Escape the main island
Off Phuket’s southern coast lie a number of small islands whose pristine shores lure scuba divers and beach bums away from the mainland. Most of these isolated islands are undeveloped, but the notable exceptions are Coral Island and Ko Raya (also known as Ko Racha) which have accommodation options and restaurants.
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Both islands have safe swimming, reefs teeming with aquatic life, and a sense of getting away from it all that’s harder and harder to come by in Phuket proper. Coral Island is privately owned by the Coral Island Resort — the only place to stay on the island. Ko Raya is larger and, while still largely undeveloped, is home to three established resorts and a nameless bungalow operations open only during the high season.
Only a 15-minute speed boat trip from Chalong pier, Coral Island is the more commercial of the two islands. During the day, it plays host to a steady stream of daytripppers who come to enjoy the island’s long white sandy beach and excellent year-round swimming.
Unfortunately, a huge influx of tourists have also brought a steady amount of garbage to the beaches which no one seems bothered to pick up. However, the snorkelling is decent and you don’t have to go out very far before you start to see colourful reef fish, making this an excellent beach for kids to learn how to snorkel. Aim to snorkel near the front of the resort (in front is for guests only) — the beach is cleaner and the coral less damaged from the lack of anchored boats.
Other beach activities like diving, banana boat rides, and parasailing are available (at a price, of course). A host of souvenir shops, restaurants, and services operate along the beach. If you’re aching for an oil massage, in need of a cold drink, or forgot your swimmers, all can be purchased on the island. Lots of boat operators scream into megaphones along the beaches — so much that you may want to try Ko Raya instead.
Ko Raya is a prime destination for yachties, who stay at the resorts, and divers, who typically book up all the island’s cheaper rooms. Between the yachts, diving boats, and speedboats with snorkelling daytrippers, Raya’s beautiful bays can get quite congested during the high season.
The beaches and bays are connected by dirt roads in a state of perpetual bumpiness due to run-off during the rainy season. It is possible to rent a 100cc motorbike, but you’re better off walking. A common sight is a cart loaded with divers and their gear being towed to the beach by a tractor or ATV.
Activities on the island include snorkelling, mountain biking, and nature hikes. The resorts offer organised activities like fishing trips and horseback riding, but these will put a big dent in your wallet. For those willing to explore, rent a snorkel and mask and visit Lah Bay for some great snorkelling — giant star fish, puffer fish and rainbow trout a plenty swim here.
A small predominantly Muslim population of farmers and fishermen live on Raya, and there’s even a small mosque. None of the island’s restaurants serve pork and, in case you were planning to, visitors are asked not to bring any with them.
There are no banks on either island, but the resorts accept credit cards (and sometimes levy a 3% service charge). Internet access on Raya Island is phenomenally expensive although, if you have your own laptop, WiFi is free.
If you’ve come to dive, Raya Divers (www.rayadivers.com) has twice daily dive trips and multi-day live-aboard dive excursions to places like the Similian Islands. They also offer a range of PADI courses for everyone from beginners to dive master hopefuls. Raya Divers has an office on the main beach and one at the Ban Raya Resort.
Going on a day trip is how most holiday-makers experience the southern islands, and day tours visit Coral Island, Raya Island, or both. Rates include transport from your hotel to the island, lunch, mask and snorkel. Beach activities like para-sailing, banana boat rides, and even horse-back riding are available for an extra fee. Discounts are given for children, and it doesn’t hurt to ask for a discount during the low season or when booking for a group.
It’s also possible to visit Coral and Raya islands by long-tail boat. Boats and drivers can be hired at Rawai Beach or Chalong Pier, and a full-day tour should cost around 3,000B. These are private charters, and the boats comfortably seat eight people, making this an economical choice for groups. Puttering beach to beach in a long-tail is a more relaxed way to take in the islands, but they’re much slower than a speedboat. During the monsoon season big waves can make this a rough (and occasionally dangerous) mode of travel -- remember to wear a lifejacket!
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