By: Paula Wallis
Thailand is home to some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Lush jungles, elephants roaming in their natural habitats, crystal clear waters with some of the best diving in Southeast Asia, they’re a tropical paradise in an exotic Asian setting. From the rustic and natural to the downright hedonistic, there’s an island for whatever kind of beach holiday you’re looking for.
Here are just six islands I had the opportunity to visit while in Thailand, each one more different than the last, and, if you have the chance, I recommend you spend some time on each of these lovely island paradises.
Ko Pha Ngan
World renowned for it’s Full Moon Party (and Half-Moon, and Quarter Moon, and Day-After Full Moon, and so on), Ko Pha Ngan has made a name for itself just by inventing reasons to host a party. And what a party it is. Backpackers stream in from all over the world in the week leading up to the Full Moon. Finding lodging during this time can be extremely challenging, so if you’re planning on attending the Full Moon Party, it’s a good idea to get online and find a bungalow or guest house to suit your needs. The party itself is held on Hat Rin Beach, so if you want to be in walking, or stumbling distance, it’s best to book something in this area. However, bungalows right on the beach tend to be incredibly noisy and prone to break-ins. Finding a bungalow off the main beach or even on other, quieter areas of the island is ideal. Guesthouses and bungalows all over the island are more than happy to arrange transportation to and from the party for you, no matter the time of day or night.
Rental scooters and motorcycles are also available in Thong Sala at very reasonable rates (your guesthouse will arrange a rental for you if you don’t want to journey into Thong Sala), but it’s not a great idea to count on this for transport home from the Full Moon Party, even if you’re not indulging in buckets of Thai whiskey and Red Bull, or the veritable buffet of marijuana, MDMA, mushrooms or ecstasy available at the party. The roads from Hat Rin are in sore need of repair, and it’s mainly the other drivers returning from the party that are cause for worry.
Sunset Bungalows on the west side of the island offers clean, inexpensive huts built into the hillside overlooking the ocean. All bungalows here provide hammocks strung from each ocean view balcony to assist you in your colossal Full Moon Party come down.
But the Full Moon Party isn’t the only draw for Ko Pha Ngan. It’s also home to some fairly respectable diving, excellent hikes through the jungle, and even a temple or two to explore.
There’s no airport on Ko Pha Ngan, so the best route for a backpacker on a budget is to take the night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani (request a sleeper bunk, the price difference is minimal and it’s worth it) and then ferry over from there.
If you can look past the beach bars, the varying types of insanely loud music competing with the neighboring bar stereos, and the giggling, overly- friendly “bar girls” of Ko Samui, then you just may find that this island has a lot more to offer than it’s reputation claims.
After spending three weeks on Ko Pha Ngan, I was spoiled by the extremely affordable lodgings, meals, and transportation. Ko Samui was a bit of a rude awakening, to say the least. Luckily I was traveling with a friend at that particular point and we were able to cut costs by sharing a run-down bungalow with two beds off the beach. I wish I’d known how friendly he’d gotten with one of the bar girls prior to my arrival, however, as she continuously showed up at 3am demanding to know who I was and what I was doing there. No amount of explaining that we were just friends was going to convince her that I wasn’t her latest replacement. After a few nights of this, I genuinely began to fear for my safety and suggested that maybe it was time we move on to another island.
But never mind the bar girls. If you’re not there looking for them, they’re easy enough to avoid. There’s plenty else to do on Ko Samui.
Hike to the Hin Lat or Na Muang Falls if you’re up for a bit of a walk.
Take a guided kayak trip in Ang Thong National Marine Park, where you can explore caves, snorkel, or just relax on the white sand beaches of the hidden lagoons.
Muay Thai matches are also regular events on Samui, and the entrance fee is small.
Thai for Elephant Island, Ko Chang is appropriately named. If you’d prefer not to make the long journey north to arrange your elephant trekking from Chiang Mai, Ko Chang is the place to go.
