Choosing the perfect island escape in Thailand is like shopping for cologne at a perfume store — there are just too many fabulous options to choose from! Your quest to pick the ideal speck of emerald jungle and turquoise seas could quickly descend into a state of dizzying confusion.
But help is at hand! While Thailand boasts countless islands with golden beaches, lush stands of tropical forest and dazzling coral reefs, the prime location for a first-time Thai island adventure is the Gulf of Thailand, where three lovely tropical islands compete for the attention of lovers of sand, sea and spices.
Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao are located smack in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand, offshore from the southern city of Surat Thani. Each offers its own unique collection of island experiences, and despite being very much on the beaten track, they are a perfect way to break into Thailand’s island circuit.
Whether you’re a luxury lover, a beach bum, a party-goer, a wellness seeker or an adventure junkie, here's our guide to choosing your ideal island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Best for high-end resorts, restaurants and spas
Also good for wellness retreats
Ko Samui’s indulgent riviera vibe works its magic on well-heeled travelers who don’t mind-blowing their money on fancy experiences. Elegant five-star resorts occupy gorgeous vantage spots on clifftops and unfurl along white-sand beaches or amidst serene forest glades, offering luxury accommodation, finely curated dining experiences and pampering spa services. Anantara Bophut, W Koh Samui and Banyan Tree Samui are among the headliners here when it comes to top-end offerings.
For those inclined towards a lavish spa experience, rejuvenation centers such as Eranda Herbal Spa, the Spa at Four Seasons Koh Samui and Luxsa Spa take relaxation to a whole new level. In recent years, the island has also gained popularity as a destination for a holistic detox, with travelers seeking realignment of mind and soul as well as lavish pampering. Absolute Sanctuary and Kamalaya are among the country’s best-known wellness retreats – both offer all-inclusive luxury packages based on detoxing, de-stressing and emotional therapy.
Immersing yourself in nature is another way to recalibrate on a trip to Samui. Start with a boat trip to nearby Ang Thong Marine National Park, a spectacular sanctuary made up of scattered islands, defined by towering limestone cliffs that rise from sparkling lagoons. Koh Samui Boat Charter and Oceana Samui have upscale fleets of boats for day charters to the national park and other nearby beauty spots.
The biggest of the three gulf islands, Ko Samui is also known for its active nightlife, centered on bustling beach settlements such as Chaweng on the east coast, and Fisherman’s Village in Bo Phut at the north end of the island. In these commercialized hubs, you will find a generous smattering of beachside restaurants offering fine Mediterranean, pan-Asian and Thai seafood, and plenty of bars supplying delicious cocktails, wine and chilled beer to go with those stunning sunset views.
There's culture here too, in the form of dotted Buddhist monasteries such as Wat Plai Laem. Other highlights include cooking courses, snorkeling trips and Muay Thai boxing camps.
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Best for younger travelers and hedonistic full-moon beach parties
Also good for yoga, digital nomad life
Bohemian Ko Pha-Ngan has aged gracefully over the years. The island was once the epicenter of hedonistic excess, but following clampdowns in recent years, its legendary full-moon parties are now a rather civilized affair compared to the heyday of the party scene in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the monthly party on Hat Rin beach is still a rite of passage for thousands of young travelers drifting through Southeast Asia, and each full moon draws party animals to Ko Pha-Ngan like moths to a flame.
Check dates for upcoming parties online in advance to help plan your trip. The party kicks off on the evening of the full moon with ramshackle beachfront bars pumping out reggae and trance beats, prompting hordes of ravers to jive onto the open stretch of beach that doubles as a dance floor. As the night gets livelier, fire breathers and fireball spinners take center stage, wowing revelers with carnival-style shows.
However, the free-flowing booze and anything-goes atmosphere tempt many people to let their guard down along with their hair. Keep your senses about you – dealers tout dodgy substances despite regular police raids (with stiff penalties for possession) and pilferers wander the crowds in search of unattended purses and mobile phones. Resist the urge to go swimming under the influence – there have been drownings in the past.
In recent years, Koh Pha-Ngan has also gained popularity as a hub for digital nomads keen on mixing work with life in a tropical paradise. Shared working and living spaces such as Beachub, La Casa Tropicana and Koh Space lure remote workers from around the world with communal workspaces and services optimized for medium- or long-term stays.
Last, but not least, the island is a yoga and Ayurveda hotspot, meaning it's easy to detox after a party all-nighter. Try Samma Karuna for packages weaving in yoga, art therapy, meditation and Ayurvedic healing, or Orion Healing Centre for vegan food, reiki treatments and yoga programs.
Best for world-class scuba diving
Also good for freediving, hiking and snorkeling
Visiting Ko Tao means spending a disproportionate number of hours under its crystal-clear tropical waters. The island is among the world’s top destinations for scuba diving training, whether that means certification courses for first-timers or career courses for scuba professionals. Indeed, this is one of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world, with PADI certification courses starting from US$300.
Boasting a fabulous selection of shallow coral reefs and a handful of deeper but still easily navigable rock formations and shipwrecks, Ko Tao appeals equally to novice divers as well as seasoned undersea explorers. There’s a mind-boggling variety of marine life to be spotted in these waters, including routine cameos by whale sharks, blacktip reef sharks, eagle rays, stingrays and hawksbill turtles. Top dive sites include legendary Chumphon Pinnacle and Sail Rock.
Black Turtle Dive, Sairee Cottage Diving and Big Blue Diving are Ko Tao’s top dive centers in terms of facilities, equipment rental, boat services and quality of instruction. All have customizable packages covering everyone from novices taking a weekend plunge to would-be professionals booking in for divemaster or instructor training stretched over several weeks.
If you are interested in venturing beyond recreational diving to dip your toes into marine conservation, dive companies such as The Coral Tribe have specially tailored courses and educational programs exploring topics such as coral reef monitoring, marine resource management and citizen science. For non-divers, shallow sites such as Hin Wong, Ao Leuk and Shark Bay offer fantastic snorkeling opportunities, with regular turtle and reef shark sightings early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Koh Tao also caters to people who prefer to explore the marine environment without the cumbersome load of an air cylinder on their backs. Freediving — where divers plunge to depths of 30m and beyond on a single breath — is gaining traction among adventurers, and Apnea Total is a trusted center for those hoping to learn this emerging discipline.
Finally, for a spot of adventure on dry land, take a vigorous hike up to one of Ko Tao’s dramatic hilltop lookouts, such as West Coast Viewpoint, Tanote Peak Viewpoint or John Suwan Viewpoint. Accessible from Sairee Beach by long-tail boat, the nearby island of Koh Nang Yuan also offers delightful hiking opportunities – the trek to its apex viewpoint offers a gorgeous vista of Koh Tao’s eastern shoreline.
How to get to Thailand's gulf islands
Reaching Thailand's gulf islands is easy by plane or boat. Ko Samui is served by daily flights from Bangkok and a string of other cities in Thailand and neighboring Southeast Asian countries, operated by Bangkok Airways. If you'd rather cut your carbon footprint, regular ferries run to the islands from the mainland, with easy connections from island to island.
Lomprayah runs interisland connections and transfers from Chumphon, while Songserm and Seatran run boats from Don Sak Pier and Tapee Pier, both close to Surat Thani. Daily trains from Bangkok serve Surat Thani and Chumphon, continuing on to the border with Malaysia.
Article originally publishded by Emma Sparks.
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