How to Pick the Perfect Thai Island Paradise For You
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TPG Contributor Lori Zaino offers her best tips for choosing the perfect Thai island paradise for you, outlining the perks of some of the most popular islands in order to help you find one or two that suit your needs. (All photos are by author unless otherwise specified).
With hundreds of islands scattered across the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, Thailand boasts some of the most stunning and exotic beaches in the world. Thanks to varying degrees of development and tourism, there are islands perfectly suited for backpackers, party-goers, honeymooners, families and pretty much every type of traveler.
Below is a breakdown of what to expect on several major islands and how to find one that's perfect for your next trip. First, to help you get started, there are three important things to keep in mind as you begin planning your Thai island getaway:
1. Before You Book Anything, Check When Monsoon Season Will Be
No island getaway is fun in the pouring rain, so do your homework before you go and plan your trip accordingly! Monsoon patterns tend to differ by region. Rains are usually strongest between April and November for islands along the Andaman coast (Phuket, Phi Phi Islands, Koh Lanta), while islands in Rayong province (Koh Samet, the Man Islands) and Trat province (Koh Chang, Koh Kood) see the most rain between May and October. The Gulf coast (Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao) sees its strongest monsoons from late-August through December.
2. Consider How Much Time it Will Take to Island Hop
Travel time to many of these islands can be rather tedious, often requiring long ferries, bus rides and flights — or a combination of all three. If your vacation is only one week long, you may want to consider traveling to an island with easier access from the mainland — ferries and buses often run on "Thai time" and trust me, you don't want to spend an entire day of your precious week-long escape sweating it out in a ferry terminal. If you have three weeks to spare, though, that'll give you plenty of time to get off the beaten path and explore the more remote spots on this list.
3. Figure Out Which Island's Style Suits Your Vacation Needs
Each of the Thai islands has its own special vibe. Some also have different sections, like the party area, the family area or the backpacker zone, so figure out which island meets your needs and where to stay if you're hoping for a particular style of vacation. To help you choose your perfect destination, here's a brief intro to the most popular Thai islands.
Who Should Go: Hippies, backpackers and anyone who's into snorkeling, yoga or diving. Also a great spot if you're comfortable renting a motorcycle or 4x4 to get around.
Getting There: Take a two-hour ferry ride from mainland Chumphon or from Koh Samui — these can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours depending on the boat.
This tiny island offers extremely clear and shallow waters perfect for snorkeling — you can even spot black tip reef sharks in Shark's Bay — and is home to about 70 dive schools, which is a lot considering the island is only eight square miles. Backpackers head here in droves as it's one of the cheapest places to get PADI certification (roughly $250) and the whole island has a super-chill, laid back vibe.
Who Should Go: Those ready to party like rockstars or if you're a couple or a group of friends wanting a low-key scene — yes, it's possible to find both here.
Getting There: Take a 20-45 minute ferry ride from Koh Samui (timing depends on which pier you leave from).
Koh Phangan is famous for its monthly Full Moon Party on the southern beach of Haad Rin, where flaming fire jump ropes, buckets of booze and plenty of pumping music ensure this party rages from the time the moon appears until the the time the sun comes up. If you're dying to hit up the party but won't be around on the right dates, there are half moon parties, jungle parties and black moon parties each month, too.
On the other hand, if you head away from Haad Rin to the western side of the island, you'll find plenty of beautiful beaches like Secret Beach or Bottle Beach, perfect for romantic relaxation.
Who Should Go: Families or other travelers who don't have a lot of time to travel, especially those with Starpoints to spare.
Getting There: Hop a one-hour flight to Samui International Airport (USM) from Bangkok (BKK) via Bangkok Airways or Thai Airways.
The great thing about Koh Samui is that it's easily accessible, especially great if you're working with a small number of vacation days. A one-hour flight from Bangkok takes you to the island, giving you more time to be there without the hassle of dealing with ferries or speedboats.
The northern beaches of Mae Nam and Bophut are quiet, local and calm, giving you a taste of everyday Thai life. Younger crowds should head to Chaweng, which is the party side of the island, while those wanting total relax should try Lamai and the south and west sides of the island.
Koh Samui is also a great place to cash in some Starpoints. You'll find four Starwood properties on the island — the insanely luxe W Retreat Koh Samui, Le Méridien Koh Samui Resort & Spa, the Sheraton Samui Resort and Vana Belle, a Luxury Collection Resort, Koh Samui.
Who Should Go: Those who want to experience the ultimate in luxury, ease of travel or package deals.
Getting There: Hop a one-hour flight from Bangkok (BKK) to Phuket International Airport (HKT) via Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways or a number of Asian low-cost carriers. Otherwise there are bus, train and car options available since the island is connected to the mainland by the Sarasin Bridge.
Phuket may be the most well-known of all the Thai islands — unfortunately, excessive tourism has taken a bit of a toll on what used to be absolutely pristine beaches, but if you really want to stay in a luxury hotel, this may be your best bet.
The JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa has its very own private beach (room rates start at about $134 or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night in June) while The Banyan Tree, a luxury five-star resort, is rumored to be one of the most opulent properties in Thailand (rates start at about $348 per night in June).
Another plush option is The Naka Island Resort & Spa, part of Starwood's Luxury Collection (pictured above) with rates from $313 per night in June — note that this property has limited SPG participation so contact the resort for options if you wish to redeem Starpoints.
Phuket is also a great base to explore some of the other islands located along the Andaman coast like Ko Lanta, Koh Hae, Koh Racha Yai and Koh Muk, among others.
Phi Phi Islands
Who Should Go: Backpackers, party animals and those with time on their hands.
Getting There: Take a 90-minute ferry ride from Krabi or Koh Lanta or a two-hour ferry ride from Phuket. Speedboat options may also be available.
Limestone cliffs that rise above turquoise waters are the Phi Phi Islands' claim to fame — and of course, the fact that it was featured in The Beach. Although the landscape is gorgeous, some may argue that this island has been destroyed by tourism — it may be best only to head over if you want to join its infamous party scene.
Who Should Go: Those who don't mind bus rides, plan to spend time in Bangkok and anyone who enjoys interacting with Thai tourists.
Getting There: Take a three-to-five-hour bus from Bangkok, followed by a ferry.
This island is one of the cheapest to get to from Bangkok, so expect more Thai tourists as well as the usual band of traveling foreigners. Many visit the island simply to relax on the beach, but there are plenty of bars and discos around if you'd prefer to party.
Since the island is technically a national park, be prepared to pay an entry fee upon arrival of 200 THB (~$6) per adult. The beaches on the western side of the island are particularly calm and quiet if you're looking for a more tranquil experience.
The Man Islands
Who Should Go: Those looking for relaxation, marine conservation, peace and quiet, snorkeling and those who don't mind going without luxury amenities.
Getting There: Boat hire is available from the mainland and some resorts have packages that include speedboat transportation.
The Man Islands consist of three small islands: Koh Man Nai, Koh Man Klang and Koh Man Nok. Koh Man Nai is protected and it's not possible to stay overnight as there are no resorts and camping is prohibited, however it may be the most interesting of the three islands as it's home to a sea turtle preservation sanctuary.
The other two islands are rather sleepy and will provide a true Thai experience. You can expect to find quiet exotic beaches, friendly villagers and not many tourists. That being said, you won't find five-star luxury here either.
Who Should Go: Nature lovers, those looking for peace and quiet, hikers and those with plenty of time to travel.
Getting There: You can take a bus from Bangkok (approximately five hours) or fly from Bangkok (BKK) to Trat Airport (TDX) via Bangkok Airways, which takes about 40 minutes. Trat Airport is about a 20-minute drive from the ferry pier, where you'll need to catch a ferry or speedboat over to the island, which takes another 30-60 minutes.
Koh Chang is full of gorgeous beaches and hilly, jungle forests — you'll also find plenty of lush hiking trails. Be ready to face treacherous roads to reach some of the most beautiful beaches you've ever seen, especially along the island's southern coast.
Koh Kood (also called Koh Kut)
Who Should Go: Those truly wanting to get off the beaten path.
Getting There: Perhaps the longest journey of all, this island isn't particularly easy to reach. You can arrive by speedboat from Koh Chang or by bus from Bangkok to Trat and then by ferry — prepare to spend a night in Trat as buses sometimes don't arrive in time to make the last ferry of the day over to Koh Kood.
Koh Kood is the perfect peaceful getaway for those wanting a stunning Thai beach experience. Keep in mind you may have to give up some daily comforts, as there are no ATMs on the island, there are frequent power outages and many places don't offer Wi-Fi. However, the lack of tourists is refreshing and can provide a true vacation escape if that's what you are looking for.
Getting to Thailand
There aren't nonstop flights available from the US to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) and most tend to route through Singapore (SIN), Tokyo (NRT and HND), Seoul (ICN), Hong Kong (HKG), Beijing (PEK), London (LHR), Amsterdam (AMS), Paris (CDG) or Sydney (SYD) on the following airlines:
Oneworld — Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Qantas
SkyTeam — KLM, Korean Air and Air France
Star Alliance — Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines and Air China
Once in Thailand, Bangkok Airways is a great option to use to fly to Phuket or Koh Samui. The carrier isn't part of an airline alliance, but you can still earn FlyerBonus points through its loyalty program — FlyerBonus points can later be used to redeem flights on Bangkok Airways' partners like Japan Airlines, Air Berlin, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair and Etihad.
A Final Tip
Credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on a trip to Thailand. For more fee-free credit card options, check out this post — if this is your first trip to Southeast Asia, these tips may also be helpful when planning and visiting.
Have you been to any of these Thai islands yet? Share your experiences, below.