First published on 21st March, 2006, last updated 16th December, 2014
Thailand is famous for its tropical islands. From Phuket to Ko Lipe, Ko Samui to Ko Tao and from one Ko Chang to another, there's an island for every month, a beach for every week, and a new palm tree to lay under for every day. But the question begs, "What is the best island in Thailand?"
While the simple answer is "None" a better answer is "it depends". It depends because it's not so much a case of finding the best island in Thailand, but rather finding the best island for you in Thailand. So here's our guide to the islands that we hope will help you find your best Thai island.
Thailand has three main sets of islands; those to the east of Bangkok, between Bangkok and the Cambodian border; those in the southern Gulf of Thailand; and those in the Andaman Sea -- off the west coast of Thailand, between the Burman and Malaysian frontiers.
Each of these groups has one or two particularly well known islands that attracts the bulk of travellers and tourists. To the east of Bangkok you have Ko Samet and Ko Chang, in the Gulf you have Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, and in the Andaman you have Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. All these islands have seen a steady flow of tourists for well over a decade and they are very developed. Often heaving with tourists in the high season, they all suffer to varying degrees from the problems that typically blight popular islands in developing tourist destinations -- overcrowding, dodgy operators, uncontrolled development and waste management issues.
But it isn't all bad news. All the afore-mentioned islands are still worth visiting -- you just need to do your research and be a little more selective about where you stay. When your travel agent in your home-town tells you to stay on Patong Beach in Phuket, check that they've stayed there themselves -- we bet they haven't! Not only to all these islands have their hidden away gems, they're also surrounded by other, lesser known islands that can often be just what the doctor ordered.
Call me Crusoe
If it's deserted beaches and few tourists, then you're going to need to wander further than you'd have needed to ten years ago. Don't make the mistake of assuming the entire island needs to be deserted -- both Ko Samui and Phuket have totally deserted beaches that run for kilometre after kilometre, but for a real island experience, consider Ko Rok, Ko Phra Thong, Ko Ra, Ko Phayam, Ko Chang Noi (the other one, near Ko Phayam) and Ko Tarutao.
Where's the party?
Everyone knows about Thailand's infamous Full Moon Parties -- easily the biggest party in Thailand, and it happens every single month. So if you're after the party, Ko Pha Ngan should definitely be on your itinerary, Ko Phi Phi also has a pretty lively single's party scene, while if you're after throbbing clubs, Ko Samui is hard to beat. Consider Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Samui and, if you want a smaller island, Ko Lipe.
This is a family vacation
Thailand's islands can be pretty good with kids, though the range of distractions you want for them will play a part in picking where you stay. Phuket and Ko Samui lead in this area with everything from mini-golf and go-karts through to water-sports and child-care. If you kid's idea of a beach holiday is more sedate -- a few buckets and a sand castle perhaps, then both Ko Lanta and Ko Bulon Lae are excellent choices, as is the southwest coast of Ko Pha Ngan.
There's been an explosion of spa and "lifestyle resorts" across Thailand, and again Phuket and Ko Samui are the premiere destinations for these types of self-contained resorts. Some particularly tasteful ones have also appeared on Ko Lanta, and, more recently, Ko Chang.
I'm after some local flavour
If you're tiring of hanging out in tourist ghettos, there's an ample supply of islands where tourism is but a small part of the local economy. Ko Yao Noi is an excellent choice, as is Ko Jum, Ko Libong and Ko Kut. Ko Kut in particular attracts a lot of Thai weekenders, so as a foreigner you'll often be in the minority -- a refreshing change from most Thai islands.
Where's the beach?
You've read the book, seen the movie and now you want to swim in the waters. You're looking for Ko Phi Phi.
Where's the diving?
Ko Tao issues more PADI Open Water Certificates than just about anywhere else in the world. It is, for better or worse, Thailand's diving mecca. Phuket is also popular with divers, but mainly for its live aboard cruises and trips out to the Similan Islands. Diving is also possible from Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Samui, Ko Chang and Ko Lipe.
Still undecided? Here's the best and not so best of Thailand's islands in under 30 words apiece -- not this isn't ALL of the islands -- you'll have to dig around to find the rest ;-).
Thailand's most developed island. International airport brings added convenience but package tour hordes. Some stunning six star resorts, but budgeteers will find it woefully overpriced. Very heavily touristed. Read more about Phuket or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Ko Phi Phi
Devastated by the 2004 tsunami, Ko Phi Phi is more or less fully recovered, and, all things considered, is looking about the best it has in a decade or so. The island is beautiful but continues to suffer from extremely uncontrolled development and overcrowding. There is a popular singles scene, good diving and snorkeling. Guesthouses and hotels expensive compared to other islands. Read more about Ko Phi Phi or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Sedate, calm waters make it a family favourite. Excellent value budget guesthouses -- laid back, often family-run operations. Not overly scenic, good for snorkeling and liveaboard diving. Ideal for doing nothing. Read more about Ko Lanta or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Small island with traditional Muslim village and a handful of backpacker bungalow resorts. Beach is similar to Ko Lanta, calm waters, grainy yellow sand. Popular with island-hopping backpackers taking their islands slowly. Read more about Ko Ko Jum.
