From white beaches, towering cliffs and sea gypsies to jungles and fiery food, take a voyage around some of Thailand’s most unforgettable islands.

Ko Yao Noi: Best for escape
The first ferry of the day has just docked at Ko Yao Noi (‘Little Long Island’) and it seems like half the island has turned out to greet it. Sinewy men, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, unload boxes of supplies into the waiting trucks, while locals greet their families and clamber into one of the spluttering tuk-tuks lined up alongside the quay. Apart from a couple of shacks lodged beside the harbour, there doesn’t seem to be another building – or another tourist – anywhere in sight.

In many ways, Ko Yao Noi has been trapped in time. The island – seven-and-ahalf miles long, more than six miles wide and home to around 4,000 people – has consciously resisted the development that has run rampant on many of Thailand’s islands. Empty beaches fringe the shoreline, hemmed in by cliffs and coconut trees. Much of the land is still covered by tropical forest. Water buffalo and wild cockerels roam among the palms and banyans, while farmers dry sheets of freshly tapped rubber under the trees.

‘This is how Thailand’s islands used to be,’ explains Su Potpradit, who manages the development of sustainable tourism on Ko Yao Noi. ‘The whole place is really like one big family. Everyone knows everyone else and we all look after each other.’

In many ways, the island owes its survival to its traditional democratic structure. Ko Yao Noi is governed by a group of ancestral elders – known as pu yai ban – and each of the seven districts has an equal say in major decisions that would affect the wider island.

Its strong sense of community and laid-back pace of life also make it an ideal place to escape. There are just a few small resorts, mostly dotted around the southern cape. The rest of the accommodation is in homestays, where guests are invited to join in with everyday life and experience the island through local eyes.

‘We’ve seen the way the other islands have changed over the years,’ Su says, as she strolls through the streets of the main village, ‘and we’ve decided that we don’t want that here. We want to hold on to what makes our island special – our culture, our history, our way of life.’

She ducks into a market stall, where local women are dyeing sarongs in a rainbow of tropical colours. On the street, mopeds clatter past and children wave from the backs of pick-up trucks, while in the fields beyond the village, evening shadows fall across the rice paddies and rubber trees.

Ferries run several times a day to Ko Yao Noi from Bang Rong pier, situated at the northern end of Phuket.  The journey should take about an hour.

Where to eat
French flair and Thai flavours combine at the village restaurant Je t’Aime, where you can down proper pastis (French aniseed liquer) before tucking into Thai-spiced lobster or a classic massaman curry (mains from £5; 00 66 076 597 495).

Where to stay
In the northeast of the island, Paradise Koh Yao Resort is the best escape on Ko Yao Noi. Smart bungalows overlook a private beach. Other highlights include a restaurant where you can feel the sand between your toes (from £120).

Homestay accommodation is basic, but the experience of staying with a family is unique. Koh Yao Noi Homestay Club has a number of eco-friendly rental options.

Ao Phang-Nga: Best for exploring
A rosy-red sun is rising above the bay of Ao Phang-Nga. As the longtail boat skips over the waves, seabirds skim low through the spray kicked up by the boat’s buzzing motor, and patches of mist drift across the prow. Ahead, a chain of spiky islands – shrouded in dense foliage and spideryclouds – rises from the ocean. It looks like something out of Jurassic Park.

Covering 150sq miles between the busy tourist island of Phuket and the coastal province of Krabi, Ao Phang-Nga is one of Thailand’s largest marine reserves. Several millennia ago, the bay was a huge open floodplain, but rising sea levels and geological shifts submerged the land and created a network of 40-odd islands, for which the bay is now famous.

Formed of porous limestone formations known as karsts, Phang-Nga’s islands have been sculpted into myriad shapes through the centuries. Many are riddled with deep tunnels and subterranean caverns that plummet deep beneath the ocean’s surface. Others are sealed off by sheer, black 300m-high cliffs. The most beautiful have hongs – hidden lagoons enclosed by rock walls – that are often only accessible for a few hours a day at low tide. With so much geological drama on show, the bay has frequently been used as a cinematic backdrop – most notably in the James Bond movie of 1974 The Man with the Golden Gun, when the rocky pinnacle of Ko Tapu doubled as the site of baddie Scaramanga’s lair.

Ao Phang-Nga can easily be reached on a day-trip from Phuket, but the more secret islands can only be explored by kayak – ideally at dawn or dusk, when the big tourist boats are nowhere to be seen.

Bao Thinkohyao is a local guide who was born on the island of Ko Yao Yai. He knows the bay’s geography like the back of his hand and can navigate his way mangrove swamps without ever needing to refer to a map or compass. ‘I feel at home on these islands,’ he says. ‘I’ve been exploring them since I was a boy. To me, they’re like old friends.’

As his boat drifts through a hidden lagoon on the uninhabited island of Ko Hong, he cocks his head to listen to a family of macaques chattering among the mangroves. From the island’s jungle interior, a fish eagle rises from the canopy, beating its wings a few times before disappearing into a terracotta sky.

