Thai islands for nature lovers
First published 2nd December, 2012
Many of Thailand's islands have seen staggering development in recent years, but a slice of unspoilt paradise can still be enjoyed in several marine national parks. If you're hoping to traverse rugged mountain trails, relax on near empty beaches, meander mangrove forests and sea-caves by kayak, be pestered by monkeys rather than touts and doze off to the sound of waves instead of beach parties, these islands are for you.
To be clear, we're not saying these are the only natural havens in the Thai islands; in fact, we're preparing a related story that covers "Thai islands to lose yourself on", many of which will also fit the bill for nature lovers. Hiking trails, quiet beaches, waterfalls and viewpoints can also be found on more developed islands like Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Ko Lanta and Ko Chang.
What sets the following islands apart is how they're at least partially protected as national parks and are, first and foremost, bastions for plant and wildlife instead of tourism. Note that Andaman coast national park islands shut down between May 1 and November 1. Camping is the preferred means of accommodation on many, electricity is limited on most, and the majority have only basic national park run restaurants. Yet each differs in size, terrain and available activities, so choose wisely -- and have fun daydreaming while you're at it.
Lazy days on Ko Tarutao.
Beginning with the most beastly of them all, Tarutao's 150 square kilometres of soaring mountains covered in old growth jungle were deemed so unforgiving by a 1930s Thai government that 3,000 of of the country's most dangerous criminals were outcast here. The TV show Survivor found Tarutao suitable for its whinging contestants -- but if you don't allow a park ranger to accompany you on the far reaching trails, you may wind up whinging (or worse) a bit yourself.
Hiking to waterfalls and viewpoints, mountain biking, snorkelling, lounging on vast empty beaches, boating to inland caves and hanging with notoriously brazen monkeys are among the activities offered on Tarutao. With a choice of rock hard bed bungalow or beach tent for accommodation, Tarutao is especially suited to those who embrace creepy crawlers as friends and neighbours.
No beachside tailor shops on Ko Adang.
Like Tarutao, Ko Adang looms in breathtaking fashion off the coast of far southern Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Apart from a secluded and tacky resort which absolutely shouldn't be there by virtue of Thai law -- Adang offers strictly national park bungalow or tent accommodation and a bare bones Thai restaurant for sustenance.
Unlike Tarutao, Adang is a short longtail boat ride from the highly developed Ko Lipe, and many choose to do a day trip to Adang during an otherwise swish Lipe holiday. Only a couple of nearby waterfalls and a viewpoint with sweeping Andaman Sea views can be reached without the help of a guide due to Adang's sheer cliffs and untamed jungle, but some decent snorkelling can be enjoyed off the main beach and a handful of spectacular coves tucked beneath the mountains are reachable by longtail.
Ko Ra cubicle.
Practically unknown and rarely visited, Ko Ra is a long, thin and rugged protected national park island just off the Andaman coast. Ra's only place to stay is a privately owned eco-lodge which offers homely bungalows and a staff who become more like friends after a day or two. This is one place where the term "eco" isn't just a ploy to attract customers -- the lodge began as home base for a coral reef conservation project, it continues to foster support for a sea turtle conservation group, and it's largely self-sustainable.
Staying on Ko Ra is pricier than the usual national park islands, but the food is better, the experience is totally unique and it's possible to stay long term as a volunteer. Activities include jungle trekking with an outstanding guide, sea kayaking, snorkelling, organic gardening, meditation, yoga and letting your worries fade into a seaside hammock.
Ko Lao Liang beckons.
Ko Lao Liang
Two neighbouring blips of dramatic limestone boulders that rise from the Andaman Sea, Ko Lao Liang is similar to Ko Ra in that it's only facilities are run by a small, environmentally-conscious private company. Unless stopping by on a day trip from nearby Ko Surin, Lao Liang can only be visited as part of a package that includes a rustic but comfy seaside stay and buffet meal enjoyed communally. Especially suitable for those who prefer a healthy dose of adventure with their beach paradise, scuba-diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and some excellent rock-climbing await.
School is out on Ko Libong.
The only island to make our list that offers a few bungalow joints to choose from, Libong is a relatively large but scarcely visited Andaman island partially protected as a wildlife refuge. It's a great place to forget the "real world" and is home to a charming Muslim fishing village, but Libong is best known as the world's foremost refuge of the endangered dugong, or "Asian sea cow".
Closely related to the manitee, these gentle, chubby giants can be spotted on a guided kayak trip through Libong's expansive inland mangrove sanctuary. Although not the best for snorkelling thanks to its slightly murky water, Libong also offers a handful of hiking trails, viewpoints and secluded beaches.
Energy conservation on Ko Surin.
Ko Surin and the Similan Islands
These two idyllic Andaman Sea destinations are similar in many ways: both are home to some of Thailand's finest beaches, accommodation and restaurants are run by national parks, each are relatively far from the mainland and both are tiny as islands go. Surin is actually two teeny neighbouring islands while the Similans encompass nine dots of rock, jungle and sand, only two of which can be walked on due to park regulations.
As for activities, beach-lounging is always a favourite and both offer fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities. Yet most come explicitly for the top notch scuba diving and snorkelling -- if you want to meet sea turtles, make your way to Ko Surin and/or the Similans.
Although they're both well worth a visit, we're slightly partial to Ko Surin thanks to it's thinner crowds and the many Moken "sea gypsy" operated longtail boats which can be hired for a day of private exploration (the Moken have a small village on one of the Surin islands). In contrast, most touring in the Similans is by way of speedboats run by travel companies. Ko Surin also gets points for its more helpful national park staff, but the Similans boast a more dramatic landscape defined by enormous coastal boulders that look like play toys of the gods. If you can't decide, why not visit both?
Ang Thong Islands
We'll leave you with the 42 pristine isles of Ang Thong National Marine Park off the eastern Gulf coast, which inspired that book-turned-movie that always pops up in Thai island pieces like these: The Beach. This marine park was in fact one of the filming destinations that hosted Leo Dicaprio and crew, and it's not hard to see why Ang Thong was cast in the role of hidden island paradise.
Snorkel or dive in cerulean blue water, sun-bath on squeaky white sand beaches, gaze over an emerald lake ringed by mountains and venture through limestone sea caves in a kayak. If wanting to spend a night (or six), the national park offers basic accommodation and a restaurant, similar to what you'd find on Ko Surin or the Similans.
So which is the most nature-tastic of them all? The truth is, each are incredible, so it entirely depends on your tastes. Hikers and bikers should not miss Tarutao. Go for Adang if you want a taste of nature without straying far from resort world. If itching for something completely different, head for Ra or Lao Liang. Libong offers the rare chance to see an endangered dugong in the wild. Surin, the Similans and Ang Thong are all safe bets for fantastic diving and snorkelling in a picture postcard paradise. Why can't all of life's tough decisions be as fun as this one?
Related readingKo Yao: the islands you're looking for
Phuket's secret beaches
Which island in Trang?
What is the best island in Thailand?
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (16)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (18)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (80)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.