Published: 26th September, 2020
Welcome to our full-service overview of Thailand’s tropical islands, from tourist hotspots to obscure fishing isles and blips of sand set far out to sea. In total we mention 109 islands by name, slicing the whole papaya down into helpings that we hope will help you hit the beach.
Thai islands first blinked on the foreign travel radar when backpackers started washing up on Phuket and Ko Samui in the 1970s. Both of these and several others have since become tourism giants, leading some modern travellers to believe that Thai islands are, by and large, developed beyond repair. While we reckon this is true in some cases, a slew of Thai islands still focus mainly on rubber tapping, gardening and fishing with tourism barely in the picture, if at all. Many others have been officially protected, albeit with varying degrees of earnestness, as part of at least 20 national parks.
In other words, if the same exploratory fire that pushed the backpackers of five decades ago drives you today, plenty of scope for adventure remains. Hundreds of islands exist in the Gulf of Thailand, which is part of the Pacific Ocean and borders Thailand’s inner east- and south-facing coastline from Cambodia to Malaysia. Hundreds more lie in the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean off Thailand’s southwest coast between Burma and Malaysia.
To help you make sense of it all, we’ve broken the Thai islands down into six zones, with three located in the Gulf and three in the Andaman. Unless you have all sorts of time, pick one zone per trip and choose as many islands as you’re comfortable with. For some, this will mean two weeks on a single beach. Others will hop around to a few (or a few dozen) islands over the course of a trip. Having visited around 70 Thai islands over the years, many of them repeatedly, we’re hopelessly hooked. See you at the next island nerd convention?
Starting near Thailand’s eastern border with Cambodia, 213-square-km Ko Chang is Thailand’s third largest island and the main draw in a 52-island archipelago that bears its name. Elephant Island’s bulky slopes and conical peaks stand six km off the mainland of Trat province. While Chang is heavily developed and tacky in places, most of its forested interior, including several waterfalls, has been preserved as part of Mu Ko Chang Marine Park. You’ll also find some diving and more than a dozen beaches, most of them stacked with resorts but a few lying in seclusion.
Head to the southern tip of Chang to see a bunch of giant green-backed tortoises far out at sea—in fact those are the archipelago’s “in-between islands”. Most are uninhabited and a few—such as Ko Klum, Ko Lao Ya and Ko Phrao—are large enough to hide beaches accessible by private boat. Another, Ko Wai, has a few spartan bungalows on stellar beaches. High-season island hopping boats do stop at Wai, so why not?
Roughly at the centre of the archipelago comes 16-square-km Ko Mak (or Maak), a community-oriented farming island with some great family resorts—just watch out for the sandflies. A kilometre off Mak’s northeast coast, quirky Ko Kradat is home to freely roaming deer and a few coconut farmers. Also within kayaking distance are the white-sand blips of Ko Rayang and Ko Kham. Yet we think the star of this cluster is Ko Rang, a jungle-draped national park island with brilliant beaches and reefs to the west of Mak. Camping is possible on Rang, but most visit on day trips.
Further south and closing in on Cambodian waters, the archipelago ends at its second largest island and the sixth largest in Thailand: 105-square-km Ko Kut (or Kood). The jungle-mountain interior resembles Ko Chang but Kut’s roughly two-dozen beaches are far superior—in fact we think they match the most dazzling beaches of Southern Thailand. It’s a quiet island attracting couples, families, package tours and luxury travellers. On a boat trip you might snorkel an artificial reef off tiny Ko Rad before looping around Ko Mai Si, used primarily as an airstrip for guests of super-posh Soneva Kiri.
Now back on the mainland and plodding west from Trat towards Bangkok we pass through Chanthaburi province, which does have a few wee islands to share. At the mangrove-lined mouth of the Welu in Klung district, not far from Farm Buu Nim, Ko Chik (or Cheek) hosts a solar-powered fishing village and homestay reachable from Ang Kapong pier on the mainland. Visit during a new moon for the brightest firefly show.
