A Beginner’s Guide to Island Hopping in Thailand
Featured destinations: Thailand
Published 25 August 2016
So you’ve booked that precious annual leave, the sunglasses are packed and you’ve got your sights firmly set on paradise. There’s just a slight niggling feeling tugging at the corner of your excitement – you’ve never ‘island hopped’ before…
There’s no need for butterflies, though. Jumping between the white sand islands of Thailand is the perfect introduction to travelling around Southeast Asia. Long a popular route, you can count on tried and tested transport links, filled with plenty of other like-minded souls visiting the crystal-clear waters.
Most adventures start in the capital city, Bangkok, but to reach the most spectacular islands you’ll have to travel south and along the coast. Check out our guide to island hopping in Thailand and kick-start your travel plans.
The east coast
The first hop along the east coast takes you to a chain of three islands; Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao. The Samui archipelago is perhaps the most well-known of the Thai isles and each one has something different to offer.
Koh Samui is the southernmost and largest island. Fringed by golden sands and lined with palm trees, Samui is dotted with high-end resorts and spas, though there are cheaper options if you are travelling on a budget.
Chaweng town is known for its lively atmosphere after dark – at night you’ll find bustling bars and busy restaurants adorned with fairy lights. The high street backs on to a stretch of unspoilt white sand, just begging for an evening stroll by the sea.
For a quieter island experience, Bo Phut offers a serene stay in a fisherman’s village on the north coast of the island. Just a short taxi ride away the iconic golden Buddha temple, Wat Phra Yai, sits in lotus position on a small rocky island, easily accessible by a causeway. For a slightly different taste of culture, indulge your immature side and take a trip to the south end of Hat Lamai beach to peruse the oddly shaped rock formations. (Spoiler alert: they look like genitalia).
The jungles of Thailand are well known for their hidden waterfalls, so it’s worth trying to dodge the worst of the cascade-hunting crowds by heading to the centre of the island instead, in search of Nam Tok Na Muang. Here you can take a dip at the base of a 30-metre waterfall – Samui’s tallest – as the water crashes over purple rocks.
Don’t forget to pack your flippers. Though the snorkelling around Koh Samui is not to be sniffed at, for a truly outstanding day take a trip to Ang Thong National Marine Park. You’ll glide through untouched lagoons and marvel at the dancing plethora of brightly-coloured marine life.
Koh Pha Ngan
Growing a reputation for rowdy neon-painted ravers, Koh Pha Ngan is perhaps better known for its legendary full moon parties on the southern beaches of Haad Rin. An iconic event for many travellers, here you can dance the night away on moonlit sands with hundreds of fellow partygoers. Remember to keep a close eye on valuables and beware of spiked booze, drugs and late-night swims.
If you’re looking for more of a retreat, try the secluded resorts with hidden bays to the east. For culture vultures, the jungles of Pha Ngan are littered with Buddhist and Chinese temples so be sure to explore the island’s interior, and spend a day hiking up to Khao Ra, the island’s highest peak, for unrivalled views.
Attention, keen divers! For world-class scuba, make the northernmost island of the chain your priority: Koh Tao has a global reputation for opaque waters and an underwater safari. Perfect for beginners, the island throngs with over 40 tour operators vying for your business making Koh Tao a very reasonably priced place to get your PADI.
More experienced divers should instead head for the Similan Islands near Phuket, for what are widely considered to be some of the most spectacular deep water rock formations and ancient coral gardens in Southeast Asia. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for striking leopard sharks, which enjoy the warm waters.
For those who prefer to stay above the waves, the palm-lined beaches of Koh Tao give way to a hilly terrain perfect for hikes across the island to scenic viewpoints. Beach yoga classes have also gathered popularity in recent years.
Getting between islands couldn’t be simpler. Lomprayah offer a high-speed catamaran service linking each island with Surat Thani or Chumphon on the mainland and ferries also operate between the islands. You can fly directly to Koh Samui from Bangkok, but for a more authentic experience book a sleeper train from Hua Lamphong Railway Station to Chumphon or Surat Thani.
The west coast
If you haven’t had enough of exploring beautiful islands (which you won’t have), get back to the mainland and ride the rails from Chumphon or Surat Thani to Krabi on the southwestern coast of Thailand.
Another firm favourite, Phuket is one of the largest islands in Thailand. Jutting out into the Andaman Sea, longtail boats bob gently in the clear waters below spectacular craggy cliffs. The Big Buddha looms high over the south of the island and, though it can be seen for miles from its perch atop the Nakkerd Hills, this huge effigy warrants a visit for unrivalled views across southern Phuket. Keep covered though – the iconic landmark is a religious monument and beachwear, shorts or tank tops will not be welcome. Though accessible by road, hiking up to the summit is also popular and takes around an hour.
With 29 Buddhist temples to choose from in Phuket, deciding which to visit can be daunting! We recommend taking a trip to the breathtaking Wat Chalong temple complex, just south of Phuket City. It combines traditional Thai architecture and Buddhist rituals with majestic statues and beautifully-manicured gardens.
For an unforgettable day out, take a boat trip to visit the iconic ‘floating islands’ of Phang Nga Bay, just northeast of Phuket. It is easy to see why the inlet is a favourite stop for tourists and certainly one you won’t want to visit without your camera.
Koh Phi Phi
Next up: a short journey south to the Phi Phi islands. Accessible by boat from Phuket or Krabi, Koh Phi Phi is made up of a cluster of islands surrounded by turquoise waters. Though part of a protected marine park the islands are becoming ever-more commercial, so go while you can: take a speedboat ride around them and snorkel the corals that fringe the unspoilt beaches.
The experience at Koh Muk (Mook), a tiny island off the western coast of Trang province, will round off your Thailand trip in truly breathtaking style.
You’ve seen paradise beaches before, but not like this. So what makes Koh Muk different? To reach the most spectacular beach on the island, you’ll need to bring your swimwear and take a short longtail boat ride to the western cliffs. Trust the guide when he jumps into the water with no beach in sight, beckoning for you to follow, and let him show you a path through a cave at the base of the cliff. You’ll swim for 100-metres beneath the cavern before reaching a dazzlingly beautiful hidden lagoon with gleaming, sugary-white sands as far as the eye can see.