Phuket is one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations, second in Asia only to Bangkok among international visitors. For travellers, of course, the island is only a stepping-stone to exploring the many other paradise islands of the Andaman Sea. We look at some of the best beach and island destinations to visit in Thailand, including popular hotspots and quieter islands for a more secluded getaway.
Phuket is a large island close to the Thailand’s southwestern mainland coast along the Andaman Sea.
It's noted for its beaches and resorts, many at the luxurious end of the spectrum. Here’s where you can be pampered to your heart’s content in spas and five-star restaurants, or laze around in a villa with a private pool and butler.
Phuket is also home to a 45 metre high white marble Buddha statue. The image is visible from anywhere in the Southern part of Phuket and is situated on the peak of mount Nagakerd.
Then there’s Patong, whose Bangla Road lined with backpacker bars and clubs is notorious for its nightlife, including ladyboys, go-go dancers and their attendant touts.
The whole resort is worth avoiding for those who prefer the quieter experience to be found in Phuket City.
The Old Town here retains its heritage Chinese-style “shop-houses” and even the morning alms procession by monks.
The Weekend Market every Saturday and Sunday on Wirat Hong Yok Road is a popular one, as is the one on Sunday evenings when Thalang Road turns into a “Walking Street”.
The island’s 30 beaches include Phang Nga Bay, where James Bond met The Man with the Golden Gun – worth a quick photo op but little else now due to the crowds in season.
Bigger beaches have restaurants and more, while most have some sort of beach bar but there are also less-visited gems such Kata Noi.
Mai Khao inside Sirinat National Park on the northwest coast of Phuket is even quieter because of its coarser sand and strong waves, but offers seven miles of beach where you may find yourself walking alone.
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Some 40 miles north of Phuket on the same western coast of the Andaman Sea, Khaolak is a set of small villages where upscale, low-rise development is encouraged.
It is family friendly, with none of the partying of Phuket and relatively uncrowded beaches. The resort is also a convenient base for day-trippers or live-aboard dive boats setting out to explore the Similan Islands (see below).
Krabi is a resort on the western shore of the Thai mainland, the other side of the Andaman Sea from Phuket.
Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta (see below) and some 80 other islands are in the same province, which includes a number of national parks, and sailing, diving, snorkelling and other maritime activities are popular.
Expeditions by long-tail boat take visitors to remoter islands but Krabi’s mainland beaches are also a draw.
Krabi Town is a base for exploring the area by songthaew (shared pickup-truck taxibus) and there are plenty of restaurants, guesthouses and hotels.
Thailand: history and culture
Koh Phi Phi
Closer to Krabi than Phuket, Koh Phi Phi is the most famous Thai island. It has hotels and other resorts at every level of luxury, as well as a reputation for hedonistic partying.
Its New Year celebrations attract young people from all over the world, who indulge in activities such as hard-drinking, all-night dancing and cliff-jumping.
It’s still possible, perhaps, to get away from it all with a boat trip to nearby Koh Phi Phi Ley, where Danny Boyle's The Beach was filmed, but basically Koh Phi Phi remains an island for partygoers.
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Nine islands make up the Similans, each prettier than the last and together making up a maritime park which is closed to visitors from the monsoon season from May to October.
The largest is Koh Similan, which is surrounded by clear waters and shallow coral reefs.
That’s a description fitting all the other islands as well and they offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in Thailand, including a chance to see sharks, barracudas and whale sharks.
Koh Lanta is another group of islands, many falling within Mu Koh Lanta National Park. It hangs off the mainland, south of Krabi, and its terrain includes mangroves, rainforest and striking limestone formations.
The semi-nomadic Chao Leh “sea gypsies” live on the south of Koh Lanta Yai, the largest island (often just called “Koh Lanta”), some still in traditional stilted houses along the beach.
Koh Lanta Yai is home to several good resorts and makes a quieter alternative to Phi Phi, which can be seen only 20 miles away.
Parks and wildlife in Thailand
Even quieter than Koh Lanta is the tiny Koh Kradan to its south. You can paddle a kayak around it in a few hours, but most visitors prefer to lie in a hammock in the shade of the many coconut and rubber trees.
The island is within Hat Jao Mai National Park but also boasts several lovely resorts and its swimming and snorkelling is as good as anywhere else in the Andaman Sea.
Koh Lipe is perhaps cursed with “the most beautiful beach in Thailand”. Untamed development has threatened to overwhelm the island’s natural charms but it is still somewhat protected by its relative remoteness.
Down near the southwest border with Malaysia, one of 50 islands in Tarutao Marine Park, it is a seven-hour drive from Phuket before a 90 minute speedboat ride.
The reward is gorgeous white sand beaches, tropical interior, coral reefs and friendly locals, as well as luxury hotels.
Sunset Beach and the better Pattaya Beach offer lots of action to those who want it, but the island is more a haunt for couples who just want to spend time together.
Thailand festivals: when to visit
Opposite Phuket but on the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui was once a party island not unlike Phi Phi but is now seriously upmarket.
On top of the fine beaches and superb diving, the resorts vie with each other in pampering you. Fine dining is a given and you will also experience some of the best spa and yoga breaks anywhere in the world.
Koh Samui is also Thailand’s second-largest island after Phuket and it still has room for some unspoilt wilderness.
Its mountainous centre remains tropical rainforest, while the island continues to export coconut and rubber. And stretching away to the southeast are the 42 islands of the Mu Koh Ang Thong National Park, a pleasant boat trip away.
Here you’ll find deserted white tropical beaches, snorkel-friendly coral diving in crystal clear water and places to camp overnight.
Close your eyes to imagine the perfect Thai Island and you’re probably conjuring up an image you will find here in reality.
Koh Pha Ngan
North of Koh Samui is Koh Pha Ngan, famous for its Full Moon parties on Sunrise Beach that attract a crowd of thousands of all-night ravers.
There are also twice-monthly Half Moon parties for those who don’t make it in time, and in fact an almost continual schedule of other opportunities to experience almost the same thing.
Those looking for something quieter head to the north of the island where you find beaches such as Haad Salad, with its high-end resorts, and Mae Haad, with its superb snorkelling. Nearby is the fishing village of Chalok Lam and its picturesque bay.
The island is not well known for its food but the chief ferry port of Thong Sala is worth a visit for its night market and food stalls. Not surprisingly, the seafood is a specialty.
Koh Pha Ngan also has some great dive sites, including the Gulf of Thailand’s best wall dive at Sail Rock. There are plenty of diving schools for all abilities, including complete beginners, and the coral reefs are also good for snorkelling.
“Turtle Island” is the place to come to learn to dive as it is one of the cheapest places in the world, with some of the best diving and clearest water.
Take your PADI theory back home and you can jump straight into the water without wasting time in a classroom, or move on to night and wreck diving if you’re already qualified.
With so many visitors preparing to dive the next day, nightlife is quieter and more mature than many other places – which only adds to Koh Tao’s attraction for many visitors.
Those who don’t dive can hike in the coastal forest or sip fruit cocktails in the shade of a beach umbrella. It’s another perfect day in paradise.
Up on the coast, near Thailand’s border with Cambodia, Koh Chang is one of the largest islands in the Gulf and one of its most varied.
Hike through dense jungle, shower under a waterfall, or relax in a laidback beach resort. Some traditional stilted villages remain, such as Bang Bao on the southeast coast, and the west coast is noted for its many beaches.
These are starting to feel the effects of package tourism but you can still find spots such as Salakkok Bay in the south where you can rent a canoe to paddle through mangrove forest or find a great seafood meal.
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