Published: 7th August, 2019
Dig your toes into powdery white sand. Trek through old-growth rainforest. Party all night and then retreat to a quiet beach shack. Snorkel or dive majestic seascapes, and get used to cruising by longtail boat. You can do all of this and more on a trip from east coast to west coast in southern Thailand.
A good choice for first timers to southern Thailand, this four-week itinerary covers many of the most popular islands and mainland points on both the Gulf of Thailand (east) and Andaman Sea (west) coasts. These spots are popular for a reason—they’re all very beautiful in places—but popularity brings its share of issues such as overdevelopment, overcrowding and damage to the natural environment. With this in mind, we’ve added possible side trips to less-travelled alternatives that won’t take you too far off the main route.
Though we allotted a few days to most destinations with the aim of offering suggestions for each of them, we’d pick perhaps two to four islands unless time is no issue. Rather than tumbling from one island to the next just to cross them off a list, be sure to carve out some time to relax. Don’t be afraid to cut entire destinations as you narrow down options that seem best suited to your interests. Flexibility is key—you’ll only know how much you love a given beach, or even a specific bungalow joint, once you get there.
Airports are found in Chumphon, Surat Thani and Ko Samui on the east coast; and in Krabi and Phuket on the west. Minibuses and some regular buses link all of the mainland points, while reliable ferries access the islands both from the mainland and from island to island in the case of Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui. Specifics on transport options are found in our transport pages for each destination, such as this one for Surat Thani and this one from Bangkok. Many of these legs can also be booked online at 12Go Asia.
On the islands travellers often get around on hired scooters. If you choose to do this, please make the time to learn to ride and get a license in your home country—this will make you a safer rider (everyone benefits!)—and always, always, always wear a helmet. If you choose not to do this, you may want to read up on the travel insurance implications of doing neither. On the larger islands, car hire is also commonly available, as are a variety of forms of public transport.
More than any other region of Thailand, it’s important to pay attention to the weather when hitting the south. Ideally this trip would start after 1st December, once the east coast is likely to have dried out from the storms that rip through in October and November, and finish up before the monsoon begins on the west coast around May. Expect the thickest crowds and highest room rates around holidays like Christmas and Chinese New Year. Thailand specific holiday periods, especially Songkran, can also be very busy periods on the islands and making reservations in advance can be a prudent decision.
Travelling in wet season to the islands covered in this itinerary is still possible—accommodation will nearly all be open as usual—and you may even be able to snap up some excellent off–season deals on a room. Do bear in mind though, that not only will there be a significant chance of at least some rain most days, the seas will also be rougher meaning that on occasion ferries may be delayed or cancelled, as may be snorkelling trips and other seaborne excursions. Be wary of ferry to airport transfers for a long haul flight home in peak wet season as tightly wrapped itineraries can fall over badly once a ferry gets cancelled. On the other hand if your ideal beach holiday is you curled up in a hammock with a book and thundering storms outside, go for it!
Day 1: Bangkok to Chumphon
Options for this leg include train, plane and public bus, plus all-in services like Lomprayah that include a bus from Bangkok and ferry to Ko Tao on a single ticket. Once in Chumphon you’ll find a typical southern Thai capital town with a great night market, cheap rooms and lots of travel agents ready to sell you tickets to Ko Tao. The province’s empty mainland beaches are worth a look if you have an extra day to kill.
If you have more time and want to step off the well-trodden track, consider slowing down and doing the Bangkok to Chumphon route the slow way. Anyone skipping Ko Tao should also probably skip Chumphon and continue south to Surat Thani, launching into the islands from there instead.
Days 2-4: Ko Tao
Ko Tao or “Turtle Island” is Thailand’s best-known scuba diving centre, particularly for beginners, with dozens of outfits offering certification courses and fun dives. The sheer number of boats can detract from the enjoyment of diving at certain sites, and, as with many reefs around the world, global warming has caused some coral to bleach and die in recent years. But there’s also healthy coral to observe along with abundant marine life, including whale sharks, barracuda and sea turtles. The island is home to many highly experienced and exceptionally skilled dive instructors.