Ao Phang-Nga lies just to the north of Ko Yao Noi, and is easily reachable by longtail boat or speedboat.  Bao Thinkohyao’s tour of Ao Phang-Nga can be booked in advance via email (from £65 per person;

Where to eat and stay
Ao Phang Nga can be visited on day trips from Phuket and Krabi province, but it’s easier to base yourself on a nearby island. The deluxe Elixir Resort on the little visited island of Ko Yao Yai offers attractive jungle bungalows – from elegant one-room lodges to multi-room villas with their own private pools. The resort also has the island’s best restaurant, where barbecued seafood is a specialty (rooms from £75, meals from £15).

Surin Islands: Best for culture
It’s early morning, and the smell of sea salt and wood smoke hang heavy in the air. Under the jungle canopy, a few men prepare a fresh batch of charcoal for the village over a smouldering pyre. Nearby, women weave strips of dried rattan (a type of palm) into baskets, mats and bracelets, while children chase each other across the sand and turn somersaults in the fizzing surf.

‘Welcome to Ban Moken,’ announces Salaman, a silver-haired Moken elder in baggy Bermuda shorts, whose sprightly demeanour belies his advanced years. ‘It is an honour to have you in our village. We are very happy to have you here.’ His face breaks out into a toothy grin as he strides along the shoreline, passing thatch-topped huts perched on bamboo stilts and wooden boats bobbing in the swell. This village is home to one of the last communities of Moken in Thailand. Known elsewhere as chow lair – or ‘sea gypsies’ – these ancient nomadic people are believed to have been voyaging along the coastline of Southeast Asia for several thousand years.

Traditionally the Moken are huntergatherers, spending much of the year fishing from covered boats known as kabangs, only returning to land to collect fresh water or seek refuge from seasonal monsoons. Like many aboriginal people, they share an intimate connection with the environment. They are expert swimmers, and can hold their breath for several minutes at a time: watching the Moken children glide among the islands’ submarine canyons and coral gardens, they seem just as at home underwater as they are above the surface.

The Moken possess many fables and folk tales which help them make use of the natural world. Walking along the jungle trails on the island of Ko Surin Tai, they recount uses for practically every plant they pass – food, medicines, tools and building materials. One of the guides chops down a huge leaf from a pandanus tree with a machete and demonstrates some of its uses. Cut into strips, it can be plaited into cord, bound into rope or woven for huts and cabins. As he works, the calls of hornbills echo through the forest and colonies of fruit bats flap among the banyans and teak trees.

Sometimes the Moken’s legends can warn them of unexpected dangers. An ancient tale told of a big wave, ‘the laboon’, that would recede before ‘eating people’ – signs that were heeded prior to the 2004 tsunami, when the Moken immediately recognised the need to escape to higher ground. Today, the Moken’s traditions often place them at odds with the modern world. Most have no fixed nationality and find it difficult to access education and healthcare, while their fishing practices can conflict with environmental conservation laws. Yet there are positives – new initiatives are helping them take advantage of the Surin Islands’ growing popularity by selling handicrafts, running cultural tours and leading coral reef snorkelling expeditions. Salaman is reassuringly sanguine about the future. ‘The Moken are a very old people,’ he says. ‘We have faced many challenges. We have to learn how to be part of the modern world, but we must remember who we are, too.’

Boats to the Surin Islands depart from Khuraburi, 115 miles north of Phuket by bus. The journey to the islands takes about 90 minutes by speedboat.

Where to eat
Practically the only place to eat is at the main national park campsite on Ko Surin Nuea, where a café serves set Thai menus – but no alcohol, since it’s banned in the park (mains from £5; 00 66 76 421 365).

Where to stay
The community-based Andaman Discoveries has been instrumental in developing ecotourism initiatives with the Moken people. Its tour to the Surin Islands includes boat transfers, village visits and snorkelling tours with Moken guides, as well as camping and bungalow stays on a nearby island (two-day tours from £100).

Ko Phi-Phi: Best for beaches
If there’s one thing that Thailand’s islands are famous for, it’s the beaches – and they don’t get any more famous than the ones on Ko Phi-Phi. The archipelago is home to some of the country’s most impressive coastal scenery, not to mention some of its whitest stretches of sand.

From the west, the main island of Ko Phi-Phi Don juts from the horizon like a wolf’s tooth, its craggy peaks and inky cliffs rising sheer from the ocean waves. Yet the island’s east coast presents a much gentler picture – a string of white bays where resorts hide among groves of palm and pandanus, and unbroken views stretch out across the Andaman Sea.

‘Phi-Phi is an island of surprises,’ says Sangsit ‘Top’ Sriwarin, who was born on the mainland near the city of Pattaya but now works here as a diving instructor. ‘The landscape is so varied – we have mountains, beaches, caves, cliffs and coral reefs. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s actually a real place,’ he laughs.

