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Thailand: your guide to the islands

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Wondering which islands to visit on your trip to Thailand? Read our guide to some of the best Thai islands and start planning your shortlist.

Phuket

Thailand’s largest island is also its most famous resort. The western part of the island is the main focus of mainstream tourism, and this area can be somewhat crowded and a bit too geared towards backpackers and tourists. The interior of the island is virtually unspoiled, however, and there are beaches beyond the tourist throng that are much quieter. Particularly worthy of a visit is Phang Nga Bay, a visually striking bay characterised by impressive limestone outcrops. It’s here that you’ll find the so-called ‘James Bond Island’ - the one that stood in as the island lair of the Man With the Golden Gun villain, Scaramanga.

When to go? You can visit Phuket all year round; January to April enjoys the best weather, and therefore the most visitors. May and September are two of the wettest and most humid months, but June to August is a good time to visit for fewer crowds and reasonable weather.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui is one of the most famous islands in Thailand. Situated in the Gulf of Thailand, it’s immensely popular with those looking for a sunny beachside resort escape. However, there are quieter sides to this island if you know where to look for them; the west and south of the island have largely escaped the arrival of mass tourism and are the place to head if you’re after a more authentically Thai experience.

When to go? Rainy season falls between September and December, with the worst of the weather in November. March to May is when it’s hottest, and if you’re into sailing you might want to time your visit to coincide with the Samui Regatta, held in May.

Koh Tao

The island of Koh Tao, also in the Gulf of Thailand, is renowned for its spectacular diving. Its name means ‘Turtle Island’, an epithet it gets not because of its fauna, but because its shape resembles that of a turtle. It’s a quieter alternative to Koh Samui, being aimed more at divers than backpacking gap year students. There are numerous diving schools and clubs to choose from, including opportunities for scuba diving, freediving, snorkelling and even underwater videography. The waters around Koh Tao are particularly suited to learning to dive, as there are few currents. It’s also a good place to learn about marine wildlife and conservation, and there are other water-based activities on offer for adventurous types, including kayaking. If you are seeking pure relaxation then Kho Tao's beaches are some of Thailand's finest!

When to go? Peak tourist season is between December and March, and between June and August.

Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi, an archipelago in the Andaman Sea off the coast of southern Thailand’s Krabi province, is famous for Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed. This can be found on the pristine Koh Phi Phi Leh, a smaller, uninhabited island off the coast of Koh Phi Phi Don, which is the largest and only populated island in the archipelago. The crystal clear waters of this group of islands are home to an extraordinary diversity of marine life, as the islands fall in a marine National Park. Wildlife on the islands themselves is notable, too; ‘Monkey Beach’, for instance, is home to a colony of macaques. Be sure to visit the ‘Viewpoint’ on the main island for a spectacular view of the whole island - best seen at sunrise or sunset. 

When to go? The best time to visit Koh Phi Phi is between November and April, as the heat isn’t too stifling and the weather is dry. Monsoon season is from May to October, with the heaviest rainfall in September and October.

Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan, in the Gulf of Thailand, isn’t the ideal destination if you’re looking for a quieter Thai island experience; it’s known for its raucous parties, in particular the notorious ‘Full Moon Party’ that makes this island incredibly popular with backpackers. If that’s your cup of tea, Haad Rin is the place to be; the monthly Full Moon party sees wild crowds of partygoers dancing on the beach and spilling out of the area’s many bars. Beyond that, though, there are plenty of other features that make this island worthy of a visit, in particular its dense rainforest, a spectacular waterfall in the Than Sadet-Ko Pha Ngan National Park, and several secluded Buddhist temples.

When to go? January to April are the best months for a visit; after that the monsoon arrives, bringing rain in the afternoon. The afternoon rain doesn’t rule out a trip at this time of year, as the weather is still pleasant, but it gets a bit windy and wetter between October and December.

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta, in the Krabi province, is really a group of islands, and they’re quieter than Koh Phi Phi, the other island group we’ve mentioned here. Characterised by picturesque beachside bungalows and upmarket resorts, Koh Lanta is another good place to visit for the textbook Thai beach experience or if you’re into snorkelling or diving, as there are stunning coral reefs just waiting to be explored. These are home to innumerable species of marine life, including manta rays, whales and many other exotic creatures.

When to go? November to April is the best time to visit to avoid the rain and the worst of the heat.

Koh Samet

Situated in the Gulf of Thailand and only a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland, the tiny paradise island of Koh Samet is an easy escape from bustling Bangkok. This National Park has fourteen beaches, which have beautifully soft sand and are surrounded by clear water and coral reefs. The island gets its name from the samet trees found here.

When to go? Koh Samet enjoys its own microclimate that means it gets much less rain than other Thai islands and can be visited all year round. The rainy season is from May to September, but it’s not as heavy as those experiences elsewhere in Thailand.