Best Islands in Thailand | 15 Must-See Thai Isles

09 Aug 2021

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Treat yourself to a stay in a 5-star resort, making full use of its blissful spa facilities and fine-dining restaurant with sunset views. Follow the dawn calls of unseen creatures into the rainforest and discover hidden waterfalls, before spending the afternoon building up your tan on a white-sand beach. Or island-hop between world-class scuba diving spots, full-moon parties, and yogic rejuvenation. Whatever you want from a tropical holiday, Thailand has an island — or entire archipelago — for you. To give you some inspiration, here’s our list of the best Thai islands, and what to see and do when you get there.


Gulf of Thailand islands

Koh Samui
Once a haven for backpackers, Thailand’s second-largest island now has much broader appeal. Its coastline is dotted with luxury hotels, smart bungalows, family-friendly resorts, yoga and spa retreats, and honeymoon hideaways. For calm waters and beautiful sunsets, roll out your towel on the relaxed Maenam and Bophut beaches. The lively resort of Chaweng, meanwhile, offers budget hostels, souvenir shops, fast food, pubs, tattoo parlours, and indoor skydiving. Wherever you base yourself, it’s easy to fill your days with watersports, beach massages, or hikes to waterfalls in the mountainous, jungle-covered interior, or visits to attractions like Wat Plai Laem temple, Samui Elephant Sanctuary, and the 12-metre-tall golden Big Buddha, which looms above the Gulf of Thailand.

Koh Samui

Koh Phangan
It’s known for its monthly full-moon parties on Haad Rin’s peninsula — and the half-moon and black-moon parties that fill the gaps between — but Koh Phangan also offers the antidote to such hedonistic pursuits. On Koh Samui’s attractive, less-developed neighbour you can visit spas and meditation centres, learn Thai cooking, windsurf, and hike through forests to landmarks such as colourful Kuan Yin temple, from where you can look out across the island’s green canopy. Alternatively, take a long-tail boat to one of the many secluded beaches like Bottle Beach, Haad Sadet, or Haad Wai Nam, where you can rent a bungalow and just chill out. More lively beach options include Thong Nai Pan with its upmarket accommodation and sunset-facing Haad Yao.

Koh Phangan

Koh Tao
North of Koh Phangan, little Koh Tao is one of the best places in Thailand for scuba diving. Its dive sites offer a combination of good visibility, sea life that includes barracuda, scorpionfish, clownfish, corals, turtles, and whale sharks, and plenty of underwater pinnacles, swim-throughs, caves, and canyons to explore. It’s suitable for beginners and experienced divers alike, and competition between operators keeps prices down. The island’s west coast is home to its longest stretch of sand, Sairee Beach, where there are low-cost lodgings, restaurants, and bars where you can sip a sunset drink or party into the small hours. The south has the plushest resorts and best beaches, while there are some secluded coves in the east accessible by boat or taxi.

Koh Tao

Ang Thong Marine National Park
These 42 small islands make for a popular day trip from Koh Samui, but if you’re prepared to rough it a bit, you can linger for a few nights and feel like you’ve escaped from it all. The islands have coral reefs, white-sand beaches, lush rainforest that’s home to macaques, leopard cats, monitor lizards, and pythons, and limestone caves filled with intriguing stalactites and stalagmites. Koh Mae Ko island is home to spectacular Emerald Lake, while Koh Wua Ta Lap, offers hikes up to unforgettable panoramas of the archipelago. It’s also where you’ll find a few bungalows to rent (alternatively bring your own tent or hire one from the national park office there). But there’s little else, so when the day-trippers have left and the electricity generator is switched off at 11pm, there’s really nothing to do but fall asleep to the sounds of nature.

Ang Thong Marine National Park

Koh Samet
One of the best islands near Bangkok, Koh Samet’s proximity to the capital means it’s a popular weekend destination for city dwellers. The 4-hour journey means it’s also close enough to visit during a Bangkok stopover, though try to go there on quieter weekdays. There are plenty of resorts, bungalows, bars, and restaurants dotted around. Activity-wise, you can go kayaking and jet skiing, or take boat trips to the tiny Koh Kudi and Koh Thalu islands for snorkelling and diving. Look out too for fire shows and barbecues on the beach. The best stretches of sand include Wong Duean and Ao Wai, and generally the further south you go on this thin, 6-kilometre-long island, the quieter and less developed the beaches are.

Koh Samet

Koh Chang Archipelago
Close to the Cambodian border, this is Thailand’s easternmost archipelago. Koh Chang, the largest island, has been dubbed “Thailand in miniature” by Condé Nast Traveller. Its west coast has the best beaches — White Sand Beach and Klong Prao among them — while nearby are beach bars, tattoo parlours, travel agents, and moped hire firms. Lonely Beach, meanwhile, attracts backpackers and partygoers. Head to the more laid-back south and east for quiet sandy beaches and fishing villages like Salakkok. From Koh Chang you can take a boat to little Koh Mak, where Ao Soun Yai beach offers sunsets, shallow waters, and a low-key vibe. The last island in the chain is Koh Kood. Much less developed than Koh Chang, it tempts independent travellers, families, and couples with its soft white sands and clear waters — plus accommodation ranging from upmarket resorts to guesthouses and bungalows. You can trek through coconut plantations and jungle to waterfalls like Nam Tok Khlong Chao, which has a big natural pool to cool off in. The west coast has a series of bays with some lovely beaches, plus bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, while the east-coast fishing village of Ao Yai is worth a visit for the seafood.