There’s certainly something otherworldly about Phi-Phi’s improbably jagged geography. The second-largest island, Ko Phi-Phi Leh, is even more dramatic than its sister island. Ringed by coal-black cliffs and massive towers of rock, it’s home to one of Thailand’s most celebrated beaches – the glittering arc of Ao Maya, made famous by Danny Boyle’s big-screen version of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. Once a closely guarded secret known only to a chosen few, the bay is now busy with snorkellers and day-trippers almost as soon as the sun comes up.

Phi-Phi’s best-known beaches may be firmly on the tourist radar, but seclusion is never more than a boat ride away. By longtail boat, it is still possible to uncover quiet spots where the crowds rarely venture – from the magnificent lagoon of Pilah to the remote atolls of Ko Mai Phai and Ko Yung, where the teal-blue waters teem with lionfish, leopard sharks and hawksbill turtles.

‘I love the simplicity of life here,’ Top says. ‘You can feel your worries melting away. I’ve been to many different islands, but for me this is the only one that feels like home.’ He looks out along thepowdery curve of Hat Laem Thong bay, as the evening sun melts into a sea the colour of butterscotch and torches flicker under the palms.

Several boats run direct every day from Phuket to Ko Phi- Phi, the journey taking around two-and-a-half hours.

Where to eat
Nearly all the resorts have their own restaurants, but for more local island flavour, head for Jasmine Restaurant on Hat Laem Thong. It has a lively beach-shack vibe and does spicy Thai standards such as pad Thai and green papaya salad to a tee. It’s also a great place to rub shoulders with the locals (mains from £6; 00 66 862 770 959).

Where to stay
Zeavola Resort is the most luxurious place to stay on Ko Phi-Phi, bar none. The wooden lodges are decked out in lavish style – glossy teak floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, handmade island furniture. Each has its own wooden deck overlooking either the neatly tended gardens or the sands of Hat Laem Thong (from £165).

Ko Lanta: Best for cuisine
‘If you want to understand Thailand, you need to understand how we cook,’ exclaims Bim Kanmanee as she begins a lesson at the Time for Lime Cooking School on Ko Lanta. It’s early evening and a breeze drifts in from Hat Khlong Dao beach. Nearby, punters sip cold beers and lemongrass margaritas in the school’s beach bar, illuminated by paper lanterns swinging gently in the wind.

Bim turns her attention to her worktop, stacked high with bird’s eye chillies, bulbs of galangal, bunches of sweet basil and kaffir limes. Picking up a cleaver that looks too big for her slender frame, she chops and blends the ingredients into a paste and spicy aromas soon fill the air. As each student takes a taste, their faces light up with grins. ‘You see?’ laughs Bim. ‘That’s the real taste of Thailand. You’ll never buy that in a jar.’

Established 10 years ago by Norwegian expat Junie Kovacs, Time for Lime was the first cookery school to be founded on Ko Lanta. Students come from far and wide to discover the secrets of the region’s cuisine, and it makes an ideal place to learn: seafood bars line the main beaches, and the streets of Ban Sala Dan and Ko Lanta’s old town are lined with shacks selling staples such as pad Thai (stir-fried noodles), tom yum (hot and sour soup) and gaeng pah (spicy jungle curry). Every day, fishermen auction fresh hauls of lobster, barracuda, king mackerel and langoustine on the island’s quaysides, haggling with customers among the pandemonium of crab pots and fishing nets.

‘Often, we find that what our students think of as Thai cuisine isn’t authentic,’ says Bim, who has been working at the school for the past five years. ‘Four flavours are essential to Thai cuisine – sweet, sour, salty and spicy. The combination makes Thai cuisine what it is, but it takes a lifetime to learn. I’ve been cooking since I was a small girl and I’m still learning new things.’

Food is inextricably linked with Thailand’s identity. Shared family meals are still part of daily life for most Thai people, and girls are taught techniques of traditional cuisine from a very young age, always cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients – lime juice for sourness, palm sugar for sweetness, fish sauce for saltiness and chillies for heat. Food even underpins the language. One of the country’s commonest greetings, ‘Gin khao reu yung?’, literally translates as ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’.

‘Food is a part of Thailand’s soul,’ Bim continues, stirring away at a batch of green curry bubbling away on the stove. ‘It brings people together, and there’s nothing more important in life than that.’

Ko Lanta is two hours by ferry from Ko Phi-Phi. A couple of scheduled boat trips operate daily and much faster speedboat services are also available.  Time for Lime runs courses daily from 4pm-9pm, covering a range of dishes every day. All profits are donated to Lanta Animal Welfare (day lessons from £35 per person).

Where to eat
L Maladee serves some of the best Thai food on Ko Lanta. It’s just outside Ban Sala Dan and standards arehigh – try the Thai-spiced mussels or flame-grilled barracuda (00 66 878 913 149, mains from £3).

Where to stay
With its sharp lines and infinity pool, the boutique complex of Costa Lanta, near Hat Khlong Dao beach, wouldn’t look out of place in a glossy design magazine. The minimalist bungalows are spread out across a shady garden and feature stylish touches such as concertina doors, rainfall showers and rendered concrete walls (from £65).

The article 'The perfect trip: Thailand’s islands' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.