A Quick Guide to the Thai Islands
Thailand is perhaps best known for its islands. Boasting some of the most paradisiacal stretches of beach in the world, the stereotype of crystal clear waters, white sands, and swaying palm trees come to life in Thailand’s seas. Not all of the islands are created equal, however, so here’s a quick overview of the islands we visited and my impressions of and suggestions for each.
A diver’s paradise. Koh Tao’s main industry by far is scuba diving. You can’t walk down a single street without passing a dozen dive shops. More people get certified to dive in Koh Tao than anywhere else in the world; the combination of beautiful dive spots and cheap price have turned it into a mecca for prospective divers, and for good reason. We got our Open Water certification while in Koh Tao for around $270 USD per person, easily less than half what it would have cost in the US. The dive spots are nothing short of amazing, with colorful coral, huge schools of tropical fish, and manta rays aplenty. There are also occasionally whale sharks in the surrounding waters, a local favorite, but we weren’t fortunate enough to see one this time around. Come evening we relaxed at a few of the numerous beachfront bars to watch the sun set over the water.
Best known for its (in)famous Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan is pretty much exclusively a “party island”. The Full Moon Party is held once a month (during, you guessed it, the full moon), but if you’re there at a different time of the month, you certainly won’t have trouble finding some festivities. Since the island’s tourism revolves almost entirely around these huge bashes, they manage to fill the rest of the month with similar parties like the Half Moon, Black Moon, Shiva Moon, Waterfall, and Jungle parties. They definitely cater to the gap year blowing-their-parents-money crowd, so it can be quite expensive to take part; the Black Moon party, which was happening while we were there, was $20 for admission and $5+ per drink, which is super high by Thailand standards. In the end, we opted to avoid the overpriced binge drinking experience and partied at the hostel area instead, which was still pretty bumping. If you’re not looking to party, there’s not a whole lot to do on Phangan.
One of the larger islands, Koh Samui feels a bit more urban than some of the more basic ones. It has numerous western chain restaurants, walking streets with street food and cheap drinks, a movie theater, Irish pubs, and even its own airport. It’s much more common to see families on vacation, as you can fly there directly and stay in relative comfort. There are, of course, beautiful beaches, although by this point we were more keen to take advantage of being in a somewhat developed location, so we had less beach time on Samui than some of the other islands. We also ended up at quite possibly the grossest hostel we’ve had the misfortune of visiting, which tempered our enjoyment a bit.
Cheating a bit here, as Ao Nang isn’t an island, but it is a nice beach on Thailand’s west coast, bordering the Andaman Sea. Basically the beach side of nearby Krabi, Ao Nang has a bit of a small-town feel. Directly on the beach there is a nice entertainment district with pubs and restaurants catering to tourists, and a bit further away there are a bit more chill, local places if you want to get away from the chaos. We also had some of the best Thai food of our trip here at the Jungle Kitchen restaurant, which I highly recommend if you happen to be in the area.
Phuket (Karon Beach)
Phuket itself is pretty large, so I can’t speak to all of it. We stayed at Karon Beach, the third largest beach in Phuket, located on the west coast of the island. It’s a quick two-hour ferry from Ao Nang to get to the main Phuket jetty, and then another 20-30 minutes by minibus to get to Karon. For some reason, the prevailing wisdom amongst backpackers is to avoid Phuket entirely, and if you were limited to just two or three islands I’d probably agree that there’s better destinations in the region to set your sights on. As a quick relaxing beach stopover, though, it was actually quite a nice little spot, maybe because we weren’t on the most popular beach in town. There are quite a few Thai restaurants and small Thai-style bar kiosks, and the reduction in crowds due to it being low season let the staff relax a bit and chat with us, which gave Phuket a pretty friendly feel. While nothing about it stands out in particular, Phuket was a far cry from the “don’t bother” recommendations we had received.
Koh Phi Phi
Though there is definitely an emphasis on partying on Phi Phi, it’s much less all-encompassing than the party atmosphere on Koh Phangan. If you want to grab a couple buckets of booze and dance the night away you can definitely do that, but if you’d rather relax on the beach or get pampered with a massage in a resort, you can find it just around the corner. There are some breathtaking viewpoints you can climb to in order to get a 360 degree view of the beautiful islands, and there are day trips you can take to snorkel, scuba, or laze about on some of the harder-to-reach islands nearby. The main island is small enough to cover on foot, and there are no motorized vehicles allowed, so a stroll around the island is a great way to pass an afternoon.
For our last island in our southern Thailand trip, we wanted to splurge. We found a super nice looking resort hotel, paid the $45/night (extremely high by our standards), and showed up expecting a weekend of high-class pampering. Only to find out — we came at the wrong time of year. We knew it was low season, as it had been on all the other islands, but where some of the others are just a bit cheaper and slower this time of year, most of Lanta shuts down. Our first clue was showing up to this fancy resort only to have to hunt down an employee so we could check in, as reception was completely unmanned. Then we learned that the on-site restaurant was shut down for the season, the beachfront bar we had been looking forward to was shuttered, and the spa, gym, and room service facilities were closed as well. To make matters worse, the two days we were there happened to fall on a very important Buddhist holiday (yes, a two day holiday), which meant absolutely no alcohol was allowed to be sold anywhere in Thailand, spoiling our usual fallback plan when there is nothing to do (in America, we drink more on holidays!). While Koh Lanta seems like it could be a nice place to visit during the high season, I wouldn’t really recommend going during the summer months.
There’s plenty more islands in Thailand. A few hundred, in fact, although only a couple dozen of them are developed for tourism. Still, there are too many to properly explore in just one trip, so it’s worth doing some research if you’re planning a visit to find islands that jive with your travel style. Whether it’s luxury, adventure, relaxation, partying, or romance, there are numerous islands catering to it. The one thing they all have in common is their beauty, so no need to worry on that account. Also, be sure to check those Buddhist holidays!