Popular with a good range of mid-range resorts. Not many budget offerings. Fine snorkeling, pretty beaches, but little nightlife to speak of. Good base for day-trips to other islands. Read more about Ko Ngai.
Home to the heavily touristed Emerald Cave. Fine range of budget to mid-range resorts. Lovely sunsets. Good swimming and sunbaking though snorkeling limited. Good base for day-trips to other islands. Read more about Ko Muk.
Stunning island long blighted by a very average resort, but there are some good spots too. Decent snorkeling and lovely white sand beach. Better accommodation has sprung up over the last year or so Read more about Ko Kradan.
Stunning twin island with terrific snorkeling and camping potential -- so good we were tempted not to list it. Best visited from Ko Muk, Ko Kradan or Ko Ngai.
National Park status. Largely undeveloped. Camper and self-sufficient traveller's paradise. Sand flies can be a problem. Camping and Park bungalows available. Site of Thailand Survivor. Read more about Ko Tarutao.
Fairly remote and rugged. Ideal for naturalists -- large waterfalls, good snorkeling -- big island with loads of empty space. Read more about Ko Adang.
Increasingly popular. Party scene. Decent snorkeling off the beach. Good range of budget to mid-range bungalows. Very small island -- can walk around it in half a day. Serious over-development and environmental issues. Read more about Ko Lipe or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Ko Hin Ngam
Pebble beach. Take a pebble and you're cursed. A friend was run over by a longtail after taking a stone -- she sent it back the next day.
Ko Bulon Lae
Low key, sedate island with some good beaches and isolated resorts. Not far from the mainland. Dense wooded interior ringed by beaches and bays. Read more about Ko Bulon Lae.
Dark sand now there's a change. Fine selection of resorts at a very low-key island. Famous for the dugong which can be visited from the island. Read more about Ko Libong.
Ko Yao Noi
Large island with isolated resorts. Conservative Muslim villages on the island. Very local feel -- particularly hospitable and friendly. Beaches are of mixed quality. Read more about Ko Yao Noi.
Ko Yao Yai
Another large island with with a conservative Muslim fishing-village scene. Very hospitable and friendly, with super sleepy resorts. Beaches are mixed. Read more about Ko Yao Yai.
Ko Chang noi
The "other" Ko Chang. Small island with west-facing beaches. Breathtaking sunsets overlooking the Burmese archipelago. Low key, backpacker orientated resorts. Very popular with Euros. Read more about Ko Chang Noi.
Little known island, further out from Ko Chang. Fine beaches with a handful of budget to mid-priced resorts. Very sandy interior, some complaints of sandflies. Very quiet. Read more about Ko Phayam.
Ko Phra Thong
Lovely island home to one fancy resort and a backpacker option. Stunning 11km-long deserted beach, monkeys, turtles and more. Fabulous! Read more about Ko Phra Thong.
Thailand's second most developed island. Everything from deserted beaches to Tescos. Heavily touristed, ongoing unregulated development. Waste and flooding an issue. From backpackers through to six star resorts. Read more about Ko Samui or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Ko Pha Ngan
Home to the Full Moon Party. Over a dozen bays and beaches, some of the cheapest guesthouses in Thailand. Some beaches very developed, others deserted. Extremely popular with backpackers. Read more about Ko Pha Ngan or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Diver's mecca. Large range of dive sites, competitively priced dive shops. Very popular, lively single's scene. Some beaches very quiet, others boisterous. Full range of accommodation. Read more about Ko Tao or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Overdeveloped. White sand beaches, particularly scenic. Some snorkeling. Full range of accommodation from budget shacks to full service resorts. Just three hours from Bangkok. Read more about Ko Samet.
Ko Mun Nork
Private island with one resort. Very clear water, pristine beaches. Accommodation poor value for the money. Has a bit of a Crusoe feel to it. Food gets mixed reports. Read more about Ko Mun Nork.
Thailand's "next big thing". Over a dozen bays and beaches, full range of budgets catered for though focus moving upmarket quickly. Massive jungle interior, waterfalls, elephant riding. Read more about Ko Chang or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Medium sized, very flat island. Beaches and bays ring the island. Bungalows very good very and mostly budget orientated. Calm waters, low key destination. Popular with repeat visitors. Read more about Ko Mak.
Very popular with Thai package tours, slowly becoming more popular with western independent travellers. Some spectacular beaches. Resorts are mostly mid ranged rather than budget. Read more about Ko Kut or check for discounted rates with Agoda.com
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.