The islands of the Gulf of Thailand: how to choose the one that suits you best

Choosing the perfect island escape in Thailand is like buying cologne from a perfumery – there are just too many fabulous options to choose from! Your quest to choose the perfect grain of emerald jungle and turquoise sea could quickly descend into a state of dizzying confusion.

But help is at hand! While Thailand has countless islands with golden beaches, lush rainforests and dazzling coral reefs, the prime location for a first Thai island adventure is the Gulf of Thailand, where three beautiful tropical islands compete for attention of lovers of sand, sea and spices.

Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao are located right in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand, off the southern city of Surat Thani. Each offers its own unique collection of island experiences, and although they are far off the beaten track, they are an ideal way to break into the Thai island circuit.

Whether you’re a luxury lover, beach lover, party animal, wellness seeker or adventure junkie, here’s our guide to choosing your perfect island in the Gulf of Thailand.

Koh Samui

Ideal for upscale resorts, restaurants and spas

Also good for wellness retreats

Ko Samui’s indulgent riviera vibe works its magic on well-heeled travelers who aren’t afraid to splash their cash on fancy experiences. The elegant five-star resorts occupy magnificent clifftop vantage points and sprawl along white-sand beaches or amidst serene forest glades, offering luxury accommodation, fine dining experiences and expert services. relaxing spa. Anantara Bophut, W Koh Samui and Banyan Tree Samui are among the headliners here when it comes to high-end offerings.

For those inclined towards a lavish spa experience, rejuvenation centers such as Eranda Herbal Spathe Four Seasons Koh Samui Spa and Luxsa Spa take relaxation to a whole new level. In recent years, the island has also grown in popularity as a holistic detox destination, with travelers seeking realignment of mind and soul as well as lavish treatments. absolute sanctuary and Kamalayan are among the best-known wellness retreats in the country – both offer luxury all-inclusive packages based on detox, relaxation and emotional therapy.

Immersing yourself in nature is another way to recalibrate on a trip to Samui. Begin with a boat trip to nearby Ang Thong Marine National Park, a spectacular sanctuary of scattered islands defined by towering limestone cliffs that rise from sparkling lagoons. Boat rental in Koh Samui and Oceana Samui have premium boat fleets for day charters to the national park and other nearby beauty spots.

The largest of the three islands in the Gulf, Ko Samui is also known for its active nightlife, centered on lively beach establishments such as Chaweng on the east coast and Fisherman’s Village in Bo Phut on the northern tip of the island. Within these malls, you’ll find a generous handful of beachfront restaurants offering fine Mediterranean, Pan-Asian and Thai seafood, as well as plenty of bars offering delicious cocktails, wine and cold beer to accompany those great sunsets. of Sun.

There is also culture here, in the form of dotted Buddhist monasteries such as Wat Plai Laem. Other highlights include cooking classes, snorkeling excursions, and Muay Thai boxing camps.

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Ko Samui is the most accessible and developed of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, but it still has its quieter corners © daphnusia / Shutterstock

Ko Pha Ngan

Ideal for young travelers and hedonistic full moon beach parties

Also good for yoga, digital nomad life

Bohemian Ko Pha-Ngan has aged gracefully over the years. The island was once the epicenter of hedonistic excess, but following a crackdown in recent years, its legendary full moon parties are now a rather civilized affair compared to the heyday of the party scene in the 1960s. 1990. Nevertheless, the monthly Hat Rin beach party is still a rite of passage for thousands of young travelers drifting through Southeast Asia, and each full moon draws revelers to Ko Pha-Ngan like moths towards a flame.

Check the dates of the next parties in line in advance to help you plan your trip. The party kicks off on full moon night with ramshackle beachfront bars pumping out reggae and trance beats, prompting hordes of ravers to dance on the open beach that doubles as a dance floor. As the night gets livelier, fire-eaters and fireball throwers take center stage, wowing revelers with carnival-style performances.

