Though certainly not undiscovered, the Trang Islands are southern Thailand as you’ve always imagined it, only less travelled. Jaunty rock formations rise from sparkling emerald waters, sugary beaches wrap jungle-shrouded hills, speedboats buzz between road-free islands and weathered long-tail boats putter around with a refreshing lack of urgency. Reaching the Trang Islands requires more planning, effort and determination than jetting into Phuket or Krabi, but that’s precisely the point: make your way here while the islands’ chilled-out scene still prevails.
Just 16km southwest of Pak Meng on the mainland, and partly protected by Mu Ko Lanta National Park, road-free Ko Ngai (Ko Hai) is a tiny, semi-wild stunner. Although the island is more developed than its surrounding isles, no permanent population lives here; it’s just you and a sprinkling of low-key, mostly upper-midrange resorts. It's a particular hit with families and loved-up couples, but for now, there's still only a murmur of development rather than a roar.
A long-tail boat gliding between idyllic Islands © Karntiphat Changrua / Shutterstock
Ko Ngai’s vibe is understated and agreeably dishevelled, with 24-hour electricity and patchy wi-fi. The beach is blissful and the aquamarine waters off its main strand reveal corals and kaleidoscopic schools of fish. Island dive centres, including Laytrang Diving, run day dives (from 1400B) or you can jump aboard snorkelling trips (from 600B) to outlying islets.
Stay: Coco Cottage offers thatch-topped sea-view bungalows and a beachy restaurant-bar serving luscious sundowners and Thai/fusion dishes. Budget travellers will find frills-free beach-facing digs at Ko Ngai Seafood Bungalows.
Ko Muk, quickly reached from mainland Kuantungku, is the easy-breezy Trang Island sibling, and the archipelago’s most visited isle. A good choice of budget accommodation continues to lure groups of young independent travellers, so package deals abound and day-trippers whizz across from Ko Lanta.
These aren’t Trang’s most pristine waters, but Ko Muk’s mountainous tangle of jungle, rubber trees and snow-white beaches make for gorgeous views and fun-filled adventures. Most budgeteers crash on beautiful southwest-coast Hat Farang (Charlie’s Beach). Upmarket Hat Sivalai’s slender sandbar juts out on eastern Ko Muk, while Hat Lodung, just west, has an earthier, less touristy feel.
Beaches aside, Ko Muk’s star attraction is Tham Morakot (Emerald Cave), where you can paddle through a long limestone tunnel into this west-coast hôrng (semi-submerged island cave) to a tiny, white, cliff-framed beach. You can beat the day-tripping tour crowds by popping over with kayaks (300B) or a chartered long-tail (from 800B) for daybreak or late afternoon.
Ko Kradan, southwest of Ko Muk, tops the Trang Islands’ sky-high beauty chart. Partly protected by Hat Chao Mai National Park, this softly sloping roadless isle is a magnet for couples, plus the odd family. A powdery white beach lines Kradan’s east coast, fringed by limestone spires that rise from the glimmering cerulean sea.
Beach addicts will love this perfect 1.5km strand, though some sections get crowded with lunching day-trippers. If you wander 400m inland from the southern end to (signposted) Paradise Lost, you’ll join jungle trails that unveil more secluded sands. A 10-minute walk leads to good snorkelling off Hat South. A second path winds to wild Hat Sunset, with its rocky panorama and fiery sunsets.
Stay: Jungle-based Paradise Lost offers rickety bungalows plus delicious Thai cooking, while beachside Reef Resort provides a more contemporary, pool-equipped crashpad. Palm-thatched Sevenseas Resort is Kradan’s luxury boutique beach choice.
Travellers seeking to thoroughly ditch Thailand’s well-trodden trail can savour working southern island life on Ko Sukorn, Trang’s least known island. Sitting 40km southeast of Ko Kradan, Ko Sukorn is quiet, distinctive and refreshingly authentic, home to a 2600-strong Muslim population. Sure, its gold-brown beaches and sparkly-green sea don’t match Ko Kradan’s tropical-idyll perfection, but they’re just as delightful – and blissfully less busy.
Thin concrete roads circle the island’s hilly 8km expanse, so exploring is easy. Most resorts rent bicycles or motorbikes, perfect for roaming past humble stilted villages, rice paddies, watermelon plantations, chomping water buffalo and several dramatic lookout points. Now this is the southern Thailand you were looking for!
Resorts cluster on Sukorn’s lengthy southwest-coast beach. This is the place to catch the sun blazing hot pink and ultra-orange as it sinks between outlying karst islets.
Colours shift as you venture southeast from Ko Muk or Ko Kradan to rugged Ko Libong. Cloaked in mangroves, rubber-tree plantations and skinny dark-gold beaches, Trang’s largest island sees fewer visitors than its white-sand neighbours but it's easy to access: a 30-minute long-tail ride from mainland Hat Yao.
Libong is an island for nature lovers, famous for its migrating birds and approximately 100 endangered resident dugong. Your best bet for sighting these magnificent local inhabitants are naturalist-led dugong- and bird-spotting tours (1000B to 1500B), organised by most west-coast resorts.
Stay: Choose between budget shacks and stylish wood-and-thatch bungalows at Libong Beach Resort (libong-beach.com)
Make it happen
Trang’s islands are only accessible during the October-to-April high season. Multiple speedboats, ferries and (charterable) long-tails make floating between islands and transfers to/from Trang a breeze. From Ko Ngai, Ko Muk and Ko Kradan, high-season boats run south to Ko Lipe and north to Ko Lanta, Ko Phi-Phi and Phuket. Trang airport has daily flights to/from Bangkok.