Thailand has an island for everyone; whether you want to soak up the sunshine and explore sleepy fishing villages, or dive among breath-taking coral reefs and dance until dawn. Each one moves to its own distinct rhythm (making an island hopping excursion well-worth the travel time), while still sharing notes that make them undeniably Thai; think sugar-soft sand beaches, turquoise-toned waters and authentic Thai dishes to tantalise the tastebuds. With as many as 1,430 Thai islands in total, deciding which ones to visit can seem like a daunting task. Luckily, we’ve risen to challenge on your behalf and compiled this list of the best islands in Thailand.
One of the most well-known of Thailand’s islands, and its second largest, Koh Samui welcomes families, honeymooners and backpackers alike, placing it firmly on our list of the best islands in Thailand. The island previously had a reputation for its full-moon parties and beach raves, and while these can have their place in certain holidays, Koh Samui now exudes a more refined sense of luxury. Bordering the pristine beaches are a number of outstanding resorts and elegant hotels, each equipped with their own world-class spas and restaurants. Also the obvious choice for dedicated yogis, here you’ll find a number of yoga and wellness retreats nestled within the rainforest, guaranteed to diminish any remnants of stress.
Koh Phi Phi
Another well-loved addition to the list, Koh Phi Phi is an archipelago of six postcard-perfect islands, with most travellers visiting either Koh Phi Phi Don or Koh Phi Phi Le. Koh Phi Phi Don is the livelier of the two and popular with party-lovers and backpackers, while Koh Phi Phi Le is perhaps more modest and understated, making for an ideal beach-bound day trip. The idyllic cove of Maya Bay on Phi Phi Le may look familiar thanks to its appearance in The Beach, starring Leonardo di Caprio. Its subsequent popularity led to the bay being closed to tourists in 2018 to allow the restoration of the marine ecosystem. As of January 2022, this storied beach re-opened with stricter visitor regulations.
Every avid diver will already have Thailand on their bucket-list and Koh Tao is one of the best dive destinations in the world, for both pros and beginners. If you fall into the latter camp, you can sign up to get your PADI or SSI Open Water certification at a dive school and, once qualified, embark on ocean dives through the rich coral reefs, alongside a plethora of marine life (Koh Tao translates to ‘Turtle Island’ thanks to its abundance of sea turtles). When not exploring the breath-taking underwater world, the island’s coastline is peppered with secluded sandy coves and romantic beachfront restaurants. As with most of the islands, it also boasts excellent nightlife, perfect for unwinding after an active day.
It’s no secret that plenty of travellers flock to the Thai islands for the famed full moon, half-moon and black-moon parties. If you wish to experience one for yourself, then Koh Phangan is the party capital of Thailand, with Haad Rin’s Sunrise Beach as the hedonistic headquarters. Once you’ve soaked up the festive atmosphere of the neon-lit nightlife, there are plenty of tranquil spots to retreat to for some well-earned R&R, such as Bottle Beach and Secret Beach.
Koh Lipe is blessed with some of Thailand’s most magnificent beaches and is a prime choice for post-nuptial retreats and amorous escapes, so it certainly meets our criteria for the best islands in Thailand. Small enough to discover on foot, you can wander hand-in-hand along the palm-studded shorelines, share spicy som tam (green papaya salad) and fragrant guay teow (noodle soup), or enjoy some luxurious couples’ spa treatments. As the sun starts to sink beneath the horizon, head to Hat Pramong – aptly nicknamed Sunset Beach – and watch as the cerulean sky fades into subdued shades of ochre and crimson.
Koh Yao Islands: Koh Yao Yai & Koh Yao Noi
Given the copious quantity of Thai islands, there are still a number of equally enchanting under-the-radar idylls, which benefit from their position on the periphery and promote a more peaceful pace of life. The Koh Yao islands are located only half an hour by boat from Phuket – the largest and busiest of the Thai islands – and exude a more low-key vibe, consisting of laid-back fishing villages rather than glamorous beach clubs. Explore the patchworks of rice paddies by scooter, stumble upon hidden coves and sample the freshest seafood at nondescript yet wonderfully authentic restaurants.
Koh Lanta is the jack-of-all-trades, offering outstanding beaches, exemplary diving and sophisticated resorts, neatly packaged across a collection of two islands (Koh Lanta Yai and Koh Lanta Noi). This makes it a suitable destination for a multi-generational getaway, and if you plan on travelling with your offspring in tow, the serene waters are eminently suitable for snorkelling, swimming and just floating around in. The island also plays host to a number of adult-only resorts, if a slow-as-you-go, off-grid adventure is more your style.
Koh Samet & Koh Kood
Concluding our list of the best islands in Thailand are two more must-mentions, tucked away from the crowds. Koh Samet is situated in a national marine park, making it home to an intriguing array of vibrant wildlife. Become acquainted with the sea life by diving among impressive coral reefs or sample some water sports, including water skiing, windsurfing and wakeboarding. The easternmost island in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Kood is a true hidden gem and relatively untouched by tourism. Experience unparalleled opulence at an eco-luxury resort, huddled within lush tropical rainforest, and there’s every chance that you’ll have one of the unspoilt beaches to yourself (which isn’t difficult given that there are more coconut trees on the island than people).
Written by Luisa Watts