Bored of Bangkok? Want to discover your very own desert island paradise and laze on secret beaches? Becki Enright of travel blog Borders of Adventure goes island-hopping.
With a cluster of islands containing emerald lagoons and secluded beaches, mountainous plains and jungle terrain, it’s not surprising that Southern Thailand tops the list as one of Southeast Asia’s best-known pathways to sun-drenched paradise.
We can’t guarantee you’ll find DiCaprio, but use this guide and get to know Thailand’s Kohs. There are so many must-see islands scattered off the shores of this Southeast Asian hotspot, it’s tricky to know where to begin and which ones to put at the top of your holiday wishlist.
To help you out, and to make sure you don’t miss a thing, here’s a guide to eight of Thailand’s most popular islands to get you started:
To the east…
1. Koh Tao
Koh Tao has been a backpacker favourite for years. It’s not only the first accessible stop on the east island-hopping trail, but, despite a growing tourism industry, has managed to retain its natural beauty – both on land and beneath the waves. Best known for its world class diving and snorkeling, this is an island that combines a colourful underwater world with idyllic long stretches of beach and coastal hideouts. One of the biggest dive schools on the island is Big Blue, which offers full PADI training and accommodation packages. Koh Tao can be explored on foot, by moto or quad, depending on your need for speed. When the island starts to feel a little small, hire a long boat taxi to take you to Koh Nang Yuan, another tiny patch of paradise about 15 minutes sailing time from Koh Tao. Bring some baht though – Nang Yuan is a marine nature reserve so you must pay 100baht to visit.
2. Koh Samui
Thailand’s second-largest island and one known for its more luxurious offering of five star properties, secluded private resorts and spas, Koh Samui mixes exotic beaches – Taling Ngam in the south being one of the more secluded – with the tropical jungle backdrop of Khao Pom. Famed for their coconuts, Thai locals use the fruit in everything, from cooking delicious curries, to conditioning split ends and they swear that slapping it on after a day on the beach will prolong your tan. Combine morning treks and safaris with sun-lounging afternoons and cocktail-fuelled evenings. Chaweng Beach is the best spot for sundowners and all-night beach parties.
3. Koh Pha Ngan
Many island-hoppers and holidaymakers boat over to the infamous Full Moon Party at Haad Rin Beach in Koh Pha Ngan just for the night. But stick around and explore the isolated beaches and scenic treks to the north of the island. Head away from Haad Rin in the south for coastal highlights with rugged mountainous backdrops – away from the famous beaches, they are a little more remote. Strap on your hiking boots and take the path from Thong Nai Pan to the pristine Bottle Beach, which is not always accessible by boat. Looking to try Thai food? One of the best night food markets takes place in Thong Sala, the island’s main town, where you can pick up freshly grilled squid, spicy papaya salad or mouth-watering coconut mango sticky rice without spending more than 100baht, or £2!
Read more: How to survive Thailand’s Full Moon Party
In the west…
4. Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi is one of Thailand’s best-loved islands, having starred in the film, _The Beach, _which was actually filmed on the island’s stunning Maya Bay. Since the film’s release, steady streams of tourists have flocked here and it’s not the quiet idyll it once was, however it’s still worth stopping by on a boat tour. Many hotels, hostels and travel companies offer similar tours, so make sure you haggle for the best price. Take in all of Koh Phi Phi and its smaller sister Koh Phi Leh from the deck in a day and float around on the blue lagoons and crystal waters, stopping frequently for kayaking and snorkeling. Back on dry land, check out the Sunflower Beach Bar, a poignant place, constructed from the ruined long boats that were washed up along the island’s coast after the 2004 tsunami. For a bird’s eye view of Koh Phi Phi, head off for the well sign-posted ‘Viewpoint’ which is easily accessed via a path and (lots of) steps. At sundown the island is a rumble in the jungle, and nowhere more so than at the Reggae Bar, where you can watch live Muay Thai martial arts boxing. The party continues down on Ton Sai Beach with plenty of clubs and bars offering drinks bucket promotions to keep you up all night.
While many head to the tourist hubs of Patong and Kata with their long, easily accessible stretches of white sand, there’s plenty more to see on the island. Mix the charms of Phuket town and its old Chinese heritage architecture with the more remote southern coastal areas like Ao Sane or Siam beach. Fancy yourself a Bond girl? Take a day trip to the famous James Bond Island, Khao Phing Kan, but be warned: it gets very crowded, particularly in high season (October-February). If you fancy some privacy, hire a boat to get you to the more beautiful coral waters and lesser-known coastlines of Koh Rang Yai or Koh Hae.
Read more: 12 James Bond locations – in pictures
6. Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta is a relatively new addition to the island-hopping trail, but it’s fast establishing itself as a hot destination. It’s actually made up of a cluster of small islands, the two biggest being Koh Lanta Noi and Koh Lanta Yai; the latter is the one most people mean when they talk about ‘Koh Lanta’. The 27-mile coastline is dotted with national parks, such as the wildlife haven of Mu Ko Lanta – perfect for spotting birds, reptiles and, if you’re lucky, some of the few wild tigers remaining in Thailand. Find the quieter shorelines in the south; Klong Jark Beach has only one resort and Nui Bay only one bar. In the east, hire kayaks to explore the lush mangroves which look like a set straight out of Jurassic Park. For those really wanting to feel they have stumbled across uninhabitable land, a boat trip to nearby Koh Rok Nok and Rok Nai will bring out the explorer in you.
Closer to Bangkok…
7. Koh Chang
Want to venture away from the mainland but you’ve not got the time to go to far? A trip to Koh Chang could be the perfect solution. A five hour bus from the centre of Bangkok, or direct from its airport, and a 45 minute ferry, will bring you to an island boasting big beaches, waterfalls and a scattering of stunning green parks. Travelling solo? We promise you won’t feel lonely, despite the name, at Lonely Beach, the premier party place on an island full of lively bars – they even host their own version of Koh Pha Ngan’s Full Moon fun once a month. The small town set-up is where you’ll also find chilled day-time hangouts and friendly locals who are more than willing to show you around the island on fun day trips.
Read more: 10 best things to do in Bangkok
8. Koh Samet
Leave the partying on Bangkok’s Khao San Road and take things a little slower in Koh Samet, one of the quiter islands not far from the mainland. Two and a half hours by bus, then a short ferry trip and you could be sunning yourself on Samet’s stunning beaches. Hat Sai Kaow and Ao Phai are the most ‘lively’ but this just means there’s a spot to string up a hammock and a bar serving chilled drinks. A National Park since 1981, you have to pay an entry fee (normally 400baht) to get on the island, but the chance to experience a tranquil side to Thailand, away from the majority of tourists, is well worth the time and effort it takes to get here.
Want more tips for travelling in Thailand? Check these out: