They all share things that make them unmistakeably Thai – mouthwatering food, muscle-melting seaside massages and ridiculously good service, always delivered with a smile – and yet each one has a distinct personality worth hopping into a long-tail boat for. We’ve picked the best Thai islands to help you narrow down where you want to spend your honeymoon, family holiday or off-the-beaten-track adventure.
Koh Samui is the tried-and-tested default setting when it comes to Thailand island holidays. It’s a crowd pleaser: an island of latte-coloured beaches, grown-up nightlife, shiny shopping centres, night markets and a giant golden Buddha who gazes peacefully out to sea.
It’s well equipped for visitors and because of this, there’s plenty of choice. Children and first-timers have the comfort blanket of international-grade hotels so you can punctuate your spicy fried rice breakfasts with jam on toast. There are day trips and excellent diving nearby, or you can stay put and get to know island life more thoroughly – on a soft sandy beach with a cocktail in hand. Koh Samui has almost every kind of hotel covered too. Choose from big-hearted boltholes, huge resorts for the kids to gleefully run around in, and gorgeous romantic hideouts like Banyan Tree Samui, where you can have date nights on the starlit, ocean view terrace to the faint glow of lights from around the resort’s almost-private bay.
Thailand’s best known island is also its largest, which means all the more space for rest and play. In loud and neon-lit Patong, you’ll know you’re in Phuket as Thailand’s infamous scenes of drinking and dancing dominates the immediate area. But then you can just as easily shun the tourist throngs and head for the hills – namely the ones with calming ocean views sandwiched between quiet, sandy beaches.
Unpack in swanky cliffside resorts like the ultramodern Kata Rocks and be attended to daily with lychee-infused cocktails, cool towels and enough massages to spoil you for life. Then settle down for a front row seat to one of Phuket’s famous sunsets.
Serene, friendly and care-free, Koh Lanta is like a Thailand island as discovered by Western backpackers for the first time. It’s actually two islands, one big (Koh Lanta Yai) and one small (Koh Lanta Noi), connected by a bridge.
You might have to pinch yourself at how often it seems like there’s no one else around, especially if you’ve already experienced a busy Thai island beach in peak season. Motorised watersports aren’t allowed on Koh Lanta – instead, there’s snorkelling and diving around islands like Koh Rok where you can go clownfish-spotting in the coral. The island’s low-key vibe doesn’t mean scant and spartan hotels either. There are adults-only hotels that deliver high standards like Layana Resort & Spa, a beachfront spa resort that regularly claims a top spot on TripAdvisor’s Travellers Awards’ Best Hotels in Thailand award.
Koh Phangan is mostly famous for its full moon parties, when young travellers flood into Haad Rin every month during the full moon (and half moon) for fluorescent-themed fun. But there’s another rugged side to the island where you can be so far away from the wild celebrations that you’ll forget there’s a party happening at all.
Koh Phangan’s best-kept secrets are the clear, deep waters for diving and hiking trails that seduce those who appreciate a good mountaintop view. If you trek into the middle of the island, you’ll stumble on natural pools fed by waterfalls like Nam Tok Phaeng and the mountain Khao Ra, where a hike can take you closer to the clouds than you are to the sea. When you’ve got a divine view of the sweeping treetops and you’re a comfortable half hour away from late-night shenanigans at a relaxed resort like Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villas, it’ll be easy to feel like you’re the only ones on the island.
Koh Samet is one of the easiest islands in Thailand to get to but it’s somehow managed to stay under the radar. It’s one of the closest islands to Bangkok, which is why city folk make a beeline to its powder-soft beaches on the weekend. It only takes around four hours by car and speedboat so you can combine the two for a city and beach holiday without the extra flight.
Koh Samet is a little gem for recharging, catching up on the book you always meant to read and enjoying the beach all to yourself after the day trippers and weekenders have gone. Protected by its national park status, it’s refreshingly rustic with beach bungalows scattered along beaches of pressed white sand.
Koh Phi Phi (pronounced pee-pee) shot to fame when Maya Bay stood in for the secret paradise in Leonardo di Caprio film’s The Beach. It’s true that the once-quiet bay gets jam-packed with tourists intent on seeing the paradise for themselves, but the rest of the archipelago is just as magnificent when it comes to natural attractions.
From the Phi Phi Viewpoint, you’ll get jaw-dropping views of the isthmus flanked by forested hills, sapphire shores and honeyed sands. There’s enough partying on Koh Phi Phi Don, the larger of the two main islands, to get your fix of drinking and dancing, but there’s also jungle-clad hills, isolated coves and infinity pools edged with palm trees for a break away from it all.
In the middle of emerald karst-studded Phang Nga Bay, Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi are the definition of unspoilt Thai islands. They’re the largest of a collection of 44 islands that dot the bay and the only ones that are inhabited. Almost every view is framed by enchanting silhouettes of neighbouring islands, where a short boat trip over means you can take a dip in a hidden natural pool or deploy a drone for envy-inducing footage of your secret plot in paradise.
Topping off the intense blue and green panoramas and quaint Thai villages of friendly locals, there are just a small handful of hotels. Those like the boutique beach house Cape Kudu Hotel on Koh Yao Noi have become destinations in themselves with effortlessly cool interiors and amazing food.