Just about everyone has heard of Ko Samui, Phuket or Ko Phi Phi, but there's a lot more to southern Thailand than these big tourist drawcards, both offshore on the islands and back onshore along the mainland. With this shortish three-week itinerary we wander down Thailand's northern Andaman coast, commencing in Ranong in the north and finishing at the bridgehead across to Phuket. You'll get a mix of islands, beaches and, with a short diversion, one of southern Thailand's most popular national parks.
Both Ranong and Phuket are connected to Bangkok by plane and overnight bus connections. Phuket has an international airport and plenty of flights, while Ranong is domestic only and has a far more limited schedule. Because of this, we'd suggest bussing it to Ranong but flying into or out of Phuket. Neither are on the main southern trainline and while you could get the train to Chumphon (for Ranong) or Surat Thani (for Phuket), the bus is both faster and more convenient.
When to go
All of Thailand's Andaman coast is affected by the southwest monsoon, which brings heavy rain and rough seas from April through to October. During this time, many of the island bungalows close down or run at quarter steam. Transport is all running, though more boats may be cancelled (or travel in dangerous conditions) due to bad weather.
The Similan National Park is closed between May 1 and November 1 annually, as is Ko Surin National Park.
This all means the best time to enjoy this slice of Thailand is between November and March. While Khao Lak gets quite busy, most of the rest isn't too busy at all.
The capital of Thailand's wettest (and same-named) province, Ranong finds itself on many travellers itineraries solely as a base for a visa run to Burma or as a transit point to the offshore islands of Ko Phayam and Ko Chang. But, as with just about any mid-sized Thai provincial capital, it does have a few minor attractions in its own right, with the hotsprings being the number one crowd, umm, warmer. Not surprisingly given the proximity to Burma, there's a rich ethnic mix here and both the markets and the street food are well worth exploring. Allow one night.
Yes, the other Ko Chang. Fondly referred to as "Little Ko Chang", this blip of an island, midway between Ranong and the similarly sized Ko Phayam, is just about everything the bigger Ko Chang isn't.
Development (and prices) are low key and much of the island still counts cashew nut cultivation as a mainstay. There's one large, broad beach and a couple of smaller bays to choose from. As with Ko Phayam, the snorkelling is quite poor, but there's still plenty of sand to bake on and warm water to splash in.
Best of all are the sunsets and the spectacular views across to St Matthew's Island in Burma -- absolutely breathtaking.
Very popular with Europeans (especially Germans), Ko Chang is also popular with the long-stay, travel slow crowd -- anything less than a week's stay probably won't count for a discount, but that's not a big deal as the bungalows are cheap, as is the food and booze.
Smooth beaches and calm water (in season) make this a hit with families who are happy with just the more basic creature comforts. Allow three nights.
If Ko Chang is a little too rustic for you, nearby Ko Phayam is a great second option. It's a slightly bigger island, with more beaches and a greater variety of places to stay -- if you want air-con, hot water and a swimming pool you can get it here.
As with Ko Chang, this is a very popular island with Europeans and travellers with children, but in the scheme of things, tourism is still a fraction of the scale of what you'll see further south in Khao Lak or Phuket. Allow three nights.
So back onto the mainland. Jump on pretty much any southbound bus and leap off at Khuraburi, which lies roughly halfway between Ranong and Phuket. The town itself is totally forgettable, but it is the primary leaping off point for glorious Ko Phra Thong, Ko Ra and, for diving enthusiasts, Ko Surin National Park.
Ko Phra Thong
Literally translated as "Golden Buddha Island", Ko Phra Thong is a glorious hideaway on the northern Andaman Coast. For years it was little visited because the only place to stay was the mid-range Golden Buddha Beach Resort (which, by the way, is lovely) but there are now more budget orientated places to stay, so you need not break out the plastic to enjoy one of Thailand's best-kept secrets.
Once ashore there's the stunning 11km long (and largely undeveloped) main beach, along with a monkey-filled estuary you can kayak up, yoga camps you can stretch at, and, if you're in luck, turtles you can watch laying on the beach.
It's an unadulterated and very appealing place to get off the trail and enjoy lesser-known Thailand. Allow two nights.
If you thought Ko Phra Thong was off the map, jungley Ko Ra, situated just to the north, is totally off the globe. For a long while available only as a daytripping destination from Ko Phra Thong, then there was an eco-lodge, but that has apparently gone now... so perhaps back to just daytripping or visiting from Koh Phra Thong.
Ko Kho Khao
Set off the southern tip of Ko Phra Thong, running down almost to Takua Pa, this is the last island close to the coast along this strip. Once you're done with the above, you need to return to Khuraburi and get another bus or songthaew onwards south to Takua Pa, from where you can organise transport to Ko Kho Khao.
It's not as good an island as those to the north and the accommodation isn't as appealing, but the beaches are good and, for those who like exploring, there's a World War II-period abandoned Japanese airstrip you can hunt down by scooter. Allow two nights.
Khao Sok National Park
Yes, we're going to divert inland for a few days -- but with good reason. The especially scenic Khao Sok National Park was first known for its pricey treehouse bungalows, but over time, as its popularity grew, an entire backpacker village sprung up, supplemented by a bunch of rafthouses on the nearby artificial lake. Both areas are popular to stay, but if we had to choose, we'd go for a rafthouse.
Activities vary from waterfall hikes and bushwalks through to caving explorations and even, for the specialists, cave diving in Khao Sok.
For many though, Khao Sok can be just a few days sitting on a raft, dangling legs in the water, eating good Thai food and taking a holiday from a holiday.
The park entrance is located midway along Route 401 from Takua Pa to Surat Thani -- any bus will go right past it. Allow three nights.
Close to totally obliterated by the Boxing Day tsunami back in 2004, Khao Lak has fully recovered and is entirely back in business. As with the islands to the north, Khao Lak has always been somewhat of a European hangout with the Scandinavians particularly highly represented -- they certainly don't suffer for a lack a Scandi food.
There are loads of places to stay and, while Khao Lak is often used to refer to the entire area, it is actually a series of beaches, each with its own vibe and feel. If you have your own transport it is well worth scouting each one out to see what works for you. Allow three nights.
Ko Similans and Ko Surin
These two island groups (Similans to the south, Ko Surin to the north) are generally visited either as day trips or overnight liveaboard trips, though very basic bungalow accommodation is available on the Similans should you want to stay on dry land.
The most popular start point for these trips is Khao Lak (it's the closest point), while Khuraburi, Ko Phra Thong and Ko Phayam all offer trips to Ko Surin National Park. As mentioned above the parks are closed from May till the beginning of November so you won't be doing any travel out there then.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.