Though Bangkok is a major draw card for Thailand’s tourism industry, it’s a range of alluring islands that inspires so many global travellers to visit the country’s Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand region to explore a number of islands – both famous and barely known.
While there are several main Thai islands – referred to locally as koh or ko – if all the specks of land surrounded by water are included, there are hundreds along the country’s coastline. Many travellers became aware of the dramatic beauty of maritime Thailand when Khao Phing Kan formed the backdrop to the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. Moviegoers were captivated by the island’s towering, forested cliffs lining Phang Nga Bay to the northeast of Phuket.
Karst topography develops on limestone rock and is characterised by steep cliffs, rounded hills, caves, suspended lakes, and backwaters called hongs. The rocks are blanketed by distinctive plants and some trees, all of which are able to survive in the thin layer of soil. Though these tropical oceanic cliffs are certainly not unique to Thailand – karst geological formations occur in many other parts of the world, after all – Malaysia’s northern neighbour is arguably endowed with some of the finest.
Phuket and Samui are of course well known to regional and even global travellers, but lesser-known islands such as Chang, Samet, Bulon, Muk, Racha Yai, and Kut remain as paradises, most just off the travel radar. Backpackers of the ’60s and ’70s pioneered travel to Thailand, and while they still flock here, especially to the more remote islands, plenty of Thailand’s islands are now established travel destinations, a few of which boast luxurious resorts.
Thailand’s finest island resorts feature signature restaurants and spas, while the less-visited islands offer comfortable but basic accommodation and infrastructure – at least for the time being. Things change quickly in Thailand, and some of the isolated islands of a decade or so ago (like Racha Yai, for example) are now significantly more mainstream destinations.
Leisure activities on offer will differ from island to island, but generally, visitors can enjoy sailing, diving, snorkelling, whitewater rafting, elephant parks and sanctuaries, kayaking, rock climbing, and golf on most.
Following is a round-up on several Thai islands dotting the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
Phuket is Thailand’s largest island (543 sq km) and known worldwide by travellers who fly direct into the new international airport. Its main beaches are along the western coast and the most popular and crowded beaches are Patong and Karon. There are other secluded bays and coves like Nai Yang, Kamala, and Nai Harn.
Diving in remote (and relatively pristine) islands such as the Similans is a rite of passage for global divers, while those with a just a passing interest will find many other opportunities in waters closer to Phuket.
It’s easy to get blinded by the sand glare along Patong Beach, but Phuket has many faces, including old Phuket Town. Head to Soi Romanee to admire the old restored Chinese shoplots. Alternatively, seek out Jungceylon Shopping Centre and Central Festival Phuket, which are two of several malls on the island. Explore the interior rainforests and plantations along dirt trails on all-terrain vehicles. Along a similar vein, Jungle Xtrem Adventure Park offers treetop adventures in a former rubber estate. The Phuket Thai Cookery School, meanwhile, helps budding masterchefs cook iconic Thai dishes during hands-on classes.
Phi Phi Islands
This small island group of just 12 sq kmis located in the Andaman Sea between Phuket and Krabi. Ao Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi Ley (or Le or Leh) is arguably one of the world’s finest and most scenic beaches. White sands meet turquoise waters, and its stunning beauty didn’t escape the attention of the producers of the Hollywood movie The Beach, which was partly filmed here. The small island attracted hordes of day trippers routinely crowding the beaches, which admittedly eroded its overall appeal. Today, sadly, Koh Phi Phi Ley has been well and truly ‘loved to death’ and after a period of mandated closure (followed by the pandemic), some reports still suggest that the paradise is occasionally made off-limits, so it’s best to check the latest news.
The neighbouring (and larger) island of Koh Phi Phi Don is where most resorts are located, and a famous viewpoint provides dramatic views of Ao Ton Sai and Ao Lo Dalam beaches. The port area of Ao Ton Sai is densely populated with the usual assortment of tourist facilities which appeal to some, while those seeking quieter retreats need to travel by boat to more tranquil locations. Water sports, snorkelling, resort lounging, and relaxed dinners and drinks by the beach are what attract tourists.
Phi Phi Islands are accessible by boats and ferries from Phuket, Krabi, and Lanta.
