by Roy Cavanagh
Visitors to Thailand looking for an idyllic island retreat are spoilt for choice. Whether it’s a family holiday, romantic getaway or a solo adventure, there is a Thai island or beach resort to suit every style of travel. And in the Gulf of Thailand you will find a trio of tropical islands waiting to entice you. These are: Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao.
Ko Samui is the biggest and most developed of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. With wonderful beaches, excellent hotels and ease of access, Ko Samui attracts a diverse range of visitors. Testament to Ko Samui’s enduring popularity is the number of repeat visitors who are drawn back year after year to the soft sandy beaches and warm aquamarine waters .
Where to stay on Ko Samui
There are a number of beaches to choose from on Ko Samui with the two longest stretches of sand, Chaweng and Lamai, offering the widest range of accommodation options.
Bangrak (Big Buddha Beach)
Watched over by the Big Buddha on the hill at one end of the beach, Bangrak offers a relaxed atmosphere. The beach at Bangrak is attractive rather than stunning and staying here you will see and hear the occasional aircraft arriving and departing from the nearby airport. Apart from that, this is a generally quiet beach with convenient access to the Fisherman’s Village at Bophut in one direction and the shops and nightlife of Chaweng in the other.
Bophut Beach is one of the most charming places to stay on Ko Samui. As with Bangrak, the beach at Bophut rates as average by Samui’s high standards, but the views are pleasant and there is a local feel here thanks to the Fisherman’s Village. Although the area has attracted more development in recent years, Bophut retains much of its original charm. With a small shopping mall, a range of accommodation options and a selection of cafes and restaurants, Bophut is an excellent choice for families or couples.
The sweeping expanse of soft sand that makes up Chaweng Beach (and the adjacent Chaweng Noi) is regarded by many Samui regulars as the most attractive beach on the island. It’s also one of the most developed areas on Ko Samui which may or may not appeal depending on what you are looking for. Fortunately, Chaweng Beach itself has retained its natural beauty and the development that has taken place in Chaweng Village has not blighted the beachfront. The variety and choice of accommodation coupled with a plethora of restaurants and plenty of things to do make Chaweng a popular choice for a range of visitors. Whether it’s families, solo travellers or couples, Chaweng has enough going on to keep most people happy. There is nightlife to be found in and around Soi Green Mango and Soi Reggae whist those looking for a romantic setting can enjoy candlelit dinners or evening drinks on the beach.
KC Resort Over Water Villas (between Chaweng and Bophut)
The beautiful bay of Choeng Mon is tucked away in the north-east tip of Ko Samui. With a more exclusive feel to this part of the island, Choeng Mon tends to attract couples looking for a quiet retreat. The beach area at Choeng Mon is a lovely mix of sandy beach interspersed with rocky coves set against a backdrop of casuarina and palm trees.
Along with Chaweng, the beach at Lamai is the most popular on Ko Samui. The attractive white-sand beach at Lamai stretches for around two miles and makes for delightful walks. Similar to Chaweng, the wide range of accommodation options on Lamai attracts a diverse range of visitors including families, backpackers and couples. There is nightlife here too with a cluster of bars and of an array of restaurants to choose from.
With calm waters and some of the best sunsets you will see on Ko Samui, Lipa Noi makes for a relaxing stay. Although the beach isn’t as pristine as others on Samui, if you are looking for a quiet beach away from the busier alternatives, Lipa Noi is worth considering.
The long and understated stretch of sand that forms Maenam Beach has traditionally been a favourite for budget travellers but has also found favour with repeat visitors to Ko Samui. Maenam is a good choice for a relaxing holiday with value-for-money accommodation to be found alongside the more expensive hotels.
As one of the quieter beach locations on Ko Samui, there is a distinct charm to Taling Ngam. The area still feels like it belongs to the local community and with fine views looking out to the nearby islands, Taling Ngam is an excellent choice for those seeking some serenity and solitude.