Non-divers also flock to Ko Tao to hit the beaches and join in the nightlife anchored at Haad Sairee. Do venture away from the main centres to soak in the best of the island’s remaining natural beauty at spots like Haad Sai Daeng, Mango Bay and Laem Thian, where we once had a blast cliff jumping. Sadly, what was left of Ko Tao’s local charm has largely been replaced by mercantile and at times aggressive attitudes, with the highly questionable conviction of two Burmese migrant workers for the 2014 murders of two British travellers receiving considerable international attention. Unless coming specifically to dive, we’d consider skipping Ko Tao in favour of Ko Pha Ngan.
Days 4-8: Ko Pha Ngan
Though best known for its full moon parties, Thailand’s fourth largest island has a lot more than debauchery fueled by fluorescent paint and electro beats to offer. Many visitors prefer hiking to viewpoints, escaping to isolated beaches and doing a detox program or retreat devoted to yoga or meditation. The scene varies widely depending on which of the two-dozen or so beaches you’re on. Swimming and snorkelling opportunities don’t match those found on Ko Tao, but Ko Pha Ngan is a lot of fun to explore on land and you can link up with a diving outfit or boat tour to keep from missing out on the underwater beauty.
While the earthy-crunchy vibe makes Ko Pha Ngan a favourite of hippies and holistic-minded travellers, you’ll also find luxury resorts and laid-back communities made up of Thais and expats. Backpackers dig the many family-run bungalow joints and lively hostels. For the most part the island lacks the money-grabbing attitude that blights Ko Tao, and it has not been developed to the frenzied extent of Ko Samui. If we had to pick only one of these islands, Ko Pha Ngan would be our choice without much thought. Don’t be surprised if you stay longer than planned—our first visit in the early 1990s became a multi-year saga of long stays.
Day 9: The Ang Thong Islands
Made up of immense limestone cliffs, turquoise-water lagoons and some of the whitest sand we’ve seen in Thailand, the Ang Thong Islands are just magnificent. This chain of 42 islands is protected as part of a national marine park—the lack of resorts and other infrastructure means that most visitors come on day trips from Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan. Camping is possible on Ko Wua Talap and nature lovers who are into kayaking should consider settling in for a couple of nights. There are no ferries, so to stay here you’ll need to book a tour and arrange to be fetched when you’re ready to leave.
Days 10-13: Ko Samui
Second only to Phuket in terms of tourist arrivals to Thai islands, Ko Samui is the most heavily touristed destination in this itinerary. Condos sit on mountainsides, traffic clogs up roads, airplanes boom through the sky and things get seedy around parts of Chaweng and Lamai beaches. Though we’re not fond of any of that, the entrenched tourism scene can be advantageous if you seek a strong choice of luxury resorts or need to do some shopping, be it in a mall, a big-box store or the funky street market behind Bophut beach.
Being Thailand’s third largest island, Samui still offers its share of quiet spots if you’re willing to stray from the conveniences. Sweeping Mae Nam is a good choice for families in the north, while downright sleepy beaches like Lipa Noi on the west coast and Natien in the south feel like they’re part of a totally different island when compared to Chaweng and others. To go even quieter, consider a side trip to the rarely visited island of Ko Taen off the south coast.
Day 14: Surat Thani
Back on the mainland, this bustling crossroads city is where travellers figure out where to go next. Most won’t even spend a night, but those with time could go for a cruise through the Tapi river delta before digging into the night market and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops in the old Ban Don part of town. If sticking to this itinerary, minibuses cruise west for 120 km to Khao Sok from Talad Kaset 2 station in the heart of town.
