Five of The Best Islands to Visit in Thailand
By Dawn Jorgensen
Thailand, as one of the world’s most sought out tourist destinations, is renowned for its incredible natural beauty. White sandy beaches, tropical forests, mist-covered mountains, compelling national parks and heaving cities rich in culture and tradition. The kingdom’s dreamy palm-fringed islands likely the main draw as travellers seek to soak up the sun and revel in all The Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea have to offer.
These are five of the best islands to visit in Thailand, where turquoise waters lap gently at the shoreline, marine life beckons discovery and hammocks sway gently in the breeze – although each offers plenty of other ways to while away your days.
- Koh Samui
Koh Samui is a postcard-perfect quintessential Thailand and should be on everybody’s travel wish list. Thailand’s third-largest island, the ever-popular Koh Samui lies 35km off Surat Thani and about 700 km south of Bangkok. Its many sheltered bays have offered sailors sanctuary from the region’s tropical storms for centuries and the name is believed to come from the word saboey, meaning safe-haven in Chinese.
The landmark 12m-tall golden Big Buddha statue at Wat Phra Yai is one of the island’s primary attractions, together with the beautiful Wat Plai Laem temple with the 18-arm image of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, a photogenic highlight. Found perfectly set in the tranquil Gulf of Thailand, and only an hour’s flight from Bangkok, most visitors are content to spend their days lazing on the beach and soaking up the sun. For the activity enthusiast though, there are plenty of things to fill the day, from excellent scuba diving, snorkelling, windsurfing, paragliding and ocean kayaking.
Koh Samui is not a big island, about 21 km at its widest point and 25 km at its longest, with one main road that circles it. Until 1940 there were no roads or vehicles on Koh Samui and people moved about on foot or hugged the coastline in their boats. Things have changed though, and today taxis and shuttles, motorbikes and bicycles carrying locals and happy tourists between the white beaches, coconut groves and dense, mountainous rainforests.
The Me Ko Ang Thong Marine Park, about 60km off Koh Samui consists of 42 islands, all but one uninhabited. Established in November 1980 with the express purpose of protecting the archipelago, the islands are covered with tropical forests and formed from limestone that reach up to 400m above sea level. The park offers excellent scuba diving and snorkelling with many silky white beaches to ensconce to and supports several types of vegetarian including the lesser-known Ang Thong Lady’s Slipper Orchid, 16 species of mammals and the elusive Dusky Leaf Monkey.
For excellent shopping, the Bophut Fisherman’s Village is the spot with its restaurants, upmarket boutiques and colourful night market. On your explorations, enjoy coffee at side street cafe and time walking around the local markets. Numerous retreats, yoga schools and spas are to be found on the island.
Ideal for first-timers, families, honeymooners and yogis.
- Koh Lanta
A peaceful island just 70km from Krabi in the Andaman Sea, Koh Lanta is suited to the independent traveller seeking a destination where life is simpler and the main focus is time relaxing on the beach with some water sports and visits to local markets. Consisting of two main islands, Koh Lanta Noi and Koh Lanta Yai, the larger and more populated being Koh Lanta Yai, simply known as Koh Lanta. Together with 50 other smaller islands, they comprise the Mu Ko Lanta National Park.
Koh Lanta is home to Lanta Oldtown, an attractive village with 100-year-old shacks and charming shophouses built on stilts over the water. Ban Saladan on the northern tip of the island is the business and commercial centre where most visitors arrive into. The island is known for its diverse cultural mix with Thai-Muslim, Thai-Chinese and the original sea gypsies having lived in harmony here for hundreds of years.
The west coast faces the Andaman Sea and is lined with beautiful white sandy beaches, while the east coast is less developed with a coastline largely consisting of mangroves and impressive limestone rock formations. There are numerous beaches to select from, Ban Saladan being Koh Lanta’s popular family beach where the island’s highest concentration of resorts and hotels are found.
The Koh Ha Archipelago offers some of the best conditions for beginner and advanced scuba divers, with excellent visibility and underwater landscapes. Hin Daeng and Hin Muang are ranked in the top ten diving sites in the world. Snorkelling is best around Koh Haa, Koh Bida and Koh Rok, with the east side best for kayaking, especially in the mangrove swamps. Spend at least a day exploring the surrounding islands. Recommended is the Four Island tour which goes to Koh Chuek, Koh Mook and the Emerald Cave, Koh Kradan, and Koh Ngai.
With good roads that run the 22km from north to south, Koh Lanta is easily toured by motorbike, allowing an opportunity to stop at food stalls and admire the slender minarets and stilted villages you’ll pass along the way.
