It’s no secret that Thailand has some of the finest islands in the world – travelers have been raving about them for years and movies have immortalized their white sandy beaches and otherworldly limestone cliffs. They’re beautiful, affordable and offer just what you’re looking for on a tropical holiday…there are also hundreds of them.
With so many islands scattered throughout southern Thailand on either side of the mainland, it can quickly become overwhelming trying to decide where to visit. How do you narrow down where to go?
Fortunately there are areas with several island hot spots grouped together. For easy access to a range of islands – from partying Koh Phi Phi to the calmer Koh Lanta – you can’t beat heading first to Krabi.
Krabi Town and Ao Nang – Get ready for the islands
Located on the west coast of Southern Thailand along the Andaman Sea (on the mainland across the water from Phuket), Krabi, pronounced ga-bee, is a capital town in the province of the same name. The entire region is filled with palm and rubber plantations, pre-historic looking karst cliffs, several impressive national parks, and more white-sand beaches than you’ll know what to do with.
The town itself is somewhat sleepy, but has managed to hold onto its local character, despite becoming the main jumping off point for more than 130 – 130! – nearby islands. Thousands of travelers come through Krabi Town and the nearby Ao Nang beach on their way to enjoying all that the Andaman Sea has to offer. Accommodation in both Krabi Town and Ao Nang is plentiful with options to fit any budget. Chances are, if you’re doing a bit of island-hopping in the area, you’ll be going through Krabi and Ao Nang multiple times and perhaps stay overnight. If you’re in Krabi Town with enough time for a day trip, head to Wat Tham Seua, or the Tiger Temple Cave, 8km north of town to explore the sprawling temple complex and panoramic views of the surrounding area.
While Krabi Town is pretty low key, Ao Nang seems made for tourists with humming shops and restaurants, beachfront hotels and even a boardwalk. The area is still on the mainland, about 20 minutes from Krabi Town, and right on the beach. While it may not be the most relaxing place to stay, littered with travel offices, tailors, chain restaurants and overpriced food, it’s a great location to get your bearings and organize some trips.
The following destinations are all just a quick jaunt away, and make for great day trips from Krabi or Ao Nang.
Railay – Rock climbing, cliffs and white-sand beaches
‘Heaven’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘sublime’ are just a few adjectives I’ve heard people use who have been bitten by the Railay bug. Though actually part of the mainland, Railay is cut off from the rest of Krabi by a series of karst cliffs and is only accessible by boat. The area is best known for its fine white-sand beaches and unrivaled rock climbing. With around 700 bolted routes, Railay is the place to be for climbers. Those not into climbing are perfectly content to lounge away at their beach-side bungalow or explore the area’s hidden lagoon and various caves, like the legendary Phra Nang Cave at the south end of Phra Nang beach.
While not as crowded as the larger islands and beaches of Koh Phi Phi or Phuket, Railay is definitely a tourist town and you won’t see much of everyday Thai life. That said, once you look past some of the poorly planned developments, the jagged cliffs set against soft beaches suck you in and are well worth the trip.
Get there: Go for the day from Krabi Town or Ao Nang, or stay a while sinking into the beach’s beauty. Boats depart from Krabi Town (at Chao Fah Pier) and Ao Nang (buy tickets on either side of the beach) throughout the day until early evening.
Koh Hong – Deserted island day trip
About an hour away by speedboat from Krabi, Koh Hong is in a chain of limestone islands and best known to day-trippers for its lagoon at the center of the crescent-shaped island. Part of the Than Bok Khorani National Park, Koh Hong (or Room Island) has no accommodation and overnight stays are not allowed. Though you can’t stay on the island, there’s plenty to do for the day including hiking, kayaking and snorkeling.
Get there: Tours run from Krabi and Ao Nang daily often leaving around 8:30 and returning in the middle of the afternoon.
Koh Phi Phi – Pearly beaches and partying
Koh Phi Phi, pronounced pee pee, shot into the spotlight as the destination in the film, The Beach. Simply put, the island is gorgeous, surrounded by clear turquoise water and more karst cliffs. A speedboat ride from Krabi out to the island may be one of the most impressive, and unique, rides you ever take. Everywhere you look there are craggy cliffs and rock formations that seem strange and beautiful at the same time. Because the island’s natural beauty is such a draw, however, it’s brought big development and hoards of vacationers. If you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing getaway, Koh Phi Phi may not be for you.
