One thousand four hundred and thirty (1,430!) That’s how many islands the nation of Thailand lays claim to. No wonder it can be a difficult choice to know which ones would be worth hitting up during your vacation. Of course with all the time and money in the world you could hit up all of them, but that’s a pipe dream. Or the very least buy a couple.
Follow me as I play an impromptu island guide on a couple of my favorite ones among the many. From how to get there, where to stay, what to do, and eat this noodle’s got you covered to get going. Drop the backpack, don the bathing suit, slather on sunscreen, and let’s dive in!
First up is Phuket Island and rightfully so. This place has been the major jumping-off point for many on their island-hopping adventure across the south of Thailand, including my own. The island is home to an international airport that you can get to from literally anywhere. Plenty of ferries that takes you to the many islands in the surrounding region.
For this reason, it was a cinch for many to come here, spend a couple of days, and head off again.
Book your stay at HostelWorld for the best rates anywhere!
How to Get Here
I arrived via plane from Siem Reap, Cambodia and met up with a buddy of mine and his girlfriend. From there we boarded a charter van with others that dropped us off at our specified lodgings in town. You can talk to a sales rep as there are many vying for business once you land. All prices are competitive so don’t worry about getting the best deal.
I spoke to a few backpackers prior to coming to Phuket Island about where to stay, you know the basics. The general consensus was to stay on Kata Beach (40 minutes from the airport.) as opposed to other beaches. But don’t fret as because other places to stay are Karon Beach, Patong or even Kata Noi beach, but I was told those were the more uber touristy places. Take that with a grain of salt.
What to do on Phuket Island
Phuket has a lot to do but I really felt it catered too much to the tourist crowd for my liking. There is plenty of shopping you can get your fix in, places to eat (restaurants and street food) to fill your gluttonous side, and of course things to see for working off all the food:
The island had such a different vibe from what I had already felt in Thailand (the mainland) when I was there two months prior. In the northern region, you really got a sense for the country, of the people and culture, but down here it was island escapes filled with the usual foreign tourist traps. For this reason, my companions and I stayed only a day before we jetted via ferry for the other islands.
Where to Stay: Sino Hostel @ Kata Beach
NOTE: If all you can do is Phuket Island then it CAN be a great destination to spend a few days. But in honesty for me, I didn’t really care too much for it and couldn’t wait to make my exit.
One thing I want to touch on above all else when you visit Phuket Island is whatever you do PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT VISIT any tiger sanctuary. A lot of the times they are declawed, chained and sedated for tourists’ enjoyment. This is no way to treat such majestic animals and I hope you see to it that this throwing money at this industry should be shamed. It is high up there on my list with people who ride elephants.
JUST SAY NO.
Koh Phi Phi
How to Get Here
The infamous island chain made even more infamous due to a one Leonardo DiCaprio and his film The Beach is a stop everyone should make. You can get here from Phuket Island in two to three hours depending on the ferry you take or less time if you are coming from Krabi. The emerald waters and steep limestone formations are the big draws to the island. This chain is nothing short of picture-perfect, trust me.
Buy your ferry ticket from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi.
Sitting at just 3.7 square miles in size making it the largest of the six island chain (a couple is just large limestone formations) Koh Phi Phi Don is where many make their stakes when visiting. Expect to pay a waste removal fee (tourist tax) when disembarking your ferry as tourism has boomed exponentially over the last two decades.
NOTE: The island was ravaged by a tsunami back in 2004 that destroyed most of its infrastructure along with parts of the population. Please be mindful of its people and the environment.
Where to Stay: OYO Freedom Hostel @ Koh Phi Phi
There is NO MODE of transportation on the island other than walking, but that should help out with the overindulging you will be doing anyhow. If a beach-cation is your type of getaway then you won’t be disappointed being on Koh Phi Phi. The island has just about everything a sea lover can dream of.
What to do on Koh Phi Phi
Hiring a long tailboat for the day is something I highly recommend you do. They do a full day and half-day tours around the island and the price you simply can’t say no. On the tour you will most definitely hit up Pileh Lagoon, pass by Maya Bay (closed indefinitely due to over-tourism – thank you Leo), Monkey Bay, Bamboo Island, just to name a few. Want to be on the ocean but not in the water? Grab a kayak and roam around the island.
