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While the famed island of Phuket is a stunning beach getaway full of points properties, travelers, Thailand-bound travelers should consider expanding their horizons.
The Southeast Asian nation actually has hundreds of islands scattered across the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, making it easy for you to discover a pristine, inviting beach without throngs of tourists or crowded clusters of beach umbrellas.
Travelers should be aware, however, that these islands are — in addition to being less touristy — often less developed, too. Make sure to carefully research your destination and lodging if amenities like fast Wi-Fi, 24-hour electricity, air conditioning, car service and nightlife are important to you.
Also, many of these destinations won’t have ATMs (so arrive with plenty of Thai baht) or fancy resorts.
So for travelers seeking a lesser-known, more authentic spot, skip the playground of Phuket and head to one of these Thai islands instead.
Known to travelers and Thai locals as one of the last undiscovered Thai islands, it doesn’t seem like it will stay that way for long. The kangaroo-shaped island floats near the Thai mainland and Myanmar. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a car there, as locals use bicycles and motorcycles to get around. (Yup, they’ll transport your giant wheeled suitcase on the tiniest scooter you’ve ever seen, incredibly.) While the water may not be as clear as other islands, the relaxed, beach-bum vibe and community of sea gypsies make this island special.
TPG Tip: Avoid torrential rain storms by visiting between November and May (or time your trip to the Cashew festival each spring).
If staying in a beach hut or tree house seems like a dream, then visit Koh Jum, an island perfect for more adventurous travelers. With hidden, wild beaches and ungroomed mountain trails, there’s plenty to do outdoors. Easily accessible from Krabi by boat, the island isn’t for party animals. Instead, plan to spend your days riding bikes, snorkeling and hiking. Most beaches are on the west coast, while you’ll find Mount Pu in the north.
TPG Tip: Traveler complaints about the island typically involve monkeys, so make sure to choose wisely when selecting your accommodation if finding a friendly visitor in your bathroom isn’t what you had in mind.
This island is famous for its stunning beaches. Enjoy them early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the day-trippers head out and leave you alone to enjoy the crystal clear waves and sandbars. Although there’s practically nothing in the way restaurants and shops, there are established resorts where you can spend the night. Plan to visit Hat Chao Mai National Park’s protected coral reef, or Ao Chong Lom Beach in the late afternoon. (It’s known as Sunset Beach for a reason.) The ferry from Phuket takes more than three hours, so it’s better to go from Koh Lanta, just 90 minutes away.
TPG Tip: If you’re planning to elope, visit Koh Kradan during the Trang Underwater Wedding Festival, held each year on Feb. 14.
The smallest island on this list, Koh Munnork is less than one square mile. To visit this islet, you’ll need to book a stay at the Koh Munnork Private Island Resort. This is a picturesque paradise with the region’s famously translucent waters, fine sand and thick jungle of palm trees. While you won’t have any nightlife or restaurant options beyond the resort, it’s actually pretty affordable to stay here, with prices starting at around $150 per night.
TPG Tip: Because the island can only be visited by resort guests, you’ll get here on a private boat organized from Laem Tan pier once you book. The pier is about a three-hour drive from Bangkok.
Koh Yao Yai
An easy speedboat ride from Phuket, this island — much of which is covered in a lush jungle — is worlds away from the busy beaches of its party animal neighbor. Koh Yao Yai combines a nature escape with some of the comforts you may still want on vacation (think: spas, Wi-Fi and resorts). You’ll find restaurants and a few shops, but nightlife is still scarce on this sleepy island. Views from the beach include blue-green water dotted with small karst islands (they can be explored by kayak). Nearby Koh Yao Noi is ideal for backpackers, with cheap bungalow accommodations and yoga retreats.
TPG Tip: Use the songthaews, or pickup truck taxis, for rides to and from your hotel from the pier — but then rent a motorbike to explore during your stay. There’s barely any traffic, so it’s an easy spot for beginner scooter drivers.
Also known as Koh Kut, this is one of the largest Thai islands, and many of the beaches are now occupied by luxe resorts. Backpackers can find lower-priced accommodations inland, but don’t plan to stay too far off the beaten path because public transport around the island is harder to come by than in other spots. (You can, however, always rent a scooter.) While staying directly on the beach may be harder if you don’t stay at a resort, most of the beaches on the island are public, allowing you to explore some of the best spots regardless of where you bed down at night.
