Dreaming of a Thai Island escape? We got in touch with travel blogger Kara Caradas at Heels in my Backpack to give us the low-down on which Thai Island is the best for you…
Not that long ago, Thailand was reserved for backpackers and businessman. But in the last few years the ‘Land of Smiles’ has been having a bit of a moment. Which you may have realised from the endless photos of white sands and turquoise seas in your news feed. It feels like every man and his dog has been, right?
Well it’s for good reason. Thailand offers idyllic beaches, awesome adventures and heaps of culture; what more could you want? But with so many Thai Islands to choose from, it’s hard to know where to go. However, although the islands might look similar, in fact each of the Thai Islands have a very distinct personality. Here’s the scoop to help you choose…
Koh Phangan is the side of Thailand that sometimes gets a bad rap. This is the home of the Full Moon Party. And the Half Moon Party. And pretty much every other kind of party you could think of, so it tends to attract the ‘Lads On Tour’ variation of Thailand tourist in neon racer-back vests. But you shouldn’t let that put you off! Sure, the Full Moon Parties are crammed full of westerners on stag nights with cringe-worthy nicknames emblazoned on their shirts, but there’s a beach party on Haad Rin every other night of the year with an entirely different clientele. Think free-spirited individuals with buckets full of rum, just having fun on the gorgeous beach, no neon paint required.
If you’re not the party-animal kind, there’s lots more to Koh Phangan than you might think. Lots of cafes and restaurants line the streets of the main town, as well as some cool boutiques. And if you want an authentic Thai experience, how about a spot of elephant trekking? Catch a songthaew out to a nearby sanctuary and you can go on a trek through the jungle atop a beautiful elephant! Just make sure you do your research and choose an elephant mahout camp that is ethical and cares for the animals. Because unfortunately that’s not always a given.
If you’re looking for a relaxing retreat on your Thailand holiday, Koh Tao is the island for you. Contrary to the drunken debauchery of Koh Phangan, Koh Tao’s beach has an entirely different feel. ‘Chilled out’ doesn’t really cover it, island-goers are generally so laid back they’re horizontal. Literally. At restaurants you can pretty much lay down whilst eating your food and at night you can lay on the beach on colourful beanbags, just enjoying the Koh Tao vibes. Watch fire performers whilst you relax with your cocktail and soak it all up.
By day, Koh Tao is the place to go for top quality scuba diving. As one of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI qualification, people come from all over the globe to learn to scuba dive here. If being underwater isn’t really your thing, why not take a Taxi boat out to Koh Nang Yuan, a collection of islands off the coast of Koh Tao that are an absolute dream. The sands are white, the sea is crystal-clear and if you hike to the view point at the top of one of the islands, you get an immensely impressive postcard-view. Definitely a must-see.
If you’re looking for something fun to do, why not enjoy a night out at Koh Tao’s very own ‘Ladyboy Cabaret’? It’s exactly what is says on the tin and is a really fun and highly entertaining night out!
Okay, Krabi isn’t exactly an island. But due to its location as the middle man between mainland Thailand and the western islands, it tends to be one of the stops for island-hoppers. Especially seeing as from Krabi Town you can only access the beachside destinations of Railay and Ton Sai by boat.
Railay and Ton Sai are pretty different though, despite being separated by just a chunk of limestone. Ton Sai is a glimpse of the Thailand before the tourist boom with treetop bungalows in the jungle, chilled out cafes in wooden shacks and monkeys roaming free pretty much everywhere. It’s nice to experience this other side of Thailand, but make sure you bring the bug spray. Railay is more in touch with civilisation with resorts and shops aplenty, and some really lovely restaurants on the beach.
But what both of these parts of Krabi have in common is their limestone karsts, which attract rock climbers from all around the world. That’s right, if you’ve got a passion for pulleys, karabinas and all things climbing, Krabi is the one for you. There’s not many places you can climb a big rock in the middle of the sea is there?
The biggest of the islands, Phuket is also the most commercial. As in there are literally chains of Starbucks and McDonalds here. It can actually be a bit of a reverse culture shock if you’ve been in Thailand for a while. The beaches are known for being idyllic and they don’t disappoint. But be prepared that Phuket’s Patong area can be quite seedy with it’s ‘red light district’ strip and endless resorts and shopping malls.
Sure, Phuket is great if you want a beach break, but if you’re looking for Thai culture, you might need to venture a little further.
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi is a good balance of the backpacking crowd and holiday-goers, so you tend to get the best of both worlds. In the Loh Dalum Bay area of the island you will find budget hotels and in the Long Beach area you will find swanky resorts. Both areas have the most gorgeous beaches and are connected by a large town filled with a range of bars and restaurants. From pirate-themed restaurants to American diners and from Irish pubs to boho beach bars, there are so many options on Koh Phi Phi! It’s a lot more commercial than places like Krabi or Ko Tao, but the restaurants are so unusual and cool that it doesn’t feel as soulless as it sounds. It just means there’s lots to keep you entertained here.
There’s still Thai culture on offer with a Thai Boxing ring you can visit, and even take part in if you’re feeling particularly daring. And plenty of hikes you can go on around the island. The jungle hike between the main town and Long Beach is particularly scenic.
However, one of the main draws to Koh Phi Phi is the infamous Maya Bay, the paradise-like bay from the film The Beach. If you’ve been in Thailand for 5 minutes you would have seen The Beach being played in several cafes and restaurants, because the film just epitomises everything westerners want from Thailand. So as you can imagine, a lot of visitors are keen to see where it was filmed.
Maya Bay is on a small island off the coast of Koh Phi Phi so it requires a day trip, of which there are plenty on offer. A small boat leaves in the morning and stops in a pretty cove for snorkelling, then going on to the main event, the magnificent Maya Bay. And it doesn’t disappoint, it’s really something special. The day trip then takes you to Monkey Beach on the way back; a beach on the main island that is quite literally full of wild monkeys! Quite a sight to behold, but be careful, they bite.
Looking for more exotic escapes? Check out our 10 Private island hotels…