Thailand hasn’t enjoyed the greatest of press recently, what with the demonstrations in 2010, the fear of tsunamis and the fact that some parts of the island have been over developed into a touristic paean to self-indulgence and hedonism. Yet the country is still undeniably beautiful and deservedly popular. Rather than tease you with a report from a balmy beach somewhere, the following is a comprehensive user guide to some of the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand’s most exquisite islands. Get booking.
For some reason – ignorance, probably – the whole of Phuket island has become associated with its most popular tourist destinations: the beach areas of Patong, Kata and Karon. Despite the geographical beauty surrounding it, Patong, especially, has become a place to avoid like the plague: it’s basically a conglomeration of chain hotels, cheap digs and saucy themed bars and clubs. Not somewhere to take the kids, then. But the reasons most travellers opt for Phuket are that a) it has some of the world’s finest hotels and b) it makes an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding islands and their beaches. Phuket also has some excellent beaches of its own, and the southern tip at Rawai is one of the best areas to grab a longtail boat for a trip to the nearest islands. Phuket is just one of 39 main islands and a hundred or so smaller ones dotted about the region. If you’re prepared to stretch your horizons, you’ll unearth a raft of settings with such unspoilt natural beauty you really will begin to wonder what all the criticism was about. Koh Hae (Coral Island) As the English moniker indicates, this popular day-trip island has its own reef just off the beach. Because it’s the easiest island to reach from south Phuket, don’t expect to be the only visitor.
Just off Thailand’s south-western town of Krabi lies the spacious island of Koh Lanta with its verdant undergrowth and 27km coastline. To really explore, hire a moped and head southwest to the Mu Ko Lanta National Park with its great snorkelling and abundance of wildlife. Or take a boat 30km to the tiny uninhabited islands of Koh Rok Nok and Rok Nai. The snorkelling here is sublime, with regular sightings of blacktip reef sharks and hawksbill turtles.
Koh Mook, Koh Ngai and Koh Radang
This small chain of islands south-east of Phi Phi sports a set of rocky limestone outcrops similar to those at Phang Nga. Koh Mook is especially worth a detour for its Morakot Cave, an aquamarine basin surrounded by a semi-circular beach amid near-vertical cliffs. It’s like something out of The Land That Time Forgot, although the only way to see it is by swimming through a 70-metre tunnel under the cliff face.
Koh Phi Phi
What needs to be said about Phi Phi that isn’t already known? Despite the crowds, Maya Bay – where The Beach was shot – is as stunning a vista as ever, but there are plenty of other coves within easy reach. Take a dip at Pileh Lagoon, nature’s grandest swimming pool, visit Monkey Island and its macaques and snorkel in waters so clear you can see further than 50 metres.
Some 19km off the south coast of Phuket lies a beautiful island few bother to visit. Koh Racha is surrounded by crystal-clear waters and has two gorgeous white beaches to boast about. At Siam Bay we found paradise in the shape of a rustic bamboo beach restaurant that served the best banana curry we’ve ever tasted.
Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi
Situated off the east coast of Phuket, these islands are home to some very high-end resorts. Otherwise they’re relatively untouched by tourism. This is exactly what Phuket looked like in the ’80s, dirt roads and all.
Although on the mainland, Krabi deserves special mention for its spotless beaches. Some are so soft that the sand puffs up like talcum powder when you walk on it. Railay Beach is the area’s most famous hangout, a promontory with a beach on either side; West Railay is the posher side and East Railay the backpackers’ side. Krabi also offers access to places like Chicken Island (with its chicken-shaped rock) and the Phi Phi islands.
Phang Nga Bay is a remarkable sanctuary of some 60 towering limestone outcrops, some of which have collapsed in the centre to form hongs (huge hollowed rooms with sunlight above) that are usually accessible at low tide. The water around here is emerald green and the whole area is breathtaking, even if the scene sometimes resembles a regatta. Most tours will include a visit to the very touristy floating Muslim village of Koh Panyi.
Gulf of Thailand
Haad Rin’s crescent beach is famous for its Full Moon parties and best avoided unless you like loud music and a bit of debauchery. One of the first drinks you’re offered on arrival is in a bucket. One hit of that and you’ll be gone for the rest of the night, only to wake up without your belongings – or your pride. By contrast, the island at any other times is well worth putting on your itinerary.
Despite its ever-increasing popularity, palm-wafted Koh Samui provides a vibrant island experience. Most tourists continue to flock to the crescent-shaped beach at Chaweng on the east coast, but unless you like loud reggae and blues, we’d suggest avoiding the clamour and clutter and heading instead to its more tranquil southern tip at Chaweng Noi. If you get a chance, take time out to see the impressive Big Buddha complex en route to the charming wooden village of Bophut on the north coast. From here you can also board a speedboat or ferry to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Finally, don’t miss a day trip to Angthong National Marine Park. This is the Thailand you see on postcards – amazing limestone mountain islands in turquoise water.
Koh Tao and Koh Nangyuan
The sea around Koh Tao provides some of the best diving in the Gulf of Thailand (hence the island’s many diving clubs), but it’s the nearby tiny twin islands of Koh Nangyuan that impress most. A sand bar dividing the islands at low tide gives this setting true paradise status. It’s just a shame that it’s so popular, and that getting here is such a schlep. There’s not much to do either, except chill and snorkel at the gorgeous beach.
Need to know
Fly direct from Dubai to Phuket with Malaysia Airlines from Dhs2,347 return.
You can book trips to most islands through local agents or boats at the ports, with prices from Dhs25. Most longtail boats will take you to any of the nearby islands, but if you want to visit further afield, opt for a tour. We took a gamble on Simba Sea Trips and hit the jackpot – the company offers trips to Phi Phi, Phang Nga and Krabi. The savvy Simba crew get you to the main spots before all the other crammed-to-the-gills tour boats arrive. It may cost more (around Dhs355), but it’s worth it.
The best way to enjoy the Andaman Sea region is by chartered boat. The beauty of having your own boat is that you get to sample some of the most popular settings when all the tour boats have gone, and can anchor up for the night in some heavenly cove. Siam Sailing – which we’ve used on three occasions – provides large, stable, eight-berth catamarans with skipper (or without, if you’re an experienced sailor) from its base at Chalong, Phuket. Minimum hire is three days.
The islands enjoy a humid, tropical climate influenced by three seasons: hot, dry and rainy. The best time to visit is the dry (and peak) season between mid-November and March when there’s hardly any rain, it’s less humid, not quite as stiflingly hot (around 28°C) and the sea is calm and clear. During the monsoon periods the sea can be silty (not great for snorkelling) and boat trips may be cancelled due to swells.
Many tourists go to the Phuket region for the snorkelling. And small wonder – it’s like swimming in an aquarium. For the full Cousteau effect, head to one of the coral reefs, some of which are easily accessed via a 20-metre swim from the beach. Take along a banana and before long you’ll be engulfed in shoals of vibrantly coloured fish, and there are rarely any sea nasties to worry about.
The Andaman Sea is a world-class diving site, and the cheapest area in the world to gain a PADI licence. There are numerous dive centres from which to arrange a trip and they all supply equipment. The best deep-water diving areas are around Phi Phi, the Similan Islands (84km north-west of Phuket) and the Surin Islands near Burma.