Koh Chang Archipelago

 

Andaman Sea islands

Phuket
On Phuket, you can stay at uber-luxurious resorts, dine in world-class restaurants, reset body and mind in expensive spas, and give your credit card a workout in designer boutiques. But if you’re on a backpacking adventure, family vacation, package holiday, activity break, or cultural foray, Thailand’s largest island makes an equally ideal destination. There are plenty of beaches to choose from, Kata and Karon being among the most popular (along with Patong, a neon-lit resort with pubs, clubs, bars, and a somewhat sleazy reputation), while Kata Noi, Nai Thon, and Surin are quieter alternatives. Phuket Town offers an abundance of food markets and Michelin-rated restaurants serving local Chinese-influenced cuisine, plus museums, Sino-Portuguese architecture, and reasonably priced guesthouses. Activities include playing a round at stunning Red Mountain Golf Club — built on a former tin mine — and day trips to Ao Phang Nga National Park to kayak through its spectacular seascape of karst islands.

Phuket

Koh Yao islands
Linked by a short boat ride, Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai in Phang Nga Bay are two islands near Phuket that are a world away from their more famous neighbour. Check into a homestay, eco-friendly villa, or luxury boutique hotel, then hire a bike to explore the interior’s jungle, rice paddies, and rubber and coconut plantations, while trying to spot wildlife such as hornbills and monkeys. Kayak through mangroves and pretty coves, arriving at some semi-deserted beach, then head to a sleepy fishing village to feast on the day’s catch while gazing out to the tiny islands of the surrounding Ao Phang Nga National Park. This is, after all, a place of “magnificent maritime views from almost every angle” (Rough Guides).

Koh Yao islands

Similan Islands National Park
This remote archipelago is more than 60 kilometres off Thailand’s west coast. Warm waters and good underwater visibility, plus a fabulous array of marine life that includes rays, sharks, sea turtles, moray eels, barracuda, parrotfish, and many types of coral, make this an ideal scuba destination. You can take a liveaboard diving trip (overnight stays are banned on the islands themselves) from Khao Lak on the mainland — many trips also visit the more northerly Richelieu Rock, which DIVE Magazine says “should be in every diver’s want-to-go places”. The park is closed from mid-May to mid-October for monsoon season.

Similan Islands National Park

Koh Lanta
An hour by boat from Krabi, Koh Lanta consists of two islands connected by a bridge: Koh Lanta Yai and Koh Lanta Noi. Swanky resorts and beach bars contrast quiet fishing villages and mangroves, while the sound of the call to prayer emanates from mosques scattered around the islands. Hiring a moped is a good way to explore; Koh Lanta Old Town offers markets, traditional wooden houses, and temples, while Koh Lanta Yai’s southern end has beautiful coves, cliffs, and a lighthouse. Koh Lanta is home to “divine miles-long beaches” (Lonely Planet); head to Kantiang Bay for fine sands backed by mountains, while relaxed Nui Beach is surrounded by jungle, and Long Beach is popular for its bars, restaurants, and sunsets.

Koh Lanta

Koh Jum
There’s very little to do on this island to the north of Koh Lanta. Its beaches have such alluring names as Sunset Beach, Magic Beach, and Secret Beach, and most are lined with trees that all but camouflage the wooden bungalows, and scattering of low-key restaurants and bars. You may even find you have the beach to yourself. It’s the perfect place to just laze on the sand all day before heading for one or two cooling sundowners and a bite to eat. When the power goes off late at night, retire to your lodgings by torch or paraffin-lamp light and embrace the opportunity for a good night’s sleep.

Koh Jum

Koh Tarutao Marine National Park
This archipelago of 51 islands — most of them uninhabited — is in the far south of Thailand, close to Langkawi in Malaysia. It’s home to white-sand beaches off which stingrays, whale sharks, and dolphins swim, while dusky langurs, crab-eating macaques, tree pythons, and hornbills lurk in and around virgin rainforest. Unlike the rest of the national park, popular Koh Lipe has been allowed to develop and does not shut down for the monsoon. It has luxury resorts and spas, nightlife, and a low-rise village centre crammed with restaurants and shops. Still, the beaches are “gorgeous”, the dive sites are “sensational”, and there’s a “contagiously friendly vibe”, says Lonely Planet. Nearby Koh Adang is a quiet day-trip option for its beaches, waterfalls, and viewpoints. Koh Tarutao, a speedboat ride from both the mainland and Koh Lipe, receives few visitors. It has bungalows and hiking routes, and is a good place to get away from it all.

Koh Tarutao Marine National Park

 

Further reading
Feeling inspired? Search our collection of holidays to Thailand or read our ultimate Thailand travel guide. You can also plan your own island-hopping adventure, and peruse our guides to popular Thai destinations including the Golden Triangle and Pattaya.

Nick Elvin contributed to this post.

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