Strike west from Klung for 50 km along the Chanthaburi coast to find Laem Singh, a wide beach near the uninhabited isles of Ko Chula and Ko Nom Sao, which conceal a beach or two plus some snorkelling and fishing opportunities, we’ve been told. All of Chanthaburi’s islands draw virtually no foreign visitors, so best brush up on your Thai first.
Eastern Gulf transport notes
Trat has an airport but few travellers use it because airfares are usually inflated beyond their worth, and the bus ride from Bangkok’s Ekkamai terminal to Trat only takes around five hours. Though some buses run straight to the Ko Chang ferry piers in Laem Ngop, most travellers still end up making a songthaew transfer in Trat town. The main pier for Ko Kut is in Laem Sok, some 40 km east of Laem Ngop.
Ferries to Ko Chang, Ko Mak and Ko Kut operate year round, but island hopping boats stop running from May through October. In high season you can ride them straight from Chang to Wai to Mak to Kut. One last word of advice: Don’t ride a scooter on Ko Chang if you don’t know how—serious accidents involving foreign travellers are ridiculously common amid the island’s switchback turns. If you are thinking of riding a scooter unlicensed, please read this.
When to go
Dry season is from November to May in the Ko Chang zone, and the bulk of visitors arrive between December and March. Watch out for long weekends around Thai holidays, when Chang car ferry queues extend for hours and nearly all rooms fill up on Chang, Mak and Kut. Flooding and mudslides occasionally take place on Chang during the rainy months from May through October, when all facilities close on Ko Wai and Ko Rang.
Start on Ko Chang and branch south through Ko Wai, Ko Mak and Ko Kut, with side trips to smaller islands tossed in as the mood moves you. A few weeks would do this justice, but put aside a few extra days if also checking out Chanthaburi on the way back to Bangkok.
Located 200 km southeast of Bangkok and 160 km west of Ko Chang, Ko Samet (or Samed) serves as a handy short-term getaway for many urbanites. Its 16 attractive beaches range from party hubs to romantic coves, with accommodation leaning upscale overall. Statues of a giant ogress and fluting prince depict characters from Phra Aphai Mani, a 19th-century Thai tale that refers to Samet as Ko Kaew Phitsadon, or “Magic Crystal Island”. If you have time back on the mainland, climb the hill at Khao Laem Ya for a vista encompassing much of Samet’s serpentine figure.
Within daytripping distance to the east of Samet are the petite isles of Ko Thalu, Ko Kudee and Ko Kham, all overseen by Mu Ko Samet - Khao Laem Ya National Park. Most visitors stop for an hour on each island during a speedboat tour, but camping is possible on Kudee’s wide mainland-facing beachhead. We think Thalu is one of the more spectacular islands in this zone.
Another 10 km ride east takes you to the triplet isles of Ko Mun (or Man), accessible only by tour boat from Samet or Laem Mae Phim on the mainland. Ko Mun Nork is an alluring island with exclusive resort that we stayed at ages ago, while Ko Mun Nai is best known for its sea turtle conservation centre. The third, Ko Mun Klang is also home to a resort, the Mantakiri.
Now returning to the mainland via Ban Phe we keep west past Rayong and find a fairly large group of islands keeping a very low profile. Set off the southern tip of Chonburi province, largely undeveloped Ko Samae San has beaches, reefs and forest paths that we’ve heard are stunning, but Thai Navy controls the island and, when inquiring, we were told that bikinis and alcohol are forbidden and foreigners need to be chaperoned by a Thai person. If that sounds like a blast, make your way to Sattahip.
Turning north up the Chonburi province coastline we find Ko Khram Yai, another uninhabited island controlled by the Navy. We’ve heard great things about the beaches, but day trips are limited to certain times to protect nesting sea turtles. Ask around with Pattaya-based travel agents if you’re keen to add Khram Yai onto one of the popular tours to nearby Ko Klet Kaew, an island that would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the hundreds of monkeys that live on it.
