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 and 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's 460 km to Chumphon and Ko Tao is 75 km offshore from Chumphon. Staying among the islands, it's another 50 km from Ko Tao to Ko Pha Ngan and a further 12 km on to Ko Samui. From Ko Samui back to the mainland at Surat Thani it's 75 km and from Surat Thani back to Bangkok it's 650 km.
Basically, the fastest (and, not surprisingly 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 flying you have three options—flying to Ko Samui or flying to Surat Thani or Chumphon and then connecting by bus and ferry to the islands.
Flying to Ko Samui
While flying to Ko Samui is preferable, Samui Airport (USM) is owned by Bangkok Airways and until quite recently they were the only airline that flies there. Now Silk Air, THAI and Bangkok Airways (along with a few others) fly the route but fares remain artificially high. Bangkok Airways runs over 20 flights a day between Bangkok and Ko Samui, which generally start at a little over the 3,000 baht mark, but can jump to around 5,000 baht for short notice purchases. 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.
Flying to Surat Thani
Surat Thani airport is served by THAI, Nok Air, Thai AirAsia and Thai Lion Air, with airfares being far more affordable than flying to Samui. The flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani takes 70 minutes. Surat Thani airport is around 30 km west of Surat Thani town. You could book an all-in "fly and ferry" ticket through Nok Air or Air Asia, which also includes a minibus transfer to the pier, or you could take a bus from the airport to Talad Kaset 2 Station in Surat and buy your ferry ticket from a travel agent.
Check international flight schedules and prices to Surat Thani
Kuala Lumpur to Surat Thani
Flying to Chumphon
Chumphon's small airport is located 35 km north of town and served only by Nok Air, which does offer an all-in "fly and ferry" ticket to Ko Tao. Otherwise you can grab a minibus to town and book your ferry tickets there.
The train system in Thailand is reasonably 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. Train tickets from Bangkok to Chumphon or Surat Thani can be easily purchased online.
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 19:30 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 #41 leaves Bangkok at 22:50 and gets into Chumphon at 05:50 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 (most of) the private buses that can be organised from Khao San Road as theft on these buses is endemic.
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.
One exception to this is the Lomprayah bus which departs in the early morning from near Khao San Road and is a reputable service. Tickets will include the bus straight to the pier and the ferry, also run by Lomprayah, to your island of choice.
Otherwise you can head to Sai Tai Mai (Southern) Bus Terminal in Bangkok and take a first-class or VIP bus to Chumphon or Surat Thani—many Thais choose this option and theft is not as much of a concern. While there are departures from morning to early afternoon, the night buses departing from 17:00 to 20:00 are the most popular with travellers. Buses are a bit faster than trains.
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 550 baht and takes 90 minutes, and the Songserm and Seatran boats, both of which leave at 07:00, costing 650 baht and 450 baht respectively and take 2.5-3 hours. The Lomprayah service is arguably worth the extra money. The night ferry leaves Chumphon at 23:00 and arrives at 05:00 costing 300 baht. Tickets for the Lomprayah boat can be purchased online through both Lomprayah and our booking partner, 12Go
To Ko Pha Ngan, you need to go to Surat Thani from where there are four primary operators running services out to Ko Pha Ngan; Lomprayah, Raja, Songserm and Seatran. See here for a detailed timetable breakdown on all ferry services from Surat Thani or, book your tickets online.
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. As with Ko Pha Ngan above, see here for a detailed timetable breakdown on all ferry services from Surat Thani or, book your tickets online.
The map below summarises the main ferry routes.
Then there are the inter island ferries:
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.