Like something reminiscent of Jurassic Park, Ko Chang’s lush rainforest jungles and steep cliffs rising from the surrounding ocean are stunning to behold as you arrive by longtail boat or ferry from the mainland.
I arrived in Ko Chang after a bit of a long haul through Cambodia, and was in desperate need of some hammock time. After doing a bit of elephant trekking, snorkeling, and kayaking around Ko Chang, I broke out the hammock and the book and settled right in for some chill time. I didn’t realize just how relaxed I had become when I went to search for my flip-flops to head off the beach for a change and maybe do some shopping. I had lost my flip-flops. Two weeks prior. And I hadn’t even noticed. It was clearly time to depart from my little stretch of beach!
I spent much of my time on Ko Chang at Nature Beach Bungalows, on Lonely Beach, which was within walking distance to many of the restaurants along the beach. The Treehouse Restaurant is one of the favorites among backpackers, with a large “treehouse” wooden deck overhanging the ocean. Pillows are strewn about on the deck for maximum lounging comfort amongst the low tables. Most restaurants along the beach serve amazing nightly BBQ buffets of fresh caught fish, thai salads, rice and BBQ’d corn on the cob.
After sunset you can settle in on a beach mat with a bucket of SangSom (Thai whiskey) and watch the firedancers spin their poi and listen to drum and bass, reggae, or jungle beats until 4 am, if you’re so inclined. Just be sure to request a bungalow a little off the beach if that’s not your thing, because the music gets louder as the night progresses.
If you’ve had enough of the chill-out scene, head over to White Sand Beach, slightly more populated and easier to find supplies for your travels. Bamboo Bungalows offer clean, comfy lodgings right on the beach.
Ko Phi Phi
Famed for its clear waters and sand like flour, you’ll see when you arrive why they chose this locale to film the backpacker cult hit The Beach.
Ko Phi Phi offers up some spectacular diving and snorkeling. Or perfect little secluded bays to just crack a good book and worship the sun. Longtail boats are available to taxi you wherever on the island you wish to go.
Lodgings on Ko Phi Phi range from downright luxurious to seriously budget. I was lucky enough to meet up with some friends from Italy who were on a short beach holiday and were more than willing to share their air conditioned (!!!) bungalow at Natural Resort with me. It had been a long time since I’d experienced more than a squat toilet, fan, and a hammock so this seemed like heaven on earth to me. The only problem I encountered was the secluded location of the resort. Located on the tip of the island with no roads in or out, I had to book a water taxi for any excursion. But if you’re looking for a peaceful, quiet getaway with plenty of opportunities for water sports, Natural Resort is the place to be. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t staying long, so I had to water taxi back to mid-island and find myself some cheaper digs. Chong Khao Bungalows had just what I needed. Cheap, clean, and centrally located, it was the perfect place to restock my dwindling book supply, book some day trips off island, and meet some fellow backpackers at the bars and restaurants nearby.
Known to many underwater enthusiasts as The place to dive in Thailand, Ko Tao is the perfect spot for novice divers to acquire their PADI certificate.
High season on Ko Tao can get pretty crowded, so if you’re not planning on doing any diving, your odds of finding a place to stay can get pretty slim. Most resorts have divemasters living and working full time for them, and the push to sign up for a dive course or dive holiday can get pretty aggressive. Thankfully, that was just what I was there to do, so I had no problem finding lodging. I signed up with Crystal Dive Resort for a five night stay – the duration it would take to acquire my PADI certificate. If you’re buying a dive package, the accommodation comes pretty much included, if you compare the cost of getting your PADI certificate to other countries. I was happy to stay in a large, tile-floored, air conditioned bungalow with private, western style toilet just a short walk from the beach. I had been traveling so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to be up at the crack of dawn everyday hitting the books before diving though.
After finishing my PADI course I stuck around to do some more diving and just soak up the vibe of the island, as it was nearing Full Moon and I wanted to spend it in a more chilled out atmosphere than nearby Ko Pha Ngan.
