Islands of Thailand travel guide
Thailand has two Ko Chang and this is the little and overlooked one in the Andaman Sea. This small walkable island is covered in rubber trees and coconut palm and is pure serenity. Locals hire out simple bungalows and there is a handful of restaurants and bars for the few travellers who venture off the beaten track. Things are even slower here than on neighbouring Ko Phayam and farang facilities are close to nonexistent. This is how things must have been on Ko Pha Ngan twenty years ago and it is a refreshing reminder that there are still hidden corners in Thailand that lie untouched and ready to be explored. Ko Chang is probably the closest you can get to a Robinson-Crusoe vibe without actually being on a deserted island.
The best beaches on Ko Chang island are definitely on the west coast, but that doesn't mean the east side is not interesting. There are many small villages along the way and at Long Beach (Hat Yao) an arty resort has created a funky place for those who are stressed out over the pace at Lonely Beach. It is a great area for a bit of exploration, either on foot, scooter or even sea kayak. Keep in mind that roads on Ko Chang are horrendous, winding and dangerously steep at some sections and the mud paths on the east side are even worse.
Ko Chang is the second biggest island in Thailand after Phuket. It's a big green island shaped like a elephant's head (hence the name, Chang, meaning elephant in Thai). The mountainous interior is covered in jungle while the coast is dotted with sandy beaches, mostly on the west side. Each beach has a distinctive atmosphere so you can always find something suited to your liking. If you're looking for mainstream beach life with bars and pizzerias, then stay at White Sand Beach (Hat Sai Khao), if you want to chill out in hippie style, head for Lonely Beach (Hat Tha Nam), or if you are into diving, go to Bang Bao. But there are possibilities for lodging all along the western shore.
© Sarah Hishan
Going south on Ko Lanta Yai means losing the throngs of tourists and finding some of the quieter beaches in the Krabi province. Nui Bay is one of the islands most untouched beaches, for the most part because it's surrounded by cliffs on all sides and also because it is usually bypassed while heading to the National Park. The lack of accessibility and signage has meant that no resorts have taken over and there’s only ever a few people at a time, giving you as much privacy as you’ll find in this part of Thailand. The only way to reach it is either by a steep 100 m footpath from the main road or accessing it through a nearby restaurant and walking down the man made steps. This is one of the few places you won’t find development, just beautiful rock formations on either side of a soft, sandy beach and calm, clear waters. If privacy and natural beauty is what you want, this might be worth your while.
You can't say Ko Pha Ngan without saying Full Moon Party, but Ko Pha Ngan is a diverse island which has also secluded bays, dense jungle, waterfalls, and tranquil beaches for couples who rather enjoy each other instead of another firedance show. The party capital is Haad Rin where the rather trashed Sunrise Beach turns into a pumping dancefloor every evening. The sunset side of Haad Rin is rather calm and a good place to keep a walking distance to the party madness. The west coast is home to some beautiful stretches of sand with bungalows in any price range. Further north to both sides of the small fisher town of Chalok Lam are several low key beaches with a more alternative vibe. The ever more popular Bottle Beach (Haad Khuat) can be reached by boat from here. By renting a motorbike and ride the horrendous jungle roads across the island you will get to the two bays of Tong Nai Pan (Noi and Yai) which seems popular for families and relaxing couples. So you don't have to be a techno mad shoestring backpacker to enjoy Ko Pha Ngan, for it has something for everybody.
When you mention Ko Phayam to other travellers, most will think you mean Ko Pha Ngan on the east coast for Ko Phayam managed to be off the main backpacker and holiday trail. There is a couple of upmarket resorts on the island, but it's otherwise just palm thatched huts among the shady coconut palms and cashew trees along the almost deserted white beaches. There are no cars on Ko Phayam but a narrow network of path fitted for motorbikes. The island attracts a groovy crowd who has tried to hush down the existence of this little paradise. Besides hammock lying and spliff rolling, there is good birdwatching with chances to see hornbills and sea eagles. If you are looking for even more back-to-nature, try Ko Chang (little, not big Ko Chang on the east coast) a bit north or just Ko Kham a short boat ride from the Ko Phayam pier.
By reputation, Ko Phi Phi is the iconic beach paradise with sparkling white beaches, rugged mountains, and excellent snorkelling in aqua blue waters right at your bamboo bungalow. Reality is however a bit less glossy. Phi Phi has been solid on the tourist map for decades. What started out as a true backpacker hideaway is now taken over by Scandinavian families and Japanese package tourists in matching orange life vests. Hordes of daytrippers from Phuket descend on the popular beaches and fill the bays with tour boats. But yes, Phi Phi is still darn nice. So if it fits your wallet, please join the crowds on this slice of commercialized paradise.
Tiny Ko Samet has what Thailand's islands are so famous for: sand, sea, coconut palms and bungalows - and even some coral reef. You can choose one of the upmarket beaches closer to the ferry dock or work your way further south to some of the more unspoiled spots. Though Ko Samet is not one of Thailand's best islands, it is still pretty darn nice and its proximity to Bangkok makes it an easy choice if you want to escape the city madness for a short time. You can start the day with banana pancakes in Bangkok and wash down the sunset the same day on Ko Samet. It is a popular destination for Bangkok residents in the weekend, so try to come here midweek if you want a more travel-minded crowd.
Ko Samui is the third largest island in Thailand and has been a favourite destination for holdidayers as well as backpackers for decades. It apparently has a lot to offer, but like many others we didn't manage to drag ourselves away from Chaweng Beach, the party capital of Samui. Here, the long stretch of sand and the colourful crowd make the days go by surprisingly quickly. The posh resorts attract grownups and honeymooners, while the young-at-hearts and beautiful (and those who once were) hang around the middle at the beach bars. Here, sun worshiping turns to sun-downers at sunset and later regular beach parties at night time. Else you can always find some pumping beats at the discos at the back where working girls, ladyboys, and Scandinavian flickor keep the male backpackers busy.
© Sarah Hishan
Most of the coast of Ko Talabeng is covered in mangrove swamps and here you’ll find large communities of the multi-gifted longtail macaque. They swim, they dive and they’ve even mastered eating crab. In the mangroves at the southern point of the island, you can hire kayaks or take a longtail boat – don’t forget your bananas and pineapples, and enjoy the spectacle of macaques diving from trees into the sea and surfacing by your boat side to hop on. If you’re fearful of monkeys, this isn’t the activity for you but it's pretty exciting to have a group of monkeys surfacing and reaching for the fruits straight from your hand. If you take your time, they’ll help themselves and jump off as soon as they’ve satiated their appetite. When you’re done with the monkeys, Ko Talabeng is also great for swimming right next to the limestone cliffs and for the more adventurous, there are some cliffs you can climb by rope to explore caves and view impressive stalagmites and stalactites.