3 weeks on Thailand’s northern Andaman coast

3 weeks on Thailand’s northern Andaman coast

Covering beaches, islands, reefs, cliffs, jungle and a bit of culture, Thailand’s Ranong and Phang Nga provinces boast exceptional natural beauty along 250 km of the country’s northern Andaman coast. A journey through these two provinces is well suited to nature enthusiasts who don’t mind roughing it at times.

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What follows is a three-week itinerary commencing near the Burma border in Ranong town and finishing at the majestic Phang Nga Bay. We’ve included several islands in addition to mainland national parks and other destinations, but you could always pick just one or two islands if you have less than three weeks or want more time to unwind in one place.

So many islands, so little time... Photo by: David Luekens.
So many islands, so little time... Photo: David Luekens

Getting around

These two provinces have only one airport, a tiny one in Ranong serviced by a couple of daily flights to/from Bangkok. We’ve arranged the itinerary from north to south, starting in Ranong, but you could flip it around by flying or bussing to Phuket and heading north from there. Once you’re in the area, public buses and minibuses (vans) connect the mainland destinations. Ferries, speedboats and dive boats branch out to the islands. Many travellers book tours that include transport around places like Khao Sok and the Similans. Car and motorbike rental are available in Ranong, Khao Sok and Khao Lak.

When to go

Ranong sees the highest rainfall levels of any province in Thailand, with most of it coming between May and October. The national park islands—Ko Surin and the Similans—close from around 1st May to 1st November, and many resorts close on other islands during rainy season as well. So this is a trip for the drier months between November and April, although thicker-than-usual crowds should be expected at peak times (like around Christmas) at the more popular spots, namely Khao Lak, Khao Sok and the Similans.

A sleepy moment on Ko Chang Noi. Photo by: David Luekens.
A sleepy moment on Ko Chang Noi. Photo: David Luekens

Day by day

Day 1: Ranong town
Whether you fly in from Bangkok, cross the border from Kawthaung in Burma’s southern point or bus it from Chumphon or elsewhere, the capital of Ranong province is a good place to start. This small city has enough to keep you occupied for a day, including a handsome rebuilt palace set on a hill in town and a few natural attractions in the outskirts.

Local fare. Photo by: David Luekens.
Local fare. Photo: David Luekens

The Raksawarin hot springs are worth a rejuvenating soak, perhaps coupled with a spa treatment, and afterwards you could head deeper into picturesque countryside to see calm water embraced by shaggy cliffs at Ranong Canyon. Another option is the towering Ngao waterfall, the namesake attraction of a small national park that also includes hot springs, a campground and bungalows to the south of town.

All of the above are minor attractions so don’t lose sleep if you miss some of them. If you’re feeling lazy after arriving, Ranong town is a fine place to wander the markets, laze in traveller-oriented cafes and bars or take a quick detour north to enjoy fresh seafood and a view over the wide Kra seaway that marks the border. A Burmese phrasebook can be as handy as a Thai one around here.

Ao Yai Beach, Ko Chang Noi. Photo by: David Luekens.
Ao Yai Beach, Ko Chang Noi. Photo: David Luekens

Days 2-6: Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi
These two medium-size islands are Ranong province’s biggest tourism drawcards, though both remain obscure when compared to truly busy islands like Samui or Phi Phi. Both accessible from piers in Ranong town, these islands have each retained their local character by way of plentiful rubber and cashew groves, fishing boats and small, family-run bungalow joints that dot long beaches affording an outlook to Burmese islands.

Ko Phayam has more development to go with 24-hour electricity, motorbike rental and a few cushy resorts, while “little Ko Chang” is more rustic with generator-provided electricity running only from around 18:00 to 23:00 in the spartan bungalows. Chang also hosts jungle-draped mountains, making some beaches accessible only by boat or multi-hour treks on dirt trails. On either island you’ll see hornbills in the hills and dreadlocks in the reggae bars.

Your hammock is waiting Photo by: David Luekens.
Your hammock is waiting Photo: David Luekens

Though you could spend a night or two on both islands, we’d pick one and perhaps throw in a snorkelling or diving trip to the isles of Laem Son National Marine Park or the Ko Surin area. Beware: both Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi are exceptionally laidback, hypnotising some travellers into staying far longer than planned.

