Not much time but want to see more than one slide of paradise on the best islands in Thailand? Thailand’s islands have always been one of the most popular retreats for travellers, whether that’s to find beauty and solitude, sleep on the beaches, soak up the history and culture of this wonderful, picturesque country or party until the break of dawn. The main and most difficult decision to make when planning a Thailand Island hopping trip is about where to go.
Do I go to the east coast island cluster? Should I concentrate on the west coast only? Do I have time to hop across both sides of the Thai peninsula? Is it worth including some time on the mainland?
For many with limited time, Thailand holidays usually consist of a trip to Bangkok, with an island visit or two thereafter. This is the ideal balance, although you will find that with so many places to go in Thailand and so many things to do on the mainland and island clusters combined, one trip to the country won’t ever be enough.
How much time do you need for Thailand island travel? I managed to squeeze in five sandy, sun-drenched hotspots when island hopping for two weeks during a glorious July.
Thailand tourism exists largely in part to the draw of this incredible cluster of beautiful islands. So is choosing where to go in Thailand is extensive enough, picking out islands is like standing in a sweet shop with dozens of jars but you can only choose one-third of them.
Though some have been overdeveloped to accommodate the huge growth in tourism, there are still plenty of tucked away areas on the more established Thai islands. The quieter islands have yet to be overrun, ready for some exploration that will make you feel as though you’ve landed in paradise.
How do I know? After years of isle escapades and using Bangkok as a short-term home base, I pulled together this Thailand Islands guide so you can get started on planning your adventure.
- 1 Best Islands in Thailand on the West Side (Andaman Coast)
- 2 Thailand Island Hopping on the East Side
- 3 How to Get Around the Thailand Islands
- 4 Mapping Out What Islands to Visit in Thailand? Pin It!
Best Islands in Thailand on the West Side (Andaman Coast)
Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh
Koh Phi Phi island is an archipelago consisting of six islands. Phi Phi Don is the largest and main island we all know, and the only one that is inhabited out of all six islands. The main hotspot is the second-largest island of Phi Phi Leh, the uninhabited national park, home to The Beach film location of Maya Bay, which is now closed indefinitely due to over-tourism and the need for the environment and eco-system to recover.
However, the area as a whole is still incredibly beautiful and should be seen. Head to Phi Phi’s outer 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 environment proves how stunning this now popular Thai island is in its entirety.
Phi Phi doesn’t attract a specific kind of traveller, since it hosts a wide range of accommodation options from hostels to exclusive resorts, all giving easy access to the beautiful beaches and ensuring that backpackers, flashpackers and luxury holidaymakers are all catered for.
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. Although if you are seeking out some solitude, try trekking to the ‘Viewpoint’. It is well signposted on Koh Phi Phi 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, it remains a popular choice for resort focused travel. The majority of activity tends to focus solely around its most popular Thailand beach resorts of Patong, Kata and Karon. While they are, admittedly, great destinations, they are certainly not the sum of everything Phuket is.
Phuket is an island with more points of interest than you think at first glance. A place where you’ll be surprised once you dig deeper into its Chinese and Indian history, get lost in local markets and seek out secluded viewpoints away from the busy and saturated tourism areas.
It’s also an ideal island to use as a base 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 that engulfs its reputation.
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 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 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 Thai islands left which aren’t over-developed, yet are rapidly changing and 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 boasts of world-class reef diving, being situated next to Tarutao National Marine Park – one of Thailand’s best.
Thailand Island Hopping on the East Side
Koh Tao has the perfect balance of gorgeous Thai beaches and a great buzz without being too raucous or ruined. The main nightlife is 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 Thailand island 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, which has come to epitomise a negative image of Thailand travel. Still, it remains a must-do right of passage on the well-worn backpacker’s trail. 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.
Ko Samui is one of the best known Thai resort islands, attracting around one and a half million visitors per year. Known more for its upmarket resorts ideal for romantic getaways and family holidays, Koh Samui has it all. Despite the huge tourist industry, the island retains a lively trade in coconuts and rubber.
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. Samui, as it is affectionately known, has a nearly impenetrable jungle mountain, inviting the bravest and most adventurous to try their hand at exploring the depths.
If you want to combine sunbathing with a jeep safari or a mini-trek, Samui comprises some of the best of Thailand island life. Just expect to pay a little bit more than you would elsewhere.
How to Get Around the Thailand Islands
There’s plenty of options for travel when it comes to visiting the Thai islands, although you will still need to factor in a route based on your overall decision on where to go in Thailand as a whole.
Some people fly into Bangkok, others begin their journey further south on the mainland in Pattaya or Krabi or people simply fly directly to an island and get stuck right into island hopping.
Thailand island airports can be found on Phuket and Koh Samui.
Whether you just go island hopping or combine the best of the mainland with the pick of the island crop, or if you are looking for an action-packed island hopping tour, you can pre-book full-service packages to Thailand or simply choose to do it alone.
Independent travel to the Thai islands means getting to 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 and looking at mainland towns and their connecting ferry ports.
Need more help planning day-by-day? Check out this bunch of crafted itineraries for Thailand Islands and the mainland.
Nearly every guesthouse and hostel I encountered listed ferry links and transport information, with many booking for you for a 50 Bhat commission – I 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.