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East or west coast? How much time? Use this Thailand Island Hopping Guide to map out an adventure across the best Thai islands.
Don’t have much time but want to see more than one slice of paradise on the best islands in Thailand? Thailand’s islands have always been one of the most popular retreats for travellers, whether 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.
- Thailand Island Hopping Planning
- Best Islands in Thailand on the West Side (Andaman Sea)
- Island-Like Destinations on the Andaman Coast
- Thailand Island Hopping on the East Side (Gulf of Thailand)
- How to Get Around the Thailand Islands
Thailand Island Hopping Planning
Which side of the Thai Islands is best?
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, one trip to the country won’t ever be enough.
How much time do you need for Thailand island travel?
I squeezed 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 if 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 like 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 start planning your adventure.
Best Islands in Thailand on the West Side (Andaman Sea)
Koh Phi Phi Don 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 out of all six islands that is inhabited.
Phi Phi island doesn’t attract a specific kind of traveller since it hosts a wide range of accommodation options from hostels to exclusive resorts, which all give easy access to the beautiful beaches and ensure 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.
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. 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.
BOOK → Phi Phi Boat Trips
Sunset Longtail Boat Tour – Embark on a full-day sightseeing tour around the Phi Phi Islands, making eight scenery-packed stops. You’ll get to snorkel in emerald waters and see the marine life, visit Bamboo Island, Mosquito Island, and Monkey Beach, and take a journey to the famed Maya Bay.
Private Longtail Boat Charter – With a bunch of friends and want to choose where and what you want to visit? This half-day boat tour around the Phi Phi archipelago allows that flexibility.
Boat Tour From Phuket or Speedboat Tour From Krabi – Not staying in Koh Phi Phi, but still want to visit? Given the proximity to the mainland coast and other islands, you’ll find plenty of day trips from Phuket and Krabi that get you to the best beaches and famous bays around Koh Phi Phi Leh, including a stop at Phi Phi Don for lunch.
Koh Phi Phi Leh and Outer Islands
The main draw for many visitors is the second-largest island of Phi Phi Leh – the uninhabited national park home to The Beach film location of Maya Bay, which reopened after a long closure to allow the environment and ecosystem 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. These highlights are typical included on a trip to Maya Bay.
READ MORE: Visiting The Beach in Thailand – Maya Bay Opens Responsibly
Although Phuket continues to be incredibly popular with overseas visitors, it remains a popular choice for resort-focused travel. Most activity tends to focus solely on its most popular Thailand beach resorts of Patong, Kata and Karon. While they are, admittedly, great destinations, there’s far more to Phuket.
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. It’s a welcome break from the tacky tourist atmosphere that engulfs its reputation.
Other islands close to Phuket include Koh Racha, a tranquil island surrounded by azure waters, with two white sandy beaches, and Koh Hae, which translates to ‘Coral Island’. Named so because just off its beach is an incredible reef. These islands have become popular for a short excursions, although they are well worth it. Make the most of snorkelling opportunities for marine life overload.
BOOK → Phuket Day Trips and Tours
Catamaran trip to Coral and Racha Islands. Board a luxury catamaran and relax on deck as you sail to the white sand beaches of Koh Hae and Koh Racha (Coral and Racha Islands). Swim, snorkel and bathe on these stunning islands close to Phuket.
Snorkelling in the Surin Islands. Head north of Phuket to the Surin Islands, which are part of Mu Ko Surin National Park. Meet the local Sea Gypsy Moken villagers and snorkel in Nemo Bay, Mai Yai Gulf, and the Tao Gulf.
James Bond Island Luxury Sunset Cruise. Day trip to James Bond Island and the limestone formations of Phang Nga Bay and Hong Island in luxury on a boat that includes comfy sunbeds, a bar and DJ, and a sunset dinner.
Phuket Guided ATV Tour. Those looking to get out into the rugged nature of Phuket can join this ATV tour through the forests at the foot of the mountains on a journey that includes the chance to see the 45-metre-high Great Buddha of Phuket.
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).
BOOK → Activities in Koh Lanta
4-Island Adventure Tour to Emerald Cave. Want to see Ko Lanta’s most beautiful outer islands? Take this speedboat tour to the Emerald Cave on Koh Mook, Koh Kradan and Koh Chuak for snorkelling and the beaches of Koh Kradan and Koh Ngai for bathing.
Speedboat tour to Koh Rok and Koh Haa. Head out to Koh Rok and Koh Haa, two islands south of Koh Lanta and home to some of the region’s best snorkelling spots.
Tung Yee Peng Village Eco-Tour. Journey through the lush mangrove jungle on a gondola and visit the Tung Yee Peng village to enjoy a home-cooked lunch.
Further south, bordering the Malacca Strait and neighbouring Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, Koh Lipe is still one of the few Thai islands that haven’t become over-developed, maybe because it’s not as easy to get to from the Andaman Coast islands. However, this tiny getaway is not unknown.
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 offers world-class reef diving, being situated next to Tarutao National Marine Park – one of Thailand’s best and most conserved.
BOOK → Koh Lipe Day Trips
Full Day Lipe Islands and Beaches Tour. See Lipe’s outer islands (also known as the Outside Zone) by Longboat on a full-day tour, including Yang Island’s coral reefs and Sand Khao beach on Ravi Island.
