Thailand is without a doubt one of the most visited countries in Asia and it’s continually growing in popularity. Backpackers love it as a cheap destination rich in beautiful beaches, cheap delicious food and an exciting nightlife. It also doesn’t hurt that Thai people have been noted as the friendliest in the world.
Whilst the capital of Bangkok may be the most visited city in the country, the islands of Thailand are where its beauty really shines. Bangkok can be showy, pristine and beautiful in one section, but turn a corner and there are slums with houses made of scrap tin and dirt floors next to polluted black waterways. If you would prefer island escapes, with lush rainforests, white sand beaches, stunning resorts and as a place where you can give money to the local economy, then read ahead. Here are the best of the best Thai islands and what they are perfect for.
Phuket is a southern province which includes the countries largest island. It’s one of the most visited destinations in the country after Bangkok as it appeals to all tourists. Its mountainous landscape provides much beauty with lush rainforests and find beautiful long stretches of beaches to the west. Patong Beach (pictured) is the most popular area with an endless amount of high class resorts, shopping and nightclubs and bars on the famous Bangla Road. Karon Beach to the south of Patong is a quiter resort area if you want to stay away from the chaos or Kamala to the north is even quieter again.
There are also many tour options from Patong, having tours out to the beautiful Phi Phi Islands and trips up into the mainland to the rainforests for elephant rides or 4-wheel motorbike rides. One trip you must take is one to the beautiful Phang Nga Bay. Limestone cliffs jutting vertically up out of the emerald-green waters, the whole area is just breathtaking. Tours will take you to Koh Ta-pu (pictured) which is now more commonly known as James Bond Island after one of the movies was filmed there. You can then relax in a kayak as a guide does all the work taking you through tiny caves and waterways that lead to beautiful hidden ‘rooms’ where cave roofs have collapsed to create open sky areas with tall cliffs on either side of you. A must do whilst in Phuket.
There is also a waterpark and zoo on the island where you can pat a (heavily sedated) tiger, watch monkey shows and ride elephants, but as an animal lover it was hard to watch the poor treatment of them. FantaSea is also a popular event on the island including a dinner & a show. Overall though Phuket is one of the most family-friendly islands.
Best for: Everything. Partying, shopping, many tour options, families, temples, resorts, theme parks, theatre shows, thai boxing.
Ko Phi Phi
The beautiful chain of archipelago islands is often visited as a day trip from Phuket, but with so much beauty and many high-class resorts, it deserves more than just a quick stopover. The islands made of cliffs that protrude straight out of the sea towering over the water also host an abundance of stunning beaches with the whitest sand and most turquoise waters. Ko Phi Phi Don is the largest and only inhabited island but just around the corner is Ko Phi Phi Leh which hosts Maya Bay (pictured), made famous by the movie “The Beach”. Monkey Beach and a trip to Bamboo Island are other highlights of the area.
Best for: beautiful beaches, snorkelling, diving, hiking, rock climbing, party cruises.
Koh Tao – or “Turtle Island” due to its shape – is a divers haven, as it’s one of the world’s most popular places to learn to dive. It is also growing in popularity from keen fisherman. It’s island neighbours, the full-moon party island of Koh Phangan and the ever-growing Koh Samui, are polar opposites of this place that stays humble amongst the craziness. This stunning island has the best of both relaxation and a little urbanisation with a few resorts, bars and nightclubs recently opening up. That being said, it is still very easy to get away from it all and be at one with nature. Make sure to take a trip to Koh Nangyuan (pictured).
Best for: relaxation, diving, 4-wheel motorbike riding, seafood, short stays.
Backpackers and party lovers unite! Ko Phangan is home to the monthly electronic dance festival known as the Full Moon Party and brings swarms of backpackers to the area year round. While a lot choose to stay on nearby Koh Samui and travel to the island for the event, this island has a lot more on offer than just a party venue. It is also well known for its rainforests, beaches, temples, spas and special meditation retreats. Partying and meditation on the same island, interesting mix.
Best for: special retreats, backpackers, partying, rainforests, spas, yoga.
Koh Samui has been rapidly growing in popularity to become one of the most visited islands in the country. With resorts scattered across the island, you can stay in anything from luxury villas to small bungalows or spa retreats. The island hosts an airport making it easy to get to from Bangkok. Koh Samui also hosts a zoo, aquarium, beautiful temples, a snake farm, cabaret shows and is especially known for its beautiful sunset spots, waterfalls, golden Big Buddha and even famous rock formations Hin Yai & Hin Ta that look like male and female genitalia. Koh Samui really has it all… and then some. Make sure to check out the beautiful Angthong National Marine Park whilst there.
Best for: Everything. Resorts, kayaking tours, waterfalls, temples, shows, nightlife, beaches, national parks, backpackers, families, couples.
Ko Chang is the third largest island in Thailand and filled with activities for the nature lovers. With many reefs surrounding the island it’s a great spot for snorkelling or opt to relax on the long stretches of white sandy beaches. If you’re looking for adventure, head to the Tree Top Adventure Park or venture into the mountainous, rainforest covered terrain which provides much beauty and many opportunities to find waterfalls. With only a small selection of resorts, this island is all about adventure in your untouched surroundings.
Best for: outdoor adventures, diving, snorkelling, elephant trekking, relaxing, yoga & spas.
Koh Tarutao is the largest island in the chain of islands in the Tarutao National Marine Park and is made up of limestone cliffs, rugged mountains and jungles including many mangrove trees. You can even canoe through a mangrove forest swamp to a crocodile cave. The area is in Southern Thailand and is well known for its beautiful coral reefs. This island is very untouched, so much so that a season of Survivor was filmed here in 2002. This quiet island is also a great place to see native animals, especially turtles on the west coast.
Best for: peace and quiet, snorkelling, diving, animals.
A small island close to Ko Tarutao, but outside of the National Park border, meaning there is no restrictions on development. Stay in cheap bungalows or luxury four star resorts. This island is famous for its white sand bars and shallow turquoise waters with exceptional reefs all around it. You can walk the island in around an hour, so there isn’t all that much to do outside of the water but relax and enjoy the serenity. Take a quick boat ride over to Koh Adang (part of the Tarutao National Park) for a bit of adventure and some of the best reefs in Thailand.
Best for: beaches, resorts, swimming, diving, relaxation.
A bit south-east of the Phi Phi Islands is the chain of islands names Ko Lanta in the Krabi Province – which is a beautiful part of Thailand. The biggest is Ko Lanta Yai which is famous for its bungalows and huts amongst the ancient rainforests but there are also a few resorts scattered along the beaches on the west coast. Another popular destination for divers and kayakers, with many reefs and an abundance of marine life. The best way to get around the island is by moped to explore remote beaches and cool bars and restaurants.
Best for: unique accommodation, rainforests, relaxing, diving, waterfalls, caves, monkeys.
Close to Bangkok, Ko Samet is a great getaway location from the big smoke, with some of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand. There are many types of accommodation and most of the island is dedicated to a national park meaning the pristine beauty is still kept. With nice restaurants and a few bars, it’s a very mini version of Koh Samui, with enough to keep you busy but you’re still able to window and relax.
Best for: beaches, mix of relaxation and activities, short stays.
What other islands have you been to that should be on this list?