Days 15-17: Khao Sok National Park
One of Thailand’s largest and most impressive mainland national parks, Khao Sok’s placement makes it a convenient place to break up the trip between coasts as you get a taste of the jungle rather than the beach. Those using public minibuses will be dropped near park headquarters near the west end of the park, where a bunch of tour outfits do a roaring trade and accommodation ranges from comfortable, privately run resorts to a basic park-provided campground.
Near the accommodation area you could hike to caves and waterfalls, devoting the next day or two to the clean emerald water and Guilin-esque karst formations found in the sublime Chiew Lan Lake, reached via a boat pier at the east end of the park. Though you can hit the lake independently, most travellers book a tour to help with logistics and transport along the 60-km road between the two ends of the park. Do wake up to paddle a kayak at sunrise after spending a night in a rafthouse.
Days 18-21: Krabi and Ao Nang
Minibuses cut 160 km south from Khao Sok’s main accommodation area to the provincial capital of Krabi, a fun and scenic town set beside a mangrove-lined river that flows to the Andaman Sea. You could settle into a good-value guesthouse here or head a little further north to the touristy beach town of Ao Nang, which has a huge selection of resorts. If you want to stay on the coast while avoiding the tourist hordes, check out other beaches near Ao Nang like Haad Noppharat Thara and Long Beach. Boat tour options include Ko Hong’s stunning lagoon and the gnarly cliffs of Ko Poda and Ko Gai—just beware that these uninhabited national park islands get crowded with daytrippers.
No matter where you stay on the Krabi province mainland, do also pick one or two of the inland attractions for a day trip. Options include Wat Tham Seua with its exhausting stairway leading to breathtaking vistas; the refreshing waterfall at Khao Phanom Bencha National Park; Ko Klang’s pastoral landscape and traditional Muslim lifestyle; and the ancient cave paintings, kayaking opportunities and waterfall at Than Bok Khorani National Park. Krabi town’s harrowingly spicy curries and fresh seafood can also be highlights.
Days 22-23: Railay
Hemmed in by impenetrable limestone cliffs that make it accessible only by boat, the Railay peninsula reaches out from the mainland between Krabi town and Ao Nang and is one of the most scenic destinations in all of southern Thailand. While the beaches are divine, Railay and its hippie-loving neighbour, Tonsai, are perhaps best known as one of Southeast Asia’s premier rock climbing destinations.
The peninsula’s minimal flat terrain was seriously developed in recent years and most accommodation now comes in big-block concrete resorts. Backpackers still have a few options, however, and the tasteful houses at Railei Beach Club stand as some of our favourite midrange digs in southern Thailand. The same island day trips that are available in Ao Nang can also be arranged from Railay, and some travellers will appreciate the pockets of reggae-themed nightlife.
Days 24-28: Ko Phi Phi
The twin islands of Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh boast tremendous natural beauty, explaining why they attract loads of travellers both for overnight stays and on day trips from Ao Nang and Phuket. Phi Phi Leh is a national park island hit by too many tour boats, while heavily developed Phi Phi Don is popular with young travellers looking to sip on buckets and grind to hip-hop until dawn.
As with Ko Tao, Phi Phi is a place where it pays to stray from the main beaches and check out more isolated spots like Ao Toh Ko and Laem Thong. You’ll also find several diving outfits, rock climbing opportunities and boat trips to the famous (and often overcrowded) Maya Bay along with other isles like Ko Mai Pai and Ko Bida. If Phi Phi looks too touristy for you, consider the larger Ko Lanta or lesser-known islands like Ko Yao Noi and Ko Jum as alternatives. All of these can be reached from Krabi town.
Where to next?
Now that you’ve made it from coast to coast following a well-worn traveller trail, why not delve into some of southern Thailand’s less-touristy points? From Krabi you could cruise north up the Andaman coast into Phang Nga and Ranong provinces; keep island hopping south towards Ko Muk, Ko Kradan and Ko Lipe; or cut back east for offbeat culture- and nature-oriented travel in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung and Songkhla. Otherwise there’s always Phuket.
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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