Which Thai island is the best?
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Ah, the islands of Thailand. Yes, they are as luscious and sumptuous as you imagine. Maybe even more than you imagine. Depends on which islands you go to, and even more important: what your expectations are. For now, I have only seen a couple of them, but they definitely met my expectations. Of course, to be able to truthfully answer the question from the headline, I would have to visit each and every one of them (which I didn't). And even then, the answer might differ depending on your preferences. While I cannot say something about all of them, I can sure as hell say some nice things about a few of them.
To begin with Koh Pha Ngan: this island it was not on my destination list at all. From what I’ve read about it, I got the impression that it is an all-out party island, overrun with hordes of non-stop dead-drunk tourists (I would point fingers to specific countries, but I’ll just let your imagination and experience fill out the blanks here) yelling, staggering around, vomiting and generally behaving like untrained apes. I wanted to avoid that. What I wanted was an island which is beautiful, pristine, and generally quiet, but which still has some night life, a few bars and parties you can go to in the evening, listen to music and celebrate the new year’s eve (since I was staying on the islands over the new year). So, how did I end up in Koh Pha Ngan?
A testimony by a friend of mine from Bangkok convinced me. According to her, Koh Pha Ngan was actually a very quiet island, with a plethora of nice uncrowded beaches and off-the-beaten-path roads you could take. It was only for the infamous full moon parties when flocks of party-goers come to rave on Koh Pha Ngan, and even then, the booming and blasting only takes place on the beaches of Haad Rin, in the southernmost part of Koh Pha Ngan.
I decided to trust her opinion and she was right! I chose westward-facing Haad Yao beach as my base and settled into a cosy hotel on the north end, with a view of the entire beach. From there, I explored the island with a motorbike, visiting plenty of different spots. Haad Yao has eye-watering sunsets, a fantastic sandy beach which was not at all crowded during the day, and a couple of chillout bars with delicious cocktails and groovy house music, perfect for chilling out after a hard day’s work of relaxing on the beach, trekking in the jungle and swimming in gorgeous turquoise waters. Not to mention the super-cool Zen beach, just a short bike ride from Haad Yao. Zen beach gathers a fascinating crowd every evening at sunset, playing percussion instruments, drums, saxophone, singing and dancing. All you have to do is sink in a beach chair, order a drink and enjoy the show (or join in the festivities)! Then there is Secret beach, Mae Haad beach, Thong Lang beach, etc., - you name it, one more pretty than the other, all within a short drive. Then there are a few waterfalls and ponds where you can cool off, if you've had enough saltwater. There are also some interesting trekking paths. Fortunately, Koh Pha Ngan does not have an airport. This means it is a bit less accessible than its larger neighbour Koh Samui, and thus less crowded.
Mu Koh Angthong
A day trip to Mu Koh Angthong national park also ranks very high on my list of recommendations. Imagine kayaking under spectacular limestone cliffs, snorkeling in crystal clear waters, enjoying amazing views from the viewpoint towering above the park, and seeing the splendid Emerald Lake. The latter looks soooo good that you can hardly resist jumping in from the viewing platform and taking a swim in the mesmerizing, sparkling green waters (it is forbidden and punishable by a hefty fee, of course).
If you are more like "fuck nature, where is the booze and the groove??" you don't have to look very far. The parties on Ko Pha Ngan gather quite a crowd. Be it the Jungle Experience with music booming in the middle of the forest, or the Full Moon party when it is hands down and all in howl fest at the Haad Rin beach. Supposedly it all started with full moon parties, which actually only took place on full moon. Now they also have half-moon parties, dark moon parties, and so on. The 31st December 2019 was nowhere near a full moon, yet they named it a "Special edition New Year Full Moon Party". But who cares, anyway? :) As long as the music is blasting and the buckets are flowing. It was not bad, but nothing I would really preach about - basically just a huge long beach with a whole lot of people, loads of buckets filled with all kinds of alcohol, and an endless row of beach bars all playing music, so basically you have two choices: either you pick the one you like best and party there, or go from one to the other, sampling them all. It is good fun, though not something I would really crave to experience again.
I've been on Koh Tao twice. First for a couple of days in January, when I came to do my Open Water Diver certification. The second time I was there for 6 weeks during March-May 2020, because I chose Koh Tao as the place to wait out the worst of the coronavirus pandemic (you can read more about the experience in the Corona Diary post). During my two visits, I got to know Koh Tao very well, and I can say without a blink of an eye that it is a thoroughly amazing small island. If you google it, please ignore the articles about it being deadly, dangerous and having dark secrets...blah blah. I can honestly say that is rubbish. Koh Tao is amazing and lovely.
First and foremost to mention is the underwater world of Koh Tao. It is a world-wide known diving destination. Around 80 diving schools are operating on the island, churning out diving certificates at very affordable prices. Rich marine life and warm tropical waters are a great combination for an exciting time under the surface of the sea.
If you are looking to obtain a dive certificate in Koh Tao, I highly recommend 'Roctopus' dive school. These guys are really professional, efficient, and super cool. Dive courses are conducted in small groups (max 4) and their instructors are well-trained. In addition, they are a bunch of super fun guys (and girls) so you are guaranteed to have a good time and a lot of fun doing the certificate (no, I do not get any commission from them).
Apart from diving, Koh Tao also has beautiful beaches (some only accessible by boat or a strenuous trek through the jungle). There are ample opportunities for trekking, snorkelling, and kayaking, not to mention a great foodie experience in numerous excellent restaurants. There is also some nightlife, although it cannot match that on the much larger islands of Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Samui. What makes Koh Tao a bit special is that quite a few expats are living on the island. Koh Tao boasts above-average infrastructure - meaning very decent roads, a good hospital and accessibility of various foodstuffs and other goods which might not be available on other islands.
Koh Tao means "Turtle Island". I wish I could tell you that this derives from the many turtles living there, but I cannot. The island got its name after its shape which was said to resemble a turtle from a certain vantage point. Although there was a significant number of turtles on the island years ago, now they are very rare, so you have to be a bit lucky to see them. I saw a turtle a couple times, of which one encounter was particularly memorable: I was snorkeling in Shark Bay, looking for turtles and sharks. After one hour of zero success, I got tired and started swimming back to the shore - I was quite far off. Suddenly, out of the dark blue water below me, a big turtle (must have been more than 1,5 meter head to tail) cruised directly beneath me, as if saying hello. It is something really amazing to see a turtle in the water, especially one of this size - so elegant, smooth and with perfect buoyancy, they swim with grace and ease surpassing that of any human.
Koh Nang Yuan
This jaw-dropping speck of land is located just off shore from Koh Tao and was once voted the most beautiful island of Thailand. It consists of two small islets, connected by a stretch of white sand. Boats depart all day long from Koh Tao Sairee beach to Koh Nang Yuan and back. In an effort to preserve the environment of the island, bringing of any plastic bottles to the island is strictly forbidden. For a price, you can also stay on Koh Nang Yuan in one of the very few apartments and bungalows they have available on the island.