Four weeks on Thailand’s southwest islands

Four weeks on Thailand’s southwest islands

Limestone massifs loom over the beach as kayaks and longtail boats splotch the horizon. You lie back in a beach bar shack to watch an Andaman sunset framed by distant islands, which seem to call you onwards. What follows is a four-week sketch of an island-hopping trip off the central to southern stretch of the Thai west coast, from Ko Phi Phi to Ko Lipe. Ready for adventure?

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The islands on our main itinerary include popularity contest winners Ko Lipe and Ko Lanta, but also offbeat spots that we’ve taken a shine to, like Ko Bulon Lae and Ko Jum. In addition we mention several other islands to keep in mind for day trips or alternative side trips. Rather than thinking of this itinerary as a rigid plan, view it as a sketch—or a menu, perhaps—and use it to help you wring out a route that fits you best. We arranged our route from north down, but you could easily flip it and start in the south.

Health & safety Bulon Lae style. Photo by: David Luekens.
Health & safety Bulon Lae style. Photo: David Luekens

In total, 24 islands found off some 300 km of coastline are mentioned, but hitting even a dozen islands in a month would be ambitious. If you’re more into relaxing than exploring, pick no more than one island per week and sprinkle in day trips when needing a break from the hammock. If you don’t mind travel by sea, boats pull right up to the beach on most islands, and we think this is the most enjoyable island hopping in Thailand. As we type this in Bangkok we’re employing serious willpower to stop ourselves from catching the next flight down there. Enjoy.

Getting around

Airports are found to the north at Phuket and Krabi, where ferries to Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta are available; and in the south at Hat Yai and Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, both of which are jumping off points for Ko Lipe. Trang also has an airport and train station if you want to start in the middle, at Ko Muk for example. All of the mainland centres can be reached by bus as well, and there’s an additional train station in Hat Yai in case you’re coming north from Malaysia by rail.

Did someone call a taxi? Photo by: David Luekens.
Did someone call a taxi? Photo: David Luekens

In high season, public boats make it possible to hop from one island to the next without returning to the mainland at all. There are three main island hopping companies: Tigerline uses medium-size ferries while Bundhaya and Satun Pakbara employ speedboats. These stop at six to nine islands per day in both directions; don’t expect punctuality. Travel agents in every destination sell tickets for 250 to 1,200 baht per person. Private longtail boats can also be helpful—and more fun—for certain legs and day tours. A few liveaboard dive boats ply the area as well.

If at any time you want to return the mainland, public boats connect all but the remote national park islands to piers in Krabi, Trang or Pakbara. These range from large air-con ferries to speedboats and small longtails on which you might be sitting next to a goat. You can buy boat tickets in person through travel agents or online through sites like 12Go. Private longtails can always be arranged direct with the boat drivers.

Pick your chariot on Ko Lipe. Photo by: David Luekens.
Pick your chariot on Ko Lipe. Photo: David Luekens

Most of these islands are small and best explored on foot, bicycle or kayak. Some, like Ko Kradan, have no roads at all. Ko Lanta, Ko Jum and a few others are large enough for scooters—if you plan to rent one, please make the time to learn to ride and get a license in your home country, and always wear a helmet. If you’re thinking of riding without an international motorcycle license, you may want to read up on the travel insurance implications first.

When to go

Unless you’re willing to repeatedly return to the mainland between islands, this itinerary only works when public island-hopping boats operate in high season from 1st November to 30th March. The shoulder months of November and March see thinner crowds and room rates that are a bit lower than during peak season from December through February. Pre-booking rooms is a good idea at any time in high season, especially for Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lipe and Ko Kradan. Don’t be surprised if tents are all that’s left if you show up on these islands around Christmas or Chinese New Year without a reservation.