What to see and do on Ko Samui
If you visit Ko Samui, don’t miss the opportunity to take a trip out to the gorgeous Ang Thong National Marine Park. The myriad of islands off the coast of Samui were once a haven for pirate ships, but these days it’s tourists who board the boats in search of natural treasures in the form of isolated beaches and hidden caves.
Although tourism is vital to the local economy on Ko Samui, there are still local families on the island who make their living in the traditional way from fishing and from the coconut plantations just as generations before them did. Explore some of the local culture of Ko Samui with a half-day or full-day bicycle tour. For more examples of local culture, some lovely old wooden houses and shops can be found in the Fisherman’s Village at Bophut which also hosts an excellent night market every Friday.
At the southern end of Lamai Bay, the rock formations of Hin Ta (Grandfather Rock) and Hin Yai (Grandmother Rock) feature on all Ko Samui day tours. Located in close proximity, Hin Ta and Hin Yai are renowned because they resemble the male and female sexual organs which usually leads to ribald comments when photos of the rocks are posted on social media.
Wat Phra Yai is the temple which is home to the Big Buddha statue and the walk up the stairs to the viewing platform provides fine views over the ocean. Two more temples of note are Wat Khunaram and Wat Kiri Wongkaram. Both temples contain glass display cases which hold the mummified remains of two famous monks. The bodies can appear macabre to non-Buddhists, but the figures also serve as a powerful reminder that nothing in life is permanent.
If you are looking to do something active during your holiday, there are an abundance of options on Ko Samui. You can try your hand at kiteboarding and golfers should take the opportunity to play a round at the scenic 18-hole Santorini Golf Course. If you’re worried your golf skills won’t do the course justice take a look at two fun alternatives: frisbee golf and football golf. For Thai boxing fans, you can train with Muay Thai at Superpro (they also offer yoga and MMA classes) or Lamai Muay Thai camp who offer classes for all ages and all levels of fitness.
Ko Pha Ngan
If Ko Samui seems a little too mainstream for your taste, the neighbouring island of Ko Pha Ngan offers a different experience. Ko Pha Ngan has its fair share of beautiful beaches, but with much of the interior covered by tropical forest this is an island which is great for those who like to trek or connect with nature. The island also has a reputation for being a spiritual location with a number of yoga, meditation, and detox centres on the island. Ko Pha Ngan is also famous, some would say infamous, for the Full Moon Party. Enjoy the party, but do keep your wits about you and exercise caution.
Where to stay on Ko Pha Ngan
Hat Rin is the party beach and one which attracts a generally younger crowd. Fortunately for those of us of a certain age or those who don’t want to party, there are quieter alternatives elsewhere on Ko Pha Ngan. Hat Yao and Hat Salad on the west coast are both excellent choices for those in search of serenity, but not isolation. And on the eastern side of the island, attractive Thong Nai Pan has historically been a favourite with the Thai royal family with neighbouring Hat Khuat (Bottle Beach) providing another scenic location.
What to see and do on Ko Pha Ngan
Take a guided bicycle tour of Ko Pha Ngan to explore the verdant jungle, waterfalls, coconut plantations and other local highlights. You can also go trekking on Ko Pha Ngan although it’s recommended to go on a guided trip. Flight of the Gibbon is due to open a zipline operation soon on the island.
Ko Tao is located further away from Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, but the picturesque island is well connected with regular ferry services linking all three islands. With its name translating as ‘Turtle Island’ it’s apt that Ko Tao is one of the best places in Thailand to dive or learn to dive.
Where to stay on Ko Tao
Ferry services arrive at Mae Haad Pier and this area is home to some good value accommodation and arguably the pick of the island’s dining options. Just along from the pier you will find Sairee Beach, the most popular beach on Ko Tao with the biggest choice of accommodation, bars and restaurants. Freedom Beach provides convenient access to the gorgeous John-Suwan viewpoint and over on the east coast, Ao Tanote has the bonus of an attractive setting with a good mix of accommodation and restaurants, There are numerous small bays and beaches to be found on Ko Tao and with the compact size of the island hiking between them is an option. Alternatively, hire a longtail taxi boat for an island tour.