Day 7: Khuraburi
This would be a travel day taking you to the northern reaches of Phang Nga province, around 100 km south of Ranong town, where the village of Khuraburi serves as jumping off point for a few obscure islands: Ko Surin, Ko Phra Thong and Ko Ra. While there’s little to do in this one-horse town clustered alongside a highway, a few places to stay have you covered if you arrive too late to catch a boat.

Ko Phra Thong knows how to do sunsets. Photo by: David Luekens.
Ko Phra Thong knows how to do sunsets. Photo: David Luekens

Days 8-10: Ko Surin and Ko Phra Thong
Sitting isolated amid marvellous turquoise water some 50 km off the mainland coast, Ko Surin is a set of twin islands that are among the most beautiful we’ve seen in Thailand. The eponymous national park offers beachfront camping, a few bungalows and a simple restaurant, charging foreign adults 500 baht to visit. You can wade alongside reef sharks before arranging for a Moken longtail boat driver to take you snorkelling amid reefs where sea turtles roam. Also attracting whale sharks with some regularity, Ko Surin is popular with divers launching from the Ranong area in the north, or Khao Lak to the south.

Daytrippers can hit Ko Surin with a group tour from Ko Phayam, Khuraburi or Ko Phra Thong, an island set closer to the mainland that’s even quieter than Ko Chang Noi. On Phra Thong you’ll find a few cheap bungalow joints along with romantic beach houses at Golden Buddha Resort, a longtime favourite of ours. You could stroll down empty beaches and bicycle an interior filled with white sand dunes and tall grasses in a savannah landscape that’s highly unusual in the region.

Another busy day on Ko Surin. Photo by: David Luekens.
Another busy day on Ko Surin. Photo: David Luekens

Hitting both of these destinations would be a time sink because public boats to Ko Phra Thong can be sporadic and Ko Surin can only be reached by dive boats or speedboats organised through a tour company—expect to pay at least 2,000 baht per person. If you have extra time, consider adding a trip to the nearly uninhabited island of Ko Ra, which is also accessible from Khuraburi.

Day 11: Takua Pa
Located 50 km south of Khuraburi, this would be another pivoting point between destinations. Most travellers stop in the non-touristy town of Takua Pa only to change buses, but accommodation is available and the weekend market in the old part of town is worth a look if you have time. The small city is also the jumping off point for Ko Kho Khao, another near-the-mainland island with comfier resorts than those found on Ko Phra Thong.

Ko Kho Khao also handles a sunset well. Photo by: David Luekens.
Ko Kho Khao also handles a sunset well. Photo: David Luekens

Days 12-15: Khao Sok National Park
One of Thailand’s top-shelf national parks, Khao Sok combines with neighbouring wildlife sanctuaries to cover more than 4,000 square km of rainforest that has thrived largely undisturbed for millions of years. Visiting it will require a 100 km eastward detour from the coast—well worth it for the mix of jungle, waterfalls, caves and Chiew Lan Lake, which we think is the most magnificent body of fresh water in Thailand. Bring your mozzie spray and get ready for a refreshing break from the beach.

Exactly how you spend your time at Khao Sok will depend on your preferences. We’d settle into a treehouse and do some hiking near park headquarters for the first day, and then move on to a rafthouse as part of an excursion that would also include cruising by longtail boat or paddling a kayak past towering karsts on clean water that appears to glow bright emerald. While it’s possible to do all of this independently, most visitors save cash by booking a tour.

Sleep over the water in Khao Sok National Park. Photo by: Lana Willocks.
Sleep over the water in Khao Sok National Park. Photo: Lana Willocks

Khao Sok’s main accommodation area is located some 60 km west of the boat launching point near Ratchaprapa Dam, with very little found in between. Unlike most of the destinations included in this itinerary, this is a destination that requires some planning if you’re going to make the most of it.