Island-Like Destinations on the Andaman Coast
Krabi and Railey Beach
Limestone pillars, lush mangroves, wide waters and ruggedly stunning coastline – Krabi feels like an island, except it’s the waterside paradise of a rural town. The main sandy stretches here are Ao Nang beach, Tonsai beach and the star, Railey beach (also known as Rai Leh) – a peninsula hideaway and a haven for rock climbers, typically scaling the jagged mounds while others bathe in the corner coves. If you only have time to visit one beach, this would be it.
Traditional long boats are coastline taxis taking you from one bay to another.
If you are not moving on to the larger islands like Phi Phi and Phuket, Krabi is the ideal base to explore the smaller islands that splay across the Andaman sea in between the big hitters.
BOOK → Krabi Tours
7 Islands Sunset Tour. This longtail boat tour takes you to seven small islands near Krabi. Swim the corals and sandy coves of Koh Yawasam, view the chicken-shaped rock at Koh Kai, enjoy the beach at Koh Tub, swim in the glistening waters of Koh Tan Ming before a sunset BBQ dinner off the bay of Koh Poda beach, ending with a glowing plankton swim in the waters off Koe Raeng.
Day Trip to the Hong Islands. See some of the islands close to Krabi on this day trip to the Koh Hong islands of Pakbia, Rai, Lahding and Daeng. A chance to snorkel and swim in this lesser-known area and crystal-water paradise.
Rock Climbing Session on Railey Beach. Want to try rock climbing in one of Thailand’s prime spots for this sport? Enjoy a 4-hour morning or afternoon course with an instructor as you clamber up the famed limestone cliffs.
Thailand Island Hopping on the East Side (Gulf of Thailand)
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.
BOOK → Koh Tao Diving
Koh Tao Diving Experience. Not looking to sign up for a full course but want to try diving on Thailand’s prime scuba diving island? This full-day experience gives you a taster. You’ll get a safety briefing, take a short test, and then head out on the dive boat to begin your journey in the shallow bay waters to a maximum depth of 12 meters.
Koh Pha Ngan
Ko Pha Ngan is most famous for its 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 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. 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. There’s far more to it if you are curious enough to dig deeper.
Ko Samui is one of the best-known Thai resort islands, attracting around one and a half million visitors annually. 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 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 Thailand island life. Just expect to pay a little bit more than you would elsewhere.
BOOK → Koh Samui Excursions
Ang Thong Marine Park Islands Sailing Cruise. Sail around the 42 limestones islands of the Mu Ko Ang Thong Marine Park on a beautiful classic Thai yacht. Enjoy sea kayaking and snorkelling and a visit to the Emerald Lagoon.
4×4 Jeep Wild Jungle Safari Tour. This half-day tour is an adventure into the mountainous jungle of Koh Samui. Whiz around island highlights, including the famed Grandfather/Grandmother Rocks, the mummified monk statue and the iconic Big Buddha, while getting to some of the best mountain-top viewpoints.
How to Get Around the Thailand Islands
There are plenty of options for travel when it comes to visiting the Thai islands. However, you will still need to factor in a route based on your overall decision on where to go in Thailand since there are many things to do on the mainland and island clusters combined.
How to Get to Thailand’s Islands
Some people fly into Bangkok, others begin their journey further south on the mainland in Pattaya or Krabi, or people fly directly to an island and begin island hopping straight away.
Thailand island airports can be found in Phuket and Koh Samui – popular entry islands for this reason.
Tips for Island Hopping
Whether you 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 choose to do it alone.
Independent travel to the Thai islands means randomly traversing the many scheduled ferries and buses that take you across these vast lands.
Pre-plan. 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 online source for planning and looking at mainland towns and their connecting ferry ports.
For lists of ferry departures between destinations. Check the Thai Ferry schedules in each location, especially at the ports. Nearly every guesthouse I stayed at listed ferry links and transport information, with many booking ferry tickets for you for a 50 Bhat commission – I found it very easy to book myself when at the port and save money.
Book Thailand Ferry Tickets Online
This can be helpful if you want to secure a seat on a popular route or ensure you get a ticket for a specific time.
I have used Direct Ferries in Europe and Asia – it’s a word leading ferry booking website, and its main feature is comparing the cheapest ferry tickets and best ferry routes that suit your budget and schedule. Here are some popular routes and average ticket prices.
Krabi (Klong Jilad Pier) to → Koh Phi Phi (Tonsai Pier).
- Journey time: one hour. Tickets: Around $27
Koh Phi Phi (Tonsai Pier) to → Phuket (Rassada Pier).
- Journey time: Up to 90 minutes. Tickets: Around $20
Koh Phi Phi (Tonsai Pier) to → Koh Lanta (Saladan Pier).
- Journey time: Up to 45 minutes. Tickets: Around $15.
Phuket (Rassada Pier) to → Koh Lanta (Saladan Pier)
- Journey time: Up to 90 minutes. Tickets: Around $40.
Koh Samui (Bangrak Pier) to → Koh Phangan (Thong Sala Pier)
- Journey time: Up to 45 minutes. Tickets: Around $11.
Koh Phangan (Thong Sala Pier) to → Koh Tao (Mae Haad Pier)
- Journey time: Up to one hour. Tickets: Around $11.
- Journey time: Up to two hours. Tickets: Around $20.
A popular platform covering travel across the continent, 12Go Asia is also a great platform to find the fastest routes and cheapest tickets for buses, trains and ferries.
Island Hopping for All Travel Types
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 yet to explore), island hopping is still a popular adventure that never gets old. Need more help planning day-by-day? Check out these suggested itineraries for Thailand and the Islands.
What islands in Thailand will you choose?