Thai Island Guide: Where to go for what you want

Mattie Lacey-Davidson


The Kingdom of Thailand, as the country is officially titled, is brimming with islands of sugar-white stretches of sand to discover. While the entire breadth of the country has a similarly relaxing ambience and people who share the same welcoming warmth, there are many destinations that possess an incomparable offering. It is the islands in particular that have become increasingly distinct over time and, with hundreds to choose from, knowing where to go for what you want can be a tricky feat.

For Families and Couples

Koh Samui is one of the most popular destinations in Thailand, perhaps due to the fact an abundance of accommodation means visitors of all budgets can find somewhere to stay. The island has everything from family-friendly hotels and adult-only spa destinations, to cultural sights and wildlife safaris.

Arrive by air and the first thing you will see is the Big Buddha, which sits in magnificence on a rocky island off the coast. The golden statue was built in 1972, followed four years later by the creation of the Secret Buddha Garden which remains one of the few activities that can pull you away from the bounty of 15 beaches. It sits high in the hills that fill the island’s centre. While exploring the garden, visitors are privy to incredible views across Koh Samui while discovering the many statues created by an old Samui fruit farmer, Nim Thongsuk, in 1976.

The main town sits parallel to the popular Chaweng Beach, but with taxis and rentals making up only a small expense, a 30-minute drive south to the slightly more relaxed Lamai Beach or 30-minutes north to tropical Maenam, is well worth the time and money.

For wildlife and adventure two things top the list: The Samui Elephant Sanctuary, which allows ethically non-invasive interaction with the country’s favourite animal, and Ang Thong National Marine Park. The latter is an archipelago of 42 islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Here you will discover towering limestone mountains, luminous white sand, waterfalls, and hidden coves.

Secret Buddha Garden in Koh Samui, Thailand

Photographer: Tobias Krohn

For ocean views in luxury surrounds

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and despite a diverse offering similar to Koh Samui, its luxury is unrivalled. As it caters a little more to travellers looking for global glamour, you will find famous chefs, hotels with private butlers, world class cosmetic surgery, and four different elephant sanctuaries.

Another 32 small islands are dotted around Phuket, so even in the busiest times of the year, visitors can charter a boat and sail away to find a little paradisical peace. However there is plenty to see in Phuket including some 30 beaches and, in-keeping with the heightened luxury offering, beach clubs can be found all over.

Those interested in religiosity can visit the island’s Big Buddha, from where you will have 360-degree views of the island, or the Wat Chalong, a grand and magnificent temple – just don’t forget to cover up if you want to enter.

Big Buddha in Phuket, Thailand

Photographer: Thaisign

For Party-Goers and Solo Travellers

Koh Phangan, home of the Full Moon Party, and Koh Phi Phi Don, where even young travellers can only last a few days, attract the biggest crowds of party people from all around the world.

Koh Phangan sits in the south east and can easily be combined with a visit to Koh Samui. Up to 20,000 people flock there every month to celebrate the full moon and dance until the sun rises side-by-side with the locals. Due to the growing popularity over the decades with travellers of all ages from across the globe, events such as waterfall parties, jungle parties and half-moon celebrations have been added to Koh Phangan’s itinerary. Everybody goes for a good time and solo travellers will easily find their feet, and like-minded people.

Koh Phi Phi Don can be found directly across the mainland on the south west coast, not far from Phuket. Drawing in a much younger crowd to a very small area, many people don’t last more than a few nights without needing an escape. Unlike Koh Phangan, which offers many beauteous beaches to recover on, you’ll need to hire a water taxi or head off on a hike to find Long Beach, the only stretch of sand that meets the standards of other Thai islands. 

Full Moon Party

Photographer: Parkpoom Kotcharat

For a quiet escape and pure Relaxation

Koh Yao Noi is unknown, untouched, and one of the quietest islands you will find in the country. In comparison to other locations of the same size, hotels are few and far between. Development has been little to none over the last 20 years so there is not much to do other than relax. You won’t even find a bank or an ATM on the island, so visitors need to arrive with plenty of cash to see them through their stay.

Koh Lanta is a more affordable alternative with plenty of hotels and beach bungalows available for a small price. The best area to stay is along the east coast, where you can do little more than walk to the beach or a bar. For those seeking some kind of stimulation, there is a small shopping area close to the port at the northern tip and the astoundingly mammoth Khao Mai Kaew Cave further south.

Koh Yao Noi in Phuket, Thailand

Photographer: Huw Penson

For adventure and thrill-seekers

The Similan Islands aren’t well-known among most visitors to Thailand, but they are often found in lists of the top 10 diving locations around the world due to the wonders that wait beneath the clear blue water.

A total of 11 islands make up this little cluster of heaven: Koh Bangu, Koh Bon, Koh Ha, Koh Hin Pousar, Koh Huyong, Koh Meang, Koh Payan, Koh Payang, Koh Payu, Koh Similan and Koh Tachai. All the Islands are located in the Mu Koh Similan National Park, which covers more than 140 square kilometres.

Huge boulders adorn the coasts and under the waves divers will find some of the most beautiful coral in the entire ocean. Inland, you will find thick forest making up the home of various wildlife, from monkeys and dusky langurs, to lizards and an assortment of birds worth watching.

Due to the fragility of the eco-systems both on and off land across the Mu Koh Similan National Park, the entirety is closed to tourists between May and October (monsoon season).

Similan Islands, Thailand

Photographer: Kosin Sukhum

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