Day 16: To Khao Lak
Public minibuses running from Khao Sok to Krabi swing through Khao Lak on the way, making this a relatively easy 60 km of transport. Though budget accommodation is available, Khao Lak has a notably strong selection of upscale resorts, making it a good choice for a splurge after roughing it at places like Khao Sok and Ko Phra Thong.

Beach sunset Khao Lak style. Photo by: David Luekens.
Beach sunset Khao Lak style. Photo: David Luekens

Days 17-18: Around Khao Lak
Including several different mainland beaches that range from busy resort hubs to pockets of beach shacks, the Khao Lak area covers 20 km of Phang Nga province’s coastline on the way south towards Phuket. Though lacking the sparkle of most island beaches, the sand here stretches for miles and the scene is not seedy, making Khao Lak a perennial favourite of families, couples and luxury travellers. It’s also the most touristy destination in this itinerary—don’t be ashamed to cure that pizza craving.

Over a couple of days in Khao Lak you might explore the coast to see the various beaches, or kick back in a hammock to rest your legs after that Khao Sok trek. The town is also a very popular base for dive liveaboard which run out to the Similans (see below) and beyond. Lastly, there’s a small national park with a decent waterfall and some memorials and museums recollecting the tsunami that devastated the area on 26th December 2004. The swells hit Khao Lak particularly hard; do take a moment to reflect on the thousands of lives lost here.

Cool off at the Similans. Photo by: Lana Willocks.
Cool off at the Similans. Photo: Lana Willocks

Day 19: The Similan Islands
Located 70 km due west of Khao Lak, the Similans are a chain of nine tiny islands boasting beautiful white-sand beaches framed by boulders and clear water that strikes sublime shades of blue. The islands do get very busy with boatloads of visitors in high season—in the past, camping for a night or two at either of two islands that have basic national park facilities would allow you to appreciate the natural splendour after the daytrippers have departed, but overnight stays are currently banned.

The Similans and two other islands that are part of the same marine park, Ko Tachai and Ko Bon, also host some 25 scuba sites and several diving outfits based in Khao Lak may take you to explore them. Serious divers and snorkellers could either choose between the Similans and the aforementioned (and similarly stunning) Ko Surin, or carve out time for both.

Damn. Photo by: Lana Willocks.
Damn. Photo: Lana Willocks

As with Ko Surin, the only way to reach the Similans apart from private yacht or dive liveaboard, is by paying a minimum of 1,800 baht per person for a tour, which most likely will not include the 500 baht per foreign adult ticket for the national park. Even if staying overnight you’ll have to pay for a tour and arrange for the same company to fetch you at a later date.

Day 20: To Phang Nga town
Many buses bound for Krabi and other points further south make a stop at the provincial capital of Phang Nga province, a charming town set amid limestone massifs near the coast. After arriving you could hire a guide to lead you into Phung Chang Cave, or take a trip out of town to enjoy a free fish spa at Manora Waterfall, or to see a vivid depiction of Buddhist hell at Wat Tham Ta Pan. If that sounds like too much effort, the town is also a fine place to wander around and graze on authentic southern Thai fare.

Ao Phang Nga will take your breath away. Photo by: David Luekens.
Ao Phang Nga will take your breath away. Photo: David Luekens

Day 21: Ao Phang Nga
Containing more than 40 limestone islands that rise dramatically from emerald water, Phang Nga Bay is protected as part of a 400-square-km national marine park that’s easy to explore by private longtail boat or group tour arranged in Phang Nga town. Most visitors cruise through mangrove forest before making the usual stops at a floating Muslim village tied to Ko Panyi, and the unmistakable karst eminence at Ko Kan that appeared in the 1974 James Bond flick, The Man With The Golden Gun.

Those looking to see a different aspect of the bay could look into kayaking, birdwatching or observing some of the ancient cave paintings. Expect to pay around 2,500 baht for a private longtail boat and as little as 600 baht per person for a group tour, with an extra charge for kayaking. Boasting scenery that’s often compared to the better-known Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Phang Nga Bay would finish your trip off with breathtaking natural beauty.

To move on from here you could cut back west to Phuket; head further south into the bay to quiet Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai; or cruise southeast towards Krabi.

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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