Wondering where to go for your next island getaway? We’ve got you covered. Let’s head to Thailand. The country where it’s somewhat okay to wake up on a tropical beach every morning covered in neon paint. Unsurprisingly though, there’s SO much more to this backpacking mecca than getting a bamboo tattoo of an elephant, spilling Chang down your bar crawl t-shirt (likely also neon) before stumbling into a beach bar at 3 am.
What about moped-speeding through winding roads enclosed by overflowing jungle? Admiring the smooth hide of a whale shark as it glides past you under 30m of water? Hearing the crowd roar as you watch the gripping finale of a Muay Thai fight? You didn’t think people only came here to drink, did you?!
Clichés aside, what you can’t deny is the pure ease of it all. It is the ideal place to start your backpacking adventures. And what is Thailand famous for? Lush tropical islands, sandy beaches, and yes, revelry. We see you, Leonardo DiCaprio! From someone who’s been there more than I care to admit, here’s what to really expect from each of the Thai islands.
Best Thai island for scuba divers: Koh Tao
This small but vibrant island is part of the Chumphon Archipelago, alongside Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan. Spoiler alert: it’s also my favourite. While the island itself is relatively small, the surrounding underwater scenery is heaving with coral-encrusted reefs, stunning shipwrecks, and psychedelic shoals of tropical fish. With over 80 dive schools to choose from, an underwater excursion is never far away. Which one to pick? New Heaven Dive School offers excellent courses in diving, free diving, and – super important – marine conservation.
So, Koh Tao is famous for diving, but in recent years it’s joined big sister Koh Pha-Ngan in hosting a ridiculous party scene. If you’re looking to extend your alcohol habit, look no further than Sairee beach: the island’s slightly clogged beating heart. The nights here are legendary, spent staggering from Maya Beach Club to Fishbowl Beach Bar (get ready for the Olympics of beer pong). If you can hold anything down the next morning, head to 995 Duck. A real local gem. To this day I have dreams about downing pints of their heavenly sweet soybean sauce… Too much?
As much as I love a good night out, I do agree that backpacker-swamped Sairee beach is by no means the only highlight. Tanote Bay is a definite must-see. Located on the east side of the island, it’s surrounded by lush jade hills and huge boulders. If you somehow get bored of sunbathing, the surrounding hills provide plenty of hiking trails to some of the island’s many viewpoints. The view from Tanote Peak will take your breath away – if you manage to make it up there.
Best Thai island for party people: Koh Pha-Ngan
Party people, let’s head to Koh Pha-Ngan. The renowned birthplace of the Full Moon Party has more than its fair share of nightlife. A party paradise from the 1970s, its days of innocence lie dead in the dust. Nowadays, you’re spoilt for choice. Missed the Full Moon? Seriously, don’t worry. Try an all-night rave in the heart of the jungle (Half Moon Party and Jungle Experience are especially good.) In terms of bars, Lighthouse was my personal favourite. A short stumble across a seafront walkway leads you to a night of techno tunes and crashing waves. Just please, please don’t fall into the water.
As breath-taking in the night as it is in the day. You didn’t think parties were all Koh Pha-Ngan was good for? For a serene slice of paradise, Bottle Beach is your best bet. What to expect? Palm trees, beach swings and a 1km stretch of pearl-white sand, not to mention constant cocktail-o-clock. Be warned, it’s hard to get to for hikers and bikers. The safest option? Rent a water taxi from Chalok Lam Beach. Trust me, your body will thank you.
Best Thai island for luxury lovers: Koh Samui
A half-hour ferry journey will take you from Koh Pha-Ngan to Koh Samui, influencers’ favourite instagrammable paradise. Samui is popular with backpackers and billionaires, offering up hostels, hotels and luxury villas depending on your budget. Travellers aside, the island has a thriving local community, complete with buzzy night markets, beautiful beaches, and tons of restaurants, bars and spas to sample to your heart’s content. Chaweng Beach is the island’s nerve centre. Head here to bar-hop along the entire 3km stretch of sand. Samui has a big global influence – it even has its own mall! – so be prepared to spend slightly more than other options on the list.
Like all of the islands, Koh Samui has no shortage of beaches, wildlife and rich cultural experiences. Waterfall visits are a must here. In exchange for a short hike, Na Muang 2 Waterfall will truly take your breath away. For 30 baht, bathe in freshwater pools overlooking the dense island jungle. Top tip: get there before 9 am to get the place all to yourself.
