Thailand is a melting pot of diversity that has something for everyone and every budget. Historical and scared spaces and rice patty fields, mixed amongst the lush jungle – there’s something for everyone. Perhaps the highlight of Thailand though, its incredible island-hopping scene, which is practically unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
If you need some help when it comes to your Thailand island hopping, then this guide is for you!
Thailand is huge, in fact it’s 513,120km2 which is roughly twice the size of New Zealand or the United Kingdom! With such a large landmass to consider, there was one area that really stood out; the islands located in the Chumphon Archipelago – Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Ko Tao.
They certainly didn’t disappoint! Not only were they incredibly beautiful but each of the three islands had a diverse offering making them the perfect holiday-combo.
Thailand Island Hopping: Getting to the Islands
There are several ways to get to Koh Samui depending on your budget.
Alternatively you can fly (or bus if you’re on a real budget) from Bangkok to Surat Thani and then catch the bus and ferry combo to Koh Samui. The addition of a ferry adds at least three hours onto your journey but it significantly reduced our fares. Nok Air and Air Asia both offer flights to Surat Thani whilst Air Asia offers a fly/ferry combo that did the trick perfectly (and surprisingly, all the connections matched perfectly without any unnecessary waits!)
Getting Around Once You’re There
Moving between the islands is relatively easy, fast and cheap. With three main ferries operating in the area you’ll find regular scheduled trips operating everyday. The tickets range in price depending what company you use and the many tourist offices around the islands can help you book a ticket at no added cost. The main companies operating between the islands are Lomprayah, Seatran Discovery Ferry and Songserm.
Once on each island, the most common way to get around is via motorbike. They are cheap to hire, convenient and they are perfect for getting to those secluded spots inaccessible by cars. Be wary when hiring your own bike though, as not only are they dangerous motorbike scams are also not uncommon. Be sure to take lots of photos of the bike before you leave to ensure you’re not charged for damage that you did not cause.
Hopping Around the Islands: What’s What in Thailand
The biggest island out of the three, if you are looking for a deluxe holiday this is the island to head to! Koh Samui is famed for its upscale hotels, luxurious spas and world class international cuisine.
If this doesn’t resonate with your travel style though, don’t be deterred as Koh Samui still has a backpacker scene – it’s just a little eclipsed by the extravagant hotels.
Very uncharacteristically, we didn’t maximise our time in Koh Samui, instead using our time there for relaxation and unwinding from our busy work schedules – it was bliss! Most days you could find us by the pool or beach and in the evenings enjoying a romantic meal.
As with all of the islands, Koh Samui has many operators offering snorkelling and diving. Honestly though, if you are serious about these activities we suggest you make a trip to Koh Tao (which is around a 2 hour ferry ride from Koh Samui) as it is famed for its aquatic life.
Koh Samui offers more to see then the smaller islands with a number of temples, waterfalls and different neighbourhoods that offer interesting sights (like Hin-Ta & Hin-Ya, two huge rock formations that are shaped in the form of genitalia – if that’s what floats your boat).
What to see and do on Koh Samui
Wat Phra Yai
This temple known as the ‘Big Buddha’ is located in the northern part of the island, in Choeng Mon. You will be astonished by this huge 15m golden Buddha looking down on you – its sheer size silhouetted against the sky is a beautiful sight to behold! The best time to visit is around sunset when it’s cooler and you’ll fine the sun setting behind it.
Remember that as it is a temple (and a holy site) you’ll need to dress appropriately for your visit.
Ang Thong Marine National Park
This was one of the things I was looking forward to the most. Unfortunately due to a recent shoulder operation, I was limited in the activities that I could participate in making this day trip a distant dream and another destination to pen on the bucket list.
Ang Thong Marine National Park is a collection of around 40 uninhabited islands that look exquisitely beautiful (and I believe were some of the inspiration behind the book ‘The Beach’). The islands are made up of sheer limestone cliffs, hidden lagoons and perfect peach-coloured sand.
The National Park is best reached from Koh Samui (though a few companies also offer day trips from Koh Phangan) where the day tours usually include lunch, snorkelling equipment, kayaking, hotel transfers and a guide.
