THE 10 BEST ISLANDS IN THAILAND
Overhead, coconut palms rustle in the light gulf breezes. Sloshing waves lap against the shoreline, rolling off a turquoise-blue sea. Bamboo shacks sizzle with the scents of pad Thai noodle dishes and bubble with the chatter of backpackers two buckets down. Volleyballs bounce here, SCUBA teams prep their tanks there, and everywhere life is good. Welcome to the Thai islands.
From the much-trodden party towns of Koh Phangan to the resplendent coral gardens that fringe picture-perfect Koh Tao, the archipelagos that can be found peppering the seas from the Thai Gulf in the east to the salty Andaman in the west are surely some of the most handsome on the planet. LBW have been running trips to the Thai islands for years, so we know a thing or two about which destinations tickle the wanderlust the most. Here's our selection…
1. Koh Samui
Koh Samui is the Thailand of the travel brochures; a land of sparkling beaches and soft sands; of infinity pools that spill into the gulf and salt-washed bamboo loungers with views over the dolphin-dotted seas. Despite a booming tourist trade in the last couple of decades, it's hard not to fall in love with this place. LBW have been leading our Island Teaser East trips here for some time, and we're always taken by the laid-back life that exists between the beautiful stretches of Chaweng and Lamai. These are places where romantic restaurants spill out onto the shoreline with the coming of dusk, where diving outfitters suit up every day, and bobbing longboats share the waters with snorkelers and swimmers trying to fend off their hangover from the night before. The north coast is quieter, with the hidden bays of Choeng Mon and the rustic fishing town of Bophut.
2. Koh Phangan
Ah, Koh Phangan: the party mecca extraordinaire. Of all the islands in Thailand it is this small speck in the western waters of the gulf that draws perhaps the biggest crowds of all. We know because we've been there; year on year, month on month, taking our Treasures of Thailand and Thaiventure folks to some of the top bucket-fueled blowouts and raucous beach raves you can possibly imagine. Of course, we're talking about the (in)famous Full Moon Party, which takes place here once a month (obviously) on the sands of sparkling Haad Rin beach. However, Phangan isn’t just about the hedonism (although it mainly is!). It's also got the rustic shacks and secluded beaches of Thong Nai Pan, the luxurious all-inclusive resorts of Haad Salad (not for us budget traveLlers, thank you very much), the rugged volcanic coves of Sri Thanu – the list goes on!
3. Koh Phi Phi
The first of the western islands to make this list comes in the form of H-shaped Phi Phi, which can be found floundering out between the glinting waves of the Andaman Sea, just a short ferry ride off from Krabi. Forever vying with Koh Phangan in the east, it's established itself as something of a party mecca too, with a medley of bamboo beach bars and neon-doused open-air clubs just meters from the shore. Like in Phangan, the dancing sessions and fire shows carry on pretty much nonstop here, while buckets slosh and muay Thai battles commence in the evening airs. On Phi Phi's eastern shoreline, it's also possible to find some seclusion, which is best at the golden bay of Phak Nam and alongside the resort-spotted coconut groves of Laem Tong.
4. Koh Tao
Taking us straight back to the Thai Gulf is the chameleon island of Koh Tao, famed for offering a little bit of everything. We simply love pulling up here on a bobbing catamaran and jumping onto the ramshackle jetties for the first time, which we've been doing for years as part of our Treasures of Thailand and Thaiventure tours. Why? Well, because Koh Tao can be whatever you want it to be – that's why. No matter if you're pining for long and lazy days spent wallowing in the palm shadows of Sai Nuan, if you're eager to get underwater on a freediving excursion to see how far you can go without the bubble tanks, or if – like so many – you've come to finally nail that PADI qualification, you can rest assured that Tao has you covered!
5. Koh Chang
The appropriately named Elephant Isle of Koh Chang successfully dwarfs most all of the others in the seas around it, rising up from the pearly-blue Indian Ocean in a medley of blooming royal palms and verdant jungle-dressed hills. Much more off-the-beaten-track than the party islands of Phi Phi and Phangan, this one's managed to retain something of a rustic feel. Its backcountry is famously trodden by wild elephants, while intrepid hiking trails weave and wind under the waxy canopies and the colossus teak trees there – perfect for those searching for a real Thai adventure. Of course, there are beaches too, with White Sand Beach and Lonley Beach offering romantic sunset views, while the gushing backcountry waterfalls of Klong Plu and Klong Nueng are also not to be missed!
6. Koh Lipe
You could be forgiven for thinking that you've woken up to a dusting of tropical snow as you emerge onto the scintillating stretches of pure white sand that fringe Koh Lipe, such is the pristine beauty of this tiny isle, set just on the edge of southern Thailand, close to the border with Malaysia. The duo of Pattaya Beach and Sunrise Beach have proved the most attractive, and there are now rows of bamboo guesthouses and bustling cafes lining both. What's more, there's a burgeoning nightlife scene on Lipe that's just starting to take flight – think earthy little live music joints and reggae bars with ice-cold Changs aplenty. We don't know about you, but we're really hoping it stays that way.
The strange thing about Phuket is that it hardly feels like an island at all. Joined to the Thai mainland by the bustling Sarasin Bridge, it's got its very own airport, and covers a whopping 570 square kilometers. At least, that is, it doesn't feel like an island until you go to the coast, where the wave-kissed sands of Freedom Beach meet the golden stretches of Kata Beach, the sandbanks of Bang Tao run into the great horseshoe of Kamala, imbuing the place with a real Robinson Crusoe vibe. Phuket also knows how to party, with walking streets and throbbing night markets popping up in Phuket Town and oodles of neon-lit bars and clubs thumping in Patong.
8. Koh Lanta
The Andaman's answer to Koh Tao is a place famed right across the globe for its crystal-clear waters and awesome dive sites. Long and thing, it juts out from the coast south of Krabi in a patchwork of swamps and mangroves and coconut tree forests, eventually giving way to the picture-perfect bays of Kor Kwang, Klong Dao (think sparkling white sands), and coral-fringed Kantiang Bay. And talking of corals, it's the wealth of blooming reefs that exists in the offshore marine reserves that are responsible for booming dive tourism here, helping to make Lanta perhaps the perfect place to come and finally complete a PADI course.
9. Koh Mak
Koh Mak can be found sandwiched between Koh Chang and Koh Kut, some 40 kilometers from the mainland coast of the Andaman in southern Thailand. Thanks to the popularity of the spots around it, the place has remained largely unknown to many tourists, and still has a charming, laid-back feel about it. The beaches are the best part of Mak, with the likes of long and lethargic Ao Kao and the secluded strips of Ao Phra coming up trumps. Thanks to rows of seafront guesthouses and the west-facing shoreline, you can expect some seriously romantic sunset viewing from your bedrooms to boot.
10. Koh Tarutao
Koh Tarutao finishes off this list with a bout of the Thailand that once was. Untouched, untrodden and entirely encompassed by a national park (aptly named the Tarutao National Park), the place has been unscathed by the mass construction of guesthouses and hotels. In fact, for much of the last century it was a penal colony for politicos, which is perhaps the real reason for the virgin jungles that cover the backcountry, the soft and unpolluted sands, the swinging monkeys and the empty (and we really mean empty) beaches. Bike and sea kayak are amongst the best ways to navigate this hidden gem.
Of course, there are oodles more islands in Thailand that could make this list. If you can think of them, be sure to make your voice heard in the comments below…