Best Thai island for active adventurers: Koh Phi Phi
Ah, Maya Bay, we miss you. The lush location for Danny Boyle’s masterpiece, The Beach, Koh Phi Phi’s infectious island vibe and pure tropical sexiness have made it one of Thailand‘s biggest backpacker bases to date. Phi Phi is famous with thrill-seekers, and for good reason. Imposing limestone cliffs offer up some of Thailand’s best rock-climbing routes. Providing panoramic views of the entire island, the climbs are advanced but well worth the effort. If you’re up for the challenge, why not try cliff jumping? The perilous rock formations provide the setting for some jaw-dropping dives. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Boat trips are also popular (boozy, of course.) Tours make stops at Bamboo Island, Mosquito Island, Monkey Bay and Tonsai Village. And rest assured, snorkelling gear is almost always provided. As for nightlife? I strongly recommend you check out Reggae Bar. It’s not every day you can sit back with a bucket and watch your fellow travellers have it out in a Muy Thai (Thai boxing) ring.
Best Thai island for thrill-seekers: Phuket
Similar to Samui, Phuket is popular with all sorts of travellers. Some dodgier than others. Thailand’s biggest (and busiest) island is unashamedly rough around the edges… And famous for a great night out. The epicentre of the revelry is on Bangla Road, a sensory overloaded strip of nightclubs, beer bars, go-go bars, ladyboy shows, peddlers, street performers and much, much more. If you’re not hanging too hard the next morning, surfs up on Kata Beach. Fun fact: Phuket is the only place in Thailand to catch decent waves. Gnarly.
If you’re after nightlife, Patong will be your basepoint (see the raucous resort town above.) But, remember, Phuket is massive. Want proper a slice of jungle life? The famous Monkey Hill awaits. Situated by Phuket’s Old Town, this forested hilltop climb is home to more monkeys than you can comprehend. Be warned, the steep walk is around 3.5km to the top. But once you get there? Prepare to star in your own production of Jungle Book – I Wan’na Be Like You. My advice? Don’t bring food unless you want to become the love interest of 100+ apes.
Best Thai island for chill-seekers: Koh Lanta
If you’re looking for authenticity (and a bit of calm), Koh Lanta’s your best bet. With nine stunning beaches, mangrove forests and a handful of interesting villages, it’s certainly not short on stuff to see. Phra Ae Beach is best for backpackers. The surrounding village is lively with plenty of beach bars. Koh Lanta is just asking to be explored by moped. The roads are paved and often quiet, perfect for discovering the certain secluded spots that make this island so special.
Bored of beaches? (How?!) The less-developed East Coast is calling. Set over lush green mountains, here you can visit the old town: a village of teak stilted houses serenely overlooking the sea. Lanta Animal Welfare is also a must. Set up to rehabilitate suffering and sick animals on the island, it is the perfect place to snuggle up with stray kittens. Mi-ow.
Best Thai island for hikers and hedonists: Koh Chang
Koh Chang is a nature lovers paradise. What the island lacks in sand it makes up for in our two favourite things: rugged wildlife and a thriving party scene. Lonely Beach is the backpacker hub. But don’t worry. Lonely is the farthest thing you’ll be here. This is where you’ll find cheap-as-chips accommodation, bars, clubs, and a few wild parties. After months on the road, it’s the perfect place to come and let your hair down.
The unassuming islands rugged spirit is strengthened by an endless stretch of rainforest. It’s part of Mu Koh Chang National Park; best known for its waterfalls, trails, viewpoints and coral reefs. The hiking is incredible here. Hidden in the heart of the island is another world, full of ancient trees, snakes, spiders, hidden waterfalls and dramatic coastal viewpoints. For the best (and safest) experience, be sure to hire a local guide to level up your jungle adventure.
So there you go. Whether you’re looking for buckets or beaches (or both!), the Thai islands are a must-see for any backpacking adventure. Have you been to any on this list? Let us know via our social channels!
About the author
Maya is our London-born Junior Copywriter with a love for all things extreme. When she’s not climbing rocks, she’s diving under them; always on the lookout for something new to get her blood pumping. She has a long-standing love affair obsession with Japan, despite the fact she’s yet to go there.