By Rooksana Hossenally
By Rooksana Hossenally
Over the last decade, Thailand has seen a huge surge in tourism, which has lead to the mass development of its hotspots. A popular destination for its street markets, tasty cuisine and gentle hospitable culture, Thailand’s top draw is its sprinkling of tropical islands, which boast fine golden sandy beaches and transparent azure waters. However, despite the onslaught of visitors looking for a fix of sun and sea, pockets of peace and tranquillity do subsist, especially for the traveller visiting out of season (July to October). Thailand has hundreds of islands from the more secluded beaches of the north-eastern archipelago of Koh Chang to the backpacker scene of Koh Phi Phi.
Koh Kut, north-east
Located in the Trat Province close to the Cambodian border, Koh Kut (also spelled Koh Kood), is part of the Koh Chang archipelago. And while a handful of hotels that have popped up on its palm lined coastline, Koh Kut remains one of Thailand’s few islands that has resisted the full impact of the tourism boom. While there are long empty stretches beaches to enjoy, the island also has several waterfalls and forests to explore as well as two main fishing villages, Ao Salat in the north and Ao Yai in the south-east. About four hours’ drive from Bangkok, Koh Kut can also be reached by plane for those staying at the sumptuous eco-luxury hotel Soneva Kiri. Entirely built out of wood, the five-star retreat has 36 villas each with its own pool spread across 150 acres of forested gardens. One of the best hotels in the world, it has it all from a fine powdery white sandy private beach to an outdoor cinema set up under the stars by a lake, to stellar service and top-notch food.
East coast islands
Off the east coast of Thailand, Koh Tao is the smallest of the touristy trio with Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan. Extremely popular with backpackers looking for a balance between lively nightlife and diving, the island’s ribbon of sandy beaches is lined with fairly small low-key hotels. The beaches are perfect for spending the day unwinding and its jungle interior makes for great hiking trips – although don’t expect to have the main trails all to yourself. Most places to stay are clustered on the west coast with Saree Beach being the busiest area due to its plentiful supply of western style backpacker bars and restaurants. For a more relaxed experience, the south offers smaller more private beaches. As there are few roads on the other side of the island it sees fewer tourists and has a more secluded island feel. As a lot of below-the-radar places to stay in Koh Tao often don’t have websites, book a room for the first night at the quieter northern tip of Saree Beach and explore the coastline – you’ll find rustic wooden Robinson Crusoe-style cabins for rent are set back on the cliff facing the sea along the beaches in the south.
Better known for its legendary Full Moon parties, Koh Pha-Ngan is a victim of its success. When word got out about the island’s highly fuelled beach parties, the world flocked to get a taste. Now there’s a party happening almost every day although the Full and Half Moon events remain top of the list. Away from party central in Haad-Rin to the north-west in Ao Mae Hat it’s a lot quieter and the beaches are better. With the sand bar leading to Koh Ma island, it’s also the island’s best sunset point. The north-east is the island’s more upmarket pocket with large resort hotels, while the rest of the east coast remains untouched and hard-to-navigate territory due to the lack of roads. However, tenacious travellers who are able to brave the rough ride are rewarded with desert beaches like at Paradise Lost and Hat Yao, forested hills that go as far as the eye can see, and soul stirring views of the jungle topped hills sloping into the crisp turquoise waters.
One of the country’s largest islands, little of Koh Samui has survived in the main tourist areas like around Chewang Beach. Set out like a toy town of cheap eateries selling discounted alcohol and pizzas, there is nothing very Thai about the area. However, away from the east coast, is a small fishing community worth mingling with for a couple of hours who live in the south along a vast expanse of lonely palm-fringed beaches where the water goes out for miles at low tide. Make sure to hire a transport as it’s surprisingly easy to get lost in the island’s more remote areas where even a taxi is hard to come by. There isn’t much to see in Koh Samui unless it’s to spend a few days sunbathing on the slick pool deck at one of the island’s many five-star hotels. The recently renovated Six Senses located on the northern tip of the island has some decadent eco-luxury villas with private pools that are perfect for those seeking rest and relaxation in utter seclusion for a few days.
