First-timers often start with Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao, a chain of three popular islands along the gulf coast. Although well and truly on the beaten track, the Samui archipelago is the definitive introduction to Thai island life. Easily accessible, well developed yet dramatically beautiful, these islands provide for party-goers, beach bums and active adventurers in equal measure. If you're wondering which island will suit you best, use this guide to help pinpoint your paradise.
Known for: five-star resorts and high-end spas
Also good for: colourful neighbourhoods and independent adventure
The largest island of the trio, Ko Samui is also the most established island in terms of tourism, meaning the whims of most visitors are easily catered for. If you’re looking to blow your baht on indulgent spa sessions and luxury accommodation, there’s no better place to do it. Lavish resorts like Anantara Bo Phut Resort and Spa, W Retreat Ko Samui and the more affordable Amari Palm Reef Ko Samui take pampering to a whole new level, meaning you may struggle to leave the blissful confines of the infinity pool’s parameter.
It’s not all opulence: although accommodation options lean towards the pricier end of the spectrum, charming beach bungalows and the odd hostel are available, and even mid-range hotels are open to bartering on price. Toe-yanking traditional Thai massages can also be found for around 300B, so smaller budgets can still stretch to a little self-indulgence.
Once you’ve had your fill of coconut scrubs and frangipani oil facials, it’s time to explore. Most of the action in Ko Samui takes place in Chaweng. Known for its raucous nightlife, the commercial main street – a tangle of low-hanging electricity lines, fast-food joints, bars and tour operators – backs on to a surprisingly unspoilt stretch of bleached sand fringed with coconut palms, where fairy lights twinkle around restaurant tables after sundown. Bo Phut’s Fisherman’s Village on the north coast of the island offers a quieter cultural experience, with boutique sleeps and Chinese shops-turned-restaurants only a short songthaew (shared taxi) ride from Wat Phra Yai (Big Buddha Temple).
Day trips to Ang Thong Marine National Park – said to have inspired Alex Garland’s iconic adventure tome The Beach – are best embarked upon from Samui, allowing you maximum time for snorkelling in, and gawping at, the untouched lagoons and limestone cliffs of its 42 islets. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, renting a scooter allows you to see Samui at your own pace – just ensure you wear a helmet and take it easy on the unkempt roads.
Known for: buckets of alcohol and hedonistic full moon parties
Also good for: temple-hopping and waterfalls
There’s no denying it; Ko Pha-Ngan is one neon-painted raver away from becoming a little too intense. Despite recent government clampdowns on beach parties in southern Thailand, Pha-Ngana still has a social calendar to exhaust even the rowdiest young revellers; Hat Rin’s monthly full moon party (fullmoonparty-thailand.com) remains a rite of passage for backpackers on the Southeast Asia circuit. Believed to have been established in the 1980s, nowadays thousands of party-goers descend upon Hat Rin (Sunrise Beach) every month to tear up the town.
With ramshackle beachfront bars pumping out anything from mellow reggae beats to hardcore trance, the lengthy shore is your moonlit dance floor. Just beware of dodgy drug dealers, potent booze, flames (fire-breathing, juggling and twirling are popular) and resist the urge to go for a swim while under the influence – sadly, drownings are not uncommon. Valuables have been known to vanish from dorm rooms during parties, so ensure they are locked away securely. In other words stay safe and you’ll have buckets of fun – just don’t drink too many.
The wealth of natural beauty elsewhere on the island is often missed by beach bums who set up camp in Hat Rin. Secluded coves and verdant jungle trails feel a million miles from the full moon chaos, although hiking up Khao Ra, which gets you high the legal way, is arguably just as euphoric an experience. With charming waterfalls and numerous temples scattered across the island, those who enjoy the quieter things in life will love Ko Pha-Ngan as much as the party animals.
Known for: world-class diving instruction
Also good for: yoga and hiking
If you’re more interested in what’s under the Gulf’s translucent waters than the islands themselves, base yourself in Thailand’s premier diving hub, Ko Tao. Shallow, warm waters and abundant marine life make it ideal for first-timers, and with over 40 dive centres competing for business, quality instruction can be found at a very reasonable price. Try Dive @ Charm Churee (charmchureevilla.com/diving) for smaller groups and the best boat on the island.
More experienced divers might be tempted to ditch the cumbersome oxygen tank and try freediving. You can push yourself – and your lung capacity – to the limit and reach depths of up to 20 metres using specialised relaxation and breathing techniques. Freediving experts at Apnea Total (www.apnea-total.com) are particularly adept at coaxing nervous first-timers into the deep.
For those who prefer to remain on dry land for their recreational pursuits, Ko Tao still delivers. At only 21 sq km, the verdant, hilly terrain offers challenging hikes, scenic lookouts and tempting golden beaches. Set back among the palms lining Sairee beach on the west coast, Shambhala yoga centre (shambhalayogakohtao.com) runs two-hour classes (around 300B) in a gorgeous, prayer-flag-strewn wooden studio. Oppressive heat and prickling mossie bites are soon forgotten as you practise focusing purely on your breath – a skill which conveniently prepares you well for diving.
Make it happen
Regular ferry services between the islands, including high-speed catamaran Lomprayah (lomprayah.com), depart from Donsak Pier near Surat Thani (350B-600B). Alternatively Bangkok Airways and international airlines fly daily to Samui International Airport.
This article was originally published in September 2013, and updated in December 2014.