I moved to SB (I think it stood for Sandy Beach) Bungalows further along the island, but still on the beach. Sigh. Back to squat toilets and no air conditioning. I had thought it would be a little more mellow on Ko Tao for Full Moon, but was surprised to see the same ravers busting out the ‘shroom shakes, ecstasy tablets and giant spliffs that accompany the Full Moon on Ko Pha Ngan. Still, the crowd was much smaller than the usual 8,000-10,000 you can get up to on Ko Pha Ngan, so, a little less crazy.
Ko Samet was kind of a stopover for me in order to avoid spending New Year’s Eve either on a bus to Cambodia or in Bangkok, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I hadn’t researched it all that much before arriving.
I was pleasantly surprised to find pristine, sandy beaches, great restaurants and a clean, quiet atmosphere to lay low in for a few days.
Ko Samet is a popular destination for Thai Nationals, so, being New Year’s Eve, it was quite crowded by the time I’d arrived and finding lodging was a tad on the difficult side. Locals had also jacked their prices up accordingly, thereby adding to my dilemma. I was in talking to the manager of what turned out to be the last available bungalow on the island, trying to negotiate a fairer price, when three weary backpackers came through the door, heaving their rucksacks off with a sigh and looking without much hope toward the manager. I quickly explained the situation to them and asked how they felt about sharing a bungalow between the four of us for the duration of my stay, or whenever anything else became available, whichever came first. They readily agreed and after another round of negotiation with the manager (he had rapidly appraised the situation and jacked the price up another 300 baht as we were standing there – cheek!), we had ourselves a lovely bamboo bungalow with air conditioning and private bathroom right off the beach. I was relieved to see four mattresses strewn across the floor of the largish sized bungalow, as we hadn’t really checked the sleeping arrangements before agreeing to a price and I was the only female in the group.
Having spent only three days on Ko Samet, I can’t tell you as much about the island as I’d like to. I can tell you that if you arrive on any sort of Thai National or foreign holiday without pre-arranging lodgings, be prepared to rough it on the beach for at least a day or two. I came across quite a few travelers who were doing just that. Not the worst place in the world to spend a night or two camping rough however. Clean white sands, warm clear water, and public showers available at very reasonable rates.
Ko Samet is a nice quiet island where you’ll get an authentic feel for Thai culture. Day trip excursions are available if you want to explore some of the smaller surrounding islands, and there are also one or two dive companies where you can get PADI certified or just add some more sights to your dive log.
The locals put on a great New Year’s Eve party, much different than you’d experience on some of the other, touristier islands. Traditional Thai dancers, singers and Muay Thai Boxing matches made for a refreshing change of pace.
A couple of things to note before you journey to the beautiful islands of Thailand; if you’re planning to indulge in the abundance of illegal substances available to tourists on many of these islands, be careful! Thai Police are ever vigilant, though it may not seem so when you attend a Full Moon Party, and are famous for their extremely thorough searches and bank-account-emptying “fines.” It may seem like a great idea at the time, but I came across many a backpacker whose holidays were ruined or cut short by run-ins with Thai Police. Worse still, imagine ending up in a Thai Prison for an indeterminate amount of time.
Women traveling alone; keep an eye on your drinks, particularly at the Full Moon Party, as there have been many reports of sexual assaults. Better yet, find a group of ladies, join them for the party, and look out for each other. Other than that, Thailand is extremely safe for women traveling alone, as I can attest to. Just don’t put yourself in silly situations.
Most of these islands, if you arrive when they’re not gearing up for a Full Moon Party or some sort of national holiday, have more than enough accommodations to suit your needs, from budget to luxury, and you should be fine arriving without pre-booking and just checking out the ones that catch your eye.
Having said all that, the only thing left is; have fun island-hopping!
About the author:
Paula Wallis makes her home in beautiful British Columbia in the Best City in The World, Vancouver. She spends her spare time seeking out the best beaches in the world and is a huge fan of hammocks. Follow her on fanaticnomadic.blogspot.com