Continuing north we find Ko Lan (or Larn), a six-square-km island often hit on day trips from Pattaya. These also tend to include Ko Sak, where Neil Armstrong stamped his footprints soon after his maiden moon landing. Home to a handful of resorts, Lan is essentially Pattaya’s island—expect the same banana boats and pay-to-sit-on-the-beach mentality. If we ever make it back, we’ll cruise 10 km further west to uninhabited Ko Phai, part of a small cluster of isles attracting quite a few dive boats.
We’ve always liked 17-square-km Ko Si Chang, located north of Ko Lan and seven km off the coast of Sri Racha district—yep, home to that red sauce. As the closest noteworthy island to Bangkok (100 km), it hosted King Chulalongkorn’s teakwood holiday palace in the late 19th century—a source of local pride. Even if its beaches aren’t winning any awards, Si Chang has solid places to stay within villages that punch above their weight in seafood production. Boat trips to visit the countless fishing stacks surrounding neighbouring Ko Kham and Ko Khang Khao are not hard to find.
Central Gulf transport notes
Ban Phe is the jumping off point for Ko Samet. The ferry to Ko Lan departs from Pattaya’s Bali Hai pier, though many visitors come with a speedboat tour. Ferries to Ko Si Chang depart from a pier in Sri Racha, not far from the port where cruise ships dock at Laem Chabang. All of these mainland centres can be reached by bus from Bangkok’s Ekkamai terminal.
The main islands in this zone are located far enough apart to allow little scope for island hopping, other than on day trips. Expect to return to the mainland between them. While the under-used U Tapao - Pattaya is the only airport servicing this area, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi isn’t too far away and minibuses cut straight south to Sri Racha and Pattaya from Floor 1 in the main terminal.
When to go
The weather in these parts is similar to Bangkok, with dry season lasting from around November through April and the worst of rainy season hitting from July through October. Typically seeing less rain than Ko Chang, Ko Samet draws visitors year round and is best avoided around Thai holidays.
Ko Samet and Ko Si Chang are both great for a quick one off side trip out of Bangkok—island time for those last few unplanned days of a trip. With more time you could head to Sri Racha and spend a couple of nights on Si Chang before swinging south through Bang Saen and Ko Lan on the way over to Samet.
Upscale: Le Vimarn Cottages
The archipelago strung from 228-square-km Ko Samui draws a large share of Thailand’s island going tourists. If visiting Samui, put in your research while keeping in mind that much of the island is very heavily developed. If you love big-box stores, airplane flyovers and traffic jams, you’re in luck. As Thailand’s second largest island, Samui boasts a huge range of resorts, restaurants and attractions, from waterfalls to temples and muay Thai training facilities, and peace and quiet lives on in a few spots. One of them is Ko Taen, a serene ecotourism island sitting like a teardrop off Samui’s southern tip.
Set between the mainland and Samui are the 42 islands of Ang Thong Marine Park showing off dazzling cliffs that shelter a turquoise lagoon and cast shadows on exceptional white-sand beaches. Most visitors come on a day trip from either Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan, but do consider camping at Ko Wua Talap or Ko Phaluai if you’re into kayaking. For something different, enter the Ang Thongs out of Surat Thani and peruse a few little-known islands, such as Ko Nok Taphao, on the way north.
Thailand’s fifth largest island at 125 square km, Ko Pha Ngan has long played the role of Samui’s misbehaving sibling. The full moon parties are legendary and a hippie personality has endured since the ‘70s. But the island has evolved and you’ll now find luxury resorts and smooth roads joining plentiful options for yoga, meditation and detox programs. Throw in the jungle interior and it’s easy to see why Pha Ngan has remained a favourite of ours for decades.
