31 October 2022
Set in the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand is home to around 1,430 islands boasting incredible diversity: of landscapes, wildlife, and people. This is a place where the sun reigns supreme - where, no matter the time of year, you can always find a place to soak up some rays. If you find it’s raining on the side of the country you are on, you’re only a stone’s throw away from the next sun soaked islet. Perhaps that’s why these beautiful islands have long captured the hearts of travellers the world over.
These islands, in all their variety, are something of a mixed bag: wild nightlife contrasts with the serenity of white sand beaches to offer the most incredibly well-rounded holiday experience you could ask for. The beauty of this place is in its ability to draw people in from all walks of life, whether you’re an avid diver, a thrillseeker, a party person or even a competitive athlete. These stunning islands are alluring in a way that is all-encompassing. Whether you’re looking for a warm-weather beach holiday, or to explore a relaxed culture that is worlds away from the stresses of your everyday life, look no further than the Thai Islands - they really do have something for everyone.
What makes the Thai Islands, the Thai Islands?
1. Koh Tao: the thrill seeker’s paradise
Located roughly 300 miles from Bangkok, Koh Tao’s towering silhouette is unmistakable over the Gulf of Thailand. At just 21 km², this volcanic island is tiny! But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality. Exploring this island will have your heart racing - and not just because of its swoon-worthy beauty. From diving the deepest depths to climbing soaring heights, Koh Tao is a mecca among thrill seekers of every variety.
Below the surface of this lilliputian isle, you’ll find stunning underwater scenery, from reefs encrusted with vibrantly-coloured corals, hauntingly beautiful shipwrecks and psychedelic shoals of tropical fish. One of the island’s main attractions, Koh Tao boasts some of the lowest scuba diving prices in the world, especially when you consider the island’s high-quality instructors and the importance placed on marine conservation. With over 80 dive schools to choose from, an underwater excursion is never far away. And if diving isn’t your thing, you can still embrace your inner siren as you rent a snorkel and mask to dive straight in to Koh Tao’s incredible underwater world in any one of the island’s easily accessible bays.
As beautiful as the island’s underwater bays are, there is so much more to Koh Tao… Look above and you’ll find a stunning skyline pierced by imposing blades of 200-million-year-old granite. With more than 70 routes around the island, Koh Tao is home to a strong community of climbers, drawn to the island to find some of the region’s most exhilarating climbs - from mountaintop walls and trails with panoramic views, to eroded seaside cliffs and beautiful lowland bouldering areas. The majority of the well-travelled routes have solid stainless steel bolts and anchors, and offer high quality climbing on solid rock. But if you’d rather keep your feet firmly on the ground, Koh Tao offers up some gorgeous hiking trails, like the trail to Mango Viewpoint, Fraggle Rock, or Two Views (more on that later!).
If you really want to get the heart pumping, head to Tanote Bay to tackle the legendary 12-metre cliff jump. Adrenaline junkies can climb a permanently anchored rope to dizzying heights and launch themselves into the deep, crystal-clear sea below. Or, if you prefer a little warm up, check out Goodtime Adventures’ cliff jumping tour in Laem Thien bay during the summer months. They’ll guide you through 3-metre and then 9-metre jumps before you take the final 12-metre plunge.
Fun fact: Koh Tao gets regular visits from the biggest fish in the ocean: the mighty Whale Shark. More than 100 can be spotted in a single year!
2. The home of Muay Thai
A trip to the Thai islands is an opportunity to learn the art of Muay Thai in its homeland. Known as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai involves using eight points of contact to strike your opponent: your fists, elbows, knees, and shins. It’s a full body sport, so it’s a great workout suited to both experienced martial artists and novices. Whether you’re an experienced competitor or just a backpacker wanting to try your hand (or fists, elbows, knees, and shins!) at something new, there’s nothing like getting to grips with the sport in the place where it was born.
At first thought, spending a vacation sweating it out on sparring mats might not sound like the most relaxing experience, but it’s a chance to really get to the heart of Thai culture - and if you’re into fitness, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience for both the mind and body. Whether you’re looking to throw yourself into a bespoke experience with meal plans, massages and luxury accommodation, or you’re a beginner wanting to try out something low-commitment and flexible, there’s a Muay Thai camp for everyone.
Typically, a Muay Thai camp will involve 1.5-2 hour training sessions twice a day, six days a week where you’ll learn Muay Thai technique, practice hitting the bag, group bodyweight exercise circuits, stretching, and pad rounds where professional trainers will guide you through timed rounds of pad training, which simulates a fight and teaches you technique.
If you’re up for the challenge, training on one of the Thai islands can be an incredibly rewarding experience, as you train up your mind and body during the day and spend your afternoons relaxing on palm-lined beaches.