Pick your season. Some islands can get well busy. Photo by: David Luekens.
Pick your season. Some islands can get well busy. Photo: David Luekens

This region sees a lot of rain from May through October, a time when many resorts close on obscure islands like Ko Bulon Lae. July, August and September tend to be the wettest months. Most accommodation on the popular islands stays open year round and rates drop by 50% or more in low season, but the sea is often too rough for boat trips and the snorkelling can be murky. Most islands controlled entirely by national parks, including Ko Rok and Ko Tarutao, close from May through October.

Day by day

Days 1-4: Ko Phi Phi
Ko Phi Phi is one of the most popular islands not only in this itinerary, but also in Thailand at large. Yes, concrete room blocks and speedboat engines have spoiled some of the natural beauty, but the lively nightlife scene keeps drawing in younger travellers (and the young at heart) and you can still find a quiet bungalow in more distant bays. The turquoise water and dramatic cliffs look at dazzling today as they did when Phi Phi first fell onto the radar in the late 1980s.

Ko Phi Phi could still turn on the lovely if it wanted to. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Ko Phi Phi could still turn on the lovely if it wanted to. Photo: Stuart McDonald

It’s actually a pair of islands with the larger Ko Phi Phi Don containing all of the resorts, bars and travel offices. Home to the gorgeous yet often overcrowded Maya Bay, where Leonardo Dicaprio swam with sharks in The Beach, Ko Phi Phi Leh is a national park island best hit on an early-morning day trip. Any of several diving outfits will take you to explore several shipwrecks and reefs around uninhabited islands like Ko Bida, Ko Mai Pai and Ko Poda.

If Phi Phi does not sound like your cup of tea, feel free to skip it and start the trip by heading straight from Krabi town to Ko Jum or Ko Lanta, perhaps with a detour at the rock-climbing hub of Railay along the way.

Days 5-8: Ko Jum
The two villages set on opposite ends of this island each use a different name for it—the northern part set around a cone-shaped mountain is known as Ko Pu, while the coconut tree studded south goes by Ko Jum. Think of it as a smaller, shyer and less developed sibling of neighbouring Ko Lanta. If strolling on miles-long beaches before listening to the waves beneath a mosquito net after dark sounds good to you, factor in a stop on Ko Jum.

I found you a coconut. You can pick it up on Ko Jum. Photo by: David Luekens.
I found you a coconut. You can pick it up on Ko Jum. Photo: David Luekens

Most people spend their time swaying in a hammock between games of Go Fish. Do at least pay a visit to the island’s languid Muslim-Thai fishing villages (and do be respectful by covering up with appropriate garb when away from the beach). You could also link up with Koh Jum Divers to hit sites more commonly reached from Lanta and Phi Phi. Lovers of land-based nature should join a local guide on a trek up Ko Pu for wildlife spotting and great views from the summit.

Side trip option: Ko Si Boya
From Ko Jum it’s only 1,000 baht for a private longtail boat to Ko Si Boya, a traditional Muslim-Thai agricultural island with fields of cows and coconut trees to go with three family-run bungalow spots. If coming from Krabi town you could start with Si Boya before hopping south to Jum and onwards.

Meet Ko Si Boya. Photo by: David Luekens.
Meet Ko Si Boya. Photo: David Luekens

Days 9-14: Ko Lanta
Ko Lanta has quite the collection of khaki-sand beaches, many of them wide enough for a full-size game of football and stretching on for several kilometres. Though it shows up clearly on the mainstream tourism radar, the island is large enough to hold down a low-key vibe in the south, even as the usual tourist trappings have overtaken parts of the north. On the east coast, Muslim-Thai, Chinese-Thai and Urak Lawoi villages give the island a lot more local character than Phi Phi.

Climbing to the old lighthouse for a picturesque vista over the national park beach at the island’s far southern tip is always a highlight for us. On the way you could hike to a waterfall, explore a cave or lay low in isolated coves for some yoga. A longtail boat trip launched from the east coast will take you through mangrove forest, past crab-fishing macaques and on to caves and beaches on nearby Ko Bu Bu and Ko Talabeng. Lanta is a major diving and snorkelling base with outfits running trips to magnificent Ko Haa along with Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.