Swimming in Peleh Lagoon was absolutely fantastic! The water was the greenest of any shade I could have imagined. We brought a couple of beers, some good vibes and just jammed out here with other boats for an hour or two.
Once you have dried off and want to strap the shoes on make sure you head up to the Phi Phi Viewpoint. Start off at the Reggae Bar and be on the lookout for signs depicting the way up. Don’t fret as the climb is only 600 ft. but the views of the island will be worth it. The views are stuff postcards are made of, literally.
Partying also happens here, duh. When the night goes down the animals come out and boy do they like to party. Some of the bars are:
All of which are within walking distance, relatively. but definitely not stumbling distance. Because the weather on Phi Phi is nice and hot from March-May many of the bars have outdoor discos that really come to life when the sunset takes place.
Food offerings on the island were plenty ranging from your resort restaurants all the way down to the 7/11 toasties (hmm toasties, so good.) Hell, they even had a MacDonald on site! To be honest, the food here didn’t wow me as much as it did when I traversed the north. Don’t expect much in terms of satiation if you already had the good stuff.
I really enjoyed our few days stay on Koh Phi Phi even if it really felt touristy. I bet before the movie The Beach this place was just a haven for backpackers looking to get as far away from everyone as humanly possible. If there is anything I’ve learned on this trip in SE Asia is that nothing good stays a secret for too long.
I still recommend you come through if not for the beers and beach parties then at least for the swims in some of the best lagoons you’ll experience.
Hot to Get Here
Getting to Koh Samui was a bit more of a challenge than it was to get to Koh Phi Phi Don but not impossible. It’s home to Samui International Airport so you can access this island via Phuket, Krabi, Bangkok and from just about any SE Asian airport within a reasonable distance. An overland option in the form of buses, or shuttle vans ranging from a few hours to overnight is readily available. You should couple these with a ferry ticket to make your life easier. There are also ferries leaving from Surat Thani or closer the Bangkok if a full day (or overnight) on the ocean is your flavor.
Book your tickets to Koh Samui
Koh Samui covers an area of 228.7 sq. km making it Thailand’s third-largest after Phuket Island and Ko Chang. With this size, it attracts quite the tourist count with over 2.5 million in 2018 alone. Although this may seem like a booming tourist destination it’s still quite reserved compared to Phuket Island and Koh Phi Phi. It is, on a scale, a much quieter and tamer beast. Getting around is quite easier here than on Koh Phi Phi as you can find many scooters for rent as well as plentiful amounts of Grab car ride services on the island.
NOTE: Even though less tourism happens here does not mean it doesn’t cause a strain on the natural infrastructure of the island. It’s reported that travelers and locals alike produce a staggering 250 tonnes of solid waste per year!
Where to Stay: Lub D Koh Samui Chaweng Beach
What to do on Koh Samui
There is much you can do and see on the island and that is a fact! The beaches here were indeed some of the quietest and nicest I was able to frequent during my treks over SE Asia. Even though it is touted as the budget travelers island there is nothing budget about the warm waters and white sand beaches here. Some of the ones you should stop by are:
- Laem Set beach
- Phang Ka beach
- Lamai Beach
- Chaweng Noi
You can take a long tailboat to Koh Phangan (more on that later), or Koh Taen for some kayaking and snorkeling. Make sure you tour the Ang Thong National Marine Park.
Do a mini temple binge by visiting:
Strap on your hike boots and visit Na Muang 1 and Na Muang 2 (a short steep trek from one another) the first is accessible from the parking lot of a park of the same name. Another worth venturing to is Khun Si waterfall located minutes away from Khun Si viewpoint. This one is harder to trek to but the upside is there can be less of a crowd.
Treating your belly at the island’s night market is always your best bet for cheap, quick, and delicious meals. On Koh Samui, you can head over to the Chaweng Beach Night Market that houses a food court for some familiar Thai fares. Dishes to try are definitely som tam (papaya salad), roti (Thai pancakes), and kao mon gai (chicken and rice) anywhere you can find it on the island.
