Photo: Ko Phi Phi back beach.

Stretching from just south of Bangkok down to the Malaysia border, Southern Thailand plays host to some of the Kingdom's biggest tourism drawcards. From diving off Ko Tao, to climbing in Krabi, partying on Ko Phi Phi or just laying in a hammock pretty much anywhere, the south is not short on choice.

Down to onward travel

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The southern region is climatically split in two: the southeast (Gulf of Thailand) and the southwest (Andaman Sea). Each is affected by a different monsoon through the year, meaning that regardless of when you're in Thailand, you should be able to find a slice of good weather somewhere.

Phuket, Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Tao are the best known of Southern Thailand's many islands, though Ko Lipe and Ko Lanta have also caught on in more recent years. Beyond these you still have dozens more islands to choose from, and many of the more obscure options often provide the best experiences. When selecting an island or two for your trip, it pays to do some research.

Phuket is Thailand's largest and most popular island, with over a third of all tourists to Thailand finding themselves here at some stage during their trips. While it was badly damaged in places by the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the main beach areas are now fully recovered and the crowds have long-since returned.

Many budget travellers have long steered clear of Phuket, put off by the higher prices and heavily touristed nature of the place, instead spending their time on the more backpacker-orientated islands off the west coasts of Ranong, Phang Nga, Krabi, Trang and Satun provinces. To see all of the Thai islands that we currently cover, check out our dedicated Thailand islands page.

But don't make the mistake of ignoring the mainland in your rush to get to that tropical beach paradise. The coast of Krabi province, including the Ao Nang and Railay areas, is home to some of Thailand's most spectacular scenery. The stunning beaches and towering limestone karsts have made Krabi a major rock-climbing destination.

Heading up the west coast, north from Phuket, you'll find Khao Lak -- almost totally destroyed by the tsunami, it has been rebuilt and the tourists are back -- big time. Further north again you can hike through millions-of-years-old rainforest in the spectacular Khao Sok National Park.

If the season is wrong, many don't even bother with the west coast, instead plying their time in a hammock on the east coast islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. If you're not up on the Thai weather, be sure to give our page on Thailand's weather a read.

These east coast islands are all well-developed nowadays with regular ferry connections both to each other and the mainland. Ko Samui (the largest of the three islands) has an international airport, large-scale shopping centres, hundreds of resorts and even three international hospitals -- and yet it continues to develop at a rapid pace. Ko Pha Ngan, infamous for its Full Moon Parties, and Ko Tao, famous for its diving, are both big drawcards. However long you're planning on staying here, don't be surprised when you suddenly find yourself staying twice as long.

If you're headed out to one of these Gulf islands, you'll be transitting through either Chumphon (for Ko Tao) or Surat Thani (for Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan). It's a straightforward deal to get a through ticket to any one of these islands from Bangkok.

On the mainland, the east coast includes the popular resort towns of Hua Hin and Cha-am, long-running family favourites that continue to attract a mixed crowd of Bangkok-based Thais and expats, along with heady crowds of primarily European tourists.

While the beaches are not as good as those further south, they are very convenient to Bangkok and Hua Hin in particular is developing as a popular spot for retirees. Other points of interest along the coastal strip between Bangkok and Chumphon include Phetburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Bang Saphan Yai.

Further south you have the little visited provinces of Nakhon Si Thammarat and Phattalung -- both fine options if you're looking to step off the tourist trail.

For those comfortable travelling in a region with heightened security concerns, the predominantly Muslim far southern cities of Hat Yai, Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala are fascinating and certainly rewarding areas to visit, though we'd suggest you read our feature on travelling in the far south of Thailand, and kept abreast of current affairs before planning a trip through there.


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