With so many Thai islands to choose from, many backpackers have a hard time figuring out which to head to first. This quick, easy guide to the Thai islands will help you sort the deserted tropical paradise from the hedonistic party resorts.
With stereotypical images of white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters and traditional Thai long tail boats floating in the water, not to mention the seductively romantic ideologues that still resonate from ‘The Beach’ 20 years after the book was published (god that makes me feel old!), it is no wonder Thailand has been a highlight of the backpacker trail for generations.
Despite relatively recent invasions by mass tourism and package tourists, the southern islands are still as popular as ever, and with the sheer number of islands available (many hundreds, trust me,) and the sheer amount of diversity among them, not to mention some of the best beaches in the world, it is really not hard to see why.
My own love of island hopping was developed on these very islands, and whilst it is true that many have become so overdeveloped and touristy as the package tourism boom has exploded, there are still so many hidden pockets of paradise left, both in small corners of larger islands and also smaller, quieter ones that have been tucked away from all but the most determined backpacker.
The fact is you will be absolutely spoiled for choice whatever you want to do, and I guarantee you will fall in love with island life just as much as thousands of backpackers before you.
Before you set off however, here is a quick, easy guide to make choosing which islands are right for you.
THE EAST COAST.
The east coast offers a whole different feel to the islands that are clustered around the Southern tip of the country. Many are very quick and easy to get to from the capital and offer a much more local holiday experience with weekending Thai’s from Bangkok, yet don’t feel anywhere near as touristy despite their proximity to the awful package tour haven of Pattaya.
Ko Chang is one of the largest islands in Thailand, yet is a world away from its other large peers. Some of the beaches may be a little crowded with package tourists now, but it is still easy to find great accommodation at all price ranges on a whole slew of different beaches, and there are plenty of options for lazing on a white sand beach or swimming and snorkelling in safe, warm waters. It is the hilly, jungle clad interior that Ko Chang is most impressive for however as it is a relatively untouched paradise for hikers with plenty of trails to follow and waterfalls to cool off in.
Ko Si Chang.
Not to be confused with it’s larger namesake, this is a predominantly working island with a deep sea port, but is an interesting way to spend a few days. There are a few opportunities for water sports here and a few interesting landmarks, but the real lure of this tiny island is the chance to get away from the vast tourism machine of Thailand, rest up for a little while and experience some local life.
This small but beautiful island is almost literally hoping distance from Bangkok, which makes it extremely popular for locals and expats and means that it can get pretty packed during the weekends and holidays. The upside is there is a reason for that, the dozen or so beaches are perfect stretches of white sand, there is a large tourism industry present with plenty to see and do, and if you stay during the week it gets much quieter. Unfortunately due to mass tourism some of the beaches have become heavily built up with hotels and resort developments despite technically being part of a protected national park. There are a few decent, backpacker orientated and much less developed beaches are on the East coast with some good bungalow options on Ao Hin Kok, Ao Phai and Ao Tub Tim. The latter being one of my favourite ever beach names.
Ko Mak is an almost idyllic, tiny island with a cluster of beautiful white sand beaches, a few that are even undeveloped, and only has a small tourist infrastructure which makes it perfect for that island getaway. The locals have worked hard to keep the trappings of touristy Thailand away from the island which means there are thankfully no go go bars, no beach parties or any of the industries that follow, but it also means there are no ATMs and few other amenities, although you may be able to get some services at the few upmarket accomodation options. By far the best places to stay are the midrange backpacker bungalows where you can really escape and relax for a while.
A large and relatively uncommercialised island, Ko Kood has a few upmarket resorts and a cluster of budget guesthouses and bungalows but is largely an undeveloped, serene and peaceful island filled with mangrove trees and virgin rainforest surrounding the occassional palm or rubber plantation. Perfect for those backpackers looking for a peaceful retreat.
THE ANDAMAN COAST.
Ko Phi Phi.
