If you’re only visiting the beautiful islands of Southern Thailand for 1-2 weeks, it can be overwhelming (but exciting) choosing the perfect one to visit; whether it’s for a relaxing holiday, honeymoon, nightlife or an island-hopping adventure. We’ve visited a wide range of islands of the Andaman and Gulf coasts and have put together this handy guide that features the highlights, appeal and recommendations for each.
Some of the popular islands we visited didn’t make our list, notably the Phuket area. Find out why at the bottom of the article. Use our recommendations to help you plan the perfect Thai beach getaway!
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi was one of our favourite places in Thailand. Although it is quite touristic and can be busy, the natural environment of limestone cliffs and hidden caves and bays is visually stunning and a must see. The island is large enough to have numerous bars, restaurants and activities to enjoy but also has a quieter side with luxury hotels and private beaches. Everything can be reached on foot and cars are banned on the island.
The main highlight of Koh Phi Phi is the impressive landscape of the islands, only accessible by boat. Jump onto a longtail boat (or a faster speedboat) and spend your days exploring the nearby caves, monkey covered beaches and the infamous Maya bay, also known as ‘James Bond Island’ for its role in one of the movies.
Unlike many beach resorts in the west, the Koh Phi Phi islands are still relatively undeveloped and provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of the usual holiday destination. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and have been under re-construction ever since.
The island is best enjoyed for stays of up to 5 days. It suits those who want an island retreat that can be both relaxing and lively and who aren’t bothered about staying in a large luxury hotel complex.
Recommended for: Everyone. This collection of islands is 100% worth staying on or visiting for the day if you’re staying in nearby Krabi or Phuket. It’s one of the most beautiful island areas and has a mixed crowd of couples young and old, families and young people.
How to get there: Catch a flight into Phuket or Krabi and take a ferry from the respective port to Koh Phi Phi.
- Make a boat trip around the islands a priority on your trip. They’re available to suit all budgets, from a basic longtail boat trip with lunch and snorkelling to a luxury speedboat, touring the bay and cooking fresh seafood on deck. The sights you’ll see here are some of the best in Thailand.
- Take a hike to the mountain overlooking the main Koh Phi Phi beach for the famous Phi Phi Viewpoint. It’s a challenge to climb due to the intense humidity but is well worth the walk. It’s one of the most photographed areas of the island!
- Maya Beach should no doubt be one of the top items on your sightseeing list on Koh Phi Phi. The beach can get extremely crowded during the day so we’d recommend visiting later on just before sunset and staying until the late hours for a peaceful bay experience.
Where to stay: Stay on the main northwest beach if you want a young, party atmosphere. For quieter beaches and nicer hotels, stay to the far east of the island or the southeast beaches.
Ko Lanta is one of the least visited islands in Thailand, although it is growing in popularity. It’s gradually moving from a backpacker getaway to a haven for the luxury beach resort seeker and still manages to cater to both groups.
The island is within view of Koh Phi Phi (and only 1 hour away by ferry) but is immediately recognisable as a quieter and peaceful island on first impression. It’s also one of the most cultural islands on our list, retaining local towns and a way of life which hasn’t been absorbed by the tourism industry.
Spend your days on Ko Lanta exploring the stunning beaches by moped, take a wander around the old town for a lesson in history and local cultures and take excursions to nearby smaller islands. As with all of the Thai islands, the main draw is to relax on the amazing beaches and enjoy a life away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Ko Lanta definitely makes this easy for you.
It may be one of the quieter islands on our list but you’ll still find plenty of lively bars and restaurants depending on what time of the year you visit and there’s plenty to do on an evening in the resorts and beaches.
This island suits those who want pure relaxation with a sprinkle of culture and beautiful beaches. It may not have the impressive limestone cliffs and caves of the other Andaman Islands but it’s serene ambience and smaller crowds make it well worth the visit. Ko Lanta was one of the highlights of our trip.
Recommended for: A varied crowd of families, couples and travellers.
How to get there: Fly directly to Krabi Airport and catch a shared minivan (or private transfer) to Ko Lanta island. The journey takes 1hr30 – 2 hours depending on where you’re staying.
- Lanta Animal Welfare Centre is the number one top-rated attraction on the island according to Tripadvisor and it’s hard not to see why. See local volunteers caring for animals in this endearing animal sanctuary. It’s a free tour but we strongly recommend making a donation – it’s for a great cause!
