Island Hopping in Thailand

From slivers of paradise with picture-perfect beaches to stretches steeped in centuries-old culture, these five islands capture the spirit of Thailand.

By Jimmy Im

In Thailand, locals say you haven’t truly experienced all their country has to offer until you’ve visited its breathtaking islands. Many of the ones on this list are considered the best in Southeast Asia, and each is unique.

Phuket

Thailand’s biggest island is also the country’s most famous, and with good reason: It offers something for almost every type of traveler. White sandy beaches hug crystal-clear water, tropical jungles afford plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure, the dynamic culinary scene is a treasure trove for foodies, and plenty of after-hours activities means that the island thrives day and night. Phuket is also the best departure point for 32 small uninhabited islands, so you can take ferries or private long-tail boats out on day trips. Discerning travelers avoid Patong, known as the party district, and head to Old Phuket Town, where they can sample banana-leaf steamed rice with fresh dragon fruit at the morning market and explore a string of recently opened cafés. Skip Patong Beach and head to Kamala Beach, a stunning stretch near Millionaires’s Mile that has fewer crowds.

Hong Island

Hong Island is a perennial day-trip favorite for travelers and just may be one of your laptop’s default screensaver images. About 45 minutes by speedboat from the east coast of Phuket, this secluded oasis in the Ao Phang Nga National Park has a crescent white-sand beach edged with palms, crystal-clear water and dramatic limestone outcroppings. Most visitors arrive in their bathing suits and laze the day away. The beach starts to get crowded starting in the early afternoon, so arrive in the morning for more privacy. Consider packing a picnic, as there are few amenities.

Koh Samui

A magnet for affluent travelers, this island touts world-class international cuisine, award-winning wellness retreats and more privacy than other large inhabited islands. Part of its charm is the sense of community among islanders as well as Koh Samui’s authentic, tourist-light towns. Most visitors make a beeline for Tamarind Springs Forest Spa, a wellness playground carved into the natural landscape where you can soak in herbal steam caves and get a massage in a bamboo hut. Koh Samui is also a haven for snorkelers (don’t miss Coral Cove or Crystal Bay). And to experience marine life, take a short longboat ride to Ko Taen and Ko Mat Sum, two small islands off Thong Krut.

Yao Noi

Yao Noi is about 30 minutes by boat from Phuket yet feels off the radar. It’s an undeveloped island where not much has changed in decades: Rice paddies unspool for miles beneath a whole lot of blue sky, and pastoral villages thrive along thin roads. Friendly locals—there are only 4,300 inhabitants—are known to strike coconuts out of trees and crack them open so they can offer you fresh juice. Adventurers can rent bikes (or hire a tuk tuk driver) to go exploring. Be sure to check out the beach at Six Senses Yao Noi, which offers panoramic views of Phang Nga Bay.

Khao Phing Kan

The island may be overrun with tourists, but Khao Phing Kan, in Ao Phang Nga National Park, still exudes the same magic it did back when it appeared in the 1974 James Bond flick The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). It’s become the Ha Long Bay of Thai islands, and its beauty is worth experiencing. On the way there, visitors may pass a remote fishing village where seafood is served at dozens of floating restaurants. On arriving, you’ll find a paradise lush with vegetation, rocky cliffs and natural caves. Those with an adventurous spirit should consider kayaking into its limestone caves and through natural arches.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: December 2015