While it’s not known for wild parties, like the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan, it definitely has a here-for-a-good-time vibe thanks to being firmly planted on the backpacker trail. You can’t beat the scenery though and with a little research, you can still find less developed beaches, often on the eastern side of the island. Though a little pricier than the surrounding islands, there’s still a wide range of accommodation around Koh Phi Phi, with rooms often cheaper on the outer edges of the island away from the center and pier. Don’t bother with the pushy guesthouse touts meeting you right off the boat – you don’t have to go with them. Take some time to find the best room for you.
Get there: Ferries go between the island and Krabi, Ao Nang, Railay and Koh Lanta several times a day with service being reduced in the low season. The ride between Krabi and Koh Phi Phi takes about 90 minutes.
Koh Lanta – Family Friendly R & R
The Koh Lanta archipelago consists of more than 50 islands, with Koh Lanta Yai (Big Lanta Island) as the largest. The entire archipelago is protected by the Koh Lanta Marine National Park and many of the islands are still uninhabited. Considerably flatter than the surrounding islands, Koh Lanta Yai is perfect for renting a motorbike to explore the quiet landscape. Calmer and more conservative (many of the island’s residents are Muslim), than the surrounding hotspots, come here if you want to get away from the crowds. The island is starting to make a name for itself as an alternative to the larger islands of Phi Phi or Phuket (clear, calm waters and a limited party scene make it a draw for families), and offers a range of accommodation options, from budget bungalows to 5-star resorts along with plenty of activities from solid scuba diving, to elephant rides and boat tours.
Head to the south side of the island for extra secluded, nearly deserted, beaches and your own little slice of paradise.
Get there: Passenger boats run between Krabi’s Khlong Chilat Pier and Koh Lanta a couple of times a day and take 90 minutes. There are also private tour companies running boats or bus and ferry transfer options from Koh Phi Phi, Phuket and Trang. Transportation times vary and can become limited during the low season due to fewer passengers.
Phang Nga – James Bond and gypsies
Though most people reach Phang Nga Bay from Phuket, there are also many tours running from Krabi. The area is part of the Ao Phang Nga National Park, which encompasses more than 40 islands and countless dramatic limestone cliffs shooting out of the clear, green waters. Popular tours usually include stops at Khao Phing Kan, the island seen in the James Bond movie, Man with the Golden Gun, and Koh Panyi, a small island home to Muslim fishermen. There is some accommodation, but many people choose to visit these spots through day tours from Krabi, Phuket or Phang Nga town.
Get there: Look into tours running from Krabi or directly to the Krabi bus terminal (about 4km from Krabi Town) and take a government bus to Phang Nga. From there you’ll find a variety of boat tours.
Tips for the Thai Islands
Koh means island and hat means beach. You’ll often see variations of spellings including, ko, hat and haad.
High season is around October-April. Depending on where you go, crowds will be completely overtaking beaches and towns and prices are often higher for transportation and accommodation. Even in the high season, however, there are deals to be had and quiet getaways to be found. Just do your research and stay away from the main tourist centers if that isn’t your scene and try to reserve accommodation ahead of time.
Consider visiting the islands in the low, or rainy, season for fewer crowds and lower prices. The weather won’t be as predictably beautiful everyday, but it’s usually unlikely for it to be pouring all day, everyday either. While the popular islands are more manageable and relaxing in the low season, keep in mind that some accommodation, activities, transportation and restaurants may be closed on smaller islands. If you’re looking for a quieter experience, then this is definitely the time to go.
While you’ve probably heard crazy stories of what can happen in Thailand, it’s actually a pretty conservative country, especially when it comes to dress. Bikinis and cover ups are okay right on the beach (although you will rarely see a Thai woman in a two-piece) but do not sun bathe topless or go into places without appropriate clothes on.
Remember sunscreen! Areas with a lot of travellers will have sunscreen for sale, but it’s often highly marked up since a) you’re on an island and b) the locals don’t use it. Stock up at home or if you find a good deal in a larger city, like Bangkok, on the mainland.
As with all islands, food prices are higher than on the mainland. You have to come to terms that you’ll be spending more than you did in other parts of the country and keep in mind the view you’re paying for. To save a few dollars, and get a different perspective of the island, find out where the local market is or eat inland away from the resorts and beaches.
Relax and (try to) go with the flow. Island time a real thing and sometimes transportation schedules and safety precautions (or seemingly lack thereof) can be a little unsettling. Expect for things to run late, appear a little scattered or done differently from what you might expect at home. In the end, these are the experiences, aside from staring at all the unusual rock formations and swimming in the sea, that will make the area – and your trip – memorable.