THE BEST THAI ISLANDS TO VISIT
Anyone planning a first time trip to Thailand will tell you visiting the islands is high on their list of places to go.
Pressed to answer which islands, they may be able to name one or two of the most well known, but chances are they haven’t heard of most of the islands, or don’t fully understand the differences between the islands on the Gulf side vs. the Andaman side.
Planning my trip, I wanted to spend close to a month in the country, venturing from north to south. I knew I wanted to spend at least two weeks in the islands, and ideally, wanted to experience both sides- Gulf and Andaman.
Researching the Thai islands, I came across all the common descriptions- Railay is relaxed (if you know, you know), Phi Phi is backpacker paradise, Koh Tao is the best place to dive, Samui is known for its honeymooners, and the rest of the islands are fairly well trodden.
I’d heard of Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phi Phi and Railay, but didn’t know what truly differentiated each island. Say nothing for having a plan from how I’d get from one to the other.
Thankfully, island travel in Thailand is well connected for tourism, so the hardest thing I had to do was figure out which islands I wanted to visit.
Researching, I read Koh Lipe was considered the ‘Maldives’ of Thailand, so of course, that had to make it onto my list.
Koh Lanta seemed to be loved by those willing to venture south on the Andaman side, so that made it on the list as well.
In the end, I decided to start on the Gulf side because the flights from Bangkok to Samui were cheaper than flying to the Andaman side first.
My itinerary for two weeks looked a bit like this-
Day 1: Fly to Samui, ferry to Koh Tao
Days 2-3: Koh Tao
Day 4: Ferry to Samui
Day 5: Samui
Day 6: Fly to Railay
Days 7-8: Railay
Day 9: Ferry to Koh Lanta
Day 10: Koh Lanta
Day 11: Ferry to Koh Lipe
Days 12-13: Koh Lipe
Day 14: Ferry to Koh Phi Phi
Day 15: Koh Phi Phi, evening ferry to Phuket
Was it a fast paced trip? Yes.
Did I love it? Yep!
Would I do it again? Probably not.
If I return to the Thai islands, I’d like to check out islands I didn’t visit that are said to be less developed- Koh Yao Yoi and Koh Yao Noi- and spend a few days in each without thinking about getting ready for my next transfer, or trying to cram in activities before leaving.
That said, despite the fast pace, the island hopping was incredible.
It was an amazing way to see so much of the Thai islands in a very short span of time. Doing so meant I was able to get a feel for different places, and naturally, quickly developed favourites.
My ranking of the Thai islands I visited is on a scale from 1-5, with 1 signifying I would likely not visit again, and 5 signifying I’d be interested in seeing more of the island.
The Thai Islands, Ranked: The Best Thai Islands to Visit
Koh Tao: 4
When I arrived to Koh Tao, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the island. It definitely holds a younger vibe, and prime activities seemed to be drinking and partying. For someone who is currently sober and in their early 30s, I wasn’t sure I’d quite ‘fit in’.
With only two days on Koh Tao, I didn’t have time to see very much but I did enough snorkeling, hiking and coconut sipping while watching sunsets, to know I’d like to see more of Koh Tao. Say nothing for fact Koh Tao is leaps and bounds ahead of other Thai islands in their offering of fresh, healthy food, and eco-tourism efforts.
Koh Samui: 1
Initially, I’d planned on having one day in Samui before flying to Railay. From everything I’d read about Samui, it didn’t quite sound like the kind of place I wanted to stay for more than a day. Read: overdeveloped, and difficult to get around without a motorbike.
Spotting rain on the Andaman side, I decided to extend my stay in Samui by one day (mainly because my flight was free to move).
Looking for last minute hotel options, I landed at the luxe, understated, Charming Fox. Scoring a last minute booking deal allowed me to spend two days in one of their dream villas, overlooking Bo’Phut.
It was a beautiful two days, but I’m not hard pressed to return to Samui. From what I saw in Bo’Phut, Lamai and Chaweng, the island is massively overdeveloped from tourism. Some people may appreciate the convenience of having whatever you need whenever you need it, or even like the shops openly catering to tourists, but I prefer a more local, relaxed experience.