The island where every tourist with images of ‘The Beach’ in their head comes to, because the famous scenes in the movie were filmed right here on Maya Bay. And it shows. Forget any movie images of deserted tropical paradises and instead transplant a thousand tightly packed tourists all vying to get the same sterilised shot with no other tourists in. Unless you get a time machine and come here pre 2000, that isn’t going to happen. There are some small coves and lagoons where you can get away from the majority of the crowds and there is some good hiking up to ‘the viewpoint’ (yes, that is what it is called), but there is not much else here unless you really love touristy island life.
Another heavily developed and touristy island, Phuket seems to draw travellers to its increasingly infamous and seedy nightlife and beach resorts of Patong, Kata and Karon. Phuket has had a massive surge in thoughtless resort developments over the last decade catering increasingly to the upper end of the package tourist market and this has undoubtedly had a negative effect on the island, although there are a few nice spots still to be found. For now. Essentially Phuket is one big tourist resort now, but the advantage to this development is that the tourist infrastructure is second to none and you can snorkel, scuba dive or indulge in a plethora of tourist activities, as well as use it as a jumping off point to some of the nicer neighboring islands of Ko Racha and Ko Hae, and there are plenty of day excursions to visit surrounding reefs for even more snorkelling.
Ko Lanta is a little more difficult and time consuming to get to than some of the other islands, although not by much.The ferry from Krabi and then the overland journey will still suck up half a day though, but it is more than worth it to see the picturesque coastline and the stunning Mu Ko Lanta National Park, which has some great wildlife spotting and hiking trails. It is also worth getting a day trip or two to the nearby Ko Rok Nok.
This is the stereotypical laid back backpacker destination, where travellers turn up, find a hammock and then never want to leave!
There isn’t much to do here, the snorkelling and swimming isn’t as good as many of the other islands and the nightlife is very low key and laid back with a few beach bars that don’t open too late and some simple but functional beach hut operations, but that is what people who like Ko Jum enjoy about the island.
In many ways Ko Jum is what Thai island life used to be like a decade or more ago before the major resorts moved in.
Ko Lipe is changing fast, and has gone very quickly from an almost undiscovered backpackers paradise to a burgeoning touristy island in just a few years, but for now this still idyllic island has long stretches of perfect white sand beaches, some of the best snorkelling and reef diving on the coast and not to mention the fact that sits right next to, and is a great access point for the truly stunning Tarutao National Marine Park.
THE GULF COAST.
Arguably one of the more popular islands on the gulf coats, if not the whole of South Thailand, Ko Samui is another of Thailand’s large islands and the backpacker haven has long since made way for mass tourism, romantic resort getaways and family holidays.The tourism industry on Samui is in full flow, and as such it is also one of the more expensive Thai islands to spend some time on, but because of that travellers have a whole range of activity options open to them, from jeep safaris into the jungle clad interior, trekking hiking, diving and snorkelling (although this area isn’t the best option for that), lazing on long but often busy beaches or even enjoying the busy nightlife. Ko Samui has just a little bit of everything.
Koh Pha Ngan.
This is party central, and the main reason most backpackers come here is for the infamous full moon party, then of course there are the half moon parties, black moon parties, parties because it happens to be a Tuesday parties, you get my point. This hedonism is a rite of passage place for many party loving backpackers and has unfortunately left very little of anything else worth visiting the island for. There are a few quieter spots on the northeast coast but to be honest there are much better islands to choose if – like me – you prefer peace, quiet and beautiful scenery.
Koh To is one of my all time favourite islands, it was the first one I ever visited and it is where I got my PADI all those years ago. Ko Tao has gotten a lot more popular and a little more developed over the last decade or so but it still remains a fairly balanced island between untouched, natural beauty and tourist infastructure. There is still a great, laid back backpacker vibe here with just a hint of package tourism making its way in, the nightlife is fun but relaxed with a few beach bars and a few more in the small town, but all close at a reasonable hour.
Ko Tao is one of the best and cheapest options to get your PADI diving certificate and that is what most people head out here for. There is also some great snorkelling options just off many of the beaches as well as a little further out, and plenty of organised trips waiting to take you out to them.
The interior, or the turtle shell if you listen to the legend, is good for trekking and there are plenty of secluded coves and bays too.
Ko Tao really is an island where you will lose track of time and not want to leave.
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