Southeast Islands of Thailand: Koh Tao, Koh Samui + Koh Phangan

The stunning beauty of all three of these islands will immediately take your breath away the minute you land.  Welcome to the gems of southeast Thailand, where many travel and few forget to leave.

Koh Tao

As I’m sure you may have heard, Koh Tao is dubbed the dive capital of Thailand.  Tao means Turtle in Thai.  Way back when, it was completely uninhabited, aside from fishermen from neighboring islands seeking refuge or rest before continuing on their journey.  In 1933, prisoners were banished to Koh Tao, and lived among reams of turtles that inhabited the island. At first, it doesn’t sound so bad, but the island was home to really harsh conditions which made it difficult to thrive.  After a while, people (King Chulalongkorn, in particular) saw the beauty in Koh Tao and it started to develop into what it is today.  Overseas travelers started visiting the island in only the early 1980s, making it still relatively remote compared to other islands in the country.

Even though people who have been there before will tell you it is much more built up than 5-10 years ago, while true, it still maintains a laid back charm that many travelers are drawn to.

Perfect for: Divers, Snorkelers, Island Lovers, Laid Back Travelers

When: The island is affected by both NE and SW monsoons.  NE monsoon season is end of October to beginning of December, and the SW monsoon season of June to Sept is considered mild in comparison to the NE rainy season.

Stay: For a secluded getaway, stay at the Pinnacle Koh Tao Resort.  Situated on the hill side and leading down to a rocky beach, this is the perfect resort for a romantic getaway or for a small family.  The resort has a shuttle into town daily, and offers private hut rooms trickling down the hillside.  Bring good shoes to hike between the beach, pool, rooms and restaurants.  Try the pepper chicken at the hotel restaurant.  Rooms from $54 CAD ($35 USD) / night.

If you’d like to stay in the town, where life is a little more lively, there are slews of lodging options.  Stay by Sairee beach.

Worth It:

  1. Of course the diving.  However if you don’t want to shell out the cash to get your divemasters (if you don’t already have it), the snorkeling is incredible.  There are tons of different snorkel trips and outfitters – try to grab one that takes you to multiple locations, and most include lunch.
  2. Check out the Koh Tao Pub Crawl – A must for backpackers and checks a lot of boxes on a Koh Tao To Do List.
  3. Traveling as a couple or a couple friends?  You can learn how to massage each other, Thai style, in a 2 hour course for about 2000B. Ask your hotel reception for some recommendations.

Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan (Ko Pha Ngan) is the middle of the three islands.  Home to the Full and Half Moon parties, this hippie island is dubbed as the party island, but there are also a lot of quieter spots, perfect for catching some z’s and relaxing rays.

Party-Goers – stay in lively section on Hat Rin.  One week per month, this area typically sees an influx of 30,000 people.  Book accommodation and travel at least a few days in advance.

Mellow Travelers – stay almost anywhere else on the island, or even on Hat Rin during non-moon party times.

Above: Thong Nai Pan Yai Beach

Perfect for: Everyone, and there are resorts who cater to families in the northern, more remote areas.

When: Avoid rainy months (unless that’s your thing) September through November. All other months are fair game, while getting general, rainy days throughout the year. June to August can see rainy days as well, but typically not as much as September and November.

Stay: The south western tip is the lively section, with the full and half moon parties as well as an incredible beach and loads of places to stay.  The western side is a bit quieter with spots for kiteboarding, (we stayed at the Milky Bay Resort, about $50 CAD ($32 USD)/night) and access to the Jungle Party; while the northern side is even quieter with secluded beaches and waterfalls throughout pockets of the coastal landscape. (We stayed at Dreamland Resort for about $26 CAD ($18 USD)/night, which turned out to be one of the best places we stayed on our trip.  Spring for air conditioning if you’re coming from colder climates until you acclimatize to the heat)

Access: When you land at the ferry dock, catch a taxi (open air truck) to your destination.

Worth It: Wipe Out Course.  Have you seen the show Wipe Out?  There is a course on Koh Phangan where you can try your luck.  They also have a bar overlooking the course if you want to people watch.

Koh Samui

Ahhh… Koh Samui.  Home to great beaches and loads of resorts, restaurants and bars suited towards any taste.  Samui is the most popular and the most built up of the three islands.

Stay: Deva Samui Resort & Spa – yes, this is a bit swanky and it’s off the main beach, but great for couples, friends or families wanting to relax away from the hustle & bustle.

For backpackers, there are plenty of hostels and affordable hotels along the Eastern coast.  Check out Ark Bar on Chaweng Beach to stay or for a night out.  Lamai Beach near the southern tip of the island hosts a lot of options for price-conscious travelers.

Perfect For: All travelers will find something they love here.

Worth It:

  1. Jungle Tour, complete with zip-lining through the jungle, elephant viewing (and not in the sad way), hiking to waterfalls, charming markets and super fun (read: borderline dangerous) waterslides through the trees.  Ask your hotel reception for bookings.
  2.  If you have the funds, get some friends together and rent a boat with crew (about 12,000B) for a sunset cruise.  Bring your own drinks and spend the afternoon jumping off the boat into perfect turquoise waters.
  3. Angthong Marine Park Tour – kayak your way through this national marine park among the sea life.  Hike and snorkel in protected areas.

How to Get There

From Bangkok

Fly, Ferry: Fly to Koh Samui, and take the ferry to neighboring islands (I recommend Ferry Samui

Bus, Ferry: Bus from Bangkok to Chumpon and Ferry to the islands

Train*, Ferry: Day or Night Train to Chumpon or Surat Thani, Ferry to the islands

An excellent website to view and book different travel options is Rome2Rio.

*If you think you’ll get any sort of sleep on the overnight train, you may (will) be sorely mistaken, unless you are some sort of an incredibly deep sleeper.  However, it is a great way to save on hotel accommodation if you don’t mind bumping along the old train tracks. Plus, you get to lay down on a semi-comfy bed.

Warning: Do not purchase first class overnight train tickets.  A well known scam in Thailand is to sell you first class train tickets, and then the train conveniently doesn’t show up, and you’re put on a downgraded train that you were upsold in the first place.

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