Thailand has always seemed to me like one of those places that exist somewhere between fantasy and reality. Its unique mix of the modern and cosmopolitan with centuries-old natural beauty and culture is a jolt to the imagination and encourages inner and outer exploration.
No matter what you’re seeking - or how far you travel to find it - Thailand is a destination that has something for everyone.
With entry requirements at their least restrictive level since the pandemic, it is an ideal time to get your fill of hip restaurants, boutiques, and spa services in Bangkok before venturing to other parts of the country.
Head to places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or lesser-known Pai way up North by the border with Myanmar to relax among the rice paddies and enjoy distinct Northern comfort food dishes like khao soi.
Or opt to spend a day or two immersing yourself in Thailand’s rich history in Ayutthaya, Thailand’s capital city until 1767, or Kanchanaburi, known for a bridge built by Allied POWs during WWII that was immortalized in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Although, if a few days by the talay (sea) is what you’re after, you won't want to miss the Thai islands.
How to Get To Southern Thailand
Most people will arrive to Southern Thailand domestically, most likely from Bangkok.
From Bangkok, you can have a front-row seat to paradise in about two hours or less by plane. Traveling by land via bus, hired van, or train will take several hours. In some cases, a ferry is also required to get to your destination.
It's also possible to arrive internationally into the airport in Phuket and take ferries from there. This is especially easy if you plan to visit the Similan Islands on the west coast of Thailand. These are popular places to visit on an island hopping trip.
For this article though, I'm skipping over these popular hotspots and diving into lessen-known and lesser-visited Thai islands that pack all the same beauty but with less crowds and cheaper prices.
While they might be a tad more time consuming to reach, your patience will certainly be rewarded!
What to Expect on These Thai Islands
Phuket steals a lot of the attention - and rightfully so because it's gorgeous - but, if you are a digital nomad seeking a road less traveled or looking for a new adventure with your family, it is totally worthwhile to consider one of the many other (equally) charming beach destinations.
In general, the pace is calmer on these other Thai islands, with fewer people dotting the beaches or zipping along the roadways on motorbikes.
Expect to find yoga retreats and Muay Thai boot camps alongside top-notch massage shops. Food options range from food stalls at night markets to world-class restaurants serving local food and international fare. Add that to world-class beaches and you've got a killer combo waiting for you in paradise!
Southern Thailand’s islands in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand offer breathtaking views of ancient rocks standing proudly against shimmering aquamarine waters. A modest budget gets you a lot in the way of accommodation and you can eat to your heart’s content. If that sounds like something you absolutely need to see for yourself, check out some of these destinations.
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Let's dive right into the best islands in Thailand you need to visit.
Only a 1 hour and 10-minute flight from Bangkok, Koh Samui is a vibrant island community with a variety of activities. This is Thailand's second largest island, after Phuket. It's located on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, in the Gulf of Thailand.
Known as a resort island, people flock to the white sand beaches for scuba diving, swimming, relaxing in the sun, and for all of the amenities offered.
Our favorite activities on Koh Samui are:
- Take an ATV up to the Mae Nam viewpoint and Tan Rua waterfall
- Rent jet skis at the beach
- Venture to Bo Phut to enjoy local or international food by the beach and for a quiet place to chill out.
We did both of these activities with our kids when they were six years old and we all had a great time.
After arriving in Koh Samui, if you’re willing to travel a bit further, take a ferry to Koh Tao. The ferry makes the 1 hour and 30-minute trip once or twice a day. Once you arrive, you are cut off from the intensity of daily life.
Koh Tao is truly a laid back island ideal for rest, relaxation, and beautiful beaches. On the other hand though, if adventure is what you're after, Koh Tao has its fair share. Here, you can enjoy scuba diving and snorkeling through the islands coral reefs and even hiking and rock climbing along the coastline and in the interior of the island.
Some people only visit Koh Tao as a day trip from Koh Samui but if you have the time, I'd recommend staying a night or two on the island to really enjoy its tranquility.
Koh Pha Ngan
Equidistant from Koh Samui as Koh Tao, another island you should visit is Koh Pha Ngan. Although famous for it's full moon party, Koh Pha Ngan also has a small expat community of those that have decided to enjoy a slower pace of life all year round.
Most likely though, you'll visit this island as a tourist if you are in search of a party. Thousands of people from all over the world attend the monthly full moon parties. The all-night party takes place on Haad Rin beach and, according to friends who have visited, is one of the wildest parties in the world and best places to let loose.
The festivities have resumed from its pandemic hiatus - as of the writing of this post - so it is a great time to check it out.
Koh Lanta is a fantastic place to relax with family and friends.
While on the island, take a boat ride out into the mangroves from Sala Dan or Tung Yee Peng Village and maybe you’ll make friends with some of the monkeys. Hold on to your snacks though; the monkeys are great swimmers!
You can also eat some great seafood and pick up some souvenirs in Koh Lanta Old Town, as well as take photos out on the pier.
If you have some extra time and want to see more of the island, visit Koh Lanta National Park. The national park is quite large and is home to semi-nomadic indigenous group, a large cave system, a waterfall, and numerous beaches.
It only takes about 5.5 hours driving and a ferry to arrive at this charming island, Koh Chang, which is southeast of Bangkok and near the border with Cambodia.
Koh Chang is off-the-beaten-path compared to many islands in Southern Thailand, so while you will see tourists on your trip there, you won't see nearly as many as you would on say, Phuket or in Krabi.
Spend your time at White Sand Beach, aptly named and easy to remember, or spend your time hiking in the island’s dense jungle. As part of the Mu Ko Chang National Park, this area is well preserved in parts.
While this is a great place to go as a family, there is also an active party scene on Koh Chang. We had dinner with the kids on the beach and stuck around to watch a fire show. We all thought it was pretty spectacular and made for a great holiday.
Khao Sok National Park
If you want a break from the beach, consider spending a few days in Khao Sok. Although not an island and is actually landlocked, Khao Sok is on a large lake in Southern Thailand, so you'll still get your fair share of picturesque water views.
We stayed at Our Jungle Camp - an eco resort that includes tours of the area and nature camps for kids. From there, it was a relatively short distance into the national park where you can get out on the water and even explore caves, limestone cliffs, and the rainforest. The resort will help you arrange the day trips you're most interested in. Our little ones really enjoyed it.
Get Ready to Enjoy the Best Islands in Thailand
Make the most of your time in Thailand by checking out these lesser-known destinations.
You get the experiences of some of the country’s most hyped destinations without the flow of tourists - or tourist pricing.
With so many beautiful places to visit, it is understandable that a few places would become the focal point. However, there is so much more to the land of smiles that is worth exploring.
Hero Photo by Flowdzine Creativity.