Carved out in stone on every backpackers’ holy grail are the words, “Thou shalt party and relax at one of Thailand’s iconic white sand wonders.”
After all, sipping a cheap, tasty drink on a beach side sofa on some of the best islands in Thailand in preparation for a sunset dance party doesn’t sound that bad.
Taking a boat out and marveling at massive limestone cliffs as they disappear into coral filled waters is a dream come true.
The problem is, there are so many islands and so little time. So how do you choose the right one?
How to Choose the Best Island to Visit in Thailand
There are four major factors to consider when you are forced to choose between one or two of Thailand’s islands. These are:
1. How much partying do you hope to find?
2. How touristy do you want it to be?
3. How important is the color of the water and the view from the beach?
4. How many options do you want for other activities/places to day trip?
With these in mind, I’ll give a short breakdown of the most popular Thai Islands and ultimately tell you which one I recommend.
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi is one of the smaller islands, with only a tiny area of flatland that has been built up to the max. It’s only a five minute walk from one beach to the other. However, packed in this small space is an exciting array of shops, cafes, and trendy hostel bars. I actually found the compact space very nice because it made everything easy to get to. If you are ever bored with the eye level view, all you need to do is look up.
4 Factors for Koh Phi Phi
1. While nothing gets off the charts crazy on this island, there is a very good balance of laid back lounging, head bobbing and raging in a sweaty mess with the waves only feet away. The town is filled with bars pumping dance music and playing beer pong all night long, but most people end up on the beach.
2. There is not much in the way of a local culture at Koh Phi Phi. Many of the hostel and bar owners are actually white, but the Thais are very friendly.
3. There really is no comparison to Koh Phi Phi if you are looking for natural beauty and pristine waters. The cliff formations and coves are something out of a lost paradise.
4. The main activities on Koh Phi Phi are boating, snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, shopping and exploring the landscape. There are some epic places to cliff jump and at night watching the fire spinners is a must! There are several day trips, (accessible from almost every island) including the famous Maya Bay, where the movie, The Beach was filmed. It is also very easy to get to Railay Beach from Koh Phi Phi which is probably the most photographed beach in Asia.
If you’re into the outdoors, the ocean, and a lively atmosphere, then this island will not disappoint.
Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and is so close to the mainland that its connected by a bridge. For this reason alone, Phuket is a great starting point to access the other islands and spend a day or two in.
4 Factors for Phuket
1. The party scene on Phuket can be described in three words: graphic, sloppy, and epic. Patong Beach is where it all happens, with a whole walking block of massive clubs, bars, and strip joints all fighting for your service. This is also the home of the famous ping pong show. Il’l give you one guess, and it doesn’t involve paddles….or underwear….
2.Since Pukhet is so big there are many places to see that have historical and cultural value, like Phuket Town, which has traditional markets and festivals.
3. Patong Beach is where most foreigners relax after the madness on the party block. The water is nice and blue, and there are plenty of palm trees, but the sand could be softer and the ants tend to swarm the upper part.
4. There are lots of different water activities in Phuket, as well as safaris, hiking, a giant buddha, and shopping. The food in Phuket Town is also amazing.
Phuket is quite the experience…especially if you want to see a ping pong show.
This is the second largest and least touristy of the notable islands, and therefore it is very hard to get around without a scooter. They are very easy to rent and the fact that not many people come to this island makes it a very nice spot to practice!
4 Factors for Koh Lanta
1. This is by far the calmest of all the islands in terms of partying, with only a few bars on the beach and no notable beach parties.
2. The main draw of this island is that there is much more of a local culture to explore and very few tourists to get in the way.
3. The sand is not quite as soft here and the water isn’t even close to the shade of aqua marine that you will find on the other islands, but the fact that you may have most of the beach to yourself makes up for it. There are still some awe inspiring views to be had once you scooter up the hill side. A meal at the cliff side bar can be a great place to take in the view.
4. There is a very nice national park on the far end of the island, and the scootering opportunities through the dense rubber tree plantations make this an excellent place for exploration and personal freedom.