This is the busiest and most populated beach in Koh Samui. The main strip is the bustling centre of activity and it stretches for around 4km. This one-way road is loud, busy and full of activity and smells, as you’d expect.
The street itself is full of stores, restaurants, bars, massage parlours, souvenir stands and markets selling clothing and accessories.
It’s a great place to grab a drink and to sit at one of the many bars to people watch. There, you’ll find plenty of activity (including trucks driving down the street advertising through loud speakers and the occasional demonstration of a muay thai boxing match) – it might not be everyone’s idea of a good time but we enjoyed soaking it all in.
This area is particularly popular with the younger generation but if you’re looking for a more romantic ambience, we suggest heading to the beach where many bungalow operators set up tables on the sand. There you can enjoy a drink or dinner surrounded by magical fairy lights.
Budget: Maenam Bay Resort
Mid: Promtsuk Buri
Luxe: Sky Dream Villa
Need more reasons to visit Koh Samui? Find your travel inspiration today!
Most people head to this island for the infamous full moon party. During this time the island sees an influx of 30,000 tourists for a party in Hat Rin (that rages from dusk until the next afternoon). Outside of these times you will see the accommodation prices drop by nearly half and find considerably less tourists – bonus!
Fortunately for us, we found ourselves visiting the island outside of this busy period and we felt blessed as we explored the beaches that were insanely beautiful and near deserted (but this could also be attributed to the tropical rains we experienced most of our time in Koh Phangan).
Yoga is very popular in Koh Phangan with every type of yoga being offered and countless retreats. This is definitely the place to come immerse yourself in your practice if you fancy a touch of yoga and self-care.
There are no shortage of amazing beaches on this island and it’s a great place to unwind – just be aware that there are a couple of nudist beaches on the island.
Budget: Tanouy Garden
Mid: Loyfa Natural Resort
Luxe: Skymoon Resort
Ko Tao, known locally as Turtle Island, is the smallest of the three islands but the one that captured my heart the most. Describing this island as breath taking would be an understatement – there aren’t enough superlatives to adequately describe how truly stunning this island is!
Ko Tao – All about the Diving
Well known for its legendary diving, Koh Tao is the place to get your PADI licence and fortunately, it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to complete the qualification. With so many different dive schools and shops around the tiny island the competition is fierce and the prices consistent. Even better the dive sites are copious and they have a dive site for everyone from beginner divers to the more advanced.
Regrettably I wasn’t able to dive but did enjoy a snorkelling trip that now rivals my experiences in the Blue Hole in Dahab Egypt (which had been my favourite snorkelling trip to date).
Aside from the pristine beaches, well-preserved coastline and remarkable diving, Ko Tao has some of the most impressive vistas I’ve encountered in all of my traveling!
Entertainment on Ko Tao
Ko Tao has the best consistent nightlife out of the three islands.
Sairee Beach is where you will find vast majority of restaurants and bars – when the sun goes down, it becomes a real party paradise. If you are into pub crawls, for a small fee the Koh Tao Pub Crawl operates three nights a week and visits four popular bars in Sairee Beach (though it does seem to be targeted at the younger generation).
This is a highly entertaining cabaret show! While the dancing and lip syncing isn’t the most polished I’ve seen, it was lots of fun. The costumes, sheer determination and seriousness of the performers should be enough to get you in there even just for a minute – two it’s a great laugh! The show runs nightly at 10pm and is free to enter on the expectation you will purchase a drink (which are quite pricey).
Set right on Sairee Beach, this bar is the perfect location to watch the sunset. Come back later in the night to witness many locals dancing with fire – these talented artists twirl and toss around flaming batons and pois and at some point in the night, they’ll start a flaming limbo and jump rope that even audience members can participate in!
Fishbowl Beach Bar
If you are into late night drinks and dance moves then the Fishbowl is the place for you! You will find this place packed with a local DJs pumping out tunes and many patrons cutting shapes on the dance floor, well into the wee hours of the morning.
Budget: Prik Thai Resort
Mid: Tanote Villa Hill
Luxe: Villas Del Sol Koh Tao