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I’ve never considered myself an island person. I prefer the mountains and jungle of northern Thailand to the expensive beaches of southern Thailand and always find getting to, from and in between the islands a huge hassle.
Recently, however, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the Thai islands. In fact, in the month of December I went island hopping more than I have in the past several years. Starting with a couple days in Phuket, I then spent a week sailing and hitting a ton of destinations with The Yacht Week, and then I enjoyed a sneaky WiFi-free week in Koh Lipe on the first true holiday I’ve taken in years.
It was wonderful.
For nine days I did nothing but lie in the sun, read, eat, drink, walk along the shore, get massages on the beach and repeat. Part of what was so wonderful though is that I was staying with a friend who works on the island so I really didn’t have to think about or plan anything. I barely did any research before flying down…
…and because of that I made mistakes, wasted time and money, and was reminded – yet again – how traveling to the islands can be tricky, even when you’ve done it before.
It’s also really difficult choosing which island to go to, even if you’re more familiar with them and have already visited several. There are so many to choose from, each with their own particular draws (and drawbacks) and you want to pick the perfect place – especially if you’re only visiting Thailand for a short holiday!
To start narrowing down your options, you should first ask yourself these 6 questions:
Then you can begin to nail down your plans while keeping these points in mind:
There are four main areas around Thailand where you can visit islands.
Eastern islands close to Bangkok (Gulf of Thailand): Including Koh Chang and Koh Mak.
East coast southern islands (Gulf of Thailand): Including Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.
West coast southern islands (Andaman Sea): Including Phuket, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi.
West coast even further south islands (Andaman Sea): Including Trang and Satun Provinces (Satun borders Malaysia) there are a number of small, less-visited islands such as Koh Muk, Koh Kradan, Koh Libong and Koh Lipe.
There are also a few areas that are still on the mainland but have a beach-y, island feel including Krabi and Railay Bay, and the seaside town of Hua Hin.
Your safest bet traveling weather-wise is end of November through February, however through the year the weather is different between the islands in the Gulf of Thailand and those in the Andaman Sea.
For sun on the west coast (Andaman Sea), try November to April and for the east coast (Gulf of Thailand), try January to September.
Plane: Only two islands have airports on them: Phuket and Koh Samui. Phuket is Thailand’s largest island and has a ton of domestic and international flights and you can often find promotions from competing airlines for ticket deals, especially from Bangkok. The airport on Koh Samui however is actually privately owned by Bangkok Airways and ticket prices tend to be steep.
If you’re not flying directly onto Phuket or Koh Samui, you’ll be flying to one of the three hubs that are jumping-off points for different regions of islands: Surat Thani, Krabi or Hat Yai.
Bus: You can also take buses from Bangkok down to the three main hubs. Head to the southern bus terminal, Sai Tai Taling Chan, located on the Thonburi side of the Chao Praya River. (Best to get there by taxi.) Travel times will vary depending on which hub you’re going to but will all take up a good chunk of time, usually 9+ hours.
Train: I’ve actually never taken the train anywhere in Thailand so can’t speak to it, however there are often delays and it usually takes more time and money to go by train rather than bus. Basically, if you want to travel by train, do it for the experience…not the efficiency.
This is the thing I failed to remember when I went down to Koh Lipe. I bought an afternoon flight from Chiang Mai to Hat Yai and simply assumed I could get onto the island that day since I wasn’t arriving late.
I arrived at the airport at 3:30 pm and it took two hours to drive to the pier. The last boat heading for the island leaves at 3:00 pm everyday. So I had to book a last minute room near the pier, wait until the next morning to catch a boat and wasted one of the nights of my vacation. Fail.
A big misconception is that if you’re flying down to the islands it will be quick and easy – I mean, a 2-hour flight from Bangkok is certainly much shorter than an 8-10 hour bus ride! …but you still have to take into consideration getting to the airport, waiting at the airport for your flight, getting a transfer from your destination airport to the correct pier, waiting for the boat, the boat ride to the island, then transferring from the island’s pier to your accommodation. It’s never quick.
And, if your transportation times don’t match up, you’re then stuck wasting time waiting for the next part of your journey.
Do your research to make sure you have a clear idea of how to get to the pier you need and what your boat options are to actually get onto an island. It will save you a lot of time and money versus thinking you can just ‘figure it out’ as you go.
Accommodation can vary greatly from island to island in terms of type, accessibility and pricing. Some islands, like Koh Chang and Koh Lanta, are home to a wide range of options – you can get simple, pieced together beach bungalows or stay in 5-star, all-inclusive resorts with your own private villa and ocean view. There’s a little something for everyone and you can easily find the right price and value for your money. In other places, like (somewhat surprisingly) Koh Lipe, the low-end accommodation is surprisingly (relatively) expensive and you don’t get the same value for your money that you can find elsewhere. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Koh Lipe, especially on my own, if I hadn’t been able to stay with someone.
Even after staying on ten of the Thai islands, I’m surprised every single time by the prices and how much higher they are than the rest of the country. Often you won’t have a range of options and costs available either – whether it’s accommodation or eating out, you’re kind of stuck. There aren’t many ways to cut corners and make your budget stretch like in other places. Even staying with my friend, I spent more than I originally intended simply because I switched into ‘It’s my holiday I don’t care’ mode and food and drink was more expensive than I anticipated. The cheapest dish we got was 90 baht for something that was delicious, but would have cost 30-40 baht in Chiang Mai.
The islands will also be more fun if you’re not too worried about every single baht you’re spending, so think ahead, give yourself a little cushion and accept that you’ll probably spend more than you’d like.
I understand people wanting to try and cram as many destinations into their itinerary as possible – you’ve traveled all the way to Thailand and want to experience all you can. It sounds good in theory, but in practice you’ll be spending too much of your holiday dealing with transportation and timetables if you try to bounce around to several islands in a short amount of time. Stick to one or two and you’ll enjoy your trip much more. Promise.
A big factor in this is, again, the amount of time it takes to get down to the islands and then from one to the other. Even flying south from Bangkok, you should plan for about one day to be a travel day once all is said and done. Then, if you want to travel between islands, you’re tied to set timetables and routes that aren’t always the most convenient. Island hopping will also significantly increase your costs as you’ll be spending more on transportation than if you stick to one spot.
If you’re short on time, there are still ways to see more than one island however without going crazy.
For example, if you have one week to travel to the islands (remember you’ll need about one day of travel to get to/from Bangkok) and want to see several difference places, try choosing either the cluster with Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand, or the cluster of Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. The travel times in between those islands are relatively short and all along common routes.
You can also choose one base then do day trips to nearby islands. While Phuket normally isn’t my first island recommendation, it does offer easy access thanks to the on-island airport and is a great location for tons of day trips – from snorkeling around Koh Lanta, to visiting Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi, to heading out to some more remote tropical scenes like Chicken Island or “James Bond Island” (Khao Ping Kan).
If you have more than a week to dedicate to the Thai islands, by all means travel around and island hop!
So there you have it. What other tips or suggestions would you add for people visiting the Thai islands? Let me know in the comments!