Now jumping 50 km north we arrive at Ko Tao, the most popular place in Thailand to learn to dive. This hotspot has its problems, from garbage mismanagement to accusations of a mafia underbelly, but “Turtle Island” remains attractive in the back bays and you’ll find quality places to stay. A stone’s throw from Tao, the satellite isle Ko Nang Yuan has one gorgeous but overcrowded beach overseen by a single crummy resort.
Before moving on we’ll mention some lesser-known spots, starting with the 40 isles of Mu Ko Chumphon Marine Park, which fleck an area between Ko Tao and the mainland. While most are barely noticeable, daytrippers are welcome for snorkelling and beach lounging at Ko Khai, Ko Lang Ka Jiew and Ko Samet, the largest of the group at a modest two square km. Also in Chumphon province but further south, a local ferry from Ao Krok pier will take you to Ko Phi Tak, a fisher island whose name implies a haunting. Homestays are available if you want to meet the ghosts.
A 100 km jump north up the Gulf coast takes us to Bang Saphan Yai, the jumping off point for Ko Talu. This largely uninhabited island is the subject of a small marine park drawing some Thais and the very occasional foreigner to a rehabilitated reef and one resort. Though not worth going out of the way for, Talu once gave us a welcome break from mainland research.
Further north still and also in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, Ko Kho Ram is often visited from Hua Hin for its clan of monkeys. You’ll also find a few uninhabited isles off Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park that can be visited on a boat trip from Laem Sala or Haad Phraya Nakhon, whose splendid cave feels like it’s on an island thanks to the only-reachable-by-boat location.
Southern Gulf transport notes
Ko Samui has its own airport, though many travellers skip the sky-high fares and instead take a budget airline to Surat Thani or Chumphon for an immediate minibus and ferry transfer to the islands. The mainland transport hub of Surat Thani is well connected by bus and rail, with an army of travel agents notorious for overcharging and scams.
Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan are usually reached by car ferry from piers in Don Sak, and Ko Tao is accessible from Chumphon town, where you’ll also find day tours to the Mu Ko Chumphon islands. Once you’re out there, large year-round island-hopping ferries link all three islands. Most day tours are done by speedboat, though you will find quite a few longtails ready to shuttle you from Samui to Ko Taen or take you beach hopping on Ko Pha Ngan. Also note that Tao, Pha Ngan and Samui are very dangerous for inexperienced scooter riders.
When to go
Unlike around Ko Chang or anywhere on the Andaman side, the Samui zone’s weather tends to be decent straight from late December to August, though do expect more rain in the second half of that stretch. As with all popular Thai islands, book in advance at peak times like Christmas and Songkran. Specifically for Ko Pha Ngan, plan to stay on the opposite side of the island from Haad Rin if visiting during a full moon party that you’ll not partake in.
Most travellers enter these islands in the north at Ko Tao or south at Ko Samui before hopping from one to the next, hopefully with a day tour to the Ang Thong Islands thrown in. Allot two to three weeks if wanting to get to know the three main islands a bit.
Accommodation picks for the Samui zone
Backpacker: Treehouse Silent Beach | Infinity Beach Club | Golden Beach Resort | My Pen Rai Bungalows | Bottle Beach II | Why Nam Hut | Indie Hostel | Sai Thong Resort
We start with Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi, both roughly 18-square km islands plopped within view of Burma in Ranong province. While the beaches aren’t the best, we like the laid-back vibes and you’ll find surfing and diving opportunities on Phayam. Both islands have reggae bars and a secluded feel, with “little Chang” being the more rustic of the pair.
Around 20 km south of Phayam and accessible by day tour sit the nine little-known islands of Laem Son Marine Park, all tiny and uninhabited save a few rangers and the occasional travellers who camp on the beach. Snorkel or dive the staghorn and pillar coral extending between Ko Kum, Ko Yipun and Ko Khang Khao.