What to see and do on Ko Tao
With a reputation as one the best dive locations in the region, many visitors come to Ko Tao to complete PADI courses and to enjoy the wonderful diving and snorkelling opportunities in the waters around the island. And when you add in a thriving social scene and beautiful beaches, it’s not difficult to see why Ko Tao is so popular with the diving community who get to experience life underwater with whale sharks, giant barracuda, moray eels, butterfly fish, turtles and many other species of marine life. Popular dive spots nearby include Sail Rock and Chumphon Pinnacle.
If diving isn’t your thing, you can still enjoy the natural beauty of the area from above the water. Take a hike up to some of the stunning viewpoints on Ko Tao especially John-Suwan on the southern tip of the island and Mango Viewpoint in the north. For one of the most exquisite views found anywhere in the Gulf of Thailand, head over to the neighbouring island of Ko Nang Yuan and make the walk up to the viewpoint for stunning vistas.
Food and drink on the islands
Food tends to be more expensive on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand compared to the mainland. There is, though, something special about eating locally caught seafood on the beach. Feeling the sand beneath your feet, listening to the sound of the waves and gazing at the stars shining above is part of what makes a Thailand beach holiday so memorable. There are dozens of casual beachside restaurants on Ko Samui, Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan so it’s a case of finding your favourite one closest to where you’re staying.
On Ko Samui, Fisherman’s Village in Bophut is home to some very good restaurants. Try the atmospheric Happy Elephant or for a special treat head to the award-winning Dining on the Rocks at Six Senses with panoramic views of the Gulf of Thailand. For families and children you will find many Western favourites in Chaweng and Lamai together with a good selection of local food stalls and cafes. Ark Bar on Chaweng is the place to go if you want your Massaman curry served with a sassy side order of house music.
Best time to visit Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao
The islands of the Gulf of Thailand are affected by different weather systems compared to the Andaman Coast and other locations in Thailand. Although temperatures remain high throughout the year, there are variations in monthly rainfall. Like the rest of Thailand, there can be seasonal variations and heavy rain can arrive during the dry season, just as the wet season can see periods of uninterrupted sunshine.
January to March are statistically the driest months of the year for the islands in the Gulf of Thailand with late December through to March and early April corresponding with the tourist high season. March through to May are the hottest months with temperatures dropping off slightly in June ahead of more mixed weather. The south-west monsoon usually blows in from late June/early July through to October and the islands in the Gulf of Thailand can experience blustery winds and rain. November is traditionally the wettest month, but the rain tends to come in short, intense downpours. The seas can be rough during this time as storms blow in. Some years there can be heavy rain and localised flooding on Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan at the end of November and beginning of December. But the weather usually quietens down by mid-December with prolonged periods of sunshine and blue skies the norm. Tide and currents can be deceptive and at all times of the year, please take note of warning flags and no swimming signs.
Travel to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao
The only airport on the three islands is located on Ko Samui with flights operated by Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways. There are direct flights to Ko Samui international airport from locations including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya (U-Tapao) and Phuket. Try to bag a window seat for glorious views of the surrounding islands as you fly in or out of Ko Samui and have your camera ready on arrival at the delightful tropical airport.
Work did begin on a small airport on Ko Pha Ngan, but the original plan has hit a number of stumbling blocks and it’s unknown whether the project will ever be completed. On the mainland, visitors can fly to Surat Thani airport from where a connecting bus and boat service will take you to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Tao. There is also an airport at Chumphon for onward boat connections to Ko Tao. Check flight timetables with Air Asia, Nok Air and Thai Airways. With regular ferry services between the trio of islands, there is no reason why visitors can’t enjoy all three of them during a two-week trip to Thailand. Check boat timetables in the links below:
If you prefer slow travel, the overnight train or bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani (for Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan) is another option. For travel to Ko Tao, you can get off at Chumphon for connecting boat services.
by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com
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