In the end, Samui’s beauty just doesn’t make up for how packaged it felt.
The soaring cliffs and pristine beaches of Railay, Thailand have hovered near the top of my travel ‘wish list’ for years. Every time I saw photos, I couldn’t believe it was a real place. It appeared to be actual paradise.
And while Railay was even more beautiful than I could have imagined, I don’t feel compelled to return. Not actually an island, but only accessible by long tail boat, Railay is small.
The walking street boasts a number of restaurants and bars, but after two days in Railay, I felt like I’d exhausted the better of mediocre options.
Would I recommend visiting on a first time trip? Yes, absolutely. Even if you don’t stay in Railay, but stay nearby in Krabi or Ao Nang, venture to Railay. It truly is a stunning place.
Koh Lanta: 5
Expansive, golden sand beaches, cosy beach bars, lush forests, and a cultural presence that still cues Thailand?
As if those reasons weren’t enough for me to love Lanta, the best part, perhaps was that it was relatively uninhabited- deserted even, by means of reference to other Thai islands.
Although my time was short, it was just long enough to convince me Lanta is one of the best Thai islands. It may not be the prettiest, but it wins out in being more relaxing, boasting a wide range of accommodation, and retaining an element of Thai culture that’s gone missing from so many of the other islands. Plus, my favourite (and the most beautiful) day trip I did in all of Thailand was from Lanta.
I’d love to return one day to see more of the big island.
Koh Lipe: 1
While there’s no arguing Koh Lipe is developed, there are far fewer crowds than anywhere else in Thailand I visited.
Why is that?
Likely because it’s far south, the furthest of all the Thai islands, placing it closer to mainland Malaysia.
Scenery wise, it is a seriously stunning place. But, after three days in Lipe, I left saddened by the clear impact overtourism is having- trash everywhere, traffic back-ups, cheap touristy bars and shops.
Would I visit Lipe again? Probably not. It’s expensive to get to (in time and money), and a bit pricier than the other islands I stayed on- likely, because it is remote.
Plus, there are so many other islands in Thailand, as well as Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam I’d love to visit before re-visiting places I’ve been.
Do I think visiting Lipe is worth it if it’s your first time in Thailand? Likely not, but it depends how much time you have, and really, what you get most excited about on a holiday.
Phi Phi Islands: 1
I’d felt conflicted visiting the Phi Phi islands for a few reasons. Other travellers I knew had written off the islands, saying they were too developed, too touristy and not worth the time or effort required to reach them and spend time in them.
Others said they were among the most beautiful islands in all of Thailand and couldn’t imagine their trip without seeing them.
I’d read reports of the Thai government closing part of the Phi Phi islands (Maya Bay) to help it recover from the impact of mass tourism. I didn’t see the closing as an inconvenience, but rather all the more reason not to visit an area that was clearly under tremendous tourism strain.
In the end, I decided to visit the Phi Phi islands out of convenience more than anything else. Ferrying from Lipe to Phuket, it was easy to stop in the Phi Phi islands. It meant I was able to break up my ferry ride, which was already 4.5 hours from Lipe to Phi Phi.
I’m so grateful I decided to visit the Phi Phi islands.
They were, as some had said, some of the most visually arresting scenery I encountered while in Thailand.
However, I don’t feel pressed to return because of aforementioned concerns, and because there are other beautiful islands in Thailand. I’d recommend seeing them on a first time visit, but wouldn’t spend too much time there – a day or two, and then head onward to other islands.
I didn’t write a post about my time in Phuket because it was short- largely a stop over in Patong to stay at a hostel with laundry before flying to a new-to-me country, Cambodia.
Patong felt sleazy.
Think: booze, sex and nightlife. Everything seemed to exist solely for tourism or exploitation, nothing really felt ‘Thai’.
That said, I’ve heard the north western and eastern sides of Phuket boast stunning scenery, and more idyllic accommodation, so I wouldn’t write off re-visiting Phuket entirely.
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Have you ever visited the Thai islands? Which would you say are the best Thai islands to visit?