Receiving more attention are the magnificent twin islands of Ko Surin, resting in isolation 60 km out at sea. The traditionally nomadic Moken people hold down a village on Ko Surin Tai, while Ko Surin Nuea has campgrounds, bungalows and a canteen run by Mu Ko Surin Marine Park. The islands are well known to divers thanks to their proximity to Richilieu Rock, but snorkellers and even casual beach walkers spot reef sharks and sea turtles. Thin crowds are another strong point—do give Ko Surin a look.
Now striking south, close to the mainland you have three islands tangled up in mangrove forest. Stop by little Ko Ra if you’re really into offbeat islands; otherwise head straight to Ko Phra Thong to keep an eye out for the namesake “Golden Buddha” that’s supposedly buried beneath the vast beaches or striking savannah interior. Bring a shovel. Next comes Ko Kho Khao, another spacious and low-key island with comfy resorts pulling in families.
South of Kho Khao the mainland morphs from mangroves to beaches as you arrive in the touristy Khao Lak area. This is the jumping off point for the Similans, a chain of nine islands that, at time of writing, may only be visited as part of a day tour or dive trip. With immense boulders resembling giant’s toys beside crystal-clear water and powdery white sand, the islands are marvellous.
Unfortunately, overcrowding and warming seas have badly damaged the coral in these parts. In 2015 Thai authorities closed Ko Bon and Ko Tachai, two more uninhabited islands also overseen by Mu Ko Similan Marine Park. In August 2018, Jamie on Phuket notified us that dive boats are allowed to drop rope around these islands, but setting foot on them is forbidden year round.
Northern Andaman transport notes
Hosting the only airport in this zone, Ranong is the launch point for Ko Chang Noi and Ko Phayam—and it’s possible to hop between these two by longtail or speedboat. The Laem Son islands can only be reached by private boat or tour, mainly from Ranong, Ko Phayam or Bang Ben beach.
Daily speedboat tours run to Ko Surin in high season out of Khuraburi, and those staying overnight on Ko Surin Nuea can arrange for the same boat to pick them up later. Khuraburi is also the pier town for Ko Ra and Ko Phra Thong, though Ko Kho Khao is usually reached from Baan Nam Khem, a tsunami memorial village set just west of Takua Pa. If hitting the Similans, get yourself to Khao Lak.
When to go
This zone sees significant rain all the way from May through November—expect Ko Chang Noi and Ko Phra Thong to feel like ghost islands in the wettest months from July through October, when ferries can be sporadic. All national park islands close from around May through October.
Start near the Burma border crossing in Ranong and hit Ko Phayam, then pop over to Ko Chang Noi and throw in a side trip to either Ko Surin or the Laem Son islands. If you have more time, return to the mainland and cruise south to Khuraburi to hop from Ko Surin to Ko Phra Thong to Ko Kho Khao, doing that last leg by private longtail.
Midrange: Golden Buddha Beach Resort
Three weeks on Thailand’s northern Andaman coast
Covering more than 500 square km and administered as one of the 77 Thai provinces, Phuket is Thailand’s largest and most heavily touristed island. It has seedy parts but also family-friendly beaches, a historic capital town with great food and a huge list of activities and attractions. A lot of divers like Phuket’s position at the centre of Thailand’s Andaman coast.
Bringing some lovely beaches and villages, a bouquet of wee islands off Phuket’s east coast include Ko Hei, Ko Maphrao, Ko Rang Yai, Ko Nakha, Ko Lon and Ko Maithon. All of these host at least one resort and can be reached by hired longtail from the main island, making for some great island hopping. Further out to sea and some 20 km south of Phuket, the two islands of Ko Raya (or Racha) attract yachties, snorkellers and divers arriving on day trips or staying a night at one of the resorts.