- We raved about snorkelling and scuba diving in our Ko Tao review here but Ko Lanta is almost as good. The diversity of marine life is excellent and diving excursions are cheap.
- If you’re staying in Ko Lanta for an extended amount of time, take the ferry to Koh Phi Phi or a bus to Krabi to see a different side of the Andaman. We’d recommend combining your stay in Ko Lanta with one of these places if you’re visiting for at least 10 days.
Where to stay: Stay near Khlongdao Beach to the northwest of the island. It’s located just off the main road for easy access to the rest of Ko Lanta and there’s plenty going on within walking distance. Many of the main hotels are located on this western beach strip.
Gulf of Thailand islands:
Alongside Phuket, Koh Samui is the most frequented Thailand holiday destination for UK travellers, particularly for traditional two-week beach holidays. It’s the largest of the Gulf islands and is very easy to get to from Bangkok – simply fly into the island’s own airport.
Koh Samui is quite a developed island that strongly caters to the tourist market and is made up of numerous beach resorts to suit every budget. Although it’s great for beach and luxury hotel lovers who want a piece of the high life for a fraction of the price in the west, it doesn’t necessarily represent much of traditional Thai culture and there aren’t many sights to see on the island. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; most people visit for the nice beaches. We’d recommend Koh Samui for those who want a traditional beach holiday with the best hotels that Thailand has to offer, combining your stay with a smaller nearby island such as Ko Tao so you get to see a more traditional and less touristy side of the country.
Nightlife is lively in Chaweng to the east of Koh Samui, where you’ll find live music shows, a night market and plenty of bars and restaurants. Other areas of the island are quieter and have a nicer vibe but everything is accessible by the excellent taxi truck system that operates on the whole island.
The must-see attraction in the Koh Samui area is definitely Mu Ko Ang Thong National park, a series of small islands thriving with marine life, see-through waters and stunning viewpoints. Koh Samui is worth visiting simply for this. Read more about the park here.
Recommended for: Couples, families and older travellers – young people are more suited to the cheaper and livelier Ko Phangan or Ko Tao.
How to get there: Fly to Koh Samui island airport and catch a bus transfer to your resort.
- There’s a reason why Koh Samui is a popular honeymoon destination and appears all over social media – the beaches are excellent! In our opinion Maenam Beach is the best.
- Koh Samui has countless hotels to choose from and checking reviews is key to finding the perfect place for your holiday. We’d recommend on taking advantage of the cheap price of luxury accommodation and going all out! Use Agoda.com to find the best deals and remember to compare prices using our hotel finding guide here.
- Koh Samui is more expensive than most other places in Thailand. Budget a little bit extra for your trip and be prepared to spend more on drinks and food, although it’s still significantly cheaper than the west.
Where to stay: Stay in Maenam for the best beaches, Chaweng for a young crowd and vibrant nightlife or Lamai for laidback luxury relaxation (and close enough to Chaweng for the nightlife).
Ko Tao is featured in our ‘Best places to visit in Thailand’ article. Even though it is one of the smallest on our list, it’s a hidden paradise away from the tourist centre of southern Thailand but still has many travellers and holiday go-ers – it’s just less crowded.
As soon as you approach Ko Tao via the ferry you’ll see the deep turquoise waters thriving with marine life and the white sand beaches of a seemingly tiny island. Ko Tao is just that, a small island paradise that is a lot less developed than neighbouring Samui and Pha-Ngan but has all of the nice beaches, cool excursions and a more relaxed beach vibe. It isn’t as lively as other islands but that’s what we liked about it. Plus, you can always visit Ko Pha-Ngan for a party during your trip if that’s high on your to-do list. It takes around 1 hour 15 minutes to reach Ko Pha-Ngan by catamaran.
Ko Tao is a place where you can relax on the beach by the bar, try out kayaking or water sports, or go on an adventure around the island to see stunning viewpoints, Shark Bay or one of the many viewpoints to capture some great pictures. Evenings are quieter on Ko Tao but you’ll still find some nice beach-side restaurants and late-night beach bars, which may be busy depending on the season.
If the above sounds like it will suit you, Ko Tao is highly recommended. Even if you do like the sound of the island but want to also visit somewhere livelier as well, why not combine your Ko Tao trip with another island?
Recommended for: Young travellers, adults who want to relax and couples of all ages.
How to get there: Fly into Koh Samui or Surat Thani and catch the ferry/catamaran to Ko Tao. You can walk or catch a bus transfer to your resort from the ferry port, depending on where you’re staying.