TPG Tip: Visit the Klong Chao waterfall closer to sunset, when the group tours are finished for the day. You’ll have the cascading wonder all to yourself.
Koh Mak has managed to stave off mass tourism for many reasons. For one, the island is actually owned by several families who work hard to ensure tourism grows in a slow and sustainable manner. And the island’s location, though close to the Thai mainland (Trat) is also very close to the Cambodian border, away from the busier island clusters near Phuket and Samui. Though it’s often overshadowed by nearby Koh Kood, Koh Mak shines in understated ways, like the bike paths initiative that created tracks for bikers across the island. Koh Mak also encourages visitors to explore the island and its beaches by kayak, not scooters, which helps prevent noise and air pollution.
TPG Tip: Do your part to keep the island pristine by helping the Trash Hero group in one of its beach cleanups.
Although Koh Lipe is one of the more popular destinations on this list, it’s still less touristy than Phuket, mainly because it’s harder to get to. Known as the new Koh Phi Phi (an island beginning to cave under the weight of overtourism), you can reach Koh Lipe by ferry from Pak Bara Pier in Satun, south of Rawai. Quite close to the Malaysia and Thai border, you’ll find both Thais and Malays calling Koh Lipe home. With plenty of amenities and infrastructure in place, you’ll feel comfortable during a stay here. And be sure to make time for a dive. The dive spots around the island are rumored to have more than 25% of the world’s tropical fish living in the coral reefs.
TPG Tip: If Koh Lipe gets too busy, boat over to nearby islands that are part of Tarutao National Marine Park, such as Koh Adang and Koh Khai. You can camp on Koh Adang, and there are a few places to stay, but there’s no accommodation on Koh Khai.
You’ll have to fly to Trang and get yourself to the Kuan Tung Ku Pier to ferry out to this island paradise, sometimes called Koh Muk. Considered one of Thailand’s best islands for travelers on a budget, you’ll find a variety of well-priced accommodations and dining options along with plenty of long, empty stretches of quiet beach. Sivalai Beach and Farang Beach are known as some of the loveliest on the island. Taxis arrive in the form of motorcycles with a style of metal side cart attached, which can fit a couple of people inside, plus a suitcase or two.
TPG Tip: Take a longtail boat over to visit Emerald Cave, but be prepared to swim through the dark if you want to reach the beach inside.
Koh Si Chang
Not to be confused with the larger Koh Chang, Koh Si Chang is a small fishing island perfect for a quiet vacation, as no private cars are allowed. Home to both Buddhist and Chinese temples, travelers will find there’s more to do here than just hit the beach. While the island is by no means deserted, it’s actually full of friendly locals (as opposed to tourists), so it’s the perfect place to become more culturally in touch with Thailand. Plus, it’s one of the closest islands to Bangkok. Arrive by ferry at the Koh Loi Pier, north of Pattaya.
TPG Tip: Wild boars roam this island, so don’t be alarmed if one plops down next to you on the beach.
While you’ll have to take a boat or ferry to each of these islands, start with getting to Bangkok or another Asian hub first. From there, consider hopping on a Thai Airways flight to Krabi (KBV) or Phuket (HKT). You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United to book these flights, and since they’re under 800 miles in distance, a one-way economy award ticket is just 8,000 miles (or can be tagged onto longer Star Alliance itineraries).
Some larger airlines, such as Etihad or Qatar, will fly nonstop from their hubs in the Middle East directly to Phuket where you can catch a ferry to some of these islands. You could transfer Amex Membership Rewards points to the Etihad Guest program to book these flights or consider using AAdvantage miles to book either Etihad or Qatar.
Finally, for nonstop flights to some of the smaller cities like Trang (TST) or Trat (TDX), you could grab a flight on low-cost carrier like Air Asia or the boutique airline Bangkok Airways. Since the paid rates on these routes tend to be relatively low, this would be a great option for your fixed-value rewards cards.
Featured photo by Edgardo W. Oliveria/Flickr
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