A lot of people think the islands of Thailand are just all-night boozing followed by all-morning regret, and maybe the occasional tan. ‘Culture’ comes in the form of that guy with the pink Mohawk who does the fire dancing. And yeah, on some party islands, that might be the case. But not every Thai island is a Phuket or a Koh Samui. There’s hundreds of beach-fringed paradises in the Bay of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. In fact apart from a mainland spur that juts out towards Malaysia, southern Thailand is basically one big archipelago.
So how do you know which island is right for you? Enter out handy intro guide.
Koh SamuiParty grade: A+ Culture grade: B Beach grade: B+
If you had to sum up Koh Samui in one word, it’d be: established. Samui is one of the oldest islands in terms of tourism. Once the roads were built in the 1970s, the backpackers weren’t far behind. These days it’s a bit more glitz and glamour than that: the north and east of the island is overrun with upmarket resorts, tourist-clogged beaches and swanky seafood restaurants. So if that’s your jam, go right ahead. Anyone looking for something a bit more authentic will have to head to the south or west, where street-side food stalls popup on secluded beaches and backpacker villages rub shoulders with descendants of the original Chinese merchant settlers. It’s tricky to find that ‘classic Thai postcard beach’, but not impossible.
Party grade: B Culture Grade: A Beach grade: A
Although it’s close to Koh Phi Phi (and almost as popular) Koh Lanta has a calmer vibe. It’s a good intro island for all budgets and styles of accommodation, from ramshackle backpackers all the way up to resort stays and pool bars. Today it’s popular with European tourists who enjoy the long, white beaches free from water traffic (at least, compared to the south of France). There’s also some cracking dive spots at Hin Daeng, Hin Muang and Koh Haa – you can get a boat with any of the dozen or so dive operators in town. The island is pretty flat (good for easy moped rides) and the coast is a cool mix of stilted chow lair villages, roadside chicken stalls and salty mangroves (with a few stunning beaches thrown in). A good option for travellers who like to day trip away from their hotel.
Koh Phi Phi
Party grade: A++ Culture grade: C Beach grade: B+
The one and only. Outside Phuket itself, this is probably the island most people associate with debauchery, dancing and drugs. Here’s a fun tip: don’t accept anything suss handed to you from some guy on the beach called Eduardo. Cops here are renowned for ‘stinging’ tourists with fake offers of pills or marijuana. Content yourself with the all night parties on the resort beaches (buckets and fire breather guaranteed). Although Koh Phi Phi is technically the home of the movie The Beach, fans who come expecting paradise may be disappointed. Although its limestone karsts are undoubtedly cool, the main island and Ao Lo Dalam are pretty overrun with hotels. Party on.
Koh Nang Yuan
Party grade: C Culture grade: C Beach grade: A++
This one gets our vote for ‘cutest island of all’. Koh Nang Yuan is tiny. More a day-trip destination than anything else (although there is a single hotel on the island – book well in advance if you’re coming in peak season). Travellers from nearby Koh Tao usually catch the ferry from the west side of the island and spend the day swimming in Koh Nang Yuan’s ridiculous blue water and chilling out on the shallow sandbar between the island’s three dramatic cone-shaped hills. Food on the island is a bit limited (you’re restricted to the island’s resort restaurant, which is really expensive) but the snorkelling, swimming and diving is some of the best in the Gulf of Thailand.
Party grade: A Culture grade: B Beach grade: A
For a long time Koh Tao played a distant third fiddle to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan (probably because it’s physically the smallest of the three, and tourism hadn’t really boomed yet). But it’s catching up big time. Mostly thanks for the world-class diving just off shore. In fact if scuba is your thing, forget the glitzy distractions and head straight to Koh Tao. Well-reserved coral reefs, large populations of native rays and sharks (the friendly kinds) and an on-island vibe that’s a good mix between Samui’s buzz and Pha Ngan’s serenity. A lot of the tourist crowd never makes it to Koh Tao, so it’s usually less crowded in peak season than Phi Phi or Samui. Jungle fans have plenty of forest to play with, and party-goers won’t be disappointed as the main beach drag comes alive after dark.
Koh Pha Ngan
Party grade: A+ Culture grade: B+ Beach grade: B+
You kind of need to split Koh Pha Ngan into two islands: Full Moon time, and every other time. For one week each month the island population swells as 30,000 people cram onto Hat Rim beach and pretty much go bananas. Once the Full Moon cycle is over, they move on to other islands like nearby Samui. The thing is, there’s way more to Pha Ngan than one big party. The smart travellers wait for the Full Moon to pass, then nab a private shack on the northern beaches for like 400THB or hit up the remote resorts on Hat Thong Nai Pan Noi. The island’s jungle-clad interior is still pretty dense and unexplored (by the average bucket-swilling party-goer at least). In short, Koh Pha Ngan caters to all tastes, party and placid: just don’t mix up your dates…
Picked your fav? Explore the best of southern Thailand with our mates at Geckos Adventures, the small group trip experts.
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