However, the free-flowing booze and atmosphere of everything going on makes many people let their guard down along with their hair. Keep your senses on you – dealers sell questionable substances despite regular raids (with stiff penalties for possession) and thieves roam the crowds looking for unattended handbags and cellphones. Resist the urge to go swimming under the influence – there have been drownings in the past.

In recent years, Koh Pha-Ngan has also grown in popularity as a hub for digital nomads looking to mix work and life in a tropical paradise. Shared work and living spaces such as beach club, Casa Tropicana and Koh space attract teleworkers from all over the world with shared workspaces and services optimized for medium or long-term stays.

Finally, the island is a yoga and Ayurveda hotspot, which means it’s easy to detox after a sleepless night. To try Samma Karuna for packages weaving in yoga, art therapy, meditation and Ayurvedic healing, or Orion Healing Center for vegan food, reiki treatments and yoga programs.

Crowds at the Full Moon Party in Hat Rin, Koh Pha-Ngan
The monthly Full Moon Party at Hat Rin on Ko Pha-Ngan is a beacon for revelers ©4FR/Getty Images

Koh Tao

Ideal for world-class scuba diving

Also good for freediving, hiking and snorkeling

To visit Ko Tao is to spend an inordinate number of hours under its crystal clear tropical waters. The island is one of the world’s top destinations for scuba diving training, from certification courses for beginners to career courses for dive professionals. Indeed, it’s one of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world, with PADI certification courses starting at US$300.

Boasting a fabulous selection of shallow coral reefs and a handful of deeper but still easily navigable rock formations and wrecks, Ko Tao appeals to novice scuba divers and seasoned underwater explorers alike. There is a breathtaking variety of marine life to spot in these waters, including routine cameos by whale sharks, blacktip reef sharks, eagle rays, stingrays and hawksbill turtles. Top dive sites include the legendary Chumphon Pinnacle and Sail Rock.

Black Turtle Diving, Sairee Cottage Diving and The big blue dive are the best dive centers in Ko Tao in terms of facilities, equipment rental, boat services and quality of instruction. All offer customizable packages covering everyone from novices diving on weekends to future professionals booking a divemaster or instructor training spanning several weeks.

If you are interested in venturing beyond recreational diving to immersing yourself in marine conservation, dive companies such as The Coral Tribe have specially tailored courses and educational programs exploring topics such as coral reef monitoring, marine resource management and citizen science. For non-divers, shallow sites such as Hin Wong, Ao Leuk and Shark Bay offer fantastic snorkeling opportunities, with regular sightings of turtles and reef sharks early in the morning or late in the afternoon. midday.

Koh Tao also caters to people who prefer to explore the marine environment without the bulky burden of an air tank on their back. Freediving – where divers dive to depths of 30m and beyond in a single breath – is gaining ground among adventurers, and Total apnea is a trusted center for those wishing to learn this emerging discipline.

Finally, for an adventure on dry land, take a vigorous hike to one of Ko Tao’s spectacular viewpoints, such as West Coast Viewpoint, Tanote Peak Viewpoint, or of sight John Suwan. Accessible from Sairee Beach by long-tail boat, neighboring Koh Nang Yuan Island also offers delightful hiking opportunities – hiking to its summit viewpoint offers great views of Koh Tao’s east coast .

Divers explore the vibrant fish and coral life of Koh Tao
Ko Tao is the gateway to an underwater wonderland © think4photop / Shutterstock

How to get to the islands of the Gulf of Thailand

Reaching the islands in the Gulf of Thailand is easy by plane or boat. Ko Samui is served by daily flights from Bangkok and a range of other cities in Thailand and neighboring Southeast Asian countries, operated by Bangkok Airways. If you prefer to reduce your carbon footprint, regular ferries run to the islands from the mainland, with easy island-hopping connections.

Lomprayah provides inter-island connections and transfers from Chumphon, while Songserme and seatran direct boats from Don Sak and Tapee piers, both close to Surat Thani. Daily trains from Bangkok serve Surat Thani and Chumphon, continuing to the border with Malaysia.

Article originally posted by Emma Sparks.

This article was first published on December 3, 2014 and updated on February 18, 2022

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