For budget dine-in options visit Spices Cafe (traditional Thai and fusion), Green Bird (meatless meals and has vegetarian options), and Food Lab (roadside eatery featuring pork dishes, pasta, burgers, and paninis.) For fresh seafood and a view then you should head to Hemingway’s on the Beach. Fine dining can also be found on the island and boasts some great meals and views (this should be a phrase, I am saying.) Check out Namu – W Koh Samui (serving sushi all the way to wagyu), The Tent Restuarant and Bar (offering a wide range of menu and live music/dancers on certain nights), and Dining on the Rocks (prix fixe menu of 3, 5, and 8 courses.)
Don’t forget to grab a coconut – some of the best in the archipelago!
How to Get Here
Getting to the 167 km sq. island is relatively easy, if you’re on Koh Samui (12 km), Koh Tao (45 km) or even the mainland (70 km), by ferry/boat. Many people actually make this a quick day trip from the surrounding islands and it isn’t a bad one at that. Once there you can really kick back and enjoy the island vibes of the island. Often can you book through your accommodations, but if you haven’t book that already you can book here. You can also show up at the pier day of and grab your ferry tickets.
Where to Stay: Kauai Koh Phangan
What to do on Koh Phangan
Ever heard of the Full Moon Party? It started out life as a once-a-month party gathering on the beach that eventually evolved into ALL-OUT pandemonium. The stuff legends are made of. I mean who can resist an open-air beach party fueled by one helluva sound system and of course booze? Needless to say, you can find a “full-moon” party anywhere in the south of Thailand these days, but this one on Koh Phangan is the pilgrimage you should make.
Check the Full-Moon party schedule.
Note: There is also the Half-Moon Party. See the schedule here.
There’s more offer than just the famous Full-Moon or Half-Moon parties so make sure you dive in, literally, on a few of them. From beaches and waterfalls, markets and cooking class, diving and snorkeling, KP got you covered.
A few notable beaches you should visit should include:
You definitely should go snorkeling around either of the beaches once you find yourself there. There are plenty of kayaks for rent at most if not all of the beaches as well. If more of an adventure is on your list and you just happened to get your PADI OW certification in Thailand then head to Sail Rock for some diving. Boasted as one of the best sites in all of Thailand to dive you can hardly go wrong with this choice.
A good way to get around the island is by renting a scooter, on the cheap, from local shops. This gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace and go where the bigger song teaows cannot. Rentals are cheap, around 150-300 baht a day, and plentiful with shops eagerly awaiting to sent you off your way.
With one hand on the gas, you should check out some waterfalls on the island. A few that you can explore:
NOTE: The waterfalls can dry up once the rainy season has come and gone.
The Khao Ra hike is a relatively easy hike to traverse if you want to get all those steps in. Depending on the experience level it can take anywhere from three to four hours, but the views will be worth it. Go in the early morning or early evening unless you want to get roasted by the sun! Follow the sign at Khao Ra road and you shouldn’t be too far gone.
Detox after Your Retox
After all that traveling throughout the island, you might want to treat yourself to some pampering, or least detox from all the full-moon partying. Massages in the nation have always been one of my favorite things to do when stress and it is no different on Koh Phangan. You can fancy it up with a session with cliffside views at a spa, or get right to the aching parts of your body with shops in town. Follow that up with yoga and that is one relaxing afternoon. Relax at the Baan Tai Herbal Sauna and get rid of all those toxins from your pores to be really rejuvenated. Before the sunset don’t forget to head over Secret Mountain restaurant or Amsterdam Bar for the best seat in the house.
When hunger strikes make sure you head over to Thong Sala Night Market to indulge your belly. Pad Thais, green and yellow curry, fried rice and beef salads are all on hand to fill your palate. I would highly recommend taking a Thai cooking class on the island too. My experience in Chiang Mai left a lasting impression that I recommend anyone who loves local cuisine to take a gander at cooking it themselves.
Check the cooking class availability here.
NOTE: One thing I want to address is food on the island; don’t expect the best that Thailand has to offer here for it, you’re best left to the mainland. FACTS.
The literal translation of the island is Turtle Island and it’s a very befitting moniker at that as it resembles a turtle from early settler’s point of view. You definitely can find a healthy population of Hawksbill and Green turtles around the island while snorkeling or diving. Speaking of diving Koh Tao it has become the MECCA of the diving world to get your PADI OW certification and you can bet that’s where I got mine!
How to Get Here
Getting here is easy if you couldn’t already guess, from any point in Thailand. I took a speed boat from Koh Samui early in the morning and arrived before it was time for lunch. You can’t fly direct, only to the former mentioned island, but you can take a ferry from there or the surrounding islands. Tickets are relatively cheap and you can even do a few islands in one go.