A peninsula reaches off Phuket’s northeast coast and points straight at Ao Phang Nga, a 400-square-km bay with dozens of karst isles towering over emerald sea. Usual stops include the floating football pitch at Ko Panyee’s village, and Ko Kan, better known as “James Bond Island” after its role as evil-dude hideout in The Man With The Golden Gun. The bay is popular for day tours—with or without kayaking—from Phuket, Phang Nga and Ko Yao Noi.
Visible from all over the area, mountainous Ko Yao Yai and Ko Yao Noi provide a breather from the mainstream tourism found to the west on Phuket and east at Ao Nang. Yao Noi has some seriously upscale resorts, while Yao Yai attracts nature lovers looking to feel a world removed from Phuket. Yao Yai is also yai enough to place as Thailand’s seventh largest island.
Between the Ko Yao’s and the mainland Krabi province, Mu Ko Hong’s 13 idyllic islands are covered by Than Bok Khorani National Park. This Room Island’s namesake feature is a lagoon with water like molten jade, rimmed by vertical cliffs in a spot that’s ideal for kayaking. Along with smaller isles like Ko Lao Lading and Ko Phak Bia, the Hong group is usually reached from the Ao Nang area—and only on a day trip.
Closing this zone are two diminutive national park islands found five km off the Ao Nang coast. Translating as “Chicken Island”, Ko Gai’s limestone outcrop really does resemble a hen in irritated clucking posture. Gai also proffers a glorious sandbar when the tide goes down, typically seen in conjunction with Ko Poda’s handsome white-sand beach. You can reach these isles on a day trip from Railay, an only-reached-by-boat peninsula with marvellous beaches and a major rock climbing scene.
Central Andaman transport notes
Year-round ferries bounce between piers on Phuket, the Ko Yao’s, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta, plus points on the mainland including Tha Len, Haad Noppharat Thara (near Ao Nang), Railay and Krabi town. For smaller islands you’ll find private longtails and tours available on Phuket and in Ao Nang. Phuket also has an international airport and interprovincial bus terminal.
Phuket is a notoriously dangerous place to ride a scooter if you’re not experienced, licensed and insured. This is a shame because the island has long been blighted by a lack of reliable public transport—have fun with the “tuk tuk mafia”—or splash out and rent a car for your stay.
When to go
While the dry period from November to April is Phuket’s traditional high season, the island now stays busy straight through the western monsoon that dampens the area from May through October. The year-round tourism action is a relatively new development, largely based on visitors from China. On the Ko Yao’s, however, tourist numbers still follow the old highs and lows, and Ko Yao Yai, in particular, gets very quiet in rainy season.
Phuket’s year-round tourism translates into tour boat companies operating year round, a situation partially blamed for the deaths of 47 tourists when The Phoenix pleasure boat sunk in July 2018 on her way back to Phuket from Ko Raya Yai during a storm. If visiting any part of the Andaman in the rainy months, keep a close eye on the forecast (and the sky) before setting out for a boat tour.
Fly or bus to Phuket for a week, perhaps with side trips to Ko Hei and Ko Raya. Then cruise east to the Ko Yao’s and launch a day trip into Ao Phang Nga, perhaps finishing up with a stop on Ko Hong or Railay on the way down to Krabi. We’d hope for a good few weeks to get to know the Phuket zone.
Phuket to Krabi the slow way
This packed zone begins at Ko Phi Phi, a popular and attractive pair of islands found within striking distance of Phuket and Krabi. The many resorts, travel offices and dive shops join a cracking party scene on Ko Phi Phi Don’s isthmus, hemmed in by two beaches and limestone massifs. Love it or hate it, Phi Phi remains a star of the Thai islands.
Ko Phi Phi Leh’s gorgeous bays are overseen by Mu Ko Phi Phi - Haad Noppharat Thara Marine Park, and typically reached on day tours from Phi Phi Don or Ao Nang. We liked Ao Maya a while before Leo Dicaprio graced its shores in The Beach, prompting it to become a rather famous (and famously overcrowded) bucket-list destination. Stop by early before moving on to the blips of sand, flora and coral known as Ko Maipai and Ko Bida.
