These are Thailand’s best islands and beaches beyond Phuket
Marine national parks, hidden coves and hundreds of paradisiacal isles – this is your essential guide to the stunning coasts of Thailand.
- July 2019
Phuket, the largest and best known of the Thai islands, is a tropical playground of palm-fringed beaches lapped by a cerulean sea. But after you’ve explored everything it has to offer, make it the jumping off point to venture a bit further, and you’ll be rewarded with lots more – from the magnificent rock formations of Phang Nga and gorgeous islands of Surat Thani to Krabi’s jungle-fringed coastline and towering limestone karsts.
In Phang Nga, go to…
The Similan Islands
Known as one of the world’s best spots for diving, Mu Koh Similan National Park incorporates a chain of 11 exquisite islands set in the Andaman Sea, located just 90 minutes by speedboat from Phuket. Basic camping and bungalows are available but most people visit on daytrips from Phuket, while avid divers intent on serious underwater exploration can join a liveaboard boat safari. The forested islands are edged by granite boulders both above and below the water, which make for fascinating dive sites, along with giant sea fans and more than 500 species of coral.
Koh Yao Noi
With a striking panorama of the towering limestone rocks of Phang Nga Bay, this laid-back island is a world away from Phuket in terms of experience – but only 30 minutes by speedboat. Low-key development focuses on ecotourism and the range of luxury resorts make Koh Yao Noi an inspired choice for a relaxed, romantic hideaway. Good flashpacker accommodation also attracts solo travellers looking to go off the beaten track. Quiet roads meander through small villages, rice fields and watermelon groves – ideal for exploring by motorbike or bicycle.
Koh Yao Yai
Just minutes away from Koh Yao Noi – and also a 30-minute speedboat ride from Phuket – sister island Koh Yao Yai is twice the size but has even less tourism development, making it ideal for getting back to nature. Villages with wooden stilt houses nestled in coconut groves are great for cycling around and there are very pretty beaches – Lam Haed being a highlight. The calm waters that encircle Koh Yao Yai are great for kayaking, while a daytrip of swimming, snorkelling and exploring nearby uninhabited islands is a must.
In Krabi, go to…
OK, so this isn’t technically an island but the scenic peninsula is encircled by jagged limestone cliffs and accessible only by boat, so it certainly feels like one. If your holiday fantasy involves soaking up the sun and sensational views at a romantic beachfront resort, the gentle curve of white powdery sand at Railay Beach, a 1.5 hour speedboat ride from Phuket, is perfect. The peninsula is also a magnet for rock climbers, with 600 routes traversing massive cliffs and several climbing schools for novices. Budget accommodation clusters around Railay East, while a steep jungle trail, frequented by monkeys, lures intrepid travellers to the seriously laid-back, bohemian Tonsai Beach.
Khao Sok National Park
It’s not all just golden beaches – this region has plenty of inland magic, too. The ancient rainforests, waterfalls and caves of this national park are a thrilling destination for a daytrip or even a night at a floating bungalow on atmospheric Cheow Lan Lake. Two hours’ drive from Krabi and four hours from Phuket, the park is home to elephants, bears and gibbons, with hiking trails suitable for walkers of all levels. Kayaking along the park’s magnificent lake and tributaries is also a highlight.
Koh Phi Phi islands
With jagged limestone cliffs framing turquoise bays and white-sand beaches, Phi Phi Don is one of the jewels of Thailand located around 1.5 hours by speedboat from Phuket, offering everything from rustic bungalows to glitzy five-star resorts. A backpackers’ paradise in the 80s, the main beach Ao Lo Da Lam, still buzzes with a party atmosphere. Long Beach is quieter, with snorkelling right off shore, while Monkey Beach is often deserted (apart from the resident monkeys). Jungle paths crisscross the island leading to some superb viewpoints, while kayaks are best for discovering secluded coves and sea caves. Five more uninhabited islands make up the Phi Phi group and can be explored on snorkelling trips.
In Surat Thani, go to…
An island of remarkable beauty located around 2.5 hours by boat from Surat Thani, here, jungle-clad mountains dip to picture-perfect coves. Take your pick from more than a dozen beaches in the Gulf of Thailand shoreline – some like enchanting Than Sadet are only accessible by boat or 4WD, with accommodation ranging from beach shacks to boutique resorts. The island is best known for its full moon parties and backpacker scene, which centres around Haad Rin, but the rest of Koh Pha-ngan is wonderfully peaceful and increasingly popular for meditation and yoga retreats.
Mu Koh Ang Thong National Marine Park
This spectacular marine park includes 42 pristine forested islands and takes four hours to reach by boat from Surat Thani (via Koh Samui). Look for langurs (monkeys), sea eagles and lizards on land, or dive in to see turtles, groupers, blacktip reef sharks and coral reefs. Daytrips from Koh Samui and Koh Pha-ngan include snorkelling, kayaking and a hike to Emerald Lake viewpoint, which featured in the film The Beach. Stay overnight in a tent or bungalow, or charter a liveaboard sailing boat to explore at your own pace.
Kilometres of beaches, lush waterfalls, world-class cuisine – Thailand’s second largest island, located two hours by boat from Surat Thani, has something for everyone. Those in search of nightlife head to Chaweng Beach but if you have a more holistic holiday in mind, the secluded beaches and hinterland forests boast health retreats and spa resorts. Samui also tops the list for families thanks to water parks, zip-lining, a shopping and recreational complex and the magical Secret Buddha Garden, a sculpture park in a jungle setting.
This remote island (it takes about 3.5 hours by boat from Surat Thani) is a tropical wonderland, with rugged cliffs and white-sand beaches giving way to a vibrant underwater world of rock pinnacles, shipwrecks and coral reefs. With over 25 dive sites, Koh Tao is among the best dive spots in the country and has a reputation as one of the most affordable places for PADI certification. Take a snorkelling trip to nearby Koh Nang Yuan, where crystal clear water rings three tiny islets connected by sand bars.