Escape the cold winter and travel to Thailand! I would like to share my personal Thailand travel know-how and help you pick the right Thai island if you are still unsure where to go. Once you arrived and made your first crazy experiences in Bangkok (read my Bangkok travel guide here), move on and visit one of the beautiful islands in Thailand. You will face a difficult decision. There is a big choice of small and big islands. Koh Samui, Phuket, Koh Pipi, Koh Lanta, Koh Chang, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samet… The list is neverending.
So where to go? Fly or take the train? Bus or private taxi?
First of all, ask yourself what is important for your holiday. Is it the journey itself and the experiences made while travelling? Or do you prefer a comfortable and fast transportation in order to arrive to your personal paradise as soon as possible? The answers may vary depending on your age, your adventure level, the length of your holiday and your financial situation.
Train ride to the South
If you opt for either Koh Samui or Koh Phangan I would recommend you to take the night train from Bangkok. At the Hua Lamphong train station you can buy a joint ticket which includes the train ticket to Surat Thani, a bus ride to the Donsak ferry terminal and the ferry ticket to Koh Phangan or Samui. These tickets are really cheap for Western standards, so you could probably easily afford a first class seat. Nevertheless I prefer travelling in a 2nd class sleeper with fan.
One of the advantages of having a fan instead of air con is the avoidance of a cold. It happened to me a lot in Thailand that I caught a cold after being exposed several hours to extremely cold air (Thais are crazy about air condition…). But the best thing about the 2nd class waggon is the possibility to open the train windows, like back in the good old times. Lean out, breath in the more or less fresh air and enjoy buying food from the numerous vendors at the train stations. The sleepers consists of lower and bottom bunks. When the beds are made up in the evening by the train staff with perfectly fresh sheets and pillows, the upper bunk is pulled down.
Don’t be charmed by super cheap “VIP” bus tickets for tourists from Bangkok. The staff is mostly rude, sleeping is almost impossible because of the loud B-movies on the DVD player and the bus makes many stops at restaurants near the road where the company gets its share. Take the train and be happy.
Koh Samui is the second biggest island in Thailand. Due to its own airport this island is very well developed. A bit too much for my taste, it lacks tranquility, everything is just too “touristic”. My favorite beach and location is Bophut in the north of Samui. The Fisherman’s Village on Bophut beach is one of the oldest villages, you will find a lot of small shops, restaurants and a nice beach. Bophut can be considered as a quiet beach compared to the loud nightlife in Chaweng or Lamai but still with everything you need. From here you can take a boat directly to Koh Phangan which is located only 13 kilometers away. Start your island hopping here.
Many moons on Koh Phangan
You probably heard about the famous full moon parties on Koh Phangan? If you are into parties and don’t mind dancing with 10,000 to 30,000 other people on a beach then check it out. Be aware of being drugged, this is unfortunately a common thing. Whatever anyone tells you, remember that drugs are completely illegal in Thailand and there are very strong penalties with jail time included. If the lunar cycle doesn’t want to adjust to your stay on Koh Phangan, don’t worry, there are plenty of other moon parties. Half moon, Black moon, Jungle Moon and whatnot. These tend to be less frequented and located in the jungle instead of the beach. But you could just easily skip these, avoid noisy Haad Rin Beach and go to Haad Yao Beach, situated in the north-west of Koh Phangan.
When I first visited Koh Phangan, back in 2002, there were only a few wooden bungalows on Haad Yao beach, not much else. Nowadays you can choose between numerous resorts and restaurants. Haad Yao is popular among families, couples and laid back travellers who might even want to snorkel. The beautiful white sand invites you to lay down and forget the world outside your little beach heaven. There is one bar which I visited 15 years ago and would still recommend: Apache Bar. Don’t miss out the relaxing atmosphere with nice hosts and good Thai food.
Find your inner peace on Koh Tao
If you are into diving, hiking or going for a Yoga retreat, hop over to the smallest of the Gulf islands – Koh Tao. Just don’t expect broad beaches, Koh Tao is famous for its rocks. You will find peace and quiet on this small island and a lot of cheap accomodations.
What about the Andaman Sea?
Phuket, being the largest and most touristic island in Thailand, never really attracted me. Instead I stayed a few days on the small Koh Phi Phi. It is crowded with young people but it is worth taking a day tour to visit Maya Bay on the uninhibited Phi Phi Leh island. You may know the sights of the white sand and turquoise blue water from the movie “The Beach”.
From Phi Phi you can travel to Koh Lanta. It is a perfect place for families and laid back backpackers who are not crazy for parties but want a calm and relaxing holiday.
My personal highlight: Koh Chang
After many visits to Thailand I discovered that Koh Chang is the island which offers everything to everyone. Compared to other islands it is comfortably near to Bangkok. It is the third largest island in Thailand but it is mainly covered with jungle. Koh Chang deserves its own guide, so check out the next part of this travel guide.