Hanging out in Ko Lanta’s old town. Photo by: David Luekens.
Hanging out in Ko Lanta’s old town. Photo: David Luekens

As part of touristy Krabi province and the largest island in this itinerary, Lanta is a worthy place to splurge on a cushy room. From here south you’ll find mostly spartan bungalows and camping on some islands.

Days 15-17: Ko Muk
All island-hopping boats stop at Ko Muk, the “Pearl Island” of Trang province. Introducing a calming vibe that we find hits the spot after the relative bustle of Lanta, Muk remains sleepy despite having added some new resorts in recent years. Haad Farang is a terrific beach with a wide expanse of fine white sand backed by a few bungalows and bars pointed straight towards the sunset. (When writing the lead sentence for this article we envisioned ourselves at Mong’s reggae shack on Haad Farang). In Muk’s two small villages, islanders hammer repairs into longtail boats as their kids stay busy booting balls around the goats and chickens.

There is plenty of sand on Ko Muk. Photo by: David Luekens.
There is plenty of sand on Ko Muk. Photo: David Luekens

The island’s big tourism drawcard is Tham Morakot, a swim-through “Emerald Cave” emerging to a dreamy beach and lagoon embraced by vertical cliffs on all sides. Staying on Muk makes it possible to hit this splendid cave when it’s not full of daytrippers from Ko Lanta and the mainland. Muk also boasts some little-known hiking trails ending at uninhabited beaches. All but a few “resorts” consist of simple bungalows with 24-hour electricity; Coco Lodge on the north coast has long been a favourite of ours.

Side trip options: Ko Libong, Ko Sukorn and Trang
If you have more time or could go for a lesser-known island with its own fishing villages and caves, do also check out Ko Libong. It’s also very low-key but with more terrain to explore, some immersive Muslim-Thai homestays, a fabulous viewpoint and the chance to spot an endangered dugong munching sea grass. The beaches aren’t shabby either.

Old school on Ko Libong. Photo by: David Luekens.
Old school on Ko Libong. Photo: David Luekens

Public island hopping boats do not stop on Libong but Tigerline stops at nearby Hat Yao pier on the mainland. Otherwise you could hire a private longtail boat from Ko Muk or Ko Kradan for 2,500 baht, or head over to Trang town to arrange a transfer. The latter is not a bad idea if you’re keen to sample intense southern Thai cuisine since much of the Thai food served at island resorts is bland bland bland.

Also consider Ko Sukorn if you like slow travel and offbeat islands. It has more water buffalo than villagers, and more villagers than tourists, so not exactly a nightlife destination. It’s great for cycling though.

Big skies on Ko Sukorn. Photo by: David Luekens.
Big skies on Ko Sukorn. Photo: David Luekens

Days 18-20: Ko Kradan
Ko Kradan lies only five km west of Ko Muk, making this an affordable leg of the journey for a private longtail boat if you’re tiring of the speedboats. The island is a two-km sliver with no roads, a bit of jungle and a beach that we think ranks up there with some of the most beautiful in Thailand. When not lost in deep states of relaxation, set out to kayak around the island or snorkel a reef that stretches for several hundred metres right offshore. Low tide reveals vast expanses of white sand and shallow tidal pools that appear ice blue despite the bathwater temperatures. Throw in a gorgeous outlook to many distant towers of limestone, and this could be the beach walk of a lifetime.

Those who don’t want to camp at the national park station have a few resorts to choose from, ranging from the long-running backpacker haunt Paradise Lost to the super swanky Seven Seas. There are no freestanding restaurants and the vibe is hushed and romantic, so travellers looking to party might get bored quick.

Oh Ko Kradan. Photo by: David Luekens.
Oh Ko Kradan. Photo: David Luekens

Side trip options: Ko Rok, Ko Lao Liang an Ko Ngai
Kradan works well as a base for day trips to several more distant islands. You could strike west to Ko Rok, a set of twin islands with a reef sheltered in between like a joey in its mum’s pouch. Or you could cruise south to Ko Lao Liang, another pair of islands where travellers climb gnarly cliffs and kayak off beaches that might be even more picturesque than Ko Kradan’s.

