‘Ko’ means island in Thai – the very word conjures up dreamy
beaches, huts in the shade of a coconut palm, fantastic rock formations and
undersea gardens. Hop in a long-tail boat and cast off the moorings.
A scuba-diving honeypot off the crystalline Gulf Coast, Ko Tao is also the
easiest and cheapest spot around to learn dive basics. The Japanese Gardens, to
the island’s northwest, is an ideal dive site for beginners, with plenty of
coral, turtles, stingrays and pufferfish. Big Blue Diving is a recommended
mid-sized local diving school (Hat Sai Ri; four-day beginner courses £185).
Fairly large and multi-faceted enough to fit in luxury yoga
retreats as well as backpacker shanties, Ko Samui is particularly blessed with
places to eat, not least the many kow gaang (rice and curry) roadside stalls.
The town of Hat Chaweng meanwhile is home to the Samui
Institute of Thai Culinary Arts, which has daily cooking courses and classes
in the arts of carving fruit and vegetables into intricate floral designs (Hat
Chaweng; three-hour courses £40).
Things are changing on Ko
Pha-ngan. Parties still take place on the beach at Hat Rin every full moon,
but the island as a whole is creeping upmarket. The beaches of the north and
east are still relatively secluded (Hat Khuat, or Bottle Beach, is a top
choice), and the jungle interior rewards exploration with four, year-round
waterfalls. Change out of beach clothes to visit one of the 20 wat (temples) –
Wat Pho, near Ban Tai, offers a herbal sauna for about £1.
The impressive limestone karst coast of Trang Province shelters several sublime
islands. The isle of Ko Muk is home to spectacular Hat Farang (aka Hat Sai Yao)
– a calming stretch of sand where jade water kisses a perfect beach. Further
north, Tham Morakot (Emerald Cave) is a rock tunnel leading – at low tide – to
a small beach surrounded by cliffs on all sides.
One of the most unspoiled regions in all of Thailand, this
park encompasses 51 islands, including Ko Tarutao itself,
covered in old-growth jungle. Long-tail boat tours take in islands home to
hornbills, langur monkeys and fishing cats. Ko Lipe is the most developed island,
but also has the widest choice of accommodation and beautiful beaches.
Ko Lanta is a crucible
of cultures, mixing Buddhist temples, slender minarets and chow lair (sea
gypsy) villages. Northern beaches are busy but fun, with more mellow ones to
the south. The cave complex of Tham Khao Maikaeo conceals a subterranean pool
and chambers as large as cathedrals – local guides can arrange treks (around
£4), and resort hotels can arrange transport and motorcycle hire.
Within weekending distance of Bangkok, Ko Samet
is popular with Thais and visitors alike, but is surprisingly underdeveloped
all the same. A coastal footpath runs the four-mile length of this skinny
island, skirting one lovely cove after another. Sunset at the northern end
brings late-night parties and karaoke sessions; things get quieter the further
south you go.
With steep, jungle-covered peaks erupting from the sea, Ko
Chang retains a rugged spirit despite its package-holiday reputation. This is
largely down to its accessible wilderness: island treks allow you to explore
forests filled with birds, monkeys, lizards and beautiful flowers. Evolution Tours offers one-day trips that
include a waterfall swim and a stop at an elephant camp (treks from £28).
Coconut palms outnumber buildings on Ko Kut, just 20 miles by sea from Cambodia,
where a secluded, unhurried atmosphere pervades everything. There’s not much
nightlife or even dining, but the beaches of the western side, Hat Khlong Chao
above all, are among Thailand’s finest. Two inland waterfalls are good short
hiking destinations, with pools to cool off in.
Where to stay
Lemon yellow bungalows sit peacefully beside the sea at Ko Chang’s KB Resort. Listen to the lapping of the surf
while kids construct mega-cities in the sand. Go for an air-conditioned villa
if possible (10/16 Moo 4; from £30).
Sri Lanta is a decadent yet
ecologically responsible resort on Ko Lanta where naturalistic wooden villas
dot wild gardens stretching from the beach to a landscaped jungle hillside (111
Moo 6, Hat Khlong Nin; from £125).
The Library, by Chaweng
beach on Ko Samui, is decorated in sparkling white – except for the dramatic
red-tiled pool. The resort is a study in pared-back and contemplative design,
with iMacs in every room (14/1 Moo 2; from £270).
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is served by BA
and Thai Airways from Heathrow (from
£820). Air-hopping around the country remains an affordable option, with
operators including Bangkok Airways
and Air Asia. Most routes originate from Bangkok (Ko Samui from £140). Ko Samui
is the only island in this guide you can fly to. Ferries serve the other
islands from mainland transport hubs, including Trat, Surat Thani, Chumphon,
Krabi and Trang, often with a dedicated bus service to the relevant pier. It’s
best to check your guidebook for specific details and providers.
The article 'Mini guide to Thailand’s islands' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.