Ideal for authenticity, laid-back all-round independent travellers and peace seekers
- Koh Chang
Thailand’s second-largest island after Phuket, Koh Chang is fondly known as ‘Elephant Island’ because of its mammoth size and elephant-shaped headland. Forming part of the Mu Koh Chang National Park, it is located in the Gulf of Thailand around 300 kilometres east of Bangkok in the province of Trat. Known for its dense, steep jungles and impressive waterfalls, as well as offshore coral reefs and a shoreline dotted with beaches and villages, it’s easy to see why Koh Chang is an increasingly popular choice.
Adding to the beauty, 70% of the landmass is covered in natural rain forest, meaning that the island is not densely populated but rather only has about 5000 permanent residents, giving it an authentic and relaxed sense of Thai living. As is the case with other Thai islands, Koh Chang offers much more than idyllic beaches and warm waters to revel in. Nature lovers will enjoy the hiking trails, waterfalls, kayaking and snorkelling, while lessons at one of the island’s many Thai cooking schools will add flavour to your stay. The Shrine of Chao Por Koh Chang is believed to bring peace and good luck to the people on the island.
The surrounding waters provide excellent snorkelling with countless diving opportunities, making Koh Chang increasingly popular as a scuba diving destination. There are 46 islands in the Koh Chang archipelago and boat trips to island-hop between them is one of the most popular things to do. Most are offered as snorkelling trips, specifically by boats departing Bangbao and Kai Bae beach on the west coast of the island. Other interesting activities include firefly spotting in the mangrove plantations, a visit to one of the traditional fishing villages in the South and a guided tour of the island.
Ideal for affordability and off the beaten track exploration, both on land and sea
- Koh Phi Phi
Home to some of the most inviting seascapes on the planet, Koh Phi Phi is just a 45-minute speedboat trip or a 90-minute ferryboat ride from either Phuket or Krabi. The ultimate tropical island getaway with long-tail boats and palm-fringed beaches; you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into paradise. Here stunning limestone rock formations stretch out of turquoise waters that teem with brightly coloured marine life. Made up of six islands, with the two main islands Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh. The larger and inhabited Phi Phi Don attracts hundreds of visitors to stay on its lovely shores while the smaller uninhabited Phi Phi Leh is custodian to beautiful bays and beaches, including the world-famous Maya Bay, which was the set where The Beach with Leonardo Di Caprio was filmed.
The surrounding hillsides and cliffs make Phi Phi a top climbing destination with beginner to advanced climbing courses available, as well as gear rental. With the rich marine life and calm clear waters, this is an ideal place to learn to scuba dive with from Discover SCUBA to Instructor development courses available. Known for its nightlife, there are many beach bars where you can enjoy cocktails with your feet in the sand, authentic Thai restaurants and massage and tattoo parlours as well as markets for shopping. Completely laid back, there is no reason to rush a visit here, rather just soak it all up with no schedule and no reason to leave in a hurry.
If you’re going on holiday on your own or with single friends then Koh Phi Phi might just be the island for you. With a reputation for good times and lots of activities on offer including diving, snorkelling, cliff-jumping and boat trips, Koh Phi Phi draws a young, stylish, energetic crowd with a degree of sophistication, ready to relax or to party, particularly on New Year’s Eve. Days are spent sunning, swimming or exploring. Evenings are spent shopping and hanging out at beach bars.
Ideal for solo travel, island-hopping, limestone appreciation and beach bars
- Similan Islands
The Similans are a group of nine islands belonging to the Marine National Park, about 84 km northwest of Phuket. Completely undeveloped, they offer visitors an unspoiled and unchanged landscape. Similan is the undisputed top scuba diving site in Thailand and is regularly ranked among the top 10 dive sites in the world. The Similans can be visited on day trips as well as short stopovers. The ranger’s camp has basic accommodation in tents and small bungalows that allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the islands. With desolate beaches, lush vegetation, crystal waters, and the only sound being the wind through the trees, the Similans offer the ultimate getaway destination.
The name of the Similan Islands comes from the Malay word meaning nine and refers to the original nine islands of the Mu Ko Similan National Park. Since two more have joined the fold, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai. Here you find some of the best dive sites in Thailand with visibility reaching up to 40 meters on a good day, with excellent snorkelling in the shallower slopes. Numbered north to south, one to nine, they form a national park in the Andaman Sea.
Swim over untouched coral reefs, step foot on the white-sand beaches of Koh Miang known as ‘number four’, which has simple bamboo bungalows, and linger on the largest island Koh Similan, number eight. Just north of the national park, Koh Tachai has the softest, vividly white sand and is the most popular. Close to the Burmese border, Richelieu Rock is one of the world’s best dive sites and whale shark territory. Wherever you go, you’ll need a boat. Khao Lak, an hour’s drive north of Phuket, is the jump-off point for day trips and live-aboard sailing around the islands.
Ideal for ocean lover, scuba diver and paradise seeker