As Highway 4 switches from the east flank of the Thailand peninsula to the Andaman coast it enters a markedly different country: nourished by rain nearly all the year round, the vegetation down here is lushly tropical, with forests reaching up to 80m in height, and massive rubber, palm-oil and coconut plantations replacing the rice and sugar-cane fields of central Thailand. Sheer limestone crags spike every horizon and the translucent Andaman Sea laps the most dazzlingly beautiful islands in the country, not to mention its finest coral reefs. This is of course the same sea whose terrifyingly powerful tsunami waves battered the coastline in December 2004, killing thousands and changing countless lives and communities forever. The legacies of that horrific day are widespread (see Tsunami Museum), but all the affected holiday resorts have been rebuilt, with the tourist dollar now arguably more crucial to the region’s well-being than ever before.
The cultural mix along the Andaman coast is also different from central Thailand. Many southern Thais are Muslim, with a heritage that connects them to Malaysia and beyond. This is also the traditional province of nomadic chao ley, or sea gypsies, many of whom have now settled but still work as boat captains and fishermen. The commercial fishing industry, on the other hand, is mostly staffed by immigrants – legal and not – from neighbouring Burma, just a few kilometres away along the northern Andaman coast.
The attractions of the northern Andaman coast are often ignored in the race down to the high-profile honeypots around Phuket and Krabi, but there are many quiet gems up here, beginning with the low-key little sister islands of Ko Chang (quite different from its larger, more famous East Coast namesake) and Ko Phayam, where the hammocks and paraffin lamps offer an old-style travellers’ vibe that’s harder to find further south. Snorkellers and divers are drawn in their hundreds to the reefs of the remote National Park island chains of Ko Surin and Ko Similan, with many choosing to base themselves at the mainland beach resort of Khao Lak, though homestay programmes around Khuraburi offer an interesting alternative. Inland, it’s all about the jungle – with twenty-first-century amenities – at the enjoyable Khao Sok National Park, where accommodation is on rafts on the lake and treehouses beneath the limestone crags.
Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, is the region’s major resort destination for families, package tourists and novice divers; its dining, shopping and entertainment facilities are second to none, but the high-rises and hectic consumerism dilute the Thai-ness of the experience. There’s Thai life in spades across on the quiet rural island of Ko Yao Noi, scenically located within the spectacular bay of Ao Phang Nga, whose scattered karst islets are one of the country’s top natural wonders, best appreciated from a sea-canoe. The Andaman coast’s second hub is Krabi province, rightly famous for its turquoise seas and dramatic islands. Flashiest of these is the flawed but still handsome Ko Phi Phi, with its great diving, gorgeous beaches and high-octane nightlife. Mainland and mainstream Ao Nang can’t really compete, but is at least close to the majestic cliffs and superb rock-climbing of the Railay peninsula at Laem Phra Nang. Offshore again, there’s horizon-gazing aplenty at mellow, barely developed Ko Jum and the choice of half a dozen luxuriously long beaches, and plentiful resort facilities, at Ko Lanta Yai.
Unlike the Gulf coast, the Andaman coast is hit by the southwest monsoon, which usually generally lasts from the end of May until at least the middle of October. During this period, heavy rain and high seas render some of the outer islands inaccessible, but conditions aren’t usually severe enough to ruin a holiday on the other islands, or on the mainland, and you’ll get tempting discounts on accommodation. Some bungalows at the smaller resorts shut down entirely during low season (highlighted in the text), but most beaches keep at least one place open, and some dive shops lead expeditions year-round.