Today we’re going to look at the best islands in Thailand, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. While 2020 and 2021 were quiet years for the Thai tourist industry with the country implementing strict entry requirements, all the signs are that Thailand is planning to gradually open back up in 2022 and it may be a great year to visit if you are looking for a bit of peace and quiet in a beautiful location before visitor numbers fully pick up again in the main destinations.
Thailand has dozens of islands to choose from in both the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand. However the experience you will have will largely depend on which ones you choose to visit as no two are the same. Determining the best island in Thailand will depend on what you’re looking for and hopefully this post will point you in the right direction.
Best Islands in Thailand for Backpackers
A typical Thailand backpacking route might take in Ko Tao, Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Phi Phi with other islands optional add-ons according to what you are after. Those three islands all offer budget accommodation, beautiful beaches and party atmospheres although there are a few differences between the three which may help you decide where to spend the longest.
Ko Tao is the most remote of three, located around 45 km north of Pha-ngan and 90 km from the ferry port of Chumphon on the Thai mainland. With very little in between, there is a greater sense of being cut off from modern civilization on Ko Tao which is less commercialised and hasn’t seen as many major tourist developments, largely due to the lack of an airport on the island or nearby which makes it more difficult to get to.
Ko Pha-ngan is comfortably the largest of these three islands and can largely be split into two halves. The south of the island, particularly around Haad Rin is party central and serves up a mixture of resorts and party hostels. The north is much quieter and where you will find more of the cheap beach bungalows and rustic accommodation that was more common in Thailand during the latter part of the 20th Century.
Ko Phi Phi is much smaller so it’s far more difficult to escape the crowds but is another essential stop for most backpackers. Both Phi Phi Don, which is where travellers stay in a bustling little beach town, and the uninhabited Phi Phi Le are naturally incredibly beautiful islands. However overcrowding was getting so bad that Thai officials closed the famous Maya Ba on Phi Phi Le (where the movie The Beach was set) in 2018 for a number of years to help preserve the natural environment. It has only just reopened in January 2022, although swimming is still not permitted.
Best Party Islands in Thailand
Thailand’s most famous party island is Ko Pha-ngan, where during normal times the infamous full moon parties take place once a month. The all-night raves take place the length of Haad Rin beach and attract tens of thousands of hedonistic revellers during peak times, although they have been put on hold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are also pool and forest parties leading up to the big event as well as half-moon/dark moon parties in the weeks when the moon isn’t full although these have been suspended too.
Phi Phi Don also offers a similar vibe of budget travellers buying cocktail buckets from street stands or beers from supermarkets or beach bars and spending all night drinking and dancing on the beach with the customary fire displays providing the backdrop. It’s not a massively different experience from Pha-ngan in truth, but does have some really cool bars (don’t miss Reggae Bar!) and the setting is more spectacular.
If the whole backpacker party scene isn’t really your thing, there are plenty of alternative options. Ko Samet is seen as the unofficial gay party island and is popular with visitors from Bangkok due to its proximity to the Thai capital.
The much larger Ko Samui and Phuket also have plenty of lively resorts and the largest ranges of bars and pubs to choose from with some good live music offerings too. While there are seedier aspects to partying on both islands than you find on some of the others, they are relatively easy to avoid.
Best Quiet Islands in Thailand
Escaping the crowds in Thailand is not as easy as it once was (although the pandemic may help with that!). As well as the millions of western visitors who descended on the country each year in the 2010’s, Thailand was also increasingly turning its attention to attracting Chinese tourists and that was very evident in some of the most popular destinations which had become full of Chinese tour groups before Covid-19 changed everything.
2022 may turn out to be a year when even some of Thailand’s most popular islands remain relatively quiet but when things do get back to normal, you’ll probably want to avoid the islands mentioned above if you’re looking for peace and tranquility.
Your best options for a quiet Thai island experience include Ko Lanta, a flat island which is relatively easy to explore by bicycle or motorbike and is located just off Krabi province with easy access to the mainland. To further escape the crowds, head south to Ko Taratao, near the Malaysian border. Taratao has a really wild feel to it and is a beautiful place to camp or find a beach bungalow.
Other options to consider include car-free Ko Phayam and the white sandy beaches of Ko Similan, known for being one of the best islands in Thailand for snorkeling.
Best Islands for Activities & Things to do
If you’re looking for an active kind of trip to Thailand then the outlook is again quite different, although most islands have things to offer besides just eating, drinking and lounging around on the bench.
Phuket is a good option if you’re looking to get out and explore with loads of trips and excursions possible whether you’re looking to rent a vehicle and do your own thing or join something more organised. The central parts of the island are full of waterfalls, hills and spa retreats while Phuket Town is also worth a visit for its popular weekend market. Most of the action is on the coast though where you can choose from boat trips, surfing, freediving, snorkelling, scuba diving and much more.
Ko Samui is another solid all-round option with an abundance of activities that will appeal to everyone from families with children to couples and solo travellers. There you will find temples, museums, aquariums and zoos, along with a vast selection of beaches to explore.
The Similan Islands, located north of Thailand in the Andaman Sea are also worth considering if you’re looking for an active trip and it’s considered the best place in Thailand for diving, although it does depend on the time of year with December to April the best time to visit. It’s a great place to do your PADI course if you’re a beginner (Ko Tao is also a good option for this).
Popular Thai Islands – Ranked by Size
|Island||Size in km squared|
|Ko Lanta Yai||81|
|Ko Phi Phi Don||10|
|Ko Phi Phi Le||7|
The above list features ten of the most popular and most beautiful islands and hopefully demonstrates the vast differences in size between some of them. Phuket island is the largest in Thailand covering over 500 km squared and that’s excluding the many small islets that are dotted around it.
It is around 50 times the size of nearby Ko Phi Phi Don which is so small, you can get to most places by foot, although the hilly terrain does make reaching the more remote parts of the island tricky.
This post on the most popular islands in Thailand was published in January 2022.