Thailand has a rich culture, beach huts aplenty, tantalising local food and adventures galore, and all are available at often staggeringly low prices. It is home to an astonishing array of islands offering all manner of diving, swimming and sunbathing opportunities all year round. The hardest part for any visitor is singling out Thailand's best islands among the hundreds. Here is our pick of 20 of the best islands in Thailand.
Thailand's best islands: Get your bearings
Thailand has islands on all three sides. In the Andaman Sea on the west coast, you'll find Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. On the east and west sides of the Gulf of Thailand, you'll find places like Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao. Getting around in high season is easy, with regular ferry services and internal flights. In low season ferry services may stop, but you'll nearly always find pricier speedboat transfers available.
Gulf of Thailand
1. Koh Chang: for beaches
Edged with white-sand beaches and backed by jungle-clad hills, Koh Chang is developing fast but still feels green. It’s Thailand's second-largest island, after Phuket. Unlike its bigger sister, it has tourist facilities in its densely forested interior, just a few rivers, waterfalls and hiking trails.
The island is popular with package tourists, but it’s still possible to find accommodation to suit most budgets. Although the beaches may be busy, there are plenty of places to swim or snooze under a palm tree.
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Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Chang.
2. Koh Samui: for luxury resorts
Over a million visitors a year, ranging from globetrotting backpackers to suitcase-toting fortnighters, come to this one of the best islands in Thailand just for the beautiful beaches of Koh Samui. Samui is generally large enough to cope with this diversity and the paradisal sands and clear blue seas have to a surprising extent kept their good looks.
For most visitors, the days are spent indulging in a few watersports or just lying on the beach waiting for the next drinks-seller, hair-braider or masseur to come along. For something more active, you should not miss the almost supernatural beauty of the Ang Thong National Marine Park, which comprises many of the eighty islands in the Samui archipelago.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Samui.
3. Koh Pha Ngan: for parties
For drinking and dancing, Koh Pha Ngan gets a mention thanks to its famous party beach, Hat Rin. It’s now established as the major party venue in Southeast Asia and one of the best things to do in Thailand. In peak seasons – August, December and January – thousands flock here for the infamous Full Moon parties.
The atmosphere created by thousands of folk mashing it up on the beautiful, moonlit beach, is a real buzz. Unfortunately, drug-related horror stories are common currency here, and many of them are true, so be careful.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Pha Ngan.
4. Koh Samet: for a short hop
Blessed with the softest, squeakiest sand within a weekend distance of Bangkok, the tiny island of Koh Samet, which measures just six kilometres from top to toe, is one of the best islands in Thailand and is a favourite escape for Thais, expats and tourists.
Its 14 small but dazzlingly white beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, lapped by pale blue water and in places still shaded by coconut palms and the occasional cajeput (samet) tree that gave the island its name. The beaches are also, however, rather overcrowded and developed to full capacity, so don’t come here expecting a secluded break.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Samet.
5. Koh Mak: for the slow life
Small, slow-paced, peaceful Koh Mak makes an idyllically low-key alternative to Ko Chang. Home to little more than 400 people, many of them descended from the islands’ five main clans, Koh Mak measures just 16 square kilometres and is dominated by coconut and rubber plantations. The island is shaped like a star and has fine white-sand beaches where most of the tourist accommodation is concentrated.
Explore the accommodation options to stay at Koh Mak.
6. Koh Kood: for mangroves
The fourth-largest island in Thailand, forested Koh Kood (sometimes spelt Koh Kut or Koh Kud) is still a wild and largely uncommercialised place. Though it’s known for its sparkling white sand and exceptionally clear turquoise water, particularly along the west coast, Ko Kood is as much a nature lover’s destination as a beach bum’s.
Swathes of shoreline are fringed by scrub and mangroves rather than broad sandy beaches, and those parts of the island not still covered in the virgin tropical rainforest are filled with palm groves and rubber plantations. Koh Kood is a surprisingly pleasant place to explore on foot (or kayak), especially as the cool season brings refreshing breezes most days.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Kood.
7. Koh Tao: for learning to dive
Koh Tao (Turtle Island) is so named because its outline resembles a turtle nosediving towards Koh Pha Ngan, 40km to the south. The rugged shell of the turtle, to the east, is crenellated with secluded coves where one or two bungalows hide among the rocks. On the western side, the turtle’s underbelly is a long curve of classic beach, Hat Sai Ree.
The 21 squared kilometres of granite in between is topped by dense forest on the higher slopes and dotted with huge boulders that look as if they await some Easter Island sculptor. There are rough trails inland that are great for exploring but Koh Tao is most famous for its great scuba diving. For those looking to learn how to dive on holiday Koh Tao has ranked as one of Thailand's best islands.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Tao.
8. Koh Chang: for going car-free
No, we’re not repeating ourselves, this is a different Koh Chang, not to be confused with its much larger namesake off the east coast of Thailand. It’s a forested little island about 5km offshore, whose car-free, ultra laid-back, roll-your-own vibe more than compensates for the less-than-perfect beaches.
The pace of life here is very slow and for the relatively small number of tourists who make it to the island, the emphasis is strongly on kicking back and chilling out. Bring your own hammock and you’ll fit right in.
9. Koh Phayam: for a chilled expat vibe
The diminutive kangaroo-shaped island of Koh Phayam offers fine white-sand beaches and coral reefs and is home to around 500 people, most of whom either make their living from prawn, squid or crab fishing, or from growing cashew nuts, sator beans, coconut palms and rubber trees.
Because of its roads, Koh Phayam has a slightly more developed feel than neighbouring Koh Chang, underlined by a low-key beach-bar scene – all hand-painted signs and driftwood sculptures – and the presence of a significant number of foreigners who choose to spend six or more months here every year.
