A Guide to the Islands of Thailand

By Sean Ogle •  Updated: 02/14/10 •  7 min read

I’m sure that a lot of you out there have thought at some point about taking a trip to Thailand.  I mean why wouldn’t you want to?  It’s affordable, beautiful, and the local people are some of the friendliest you will meet anywhere.  However, if you were anything like me, trying to sort out where to go was no easy task.  Exotic places like Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket probably sound exactly the same to you, however the differences of each island are not to be overlooked.

There is something for everyone in Thailand, but choosing the wrong island could spoil your trip. For starters, if you are coming from some place international you will probably fly into Bangkok.  Bangkok is a great city, and is definitely worth checking out for a few days before embarking on to your island paradise of choice.  Flights from Bangkok to either Krabi, Phuket or Koh Samui are very affordable, so I would recommend that over the 15 hour bus/ferry rides…

Now let’s take a look at your destinations!

Phuket: Phuket is the largest city/island in the south, and for that reason many people don’t like it.  I’ve heard it referred to as dirty, crowded and having more bars than any other place in the world.  My take: it’s not as bad as I expected.  If you head to overly crowded and touristy Patong Beach (and Soi Bangla in particular) you will find literally hundreds of bars in a very small area.  The only thing more prevalent are the bar girls that work there.

Kata Beach, Phuket

Kata Beach, Phuket

Get out of Patong however, and you can find some world class resorts and some excellent beach views to match.  We stayed on Kata Beach which is Mecca for the 60 year old European, and a bit out of our price range.

Recommended for older couples looking for Hawaii in Asia with better nightlife, as well as middle aged men looking for “company”.  Worth skipping if you are in your 20s.

Koh Phi Phi: I think a friend put it best when he described Phi Phi as “Heaven on Earth”.  The beaches in the Phi Phi islands are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and the beach is full of beautiful people to match.  A popular destination with 20 something Swedish holiday-goers, you can expect to meet a lot of Scandinavians.

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo by Ryan Martin.

Box your friend for a free bucket at Reggae Bar or check out the fire antics at the Apache Beach Bar for nights you will never forget – or struggle to remember.

You can also check out Maya Bay while in Phi Phi, which is the the beach from the movie “The Beach”. (Although you may be disappointed as in the movie there was a lot of CG added.)

Recommended for Anyone in their 20s looking for a big party and some excellent scenery.

Krabi: While not technically an island, The province of Krabi has a little something for everyone.  Ao Nang is a cute tourist town that I enjoyed, despite the prevalence of older Europeans (which is a common theme almost anywhere you go).

If you are younger and more adventurous, I would recommend staying on Railay for a number of reasons.  The beaches are more beautiful here, you will find some of the best rock climbing in the world in Railay, and it has one of my favorite bars in the world, Joy Bar, which is most spectacular at high tide.

Railay is also cool in the sense that you can only get there by boat.  It’s a 10 minute long tail ride from Ao Nang, and generally feels much more lush and secluded.

Ao Nang Bamboo Bars

Ao Nang Bamboo Bars

Recommended for everyone.  It has a broad range of resorts for the jet set crowd, while still providing bungalows for the backpacker set (although if you are backpacking, check out near by Ton Sai beach for even cheaper accommodations and a very unique nightlife).

Koh Tao: While I’ve not personally been to Koh Tao, I can tell from the photos I’ve seen from friends that it is one of the most picturesque places you are ever likely to visit.  Very famous for its scuba diving, I know a few people who showed up over a month ago and have yet to leave due to the abundance of sea life.  Certainly more low key than places like Phi Phi or Phuket, it is definitely worth checking out if you get the opportunity.

Koh Tao is recommended for scubas enthusiasts or anyone trying to find a beautiful, quiet place to relax.

Koh Samui: Samui is certainly one of the most high profile islands in Thailand.  Being that it has one of 3 major airports in the south of Thailand, it is also one of the most accessible.  The second most popular Thailand island (after Phuket), Samui is also popular with the jet set crowd.  There are resorts everywhere you look, and with that comes a bit of a price premium.  Sure, this is still Thailand so you can find deals, but in comparison to other locales, you can expect to spend a little bit more while you are on Samui.

Recommended for people who want all the conveniences of a western resort in Thailand. If Phuket were the Honolulu of Thailand, then Koh Samui would be the Maui, or at least thats how I think of it.

Koh Phangan: Aaaah, home to the infamous Full Moon Party.  Haad Rin beach on the southern end of the island is party central. If you don’t like techno music, buckets of alcohol and thousands of people from everywhere but Thailand, you probably aren’t going to be a big fan of Koh Phangan. However,  I will say that if you spend more time on the north of the island, it is much more subdued and quite a bit less expensive.  You won’t find the crowds that you do on Haad Rin Beach, so it could be a good alternative to some place like Koh Lanta.

Recommended for anyone looking to attend the biggest party in SE Asia.  You will be glad you experienced it, but for most, it sounds like one time around is more than enough.

Koh Lanta: Highly regarded as one of the most relaxed islands, I have talked to many people who loved their stay on the island.  I’ve heard it said that there isn’t nearly the nightlife that there is on other islands, but that quiet beaches and beautiful scenery can be found just about anywhere you look. If you are truly looking for a vacation to relieve stress, get some work done, or relax with a good book.  Chances are, Koh Lanta is the place to do it!