Where to Stay: Ban’s Diving Resort
Buy a bus/boat ticket from Bangkok.
Once afoot you can walk from the docks past the dozens of dive shops/hostels/hotels and find yourself in a laid back island atmosphere. The island is big enough that there are taxi service via song teaows or rent a scooter to get around. You could also get around on a bicycle and the hills will make for a great workout.
What to do on Koh Tao
At its highest point (about 400m) the island provides for some spectacular views. Some of the best places on the island to watch the sunrise or set or hell even escape the town for a bit:
- Koh Tao ViewPoint (obviously)
- Deisha Viewpoint (I hopped a small construction site to get to a different vantage point here – but it was worth it.)
- John-Suwan Viewpoint
- Koh Nang Yuan Viewpoint
- Chalok Viewpoint
- Fisherman’s Villa Viewpoint (this one is tricky as I had a friend stay here and the views from his villa of Haad Tien beach was amazing.)
A lot of those viewpoints are obvious higher up in elevation and some require a bit of hiking to get to. Come prepared with some comfortable shoes (I wouldn’t recommend slippers, at all) and water in tow, the views are worth each step.
You can sign up to dive at the many schools the island plays host to. Some 80,000 travelers annually come here to get their PADI OW certification. That’s a lot of people and for good reasons. The water surrounding the island is calm making it a sure dive on any given day. Marine life is abundant with the occasional special guests: whale sharks and turtles among them.
It’s also CHEAP to get certified here. I spent $380 for my certification class WITH a private room. Check out how below:
NOTE: Check out the FREE DIVING school too!
You can also snorkel at one of the best locations around, in my opinion, by heading over to Koh Nang Yuan island. Being stone’s throw away you can get there on a short long tailboat ride. No better time to be in crystal blue water with the backdrop of the only three islands connected by one beach in the world. Many people flock here from Koh Tao for a couple of hours and you definitely should too.
Food is plentiful on the island so you won’t go hungry. I would recommend you check out 995 Roasted Duck. The line was long but the soup was worth the wait! Night markets were sporadically placed around the island and there was one near Ban’s Diving Resort that I frequented (in front of the 7/11.) If you can catch one of these there is no better meal sub $4 you can find anywhere.
Infamous Thailand 7/11 can be found as well for their delicious late-night toasties. Here are my other mentions worth noting:
- Vegetabowl (vegan/vegetarian fare)
- JOE Pork Leg (I ate here twice and LOVED it)
- Cafe del Sol (great joint, fast and good)
- Bella’s Thai Food (get the fried fish, will not disappoint!)
- Pranees Kitchen (great curry goes great with the seafood)
Don’t forget you can also take a Thai cooking class too! Check some of these one out:
- Thai Cooking with Joy
- Parawan’s Thai Home Cooking Class
- Idjangs Kitchen & Thai cookery courses
- Sun Moon Thai Restaurant and Cooking Class
Once fed you can slide up to any bar on the long walkway and have yourself a good time. Buckets are a thing here and they are DANGEROUS. Essentially it is a sand castle bucket that they fill with ice, soda, and booze. If you’re adventurous, or plain stupid like me, then you ask for the soda on the side. After a bucket or two you’ll be jamming out with expats, backpackers, honeymooners and locals to live music and fire shows.
Hop on the Koh Tao Pub Crawl for a Great Night!
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there is not only a gym on the island (Monsoon Gym & Fight Club) but also a place you can train in Muay Thai (Island Muay Thai.) It’s a good way to dive into the culture by training with locals and keep in good shape after all the eating you’ve done. There are also yoga retreats if being zen is more your thing.
I spent most of my time island-hopping around Thailand on Koh Tao, for good reasons. This little island to me felt like it remained in obscurity because its name seldom gets brought up when questions of where to go are presented. A lot of travelers are looking for more of the Phukets or Koh Phangans of the world, but I was looking for just this.
I found it to be less crowded, more grounded, and far enough away that you felt like you were actually AWAY. Crazy how that sound doesn’t it? If there were a perfect mixture of this, that, and the other thing to create an island with everything one needs then Koh Tao comes close, very close.
Come here and leave nothing but your footprints in the sand.