Krabi and Koh Lanta
Krabi’s dramatic limestone cliffs, beaches, offshore islands, and international airport ensure Krabi receives a growing number of sun-seekers. Krabi is on the mainland and while the riverine town has an interesting market, most tourists head to the beaches of Ao Nang and Railay and from here, fan out to several offshore islands like Phi Phi, Hong, and Lanta. Railay has the best beaches, while Ao Nang is a well-established tourist beach with many facilities. A flotilla of longtail boats is moored offshore to ferry day visitors to near-deserted offshore islands.
While there are ferries to Koh Lanta many visitors are driven from Krabi to the 340-sq km island via the passenger or car ferry into Ban Sala Dan. Most resorts line up in a thin strip of coastal development along the west coast, although there is a road across the island and down the east coast. While development over the past two decades has been rapid, Lanta retains a relaxed island ambiance. Ao Kantiang is one of the island’s most picturesque beaches, with Pimalai Resort enjoying a splendid hillside location.
Fly direct to Krabi Airport, which is the base for domestic flights and a handful of international flights, including nonstop from Kuala Lumpur.
Samui and Phangan Islands
The most prominent tourist island group in the Gulf of Thailand is the 247-sq km Samui, which includes the main island and surrounding ones like Phangan and Tao. Samui appeals because of direct flights and a natural beauty that is mostly intact – some visitors remark that Samui is much like Phuket was 30 years ago.
While resorts cling to the coastal fringe, the hilly interior is mostly carpeted in natural vegetation, including thousands of swaying coconut palms. Samui appeals to those seeking a laidback holiday and many love it so much, they frequently return. The main beaches of Chaweng and Lamai are on the east coast and roads just beyond the beaches are lined with bars, restaurants, cafés, shops, and spas.
Big Buddha (Wat Phra Yai) at Hat Bangrak is perched 12 m high on a small island connected to the mainland. Temple-goers should also visit the ornate Wat Plai Laem and Kho Hua Jook with its picturesque beach vistas. Golfers, meanwhile, all want to play one of the region’s finest courses at Santiburi Samui Golf and Country Club. For those who like a different sort of club, Koh Phangan or ‘Full Moon Island’ is renowned for its full-moon parties, which still attract young travellers in search of a beachside good time.
Below the sea’s surface, there are several dive sites around both islands, as well as neighbouring Koh Tao and Ang Thong Marine National Park. Kayaking around the limestone crags is another popular activity here.
Koh Samui is well served by domestic and international flights into the small privately owned airport. Bangkok Airways operates direct flights to and from Kuala Lumpur.
Koh Hai and Trang
In southern Thailand, Trang is the base for exploring several islands in the southern Andaman Sea. There is a small airport with flights from Bangkok while trains from Bangkok terminate here too. The islands of Hai (or Ngai), Muk (or Mook), Kradan, and Libong are accessible from the small coastal village of Hat Pak Meng. These islands haven’t been fully discovered yet, and there are small resorts on most.
Koh Muk is home to Emerald Cave, which is more a steep-sided opening accessed via a sea canal. Once inside, the light is almost iridescent and glistens like an emerald gemstone. Jumping into the water and floating through the cave into this little patch of paradise is half the fun.
Located in Satun Province, the 50 islands in and near the sprawling 1,500-sq km Koh Tarutao Marine National Park have captured the attention of intrepid travellers. Best accessed during the dry season (November to May) the main islands are Adang and Lipe, with boats departing from Pak Bara (there are services from Langkawi, mostly from October to May).
Sea gypsies have lived here for centuries, but now they share the beaches and emerald waters with those seeking an isolated paradise. Beaches on Lipe such as Sunset and Pattaya are lined with mostly simple chalet-style accommodation. Tarutao is a relaxing place, with few attractions apart from snorkelling and diving.
The Thai islands in the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand are truly some of the most stunning destinations in the world, and for residents in Malaysia, most are a fairly easy-to-reach paradise. From the pristine beaches of the lesser-known islands to the lush jungles of Koh Samui to the fun-filled Patong nightlife of Phuket, the islands offer a diverse range of experiences for travellers.
Of course, especially for island tourism, it is essential for visitors to be responsible and sustainable in their travels, preserving these beautiful islands for future generations to enjoy. But with that in mind, the rich cultural heritage, delicious cuisine, and unparalleled natural beauty of Thailand’s myriad islands make them a must-visit for anyone looking for a tropical escape.
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