PATTAYA ISLAND GUIDE: 8 PLACES TO VISIT CLOSE TO THE RESORT TOWN
The raucous party nights and the lively beachfront cocktail dives, the red-light strips and endless go-go bars of Pattaya have been well documented. But what about the islands that pepper the Thai Gulf just off this popular resort on the eastern shores of the Land of Smiles? Those who opt to head off across the cobalt-blue waves and discover these islets are in for a real treat, whether that means salt-washed cabanas on the sand, secluded coves or some world-class diving with the unrivalled visibility of the Southeast Asian seas. Enjoy…
Koh Si Chang
There's a reason Koh Si Chang comes top of this list: accessibility. Yep, this little S-shaped isle in the waters of the northern gulf is known as the closest inhabited Thai island to the sprawling cityscape of Bangkok. That means it's perfectly located for city dwellers or LBW tourers awaiting the start of their Thai odyssey; just a short bus and ferry combo from Khaosan Road. Haad Tham Phang is one of the main spots to bed down in, between the sizzling seafood barbecue houses and the flapping palm umbrellas, while the main town is dotted with guesthouses and charming little beer bars. Don't miss a trip to the serene surrounds of the Tham Chakrabongse meditation center, which can be found perched with its glimmering golden Buddha statue atop the hills of the backcountry.
It's likely that you'll have to head a little to the south of Pattaya, to the town of Rayong, to catch a ferry connection to popular Koh Samet. The longer trip really is worth it though, because this T-shaped mark on the map of the Thai Gulf is a veritable paradise that manages to channel the hedonistic spirit of other eastern islands like Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (even if the parties predictably fall short of the same wildness you'd expect of those Full Moons). You can kick-back on gorgeous, cliff-backed sands at Ao Phrao on the west coast, or flit between the ramshackle bamboo bars in the larger towns and beach resorts of the east coast, where there are also oodles of water sports outfitters, diving establishments, and shoestring guesthouses.
Sat just seven kilometers from the buzzing strips of Pattaya town itself, Koh Larn is not only eminently reachable from Thailand's hedonistic resort, but also a prime place to escape the energy of the go-go bars and nightlife strips. From the shimmering sliver of golden sand at Samae to the cotton-white slope of Tien Beach around the headlands to the west, the place has plenty of sun-kissed coves to sunbathe and swim in. These all come peppered with countless budget digs and guesthouses, which hide between clutches of lanky coconut palms and bustle with jet ski rentals and street food sellers. Thanks to loads of interconnecting boardwalks along the coast, walking is a great way to get around Koh Larn, while sea kayaks offer access to some of the more secluded inlets.
You'll have to haggle and push for even the shortest of stays on picture-perfect Koh Khram. That's because the relatively large island off the coast east of Rayong is entirely managed by the Thai navy, which means it's totally out-of-bounds to visitors looking to bed down and enjoy the tropical perfection. That said, tales abound that the occasional local boat service will make a pit stop on the ivory bays of this one, which might not strictly be allowed, but does mean cotton-white coves and secluded swimming along the aquamarine shoreline.
From one naval base in the Thai Gulf to another, Koh Phai (or just Bamboo Island as it's known to many a traveller in the Land of Smiles) has similarly abandoned beaches and untouched stretches of coastal coconut groves. Like Koh Khram too, overnight stays on the sands here are totally prohibited. That means day trips by boat from Pattaya are the only way to enjoy the postcard-perfect backcountry of this isle. And boy is it worth the two-hour trip! You'll get to snorkel atop multi-coloured coral gardens and spot ray fins and reef sharks flitting through the crystal-clear waters. You'll get to recline on powdery sands where there are no cookhouses or beer shops to break the rhythm of the waves. You'll get to wonder at empty coastal jungles and see rugged cliffs void of any construction.
Koh Samae San
Set off the tip of Chonburi Province, largely-unvisited Koh Samae San remains under the control of the Thai Royal Navy. However, as with Koh Phai and Koh Khram, there is some scope to explore this hidden jewel in the gulf. We're talking short, snappy stays, typically heading into the earthy and enchanting fishing town of Ban Samae-San (the largest settlement on the isle as a whole) for a daytrip. You can plan trips to the boulder-spotted sands of the north shores from there, or take to the diving spots that pepper the sea all around – they are considered some of the best in the region.
Pint-sized Koh Sak made its name long ago, when A-listers and the Thai elite flocked to its humble duo of beaches and rugged headlands for their (hard-earned?) R&R. Today, it's become a more approachable destination, thanks to the opening up of SCUBA trips and local boat connections from nearby Koh Larn. The most popular beach is the one along the north shore, which spreads out in a medley of cotton-white powder between two jungle-clad headlands. There, you'll find plenty of spots to kick back on with a beer in the shade of a palm tree, along with pretty rows of painted Thai longboats that bob on the soft gulf swells until you're ready to depart.
Are you a regular traveller to the beautiful eastern shores of the Thai Gulf? Can you think of any more islands to add to this list of the top out-at-sea places to visit close to Pattaya? We'd love to hear your very own Pattaya island guide in the comments below! Or, has this Pattaya island guide got you a-pining for the tropical sands of the Land of Smiles? Then be sure to head over to LBW's Thailand itineraries page for some top-quality trips.