The Best Thai Islands
So many Thai islands, so little time!
There are so many Thai islands it's often difficult narrowing down which ones to visit. There are the ones in in the Gulf of Thailand - like Ko Samui, Ko Tao, even further out like Ko Chang. And then there's the long necklace of islands in the Andaman Sea, starting from the Similan Islands in the west all the way down to Ko Lipe which is next to Langkawi, Malaysia.The majority of Thai islands have been developed over the years so nearly all have accommodation, restaurants, bars, etc. But there are a few National Parks that have limited accommodations or none at all and can only be visited during day trips. Every island has white sand beaches, aquamarine waters and the relentless sun. It really depends on what else you're looking for during your time in the islands - do you want to party? Chill on the beach? Work on your tan? Explore the jungles? Snorkel or dive? Go rock climbing?Whatever you're looking for you will find a few islands that fit your travel plans.
Gulf of Thailand Islands
Technically not an island but one of the first (and often only) stops for people after landing in Bangkok is Pattaya. This place is all about the strip of beach and the more expensive strip (wink, wink). If these are the two things that brought you to Thailand then this is the place for you. It also has every type of mafia around the world, some surprisingly decent food and is actually an interesting place to walk around - night or day.Just north of this area and even closer to Bangkok is a very local beach, Bang Saen, with an area of covered chairs and streetfood stalls. This is a quick local getaway for Thai folks living in Bangkok. Lots of great little seafood spots and places that proudly sell true Sriracha sauce (though we love the California one that is found everywhere).
Not an island, but this is another Bangkokian favorite, especially for folks who are not looking for the Pattaya experience. Nice stretches of beach, still pretty touristy, but a bit more family friendly. Just a few hours from Bangkok by car it's common weekend getaway when you need a break from the city.
For a real island getaway, one of the closest islands to Bangkok is Ko Chang. Chang = elephant in Thai and there are elephant camps on this island. There's a large party scene on the beaches, especially for full moon, half moon, quarter moon - so there's an excuse to party every night. Along with nice beaches there are waterfalls and other small hikes inland as well.
Ko Phangan, Ko Samui, Ko Tao
These three islands are further south and this trio have become very popular over the years. Ko Samui is the second biggest island in Thailand (after Phuket) and is a the major gateway from Bangkok to this trio of islands.Ko Phangan (Pangan, not Fangan) is the origin of the Full Moon parties and it still pulls the biggest crowds with 30,000 on a busy night. If you want to create your own Hangover experience, this may be the place for you.Ko Tao is the smallest of these three and the only way to get there is via boat from Samui or Phangan. This island has become world famous for its diving, rock climbing and chill island vibe. If you're looking for your PADI cert this is a cost effective place to get it.
Just on the edge of Myanmar lie the Similan Islands. It's actually a National Park and the only way to get there is via boat from Khao Lak. These islands were closed due to the ecological pressures from the vast number of tourists but will reopen on Oct 15, 2018. If you're able to get one of the few spots to tent on the beach in this park it's well worth it. It also has some of the best snorkeling in Thailand.
Phuket (Pooket, not Fooket) is the one of the best known islands in Thailand, and for good reason. If you're looking to relax on perfect beaches in a high end resort and never want to trek far from your resort - this is the place. There are great restaurants and many bars but the night life, while still good, is not as crazy as Phangan. Life is a bit more refined here and a bit too staid for most backpackers.
Ko Yao Yai
The "big long island" is aptly named with long stretches of white sand beaches. Most of the development is in the south side but if you're willing to rent a scooter and drive around there are secluded beaches everywhere.
Phang Nga Bay
Often compared to the more famous Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, this bay is also full of limestone formations. It's a beautiful place to explore, by boat, longtail or by kayak. There are some ancient ruins that are similar to the ones in Siem Reap so visiting this area is like visiting Vietnam and Cambodia in the same trip! (No, not really)
Krabi & Railay
Technically not islands but since the only way to get to Railay is via boat it almost qualifies. Krabi is the big town in this area and it's the gateway to Railay and many other nearby beaches. Railay is known for its rock climbing and climbers have been coming here for 30+ years. Nowadays most of the routes are geared towards beginners but there are still some great areas for lead climbing or just bouldering around with your friends. It has become much more developed but still has a quiet island feel to it, one of our favorite stops in Thailand.
Ko Phi Phi
Another famous island full of high end resorts and more family friendly than some of the others. Also known for its location in The Beach and its proximity to the "James Bond" island - Kao Phing Kan; which had to be closed to tourists for a while due to over-visiting. It also has a thriving night scene and due to the number of tourists it always feels busy. While it's great that this island recovered so well after the tsunami in 2004, it is creaking under the pressure of so many tourists. So maybe consider one of the other nearby islands - the beaches are just as nice, maybe nicer!
Ko Lanta Yai is the big island that everyone calls just "Ko Lanta." The north has the major port and most of the stuff - accommodation, bars, restaurants, etc. The further south you go the less and less inhabited it becomes. Strangely, there's a large Swedish expat and tourist community here so you'll encounter some very tan Swedes. It's also become a popular digital nomad hangout since it's affordable, has nice beaches, and is generally more chill than the nearby tourist hot spots. This island is perfect for scootering around and exploring. And you will actually find secluded sections of beach where you can check off a bucket list item with your partner. Pretty sure that's why there are so many Swedes there.
This tiny island can be walked in an hour. It's quite developed for such a small island but it's also incredibly relaxed. Lots of great little restaurants and places to stay, affordably too. You can explore the neighboring islands via longtail and in the evenings you may see bioluminescent algae on the shores. It's a pretty beautiful place. And a great place to head off into Langkawi, Malaysia to continue to your journey!