10. Koh Lipe: for underwater fun
Koh Lipe is something of a frontier maverick, attracting ever more travellers with one dazzling beach, over fifty private bungalow resorts and a rough-and-ready atmosphere. It’s technically a part of Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, but the authorities seem to have given up on the island and don’t collect an admission fee from visitors.
Lipe’s main drag is Walking Street, a paved path lined with tourist businesses between the eastern end of Hat Pattaya and the south end of the village. It lies on east-facing Sunrise, an exposed, largely featureless beach that gives access to some good snorkelling around Ko Gra.
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Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Lipe.
11. Surin Islands: one of the best islands in Thailand for snorkelling
Spectacularly varied and unusually shallow reefs, a palette of awesomely clear turquoise waters and dazzling white sands, and dense forests of lofty dipterocarps combine to make the islands of Mu Koh Surin National Park one of the must-visit destinations in southern Thailand.
It’s very much an outdoor experience, with most of the bulk of accommodation in national park tents, no commerce on the island at all, and twice-daily snorkelling as the main activity.
12. Similan Islands: for experienced divers
Rated as one of the world’s best spots for both above-water and underwater beauty, the eleven islands at the heart of the Mu Koh Similan National Park are among the most exciting diving destinations among the best islands in Thailand. Massive granite boulders set magnificently against the turquoise waters give the islands their distinctive character, but it’s the thirty-metre visibility that draws the divers.
The underwater scenery is nothing short of overwhelming here: the reefs teem with coral fish, and you’ll see turtles, manta rays, moray eels, sea snakes, red grouper and possibly white tip sharks, barracuda, giant lobster and enormous tuna.
13. Koh Jum: for the beach bum life
This is the sort of laidback spot people come to for a couple of days, then can’t bring themselves to leave. Though there’s plenty of accommodation on the island, there’s nothing more than a handful of beach bars for evening entertainment, and little to do during the day except try out the half-dozen West Coast beaches and read your book under a tree.
Nights are low key: it’s paraffin lamps and starlight after 11 p.m. at places off the main grid, and many places don’t even provide fans as ocean breezes are sufficiently cooling.
14. Koh Yao Noi: for a peaceful escape
Located in an idyllic spot on the edge of Phang Nga Bay, almost equidistant from Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, the island of Koh Yao Noi enjoys magnificent maritime views from almost every angle and makes a refreshingly tranquil getaway.
Measuring about 12km at its longest point, it’s home to some four thousand islanders, most of whom earn their living from rubber and coconut plantations, fishing and shrimp farming. While the beaches don’t have that same wow factor as many of the other best islands in Thailand, tourism here is low-key so it’s a peaceful escape.
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15. Koh Lanta: for families and couples
Although Koh Lanta Yai can’t compete with neighbouring Koh Phi Phi's stupendous scenery, the thickly forested 25-kilometre-long island has the longest beaches in the Krabi area – and plenty of them. This is also one of the best islands in Thailand for snorkelling and diving, plus caves to explore, trekking and kayaking.
Many people base themselves here for their entire holiday fortnight. The island is especially popular with families, in part because of the local laws that have so far prevented jet skis, beachfront parasols and girlie bars from turning it into another Phuket.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Lanta.
16. Koh Ngai: for honeymooners
The most developed of the Trang islands, Koh Ngai (also known as Koh Hai) is still decidedly low-key among the best islands in Thailand. The island’s action, such as it is, centres on the east coast, where half a dozen resorts enjoy a dreamy panorama of jagged limestone outcrops, whose crags glow pink and blue against the setting sun, stretching across the sea to the mainland behind.
The gently sloping, fine white sand beach here runs unbroken for 2km and there’s some good snorkelling in the shallow, clear water off the island’s southeastern tip.
17. Koh Kradan: for clear blue sea
Koh Kradan is the remotest of the inhabited islands off Trang, and one of the most beautiful, with crystal clear waters. On this slender triangle of thick jungle, the main beach is a long strand of steeply sloping, powdery sand on the east coast with fine views of Koh Mook, Koh Libong and the karst-strewn mainland.
An offshore reef to the north has a great variety of hard coral. Such beauty, however, has not escaped the attention of day-trip boats from Koh Lanta, who often turn the beach into a lunchtime picnic ground.
Find accommodation options to stay at Koh Kradan.
18. Koh Phi Phi: for exotic beauty
About 40km south of Krabi, the island of Koh Phi Phi looks breathtakingly handsome as you approach from the sea, its classic arcs of pure white sand framed by dramatic cliffs and lapped by water that’s a mouthwatering shade of turquoise.
A flat sandy isthmus connects the hilly east and west halves of the island, scalloped into the much-photographed symmetrical double bays of Ao Ton Sai and Ao Loh Dalum. The vast majority of the tourist accommodation is squashed in here, as is the island’s wild nightlife, with just a few alternatives scattered along the eastern coasts. Phi Phi’s few indigenous islanders mostly live in the northeast.
Find more accommodation options to stay at Koh Phi Phi.
19. Koh Turatao: for nature lovers
This is the largest of the Koh Turatao National Park archipelago and it offers the greatest natural variety: mountains covered in semi-evergreen rainforest rise steeply to a high point of 700m; limestone caves and mangrove swamps dot the shoreline; and the west coast lined with perfect beaches for most of its 26-kilometre length.
20. Koh Adang: for hiking
This rainforest-covered island has narrow beaches backed by a canopy of pines. A half-hour climb to Sha-do cliff is worth tackling, with great views over Koh Lipe island to the south. Another option can be found near the main park station, where a 20-minute trail leads to the small Pirate Waterfall.
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