Some 20 km east of Phi Phi, two slightly larger islands sit close to the mainland attracting families and backpackers seeking a break from the bustle. First comes Ko Si Boya, a little-known island with a few bungalow joints, a traditional Muslim-Thai village and little else save a lot of cows and rubber trees. A hop further south takes you to Ko Jum (aka Ko Pu), marked by a mountain that we call “Mt Puji.” Though also dwelling in a slow pace, Jum offers more places to stay along with beaches that beat Si Boya’s by a mile.
Jum also has the advantage of being on a speedboat route to 81-square-km Ko Lanta, Thailand’s eighth largest island and a premier tourist spot that caught on a bit later than Phuket and Phi Phi. It provides an excellent resort selection to go with numerous dive outfits and 14 super beaches, some of them extending for miles. When you see the lighthouse, climb up to it.
Not far from the villages, fish farms and homestays of Lanta’s east coast, a cluster of minor islands, Ko Por, Ko Bu Bu and Ko Talabeng, combine for a day trip to caves and empty beaches by hired longtail. We’ve not stayed at Bu Bu’s lone resort, but Tezza seemed to approve.
Mu Ko Lanta Marine Park also covers reefs, cliffs and beaches at several specks set farther out at sea. Some 25 km west of Lanta amid open sea, Ko Haa is a prime dive and snorkel site that we hope to visit soon. We have been to Ko Rok, yet another set of twin islands where it’s possible to camp by a marvellous beach—keep a torch handy because the monitor lizards are massive. Ko Rok Nok and Ko Rok Nai sit across from one another, sharing a reef in between.
East of Ko Rok, the islands of Trang present scenery as marvellous as Phi Phi and Lanta, but with fewer visitors. Positioned in a triangle with only five to seven km separating each island, Ko Muk (or Mook), Ko Ngai (or Hai) and Ko Kradan all deliver stunning outlooks from beaches that we think rate among Thailand’s finest. While Muk has a couple of villages and a supply of cheap bungalows, road-free Kradan and Ngai mainly draw families and romance makers with cash to burn. All three islands are partially overseen by Hat Chao Mai National Park, which has some pretty mainland beaches to boot.
Some 15 km southeast of Kradan stretches Ko Libong, a 40-square-km island of Muslim-Thai villages, endangered dugongs, decent beaches and a backwater vibe that we find appealing. Further south and also typically reached from the mainland, Ko Sukorn is a more pastoral island where tourism places a distant third after farming and fishing. Both Libong and Sukorn provide a wonderful contrast with the more resort-y islands nearby.
Remote but reachable from Libong and Sukorn, Ko Lao Liang, Ko Phetra and Ko Takieng are extraordinarily pretty islands covered by Mu Ko Phetra Marine Park. With cliffs that look like watchtowers and fortress walls from afar, each island brings its own idyllic beach and the campground on Ko Lao Liang Nong has snorkels, kayaks, climbing gear and even a bar. Apart from seasonal park rangers, the only inhabitants are a few swallows’ nest climbers.
Moving south into Satun province we come to Pakbara, a small town with a big pier. The tranquility runs deep on nearby Ko Bulon Lae, a charming little eco-tourism island drawing trickles of backpackers to its serene bays. We’re big fans of Bulon.
Yet the biggest tourism draw out of Pakbara is Ko Lipe, another pint-size island of almost Maldivian beauty that has been developed in worrying ways over recent years. This blip of an island contains 100 or more resorts that stand as the only private places to stay in the Adang (or Butang) archipelago, which is mostly overseen by Mu Ko Tarutao Marine Park.