Fun fact: Muay Thai originated in Thailand during the Medieval period as a form of hand-to-hand combat in times of war.
3. Underwater sights to die for
Known for its palm-fringed beaches, dense mountainous rainforest, coconut groves, and hidden coves, Koh Samui serves as the perfect spot for snorkeling in Thailand. Explore secluded coves and endless sandy beaches as you take a dip in the clearest waters of the Indian Ocean to discover the incredible underwater world of the Thai islands. Among the most popular spots to snorkel on Koh Samui are Chaweng and Coral Cove. These coral-rich waters are home to shoals of fish in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, barracudas, and octopi to bring your most vivid ocean dreams to life.
Phuket is blessed with some of the most docile but brilliant sharks possible. From the teddy bear-like Leopard Shark, to the enormous yet elegant Whale Shark, there is no better place in the world to fall in love with these magnificent creatures.
Head to the eponymous Shark Point for the best chance of seeing the photogenic Leopard Shark. These bottom-feeding cuties can be found lounging around in the fine sands of Phuket’s waters, and if you approach carefully, are often more than happy to pose for a picture or two! They can also be found at Anemone Reef and around the Phi Phi Islands.
If you’re looking to spot a more traditional looking shark, keep your eyes peeled for the timid Black Tip Reef Shark in dive sites around Phi Phi. In particular, Phi Phi Ley is a good spot, but these gentle creatures are easily frightened, so it might be difficult to snap a picture…
Perhaps the most sought after shark sighting, the Whale Shark is among the more elusive creatures of Phuket. These behemoths are the largest fish in the sea and can grow to 18 metres in length. The largest ever recorded was 18.8 metres long. They’re most likely to be spotted around Richelieu Rock, but these incredible creatures can be hard to find - so extra bragging points if you see one!
Located in the Andaman Sea, the Similan Islands are a set of 9 isles about 60km off Thailand’s west coast. Boasting some of the most impressive diving in the world, they are ranked as a top ten dive site by the National Geographic Society. Koh Similan, the largest of the Similan Islands, has white sandy beaches and tropical jungles, lapped by striking blue waters – in which you’ll find the best diving and snorkelling spots in Thailand. Whether you’re exploring gentle sloping hard coral reefs or wild current-swept rocky landscapes, the waters surrounding Koh Similan are teeming with life - from huge sharks and turtles, right down to photogenic little critters like ghost pipefish, sea moths, frogfish, and ribbon eels.
Good to know: Thailand is a year-round diving destination, but the season oscillates from coast to coast. From May to November, the best diving is found on the west coast in the Andaman Sea, and from December to April, the best diving is found on the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand.
4. The most incredible landscapes
The Thai islands boast some of the most incredible natural landscapes you can find. From towering karst formations to verdant jungle scenery, this archipelago is home to one of the most diverse landscapes. Whether you’re exploring tea plantations or hill tribe villages in the north, or taking in the palm-encrusted islands of the south, the islands are a stunning homage to the beauty of Southeast Asia. If you’re all about the scenic route, here are some unmissable locations.
Mangroves in Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi
Nestled in the sheltered, emerald green waters of Phang Nga Bay, Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi bring out the rustic charm of Thailand’s islands. These unspoilt islands sit halfway between Phuket and Krabi, boasting a sense of preserved authenticity that make them great places to experience traditional Thai island life. Ringed by gorgeous sandy beaches, the islands are home to dense patches of mangroves that are perfect for exploring by kayak. Known as the “rainforests of the sea”, mangroves are some of the most biologically diverse forests and provide the perfect breeding ground for fish, shrimp, prawns, crabs, shellfish, snails and mudskippers. Take a kayak for a quiet cruise through the narrow canals to discover the unspoiled mangrove forest at “Pak Klong”, the mangrove river on the southern part of Koh Yao Yai, where you can spend an afternoon taking in the the forest’s ecological system.
The Emerald Cave near Koh Lanta
The craggy Koh Muk is home to some of the most picturesque beaches, forests, and even quaint fishing villages, but the isle’s main attraction is the Emerald Cave - or Tham Morakot in Thai. If you’re scared of the dark, this sight will be a huge NO for you. But if you can brave it, seeing the Emerald Cave is an experience unlike any other. To get there involves swimming almost 80 meters through a dark cave - and it’s only accessible at low tide. As soon as you see the light at the end of the tunnel, however, it’s clear why the cave is such a coveted sight. You’ll find yourself faced with a white sand beach, surrounded by towering cliff faces covered in verdant greenery, and an emerald lagoon lit up by the sun. It’s something of a mini paradise, and well worth journeying through the darkness to get to!
