Most countries would be satisfied with just a single stretch of dazzling coastline. Not Thailand. With hundreds of islands scattered through the glittering Andaman Sea and the gorgeous Gulf of Thailand, choosing which of Thailand’s southern islands to visit can be daunting for the first-time traveller. While some of these islands here are famous the world over for their beautiful beaches and legendary parties, the very best islands Thailand has to offer also provide equal opportunities for recreation, relaxation and community tourism. Here are six that fit the bill.
1. Koh Phi Phi (Andaman Sea)
Koh Phi Phi came to prominence when nearby Phi Phi Leh served as a location for the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle ‘The Beach’. And it’s easy to see why—it’s one of the planet’s most beautiful yet easily accessible islands. While the latter ensures that there’s an abundance of amenities on offer, it also means the island sees a lot of travellers. So, if you’d rather swing in a hammock than sing all night long, there are other islands in the Andaman that are more laid back. Still, Koh Phi Phi is popular for a reason—its talcum beaches, azure bays and magnificent karsts ensure postcard perfection.
2. Koh Klang (Andaman Sea)
You won’t find talcum beaches on Koh Klang — in fact, the swimming here is not all that great; instead, you’ll find large expanses of pristine mangrove forests and a traditional fishing community where you’ll experience the relationship between islanders and the sea on which they rely. Life on Koh Klang is an intriguing tapestry of ocean and rice paddy, interwoven with culture and tradition passed between generations. Koh Klang plays host to a number of community-based tourism initiatives, so you can trade in your hotel key card for a traditional island homestay.
3. Koh Lanta (Andaman Sea)
Stunning Koh Lanta is located in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand, between Koh Phi Phi and the mainland. The island boasts lots of long white-sand beaches and a mountainous interior cloaked in jungle so when you tire of sunning yourself seaside, you can rent a bike and head inland. It’s not remote, but also not nearly as built up as Phi Phi. There’s a local flavour (the island is predominantly Muslim) and a quiet charm here that is lacking in tourist hotspots like Phuket and Koh Samui.
4. Koh Chang (Gulf of Thailand)
Located near the border with Cambodia, Koh Chang is Thailand’s second-largest island after Phuket, but is still much quieter despite a major increase in tourism. With its chain of white sandy coves and beaches, virgin rainforests and abundance of coral reefs, high mountain peaks and scenic waterfalls, Koh Chang is still under-the-radar for most fly and flop tourists—so it retains a laid-back charm.
5. Koh Phangan (Gulf of Thailand)
Located halfway between the islands of Samui and Tao, Koh Phangan is best known for its (in)famous full moon parties. Thirty years ago, the party was a quiet affair of just 20–30 travellers dancing the night away at an improvised wooden disco not far from the Haad Rin beach. In the years since, the party’s gained momentum and now draws crowds of ~5,000–30,000 people. That said, Koh Phangan is about more than glow sticks and thumping beats—away from the noise, the island’s all about the quintessential Thai beach life; peaceful, beautiful and blissful.
6. Koh Tao (Gulf of Thailand)
Great for travellers looking to get away from the bustle of Samui or catch some rest after one of Koh Phangan’s legendary Full Moon Parties, Koh Tao offers some of the best scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. That means the island is one of the world's top places to learn — and the competition among dive shops has also made it one of the cheapest. And while Koh Tao caters especially to scuba divers, rock climbers and hikers can find quieter, less developed areas of the island to explore.