Recommended for those who are coming to Thailand to NOT be around a bunch of rowdy 20 somethings. While there are many other places to travel within Thailand (Koh Chang and Koh Samet are two that come to mind), I don’t have enough knowledge about the locales to really say much about them.

Look for updates in the future as I continue to travel and broaden my Thai horizons.

Have you been to any of these places?  Am I right, wrong?  Let us know and share your opinions!


Sean Ogle

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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19 comments on "A Guide to the Islands of Thailand"

  1. unbjames says:

    The Koh Tao photo makes me want to pack up and leave tomorrow … but I’ll just have to wait until November like I planned 😛

  2. Sounds like a great place! I’ll be taking a couple weeks off to go to some islands myself. Ahhh, the good life we lead! 😉

  3. Dan says:

    Koh Tao certainly seems to be gaining popularity. I was recently on Koh Chang, I’ll have a post up about it soon.

  4. Diggy says:

    Hey Sean!
    Totally cool post!Thailand is really on my list, I didn’t get to go on my trip but I want to go within a year. I think I’d love to go with a girl though, chilling on the beach like the ones in your pictures seems awesome to me 🙂

    Are you enjoying your stay there? Would you consider living there for a long period of time?


  5. Matt says:

    Great guide to some of the main islands. A couple of other noteworthy mentions from my experience are:

    Koh Samet – A national park, fairly easy to get to from Bangkok. Some beautiful beaches and snorkelling.
    Koh Yao Noi – A far less developed island between Phuket and Krabi. Has a different feel to it to the other tourist hot-spots and is much more laid back and easy going.

    We explored several bays up north of Patong the other day. Up past Kamala, it gets much nicer and less overcrowded/expensive than Patong.

    My favourite island so far, from your list would probably be a toss up between Koh Lanta and Rai Lay. I’m off to Koh Tao in a few days. Really looking forward to it.

    Keep the posts coming!

  6. I spent a month on Koh Phangan in July one year and it was a totally different experience than the winter. There are much, much less people. Most of the beaches besides Haad Rin were virtually deserted and even the Full Moon Party was pretty quiet.

  7. Josh Sager says:

    Koh Samui is a dump, in my opinion. I could not wait to get off that island! Waaaaaaay to many farang, way too many overpriced Westernized shops and shmaltzy “resorts”…

    Can you tell I didn’t like it? 🙂

    Krabi is next on my list, I’m just not sure if it will be a part of my trip in December or not.

  8. Michael says:

    I agree with Josh about Samui being complete rubbish.. Koh Phangan is great for weekend craziness and then head back to koh tao for the midweek.

  9. nomadic matt says:

    you missed a lot 🙂 i suggest checking out ko taruatao down near the border with malaysia

  10. Mark says:

    i loved Ko Lanta… ended up spending a week there at the end of my trek just because i found it so relaxed. incredible sunsets make chilling at the beach at the end of the day a must. the locals were super cool, too… got invited to sit and chat or eat several times. didn’t care for Ko Samui, especially after Ko Phangan. I’m with Bardos… visit Ko Phangan in off-peak times and it’s far less hectic

  11. Lilian says:

    Will be going to Koh Lanta tomorrow for a week and will let you know 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    1. Sean says:

      Thanks everyone for the input! I don’t think I made it clear in the post, but I’ve never actually been to Samui. However by the looks of it, it sounds like it is worth skipping! Keep us all posted on your travels, as you can all probably provide much more input than I can about some of these destinations!

  12. I think it’s a good start but like what others mentioned there are a few other islands that might be worth checking out. I plan to visit Koh Chang and Koh Samet this summer with my family.

  13. Matt says:

    I forgot to mention Koh Lipe, right down on the border with Malaysia. Lovely little island, with a bit of a hippy vibe. There are some awesome national parks nearby but I forget the names.

    As for Samui, its like anywhere… if you stick to the tourist trail, you might be disappointed (depending on what you are looking for). If you head off and explore, there are some amazing parts to discover.

    Moral of the story… get away from the rip-off tourist beaches and areas where you will find everything overpriced and the worst of the Thais congregate. No wonder people leave Phuket and Samui thinking they are shitholes, if all they ever visit is Patong or Chaweng and do a few day trips here and there.

    Also just off Samui is Angthong Marine Park, which is up there as one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Thailand and is also where the book/film “The Beach” is set.

    Just my 2 cents worth 🙂

  14. Adrienne says:

    Wow, looks beautiful. Haven’t been to Thailand yet – but am hoping to do so soon! This post will be very helpful in planning my trip!

  15. Steven says:


    Nice blog…

    I dont agree with the post’s about samui it unreal if you no where to go!!! People like stated above tend to stick to the tourist trail… next time your in samui try all the different beachs no just chaweng and lamai beach try chong mon, silver beach, etc pleanty to see and do on samui…

    Anyway keep up the good work with the blog..


  16. tomas says:

    Love Thailand, the best part I would say is Koh Phangan Island as well with http://www.safariboat.info and the Island koh phangan tour was incredible, never expected such a nice place. the service was supergood and we enjoy also Angthong marine park with them. after we saw koh Phangan with Safari boat we felt love with island. That was the real holiday. recommended for everyone!


  17. Khon Kaen says:

    Honeymooned in Phuket and have also been to Koh Samet, Hua Hin, and Koh Samui. Love the beaches of Thailand.

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