Koh Samui provides an eclectic array of activities and environments for its visitors. It boasts some beautiful, white sand beaches and a bustling town with a crazy party atmosphere similar to Patong Beach. Its got cheap hostels, four star resorts, cliff side yoga retreats, and a giant Buddha surrounded by shops selling hippie sun gear.
4 factors for Koh Samui
1. Koh Samui is known to have some huge bangers and there are plenty of ways to get into trouble in the town. There are tons of fun bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as those where you pay for more than just the drinks…
2. Many beaches are similar to Koh Lanta in that the sand and water aren’t anything to write home about, but the main strip is quite soft and nice. The views of the boulder cliffs aren’t too bad either.
3. While it is possible to go off the beaten path on Koh Samui and check out the local life, you will definitely need a scooter. Aside from that, Koh Samui feels a lot more like a tourist trap than some places, with high prices for transport and tons of hawkers around the tourists sights. The shopping is very nice though.
4. Koh Samui boasts one of the nicest and most reasonably priced yoga retreats of the Thai islands. So if you like cliff side studios, infinity pools, and organic buffets, then this might be a good fit. The other main tourist attractions are visiting the town and the long strip of white sand beach. Around the giant Buddha, the shopping is quite nice.
This is the most infamous of all the islands, known for its massive parties and the huge crowds of backpackers dominating the beach. However, it’s actually a beautiful island with some incredible views and activities for those not looking to rage.
4 Factors for Koh Phangan
1. The full moon parties have been “officially shut down” to try and deter the crowds, but in reality they are still alive and well. Once a month, a long strip of beach becomes a chaotic mixture of clubs fighting for sound space, stalls selling cheap buckets of mixed drinks, and more lights than Las Vegas. Going sober is not an option. There are also several other famous party sites on the island that hold regular events like the neon jungle party.
2. This is a medium sized island, so there is still some local flare in remote parts, but you probably won’t have your mind set on things like culture when in Koh Phangan.
3. I immediately fell in love the first time I saw our beach side hostel opening out into a relaxing mixture of hammocks, palm trees, and endless changing colors of aqua marine waters. Koh Phangan actually has one of the largest strips of paradisiacal beaches out of any island in Thailand. The water is very shallow and warm, which makes for fun walks out on the soft sand.
4. There are some water activities and very nice hiking/biking paths on the island, aside from the partying. The Myua Tai boxing on this island is also very good.
Koh Tao is a medium sized island that should not be overlooked. It’s got a very nice compilation of picturesque beaches, shops, bungalows, and beach side bars. The cute, well built streets are a delight to wander around on and there are plenty of options for romantic western dining.
4 Factors for Koh Tao
1. Koh tao has a few bars with huge sound systems and fun lights, but they tend to get less crowded than on other islands, as most travelers here are happy to just sip cocktails while the sunset turns the sky into endless shades of orange and pink.
2. Again, there is little local flare here, but you won’t find the hectic crowd of hawkers and stall owners here either. Everyone is relaxed and happy to share the quaint beauty of the island.
3. There is a very nice variety of beaches on Koh Tao, with several less touristy areas and hard to reach places that can be very rewarding. The water on some beaches is the shade we all dream about, while in others it’s a simple navy blue. Either way, its warm and inviting and the sand is almost soft enough to be powder.
4. There are a very nice range of aquatic activities in Koh Tao, with several large scuba programs and some great snorkeling spots. Most of the smaller beaches can only be accessed by boat or a treacherous scooter ride up and down slick dirt paths. Hin Wong Bay was probably the best snorkeling I found on any of the islands but it wasn’t easy to get to!
It’s clear that each Island has something unique to offer. That’s why I went to them all! However, if I had to pick one or two due to time constraints I would definitely recommend Ko Phi Phi followed closely by Koh Tao.
These two fit most conceptions of “the perfect island paradise”, with Ko Phi Phi leading slightly because of the natural rock formations and the added energy at night for the more active traveler. They should be seen first before hitting the other islands.
What is your most important factor for choosing to visit on of the best islands in Thailand?