Beaches in Koh Samet
Located in Rayong province, to the Southeast of Bangkok and Pattaya, Koh Samet is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand - the perfect getaway from the more touristy islands. Sai Kaew Beach - or Diamond Beach - is perhaps among the most beautiful beaches on the island. Located on the northeast side, this white sand beach has crystal clear waters and with its stretching, palm-fringed coastline, it’s the perfect beach for sunset walk.
Rainforests in Surat Thani
The Thai islands are home to the world’s oldest evergreen rainforest. Take a trip to Khao Sok National Park to splash in waterfalls, explore shrouded caves and discover some amazing wildlife under a spectacular canopy of verdant greens. Situated between Phuket, Krabi, Khao Lak and Koh Samui, Khao Sok offers the experience of a lifetime. Get up close and personal with elephants, trek endless jungle on foot, or take a canoe out on the waters to get the best view of the park’s wildlife. When you’ve had your fill of the jungle, head for the nearby coast to explore the sublime sands of Khao Lak; surrounded by rich forests, it feels like your own slice of paradise.
Fun fact: In Thailand, many species of commercially important fish rely on mangroves as a nursery. They’ll grow here before making off into the big wide world!
5. The nightlife
It’s no secret that Thailand is home to some of the best party islands in the world. Each year, revellers descend on the Thai islands in search of full moon parties, beach bars and all-day and night clubs. The non-stop party atmosphere that flows through many of the Thai islands is infectious, so if you want to get involved, here are some of the best party islands the country has to offer:
Home to the full moon party that everyone and their mother thinks of when it comes to Thailand, Koh Phangan is made up of white sand beaches, palm trees, lively bars, clubs, and copious amounts of alcohol. Head to Haad Rin beach to get a taste of the wild full moon parties that this place is so well-known for. The monthly full moon parties run year-round and consist of over 12 major sound systems, up to 30,000 people, and a ton of dance floors, DJs, bars and drinks to choose from.
A favourite among backpackers, Koh Samui offers a variety of beaches to suit all kinds of traveller. The most popular, Chaweng Beach, comes to life at night with colourful lights beaming out into the ocean from the variety of bars and night clubs scattered along this beach. The area of Chaweng has even more to offer when it comes to late night drinking and dancing. This tiny isle even hosts its own version of Koh Phangan’s famous full moon parties: half moon and black moon parties. If you’re heading to Koh Samui, be sure to check out Q Bar, Soi Green Mango, Ark Bar, the Islander and Soi Reggae when visiting this hip tropical paradise.
One of Thailand’s larger islands, Phuket is situated along the country’s west coast, in the Andaman Sea. This is the islands’ hotspot for revellers - the perfect destination for those that enjoy staying out through to the early hours of the morning, nursing their hangovers under palm trees on the beach the next day and then doing it all over again.
Koh Phi Phi
Home to an array of party scenes both for those looking for a dance floor and loud music and those seeking a laid back atmosphere. Koh Phi Phi consists of three main areas: Loh Dalum is situated up north with a very relaxed vibe to it although the drinks, fire dancing, and bars are still plentiful, while Tonsai Village and Tonsai East are hosts to beach bars and clubs which attract those seeking a sleepless night of fun in paradise. Notorious for its “buckets” - consisting of a bucket of ice, half a bottle of sugar cane rum, mixers and straws - you’re sure to have a good night for next to nothing! Koh Phi Phi prides itself on its incredible nightlife which manages to avoid the sleaziness that some other islands are notorious for.
Good to know
If you’re sampling the nightlife in Thailand, pace yourself! If you want to make it to the epic sunrise (views are worth it!), your best bet is avoiding the actual party until around 11pm.
If you’re island hopping, try to base yourself on a well-connected island that you can easily plan day trips from.
Prepare to pay with cash - it’s much more convenient than paying with a card in Thailand.
Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body in Thai culture, so you’ll have to remove your shoes whenever you enter temples, people’s homes, spas, and other establishments.
If you’re planning to visit any temples, you’ll need to abide by a more modest dress code. Clothes should cover your knees, shoulders, chest and stomach.
Avoid touching other people’s heads; the head is considered the holiest part of the body, so to touch someone’s head is considered a great disrespect.
Bargaining for goods at street markets is a huge part of travelling to Thailand, so don’t be afraid to haggle! As a general rule of thumb, don’t go any lower than half of the original price - anything lower may offend the vendor.
Savour the island life
The Thai islands are an incredible backpacking destination. I travelled around the islands for a month and it wasn’t anywhere near long enough to truly take in all of their beauty. This is one place where you should truly embody the slow and steady pace of island life and really savour the experience!