A private longtail boat to either Rok or Lao Liang will cost around 4,000 baht from Kradan; pricey, yes, but visiting these islands is worth the splurge. Camping is possible on both—expect to see brilliant stars if staying a night. Also note that Lao Liang is a bit closer to Ko Libong and Ko Sukorn than Ko Kradan, so you might get a slightly cheaper price if arranging a trip from those islands.

Peak hour on Ko Rok. Photo by: David Luekens.
Peak hour on Ko Rok. Photo: David Luekens

Ko Rok can also be hit from Ko Muk and Ko Ngai, an island that’s similar in size, scenery and vibe to Ko Kradan. Though not much of a backpacker island, Ngai has some solid midrange resorts that should do the trick for couples ready to pay a premium for creature comforts. If you go, do take a walk to Paradise Beach, and keep an eye peeled for hornbills on the way.

Days 21-23: Ko Bulon Lae
At least one of the island hopping speedboats that picks up on Ko Kradan can drop you further south at Ko Bulon Lae, an obscure island in Satun province. Whenever we take these boats, the mostly Lipe-bound passengers always get confused as we pull up to Bulon’s handsome white beachhead. “Is this Lipe? This can’t be Lipe. Where the hell are we?” The few travellers who hop off find an enchanting place where low-level tourism ebbs to the same slow tempo as life in the fishing village at Mango Bay.

Ko Bulon 2014 collection... Photo by: David Luekens.
Ko Bulon 2014 collection... Photo: David Luekens

Bulon’s only school overlooks the best beach, sharing property with a shaggy soccer field and bungalows that teachers rent out to backpackers for 500 baht a night. Two-metre-long monitor lizards saunter into dense jungle, where the island’s ghosts are thought to dwell. Travellers wander down bougainvillea-draped footpaths and try not to trip over the goats that block them. Electricity in most bungalows runs only from around 18:00 to 22:00, nightlife consisting of a few beers around the smoke of a mosquito coil.

Beware: Bulon has lulled many a traveller into a state of inescapable tranquility that kept them on the island much longer than planned.

Days 24-28: Ko Lipe
If Ko Phi Phi is the pole of popularity for the northern half of this itinerary, Ko Lipe fills the same role for the southern half. In recent years this tiny island developed shockingly fast and while we liked Lipe better when it had only a few beach shacks and sandy paths, there’s no denying that it remains mighty beautiful. A strong selection of accommodation, food and nightlife make Lipe a comfy spot to see your trip out in style. It’s also the main diving centre south of Ko Lanta, with at least eight outfits focusing mainly on the surrounding Butang archipelago.

This is Lipe. Photo by: David Luekens.
This is Lipe. Photo: David Luekens

Side trip options: Ko Adang, Ko Rawi and Ko Tarutao
Lipe is the only island in this archipelago that’s not fully overseen by Mu Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, which covers the big and rugged islands of Ko Adang, Ko Rawi and Ko Tarutao. Making up some grace for Lipe’s concrete facelift, these mountainous islands contain miles of jungle along with viewpoints, waterfalls and beaches backed only by park-run bungalows and campgrounds. Adang and Rawi work well on a day trip from Lipe that could also include a stop at Ko Hin Ngam’s mysterious polished black-stone beach. Stay at least a night on Tarutao if looking to check out the abandoned World War II era prison and do some trekking or cycling.

Where to next?
By this point you’ll likely have a killer tan and will be an expert on how to ride in a longtail boat. If heading south to Malaysia you could stamp out of Thailand at Ko Lipe’s adorable beachfront immigration booth before cruising to Langkawi. If sticking to Thailand, why not hop on the far southern cultural route from Satun to Songkhla. If you end up on Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta with no plan, consider popping up to Phuket to start a crawl up the northern Andaman coast, or returning to the mainland at Krabi on the way towards the east-coast islands.

Reviewed by

David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.

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