The Bangkok to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao route is one of the most common paths taken by travellers and tourists on their holidays in Thailand. Here's a blow by blow summary of the ins and outs of getting to and from Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand islands.
While the distance are substantial, Thailand's rail, bus and ferry networks are well developed, pretty reliable and in the scheme of things, inexpensive. In all cases you can get from Bangkok to any of the Gulf of Thailand islands via a straightforward combination of land and water transport.
Heading from Bangkok southwards, it is 460km to Chumphon and Ko Tao is 75km offshore from Chumphon. Staying among the islands, it is another 50km from Ko Tao to Ko Pha Ngan and a further 12km on to Ko Samui. From Ko Samui back to the mainland at Surat Thani it is 75km and from Surat Thani back to Bangkok it is 650km.
Basically, the fastest (and, not suprisingly most expensive) way to get to the islands from Bangkok is to fly from Bangkok to Ko Samui and then take a ferry to the island of your choice. The slowest (and cheapest) is to take a bus from Bangkok to Chumphon or Surat Thani and then take the night boat from there. If you're going to Ko Tao, make your ferry connection at Chumphon. For Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, go to Surat Thani. Below are some other pointers;
If you fly, you have two options -- flying to Ko Samui or flying to Surat Thani and then connecting by bus and ferry to the islands.
Flying to Ko Samui
While flying to Ko Samui is preferable, the island's airport is owned by Bangkok Airways and until quite recently they were the only airline that flys there. Now THAI and Bangkok Airways fly the route but fares remain artificially high and, if you're flying out of Ko Samui, there is a 300B domestic departure tax -- the highest domestic departure tax in Thailand. Bangkok Airways runs almost 20 flights a day between Bangkok and Ko Samui. The cheapest fares are on the first and last flight of the day and go for 2,000B one way, fares through the rest of the day can be as high as 3,480B (all fares above are before the various taxes, fuel surcharges and insurance surcharge which airlines don't deem to include in the fare, along with the 300B departure fee gouge). Flight time is 60 to 90 minutes depending on the aircraft used (prop or jet). The airport is located a 20 minute drive from Chaweng Beach and a five minute drive from Big Buddha Beach. Full fare and timetable information is available on the Bangkok Airways website and the THAI website.
Flying to Surat Thani
Surat Thani airport is served by THAI and Thai AirAsia, with the later having more affordable rates (starting at 800B, but watch out for the plethora of "fees" that get added to this base rate). The flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani takes 70 minutes. Surat Thani airport is around 30km north of Surat Thani town, so you'll need to transfer into Surat Thani and then arrange onwards bus and boat connections to the island of your choice. Full fare and timetable information is avaiable on the THAI website and the Thai AirAsia website.
The train system in Thailand is safe, affordable and tends to arrive roughly on time. There are 11 trains a day that leave Bangkok heading south and all of these stop at both Chumphon and Phun Phin (for Surat Thani).
The main dilemma regards taking a night or day train. If you've never done the trip before, try to do at least one way on a day-train as the scenery is pretty, however if you've done the trip before, take the night train -- the sleepers, while certainly not luxurious, are more than adequate.
Bear in mind that if you take the day train to Chumphon or Surat Thani, you will miss the last day ferry and your only option will be the night ferries to Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan respectively. The train station in Chumphon is in the centre of town, while at Surat Thani it is at Phun Phin, some 7km from central Surat Thani -- public transport between the two is affordable and frequent.
The Thai train system has three classes -- first, second and third. First and second class have sleepers, third does not. Within first and second class you can choose between fan and air-con (we prefer fan) and also an upper or lower berth. If you opt for fan, we'd recommend going for a lower berth as you're then able to re-open the window behind the shutter, giving you a cooling breeze through the night (the attendant will close it when they make the bed). Lower berths cost more than upper berths. On night trains, bags are stowed in racks near your berth (within arms reach). We'd suggest chaining your bag to this rack and keeping valuables (passport, credit cards and so on) on your person. While theft is nowhere near as common on the trains as it is on the bus, it does happen, so be careful.
There are a range of trains that run this route, from "Rapid" through to "Special Express Diesel Railcars" and the general rule is, the faster it is, the pricier the ticket. Full fare and timetable information is available on the State Railways of Thailand website.
Which night train?
If you're aiming for Ko Tao, the express #85 is an option -- it gets you into Chumphon at around 04:00 (leaving Bangkok at 19:15 the previous night) which leaves you at Chumphon three hours before the Lomprayah ferry leaves for Ko Tao. The later (and far more popular) Express Special Diesel #39 leaves Bangkok at 22:50 and gets into Chumphon at 05:52 the following morning -- this leaves you an hour to get to the ferry, which is more than adequate time, BUT if the train is delayed (not unheard of) you will miss the ferry and will have to take the afternoon boat.
If you're heading to Ko Samui which night train you take doesn't matter so much as there are far more frequent ferry connections out to Ko Samui from around Surat Thani. Despite these frequent ferry departures, the Express Special Diesel #39 from Bangkok remains by far the most popular choice.
There is a very simple rule to be followed if you're planning on heading from Bangkok to Surat Thani or Chumphon by bus. DO NOT and we repeat DO NOT, take one of the private buses that can be organised from Khao San Road as theft on these buses is endemic. Spend the extra money, go out to Sai Tai Mai (the southern bus terminal) and get a ticket on a public bus down to either destination. We are not kidding when we say theft is a major problem on the private buses -- generally a thief gets in the luggage section with your bags and goes through them during the trip, alighting with all your goodies before reaching Chumphon. If you insist on catching one of these buses do not leave anything more valuable than a bag of soiled underwear in your pack.
You have been warned!
The buses are the cheapest way to get down to Chumphon or Surat Thani and while there are departures throughout the day, the night buses are the most popular with travellers. The time taken is comparable to the train.
So you've got to Chumphon or Surat Thani, now what?
To Ko Tao you have the following options, the Lomprayah high-speed catamaran (leaves Chumphon at 07:00 and 13:00) costing 550B and takes 90 minutes, and the Songserm and Seatran boats, both of which leave at 07:00, costing 650B and 450B respectively and take 2.5-3 hours. The Lomprayah service is worth the extra money. The night ferry leaves Chumphon at 23:00 and arrives at 05:00 costing 300B.
To Ko Pha Ngan, you need to go to Surat Thani from where Raja Ferry run five boats a day from Don Sak to Ko Pha Ngan and Songsern run two. There is also the night boat which leaves Surat Thani at 23:00 for Ko Pha Ngan (taking six hours). From Ko Pha Ngan to Surat Thani, though, the boat is an hour earlier, at 22:00. Note if you miss the 07:00 direct Songserm boat to Ko Pha Ngan, you may be able to go to Ko Samui, then grab an afternoon boat from there to Ko Pha Ngan.
To Ko Samui, there are ferries on the hour from Don Sak to Lipa Noi on Ko Samui and seven a day to Nathon -- these are all run by Raja Ferry. Seatran runs three ferries a day from Ban Don to Nathon on Ko Samui and Songserm run one a day (08:00) from Ban Don to Nathon.
The map below summarises the main ferry routes.
Then there's the inter island ferries:
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 29th June, 2006.