The main decision to make when travelling to Thailand is whether to explore the mainland, the islands or combine the best of both. For many with limited time, a trip to Bangkok with an island visit or two thereafter is the ideal balance, although you will find (with there being so much to see and do in Thailand) that one trip won’t be enough.
After exploring the mainland for two years or more, I decided it was finally time to head South away from the cities, small towns and trekking lands, where I managed to squeeze in five sandy sun drenched hotspots when island hopping for two weeks this July. Yet, I only touched the surface.
Whilst some parts of Thailand have been overdeveloped to accommodate for the huge growth in tourism, there are still plenty of tucked away areas on the more established islands, or quieter ones yet to be overrun, ready for some exploration that will make you feel as though you’ve landed in paradise.
The hardest part is not in finding paradise; it’s choosing what parts you want to go to. In the meantime, here’s a guide to the more established of the Thailand islands, which is no doubt where your love of island hopping will begin…
The West Side (The Andaman Coast)
Koh Phi Phi
Ok, so the island’s hotspots including Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed, may be a little swarmed with tourists (as I too encountered) but it’s still incredibly beautiful and should be seen. Head for Phi Phi’s islands and coves to escape the crowds, such as Pileh Lagoon, for a chance to swim in absolute serenity, or head for Monkey Island if you want to spot some primates as part of your visit. A full day boat trip around Koh Phi Phi and Koh Phi Phi Leh’s surrounding natural gems really proves how stunning this now popular island actually is in it’s entirety.
For those not on too much of a budget, Phi Phi’s more exclusive Long Beach is the most secluded on the busy side of the island. However, if seeking out some solitude, try trekking to the ‘Viewpoint’ which is well signposted on the island – a strenuous but short trek which gives you incredible views over the landscape of ever-changing hues of blue and green.
Although Phuket continues to be incredibly popular with overseas visitors, the majority of activity tends to focus solely around its most popular beach resorts of Patong, Kata and Karon. While they are, admittedly, great destinations, they are certainly not the be all and end all of Phuket. What Phuket does provide is a superb base from which to explore the surrounding areas, such as the popular ‘James Bond Island’ and particularly from the southern tip at Rawai, where moored longtail boats can take you to peaceful nearby islands regularly – a welcome break from the tacky tourist atmosphere here.
Koh Racha (From Phuket)
It may only be a short sail from Phuket, but not many travellers choose to head to this tranquil island. Surrounded by azure waters, with two white sandy beaches to lounge on, you can enjoy a little peace and quiet here… although with its easy access, it may not stay that quiet for long!
Koh Hae (From Phuket)
Perfect for a day trip, Koh Hae translates to ‘Coral Island’ in English and rightly so. Just off its beach is a reef of its own that is waiting to be explored. Due to its vicinity to Phuket, it’s a popular island for a short excursion and well worth it. Bring your snorkelling gear for marine life overload!
Hire a moped to explore Koh Lanta – a fairly untouched island off the coast of Krabi, with a stunning 27-mile coastline. The Mu Ko Lanta National Park is perfect for adventurers, where snorkelling and wildlife opportunities are rife. Alternatively, if you want your own piece of uninhabited paradise, a boat trip to nearby Koh Rok Nok and Rok Nai isn’t out of the question.
It’s worth spending more than two days on Koh Lanta to make the most of the long travel time here (including the two-three hour ferry from Krabi and the time it takes to overland to your specific destination on the island upon arrival, which can be anything from one hour or more).
Koh Lipe is still one of the few islands left which isn’t over-developed, yet it is rapidly changing – word is spreading fast about this tiny exotic getaway. Not only do you have three white sand beaches to choose from including the popular and more lively Pattaya Beach, alongside Sunrise and Sunset beach, but the island boosts of world-class reef diving, being situated next to Tarutao National Marine Park – one of Thailand’s best.
The East Side
Koh Tao has the perfect balance of gorgeous beaches and a great buzz without being too raucous or ruined – the main nightlife being centred around two main beach bars and two or three in town, which shut down at a decent hour. It’s the most popular (and cheapest) for diving and snorkelling with a whole host of companies able to take you out to two or three stunning hotspots for the day. I count this amongst one of my favourites.
Koh Pha Ngan
Ko Pha Ngan is most famous for it’s out of control full moon party at Haad Rin Beach and is a must-do right of passage on the well-worn backpackers trail in Thailand. As one who has never been too keen on attending, I attended a Half Moon Party on the same beach instead, which was smaller, less chaotic but still great fun. Also check the schedules for the Black Moon Parties that take place in the nearby forest.
However, not all of Koh Pha Ngan has been sacrificed in the name of hedonistic ruin. If you head to the opposite side of the island you will find the two quiet beaches of Thong Nai Pan on the northeast coast, complete with secluded bungalows. Haad Tien is a more remote beach, which you can only reach by boarding a boat to the east of Haad Rin and for those who are more adventurous, you will be rewarded by the beaches of Haad Yao and Haad Salet following a scenic mountain trek.
Don’t rule this island out because of its party reputation. Seek and you shall find.
Known more for it’s upmarket resorts ideal for romantic getaways and family holidays, Koh Samui has it all. As Thailand’s second largest island, it’s not only beaches and fisherman villages that await you, but the backdrop of the tropical jungle, Khao Pom, which makes up the central part of the island. If you want to combine sunbathing with a jeep safari or a mini-trek, then this is the place. Just expect to pay a little bit more than you would elsewhere.
How to Get Around
There’s plenty of options for travel when it comes to island hopping or combining the best of the mainland with pick of the island crop, whether you book on an action packed island hopping tour, pre-book a full-service package holiday to Thailand, or simply choose to do it alone and randomly traverse the many scheduled ferries and buses that take you across these vast lands.
For detailed timings and costs for trains to the mainland and connecting ferries visit The Man in Seat 61, which I found the most useful source for planning ahead and looking at mainland towns and their connecting ferry ports.
For lists of ferry departures between destinations, check out Thai Ferry or the more specific resources such as Andaman Island Hopping, Phi Phi Ferry and Amazing Lanta. However, nearly every guesthouse and hostel I encountered listed ferry links and transport information, with many booking for you for a 50 Bhat commission – I personally found it very easy to book myself when at the port and save the money.
As a popular destination, there’s a whole variety of ways to travel in Thailand from budget to blowout; organised to free spirit, all of which can be readily sourced and easily planned. And with plenty of islands to choose from (many of which I have still yet to explore) island hopping is still a popular adventure that never gets old.