Not far from Lipe stretches the polished black-stone beach of Ko Hin Ngam along with three wild and mountainous islands: Ko Adang, Ko Rawi and Ko Tong (or Dong). These are usually hit on a day trip from Lipe, but Adang has a campground and bungalows fronting a casuarina-lined beach near a top-notch viewpoint. Also counted among the archipelago’s 21 islands is Ko Khai, known for its natural rock arch on a beach that makes instagrammers drool.
Now making our way back east towards Pakbara and closing in on Malaysian waters, 152-square km Ko Tarutao’s dense jungle dares travellers to camp, trek and cycle Thailand’s fourth largest island. As with Ko Adang the environment is almost completely untouched, with visitors staying in simple bungalows and tents strung beside vast beaches. Tarutao’s size and remoteness makes it a terrific venue for athletic training, yoga, meditation and self-reflection. Bring a hammock.
Finally, accessible from Pakbara but usually on group tours patronised mainly by Thais, you might check out Ko Lidi and Ko Khao Yai to see the unusual rock formations and lagoon. We’ve heard they’re great for kayaking, and camping is possible on Lidi if you bring your own tent and food.
Southern Andaman transport notes
Airports are found in Krabi, Trang and Hat Yai, and travel agents in any of these cities sell tickets to the islands. Once you’re out there, high-season-only island-hopping boats connect Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Ngai, Ko Muk, Ko Kradan, Ko Bulon Lae and Ko Lipe, which itself has boat connections to Malaysia’s Langkawi plus Ko Adang, Ko Tarutao and Pakbara on the Thai mainland.
Less-travelled islands that are off the main island-hopping routes, like Ko Libong and Ko Si Boya, may be reached via old-school songthaews and local ferries from the mainland centres. Private longtail boats are also widely available for shorter legs, such as Ko Si Boya to Ko Jum or Ko Muk to Ko Kradan, as well as for day trips to national park islands like Ko Rok and Ko Phi Phi Leh. You may have noticed: this zone is a winner for island hopping.
When to go
Following the same monsoon patterns as Phuket, the Phi Phi to Lipe zone enjoys dry season from November through April. All but the most popular islands draw few visitors during the rainy period from June through October. It’s essential to reserve rooms ahead of time if visiting small islands with limited accommodation, like Ko Phi Phi, Ko Ngai, Ko Kradan and Ko Lipe, around holidays like Christmas and Chinese New Year. During the rainy months, all national park islands close, most island hopping boats stop running and many places to stay and eat close on offbeat islands like Ko Bulon and Ko Sukorn.
Quite a few travellers pick up the island hopping route either on Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lipe and stop at Ko Lanta, Ko Muk and Ko Kradan, Ko Ngai or Ko Bulon, adding day trips to Ko Rok, Ko Adang and other national park islands along the way. Swinging through the mainland makes good sense if you’ll be hitting less-travelled islands like Ko Libong and Ko Si Boya.
If you’ve made it this far, congrats, you have been initiated into the Travelfish society of island nerds. Your perseverance has paid off, because now you get to hear about Thai islands found away from the ocean.
First comes Ko Klang, a traditional Muslim-Thai island with cow pastures that are similar to those on nearby Ko Si Boya. Mangrove-draped canals border Klang to the east and its windswept west-coast beaches meet the Andaman Sea, but we always think of it as a river island since getting there entails a 10-baht ferry across the river from Krabi town. Most who visit go on a day trip, but homestays and one resort are available.
Staying in Southern Thailand but moving across the Malay peninsula to the east coast, the largest lake in the kingdom, Thale Sap, plays host to the picturesque fishing and weaving island of Ko Yo. Yet the prize for most breathtaking lake islands has to go to the countless limestone splinters that tower above Chiew Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park.
Lastly, did you know that Bangkok has an island? Well, technically Ko Kret belongs to Nonthaburi, but riverboats from the Thai capital will take you to this enclave of Mon culture with a great market and a bicycle-friendly landscape in the middle of the Chao Phraya. Check out the pottery workshops and craft beer bar.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.