West coast islands
Off the Andaman coast, Koh Lanta used to be on the backpacker trail but in recent years has become more of a destination for mid-range visitors. Most of the west coast is peppered with hotels including some large resorts, however the long wide sandy beach here is an undeniable draw that’s hard to beat on the island. The south and east coast are quieter, while the interior of the island is mainly jungle inhabited by few locals. Koh Lanta has a very laid-back natural vibe that’s far from the teaming shores of other islands like in neighbouring Koh Phi Phi. The highlight and ultimate must is exploring the Koh Lanta National Park’s Talabeng area by sea-kayak. Located in the south, dense mangrove forests cling to the coast line while myriad karst islands jut out of from emerald waters out at sea.
Koh Phi Phi
Unarguably one of Thailand’s busiest islands, Koh Phi Phi reached worldwide fame after its secret Maya Beach tucked inside a karst island served as the setting for hit feature film The Beach starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Phi Phi is essentially two islands bridged together by a sand bar, which is beautiful from the sign-posted viewpoint in the heart of the island. Maya Beach, now Koh Phi Phi’s number one attraction, is sadly no longer the deserted paradise portrayed in the film, its entrance usually choked with boats shuttling tourists there for the day. Overridden with tourists, especially close to the harbour where a village of hotels, shops, bars and restaurants extends out, it’s worth heading further afield and exploring north and east.
Part of the less-visited Trang Islands, Koh Hai is popular with day-trippers and snorkelers from Koh Lanta, however on the other side of the island are a handful of upmarket lodgings with near-desert beaches. Extremely laid-back, aside from watching the colours change across the sky and marvelling at the iridescent quality of the water, there isn’t much else to do on the island. And there are no villages or locals living on this old pirates’ island. For a mid-range comfortable experience, stay at the Thapwarin in a bamboo bungalow right on the beach. Although the beach is slightly eroded in front of the hotel a long stretch of sand runs south where due to the proximity of the reef, is the best spot for snorkelling. As most of the island is part of a protected zone, the other side isn’t accessible unless you book a hike with a guide. The main attraction in the area is Emerald Cave, a hidden beach inside an island. Accessed via an underwater passageway, it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Koh Ngai’s beaches are hard to rival, except by those of Koh Kradan. Even more beautiful, the small island is blessed with a large gleaming turquoise lagoon and a desert island ambience. A popular honeymoon getaway in high season, a few hotels including an Anantara have set up shop, however, in low season everything shuts down and you can have the beaches all to yourself. The weather, usually warm and sunny, can be unreliable making it difficult to travel to and from the island, but the risk is entirely worth it. A 20-minute boat ride from Koh Ngai and an hour from Trang town on the mainland, the island feels secluded enough to forget life exists elsewhere. There are a couple of upmarket lodging options here but for a laid-back friendly experience stay with Lars at Kahlume in one of the wooden bungalows metres from the beach. Off-season there is a family atmosphere here where the handful of guests have dinner altogether every night, usually a feast of fresh fish caught that morning.
Koh Yao Noi
Close to Phuket, this island is another one that slipped below the radar. One of the most charming, its interior is covered with small villages and picturesque rice fields, while its atmospheric beaches are for the most part deserted. Clean, neat and extremely prim, the island has a very relaxed local atmosphere making it feel far removed from the rest of the country. And Six Senses owners knew they were onto a good thing when they first laid eyes on this peaceful enclave. A stay at the five-star eco-luxury Six Senses Yao Noi hotel mustn’t be missed out on while here. A top world hotel, it has many draws. Perched on a hill overlooking the karst-studded landscape of the Andaman Sea, the views are breathtaking, especially seen from the Hilltop Reserve pool and restaurant.
Thailand’s largest island, Phuket feels very urban. The destination of choice for A-listers and affluent travellers in its hey-day, Phuket, the jewel of a time passed, has a morose run-down feel that’s ever more present in town. Without much to do here, most visitors take refuge in one of its luxury hotels. During Phuket’s 90s boom, every five-star hotel group flocked to get their share of the action, including the owner of what was to become Aman Hotels. The Amanpuri Hotel was the first to open in the long succession of its top-end establishments. Split in two, the resort is popular with celebrities and public figures for its security-tight villas that wind up a hill away from prying eyes. The second part of the resort is set on a wide sandy beach and comes with pavilion villas perched on a stilted walkway above the ocean.