- Ko Tao is the best place in Thailand for scuba diving and you can get your PADI licence in a challenging but cheap 4 or 5-day course. Make scuba diving or snorkelling top of your agenda.
- There are a number of inland resorts, notably luxury getaways on the mountain. We’d recommend staying by the beach. There’s plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets and you’ll be within walking distance of the shops, restaurants, bars and beach.
- Ko Tao is cheaper than Koh Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan, meaning food is cheaper and you get more for your money hotel-wise. Take advantage of this and stay somewhere nice! You want to be as close to Sairee Beach as possible to be in the centre of the action.
Where to stay: Resorts tend to be spread throughout Ko Tao, however Sairee Beach has the most going on. We’d recommend staying by the beach over inland and anywhere on the west coast; everything is very close.
Ko Pha-Ngan is the destination of the legendary ‘Full-Moon Party’, that takes place on Haad Rin beach once a month, where young travellers flock to the island for this night long party of epic proportions. The party is an excellent experience for 18-30-year olds but that’s not all the island has to offer.
Ko Pha-Ngan is definitely an up and coming holiday destination, much less developed than its neighbour Koh Samui. You’ll find the southern coastline dotted with basic beach huts and the west coast is home to up and coming luxury resorts. Pha-Ngan has a rough around the edges appeal and is far less touristy than Samui, giving it a more ‘un-touched’ and ‘un-discovered’ vibe. Spend your days, exploring the island via moped, popping into the small towns for lunch and shopping and catching a boat trip to the nearby smaller islands and national park.
You’ll find Ko Pha-Ngan to be a cheaper alternative to Samui. There isn’t as much going on but that can be a strong positive for many. One week of the month has tourists flocking in for 7 days of partying in preparation for the Full-Moon finale and the island is much quieter for the other 3 weeks. Arrive pre- or post-Full-Moon party depending on what you’re looking for.
The entrance fee for the beach party is a mere £2.30 (100baht) with the current exchange rate and you can pay the fee when you arrive; there’s no need to book. Don your UV paint and arrive early for the full experience. We’d also advise against buying any party and accommodation packages. Your best bet is to stay outside of Haad Rin and catch a taxi to the event location. Find out more on the official Full Moon Party website here.
The top thing to do on the island is explore the beaches, some much quieter and un-touched than others (to the north). Other activities include water sports, Muay Thai and cultural tours/workshops.
Recommended for: A young crowd. One side of the island is great for partying; the other side provides quiet relaxation and a charming fishing town. We advise on visiting for a week as part of a multi-island trip.
How to get there: Fly into Koh Samui or Surut Thani and catch the ferry/catamaran to Ko Pha-Ngan. Once on the island, an inexpensive taxi will get you to your resort quickly
- Ko Pha-Ngan is small enough that you get reach all four corners by moped and it’s the best way to get around. Rent mopeds from a reputable vendor (check online first) and explore the hidden beaches and viewpoints at your own leisure.
- If you’re visiting for the Full-Moon party, stay in a neighbouring resort to Haad Rin for a nicer vibe/surroundings and much cheaper accommodation. Haad Rin is easily accessible by a cheap, shared taxi.
- Just as we recommended for Koh Samui, the nearby marine national park of Mu Ko Ang Thong is 100% worth the visit and will be a trip highlight for you. Catch one of the many boat trips from Thong Sala Pier. You’ll be able to book this at your accommodation.
Where to stay: Stay in Baan Thai if you want a location which is accessible to the Full Moon party but much nicer and cheaper than Haad Rin. Thong Nai Pan and Haad Salad are the more relaxing and scenic areas.
There were some places we visited which we felt should be left off our recommendations list, simply because we thought the above islands were so much better. These are:
Phuket – we found Phuket too touristy and developed. If you like a well-developed and lively resort, Koh Samui is much better. Honestly, we’d avoid many places in Phuket in favour of the other islands.
Pattaya – Pattaya was one of the original holiday destinations for tourists, being so close to Bangkok. Although it has improved in recent years, there’s still a strong sense of sex tourism and other Thai resorts are much better.
Other islands – there a number of other islands which we didn’t include in our article, namely Ko Lipe, Ko Chang and Ko Samet. Ko Lipe is excellent but it’s quite far south from the Thai peninsula. Ko Samet is also nice to visit but is quite a small island. We opted for the Thai holiday destination favourites which are easy to get to from the UK but feel free to explore more off-the-beaten-path beaches during your trip!