With hundreds of islands to choose from, it quickly becomes overwhelming trying to decide what the best Thai island to go to is. Heck, after three years living in the country and becoming more familiar with all the different options, it’s still difficult for me to choose and organize a trip. (And then I just give up and it all works out.)
They’re all beautiful, they all have unique qualities and characteristics, and they’re all over – you can stay on Koh Kut close to Cambodia, Koh Lipe close to Malaysia, Koh Phayam close to Burma or Koh Chang (relatively) close to Bangkok. You can go diving on Koh Tao, partying on Koh Phangan and climbing on Railay.
How do you choose?? Especially when you have limited time.
While I’m certainly no expert on the Thailand islands (I prefer the north if you couldn’t tell), here are six helpful questions to ask yourself before deciding on the best Thai island to go to.
Along with your budget, time makes a huge difference in where you’ll want to go, how many places you’ll visit and see and how you’ll get to them. Though flights to major hubs like Phuket, Sura Thani and Krabi can help cut down on travel time (in comparison to taking 5-12 hour-long buses from Bangkok), it’s still takes time to get down south, and often requires more time and modes of transportation than you initially expect. It’s not like you instantly travel from Bangkok to the island of your choice – you still have to get to the airport early, then get a transfer from the next airport to the pier, then wait for and take the boat to the island (which times vary greatly depending on where you go), then get transportation to your accommodation. Transportation can quickly suck up a large part of your time, especially if you’re on a budget or wanting island hop.
If you’re limited on time, consider which islands you can get to most easily and don’t feel like you need to try and visit several different spots. I know that’s one of the most difficult feelings to overcome while traveling – you want to see everything! – but when it comes to the islands, you’re more likely going to want to pick one or two places and just chill out!
Your budget will help determine your transportation, accommodation and activities on the islands. Across the board, things are usually more expensive on the islands than the mainland, but just how much prices are jacked up depends on where you go. On some of the more developed and touristed islands, like Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi, you can expect higher prices (and less of a range in accommodation rates) then on other islands that are maybe smaller or more popular with Thais, like Koh Chang.
Keep in mind that you’ll be paying more for food, island transportation, alcohol and souvenirs than you will in Bangkok or Chiang Mai and if money is a concern, look into islands that you get too the most cheaply or that have a wide range of accommodation available.
Again, this deals with your time and transportation. If you’re going from Chiang Mai to the southern islands then back up to Bangkok, you need to consider how much time and money it’s going to take. I recently wanted to go from Chiang Mai to Koh Tao for 5-6 days, but in the end it would have taken me about 24 hours to get there by bus or hundreds of dollars if I flew…not worth it.
Do you want to stay in a 5-star resort? Drinks beers in a reggae bar on the beach? Just read in your cabana’s little hammock? Chances are, wherever you go, you can find a place where you’ll feel comfortable and enjoying being – even the biggest party islands have quiet havens. That said, some islands are better to go to for certain experiences or atmospheres than others, especially depending on the season. If you want to party but end up on a small fishermen’s island during the low season, you’ll probably be drinking by yourself….
While you can find a range of accommodation and atmospheres on most islands, the attractions and activities do differ. If you’re interested in snorkeling, diving, climbing, kayaking or visiting forest and marine reserves you’ll want to do more research on the specific islands that offer those options.
Since the Thai islands are spread out at different latitudes and bodies of water, the weather isn’t always the same on all of them at the same time. Keep in mind what part of year you’ll be visiting (generally speaking, the rainy season is from around the end of May to October, the ‘cool’ season is from October to February, and the hot season is from March to May) and if you’re stuck between a couple choices, compare weather reports to see where you might have the most luck with sun.
Have you visited the Thai islands before? How did you decide where to stay? Would you do it differently next time?
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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