Thailand is world-famous for its sandy landscapes and island hopping adventures, so much so that planning a trip here can feel a little overwhelming. A top spot for backpackers and students, Thailand has around 1430 islands in total, with party-centrals Phuket and Phi Phi being the crowd-favourites. But even if loud music is the last thing you want on holiday, do not rule Thailand out completely. This extraordinary country is hardly-off-the-beaten-track, but if you know where to look, you can find your personal paradise amidst the circus.
For your first time in Thailand
Despite being one of Thailand’s largest islands, Koh Samui has stayed true to its roots. Once a humble fishing quarter, Koh Samui blends together small town serenity with staggering temples and nature sanctuaries. But muddy Quad Bikes are just as easy to come by as luxurious hotels by the sea. Built from the ground-up to give international tourists a taste of Thailand, Koh Samui prides itself on being a destination where dreams come to life in the form of piña coladas sipped by the sea.
Despite being a quieter island, Koh Samui has a wild side to it, too. Aside from island hopping the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park and the ethical Samui Elephant Sanctuary, this island breathes new life when the sun sets. The Starz Cabaret is Samui’s leading act decked out in jewels. Enjoy a drink or two for an evening of both tradition and pop culture tributes, where there is no shortage of glitter.
Between its overall popularity and stylish airport, Koh Samui is one of the more expensive islands on this list. But as an all-rounder island made with travellers in mind, Koh Samui is an ideal introduction to this vast country: especially if you are not used to travelling so far from home.
How to get there: Fly into Samui International Airport (USM) either directly or via transfer from Bangkok.
For one of a kind nightlife
Ever heard of the Full Moon Party? If dancing on the beach from dusk until dawn sounds like your idea of fun, then look no further than Koh Phangan. Held almost every month on Haad Rin Beach, this world-famous event attracts enough people to fill up the entire cove. Entry only costs 200 Baht (€5) and can be bought from the main alleys. Not to mention the infamous alcohol buckets which go for even cheaper. So long as you keep safe by following these precautions, the Full Moon Party can be an unforgettable experience of EDM, fire skipping ropes and UV paint — all under the moonlight glow.
Whilst the Haad Rin Beach is unruly at night, it is surprisingly peaceful in the daytime. Although the water current is quite strong, the soft white sand is ideal for unwinding on. But more low-key beaches like Thong Nai Pan Noi and Salad Beach are often preferred for this activity. Since Koh Phangan is a small island, you have enough time to try them all.
Home to a sizeable community of digital nomads, Koh Phangan has a laidback and international friendly vibe. If you are hoping to make new friends whilst solo travelling, then consider staying at the sociable Phanganist Hostel: nestled in between Haad Rin Beach and the West Coast. Prices start at €8 a night.
How to get there: Fly into Samui International Airport (USM) and transfer via ferry to Ko Phangan.
For budget travel
Travelling on a budget can sometimes be a challenge, even in countries like Thailand which are known for their low prices. Fortunately, Koh Chang rises up to this without compromising on beauty. Whilst whispers of Koh Chang are starting to whir around, this island is often unheard of amongst tourists.
Its beaches live up to Thailand’s reputation, but the real fun can be found in the heart of the jungle. Climb atop to the Kai Bae Viewpoint where you might spot some monkeys, or go ziplining at the Tree Top Adventure Park. With 7 waterfalls to chase, Koh Chang is a natural paradise made for trekking. But Koh Chang also has a few twists up its sleeve, the most unusual of those being the Ghost Ship Hotel — which despite its harmless appearance, is rumoured to be haunted…
The nightlife here is nowhere near as wild as Koh Phangan, but Lonely Beach is still a great spot for music and drinks. Despite what the name suggests, Lonely Beach has quite the handful of nearby restaurants, bars and hostels: making it the perfect meeting point for like-minded lone wolfs.
How to get there: Transfer from Bangkok’s international airport (BKK) to Trat airport (TDX). Take a taxi to Ao Thammachat Pier where you can ride a ferry into Koh Chang.
For scuba-diving and snorkelling
Around 60km away from the Thai mainland, you will find the secluded Surin Islands without a skyscraper in sight. Everything, it seems, is made from the land — from the straw huts and log swings, to the simple row-boats docked at wooden piers. With the exception of January, the Surin Islands is mostly tranquil.
The Surin Islands may seem like an usual pick for scuba diving, considering how much Koh Tao and the Surin Islands excel in this category. Koh Tao is amazing for building the foundations of learning how to scuba dive, but the Surin Islands will give you all the freedom you desire when exploring its sea bed. And whilst swimming with manta rays and whale sharks at the Similan Islands is an once in a lifetime experience, the Surin Islands are equally enchanting.
Its purple coral reef is incredibly vivid having almost fully recovered from bleaching. As a result, this underwater oasis attracts all kinds of small sea creatures. The Mu Ko Surin National Park is possibly this island’s most coveted spot, but Koh Torinla is simply magical. If you are lucky, you may come across a banded sea krait or a whitetip reef shark.
The Surin and Similan Islands are closed from May to October: Thailand’s monsoon season. This helps with protecting the islands’ marine life and habitat, so that scuba divers can enjoy these stunning destinations for time to come.
How to get there: Independent travel to the Surin Islands can be difficult, so we recommend going through a travel agent instead. You can book from Khao Sok, Khao Lak, and Phuket.
Thailand has its fair share of peaceful island getaways, with Koh Lipe being a shining example of this. Although this island can be quite hard to reach, it is well worth the journey. If not for the two beaches that stretch for miles or the first-class resort villas, then for all the activities above and below the water.
Scuba diving is quite popular here, largely thanks to the protected coral reefs. The Tarutao National Marine Park is the most visited spot for this activity, as its sea hosts fascinating creatures like dudongs, irrawaddy dolphins and sperm whales. And in the heart of this archipelago’s forests, you will find creatures like mouse deer and the endangered fishing cats.
Whilst Koh Lipe is not heaping with activities, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to spa treatments. This scenic island certainly plays to its strengths, so if you need to escape for a couple of days, then the Koh Lipe will leave you feeling refreshed and well-rested.
How to get there: Fly into Hat Yai International Airport (HDY) either directly or via transfer from Bangkok. Take a bus or taxi to Pakbara pier, where you will then take a boat to Koh Lipe.
For a little bit of everything
Can’t decide between beaches, parties or temples? Good news: you don’t have to. There is no denying how crowded Phuket gets, but if you look beyond the usual tourist hotspots, you will find quite a few unexpected gems.
Booking a day trip boat ride along Phang Nga Bay is a rite of passage for all 007 fans, as this ethereal, emerald landscape was featured in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). As are the other-worldly temples, of which there are 40 in total: including the 45-meter high Big Buddha, carved out of white marble.
Avoid the claustrophobic Patong beach and travel further afield to quieter areas like Mai Khao and Surin beach. It may be hard to believe that you could find a bit of peace and quiet at Thailand’s number 1 tourist destination, but with a little planning, it is more than possible. If you do not mind a crowd here and there, then we suggest a stroll through Phuket’s enchanting old town which captures this area’s effervescent spirit.
How to get there: Fly into Phuket International Airport (HKT) either directly or via transfer from Bangkok.