smiles, I’ve covered most islands in Thailand and still frequently return. Do you? Where’s the best island you’ve been in Thailand?
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