Sure, we’ve all heard of the beach (even if we haven’t actually seen the whole movie) and read the guidebooks listing Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi as Thailand’s must visit islands. But there are hundreds of isles dotted around the Thai coast, and so many other pieces of paradise to explore.
Inspired by the launch of Adventure Cruising in Thailand and Malaysia, and the lesser-visited islands they drop into, we asked one of the first voyage’s Peregrine local leaders – Ant – to name her favourite Thai islands. Time to stop just picturing yourself on a perfect sandy beach and start planning.
1. Koh Rok
Koh Rok Nok (‘outside island’) and Koh Rok Nai (‘inside island’) might as well have been plucked from the dictionary definition of ‘desert island’. Protected as part of the Muu Koh Lanta National Marine Park in the Andaman Sea and circled by impressive coral reefs filled with thriving marine life, these small twin islands are uninhabited and covered in jungle where mangrove and banyan trees run wild. Blindingly white sand beaches, backed by towering black limestone cliffs, run for hundreds of metres. Monitor lizards lounge on land while sea life like pufferfish, turtles and clown fish thrive just off shore in some of the country’s best snorkelling. While Koh Rok get its share of day-trippers from the neighbouring islands and mainland, it’s incredibly peaceful if you’re able to stick around. The only structures are a ranger’s station and a couple of bungalows and tents run by the parks service – so, depending on how you got there, you could wake up feeling like you have the whole place to yourself.
2. Koh Nang Yuan
You can still love a beach even when its secrets have slipped out. Sometimes you just have to be smart about when you visit to properly appreciate what made them popular in the first place. Koh Nang Yuan is one of those islands. Just west of popular dive island Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, north east of Surat Thani, the image of three small islands picturesquely connected by a sandbar is a widely shared one and really is worth seeing – if you can avoid the crowds. With daytime visitors dropping in from nearby islands, it’s highly recommended to get there as early as possible to enjoy the sweep of white sand, clear water and hilltop viewpoint.
3. Koh Adang
Thailand has 22 different marine national parks, with the southernmost – Tarutao National Park – covering 51 islands across three archipelagos. Here mountainous, largely uninhabited Koh Adang looms over its little neighbour Koh Lipe, which was once an unknown paradise but succumbed to unregulated development, its beaches now covered in longtail boats and construction prolific. Thankfully Adang is still blanketed in monkey-filled old-growth jungle and the only development here is a ranger station and a few scattered camping facilities, meaning the island makes a perfect place for those looking for an undisturbed nature break. There are quiet reefs to snorkel, waterfalls and hill summits to hike to, and isolated stretches of sand dotted around the coast. This is best of both worlds stuff if you make the most of Lipe’s undesirable situation – all the facilities of civilisation are just a short longtail ride away.
4. Koh Kradan
The other islands on this list keep their beauty by having only the most basic of accommodation. But Koh Kradan, a skinny stretch of land to the west of the southern Thai region of Trang, manages to achieve that rare balance of having a range of places to stay while still feeling untouched. This is thanks to development being tightly controlled under the protection of the Hat Chao Mai National Park. Basic bungalows and boutique resorts sit on beaches the colour of salt flats, translucent water ebbing away to uncover walkable sandbars that stretch for miles. Hammock-swinging days are likely to fill most of the time, but there are glassy underwater worlds to explore and a trip to nearby Morakot Cave as added attractions. The cave is hidden in the cliffs of neighbouring Koh Mok, where a winding, low-tide and swimming-only accessible passageway opens up into a huge sinkhole, where forested limestone walls ring a circle of white sand – a place of lost worlds and pirate stories.
5. Koh Surin
As might be guessed from the number of times snorkels have been mentioned, Thailand is one of the best places in the world to strap on a mask and breathe through a tube. And probably the best places to do it are sibling islands Koh Surin Nuea and Koh Surin Tai, part of Mu Ko Surin National Park near the sea border with Myanmar. Though tragically affected by climate change-triggered coral bleaching and the 2004 tsunami, the reefs still hold their pops of colour and swarm with all manner of sea life: manta rays, whale sharks, lionfish, the occasional turtle, and more. All of Surin Tai is actually off-limits to visitors, save for invited visits to the village of the seafaring Moken locals. They live on their thatched-roofed boats during the dry season, returning to land when the monsoons blow in. Being able to dive into the culture that thrives both below the water and on land is one of the most unique features of Koh Surin.
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Feature photo by Damien Raggatt.