Thailand has been a popular tourist destination for some time now, and while the north boasts stunning mountain scenery, trekking, and elephant sanctuaries (please make sure they are truly ethical!), and the cities offer exceptional night markets with even more exceptional food, any trip to the country would not be complete without some beaches and a few islands. The problem with these islands though, over tourism. The numbers I’ve heard in regards to how many drunken foreigners pour into the island of Ko Pha-ngan for each and every full moon party is staggering. And the same rings true for many of the popular islands which dot both the east and west of the Thai coast. So, when I set out for a three-week trip from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur I had one rule, if I’d heard of it, I wouldn’t go. Following that I ended up on some of the most exceptional islands, free of beaches littered with empty beer cans and vomiting Aussies, full instead with only open roads, unexploited hilltops, and beaches full of shells, sand, and crashing waves. So, here is my Thailand island hopping itinerary.
I started my trip in Phuket. Phuket is a big island off the west coast of Thailand, and while it’s definitely a place I’d heard of, I needed an entry point somewhere and from Phuket island hopping is pretty straightforward.
How to get to Phuket
While you can fly directly into Phuket airport, my flight was in to Bangkok which meant I had to make my way to Phuket by land (though I could have caught a connecting flight, I’m cheap). The way to do this is to get an overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani where you will need to switch to a bus down to Krabi. The entire trip should take about 12 hours. While it is better to fly directly into Phuket if that’s feasible, the sleeper trains in Thailand are genuinely quite comfortable. Be sure to book a first class ticket, which you can do at the train station in Bangkok, or in advance online.
Where to stay in Phuket
I stayed in an Airbnb guest house which I don’t necessarily recommend, but I do recommend the area, which is called Patong Beach. It is a bit wild come the midnight hour, but you don’t have to partake in that behavior, and considering we’re here to avoid the drunken Aussies you might just use this area as a place to get a nights sleep before heading out to the beaches, or you might not stay at all. But if you do stay, here is some of the best accommodation in Phuket:
Lub d Phuket – hostel – about $15/night/bed
The Bliss South Beach Patong – beachfront – about $55/night/double room
Impiana Resort Patong – beachfront resort – about $185/night/double room
What to do in Phuket
One of the best things you can do on almost any of the islands mentioned here is rent a motorbike and go exploring. While the thought of mounting one of these little beasts can be intimidating, you can, and should, take it slow to stay safe. Also, I have some tips for driving abroad. But, regardless of how slow you take it, how many tips you get, or how experienced you are, you should absolutely make sure you have travel insurance before driving anything overseas, or going overseas for that matter.
Once you’ve got your insurance and motorbike you can start exploring the rather large island of Phuket. Head down to Kata Noi Beach, about a 20 minute drive south of Patong Beach, and then carry on to the Big Buddha, which sits inland and takes about 30 minutes more of driving. If a motorbike is totally out of the question for you, you can book a day tour or a private driver to take you where you want to go.
Something a bit different to do while in Phuket is to visit the Soi Dog Foundation. The foundation runs vaccination and neuter programs for street dogs and runs a shelter and adoption programs for dogs which are not able to be released. This is a great way to support those doing good work for the local K9 community while also getting some puppy cuddles on holiday. Check opening hours online.
There are also plenty of snorkeling day trips you can take from Phuket, but I recommend saving those for when you are out on the smaller islands.
I recommend giving yourself two nights and one full day on Phuket. Make getting out to the smaller islands your priority.
Koh Yao Noi
Next stop, Koh Yao Noi. You’ll see ‘Koh’s all over Thailand (sometimes written ‘ko’), this transliterated word means ‘island’ you might also see two words associated with these islands ‘noi’ and ‘yai’ these translate to small and big, respectively. So you are now headed to the small Yao island.
How to get to Koh Yao Noi
To make your way from Phuket to Koh Yao Noi you’ll need to head to Bang Rong pier. Be very sure you tell your tuk tuk or taxi driver that specific name. Drivers will be quite used to taking tourists to Rassada Pier, which is where ferries to Phi Phi islands go from. So be sure to communicate which pier you need to go to.
From Bang Rong pier the journey is either about 30 minutes on a speedboat or 60 minutes on a longtail. Between the hours of 7:40 AM and 5:30 PM boats run regularly with the longest wait time between two being an hour and fifteen minutes. The cost of a ticket is 120 baht per person on the longtails and 150 on the speedboats.
When you arrive at the pier on Koh Yao Noi there will be plenty of drivers looking to drive you to your accommodation. Do not pay more than 100 baht per person, no matter where on the island you’re going.
Where to stay on Koh Yao Noi
Koh Yao Noi is, as explained above, described as small, so you’re never going to be far from anything. It would take you about 20 minutes to drive from one end of the island to the other. But, generally speaking, the east side of the island is a bit more lively and touristy (though touristy is used very lightly here) than the west side. But, west side means sunset. So, here are your picks.
Cha Bungalow – beachfront – about $20/night/double room
The Simple – hotel – about $45/night/double room
The Island Hideout – bungalows – about $170/double room
What to do on Koh Yao Noi
Again, you’re going to want to rent a motorbike, at least for one of your days on the island. Most likely you can rent from your accommodation. You should expect to pay between 250-350 baht per day for a set of wheels.
Once you have wheels, jump onto the unnamed road which loops around the island, and explore. One spot not to be missed is on the west side of the island where a village built on stilts reaches out into the sea, and amidst it is a beautiful, empty pier which, at high tide, is one of the most undiscovered Instagram photo-ops there ever was. I can only imagine what I could do with this place if I just prioritized a ball gown, iron, and hair straightener in my backpack… Then, when you’re done with your photoshoot, pop open your zipper and feast on delicious, fresh seafood at one of the restaurants on shore.
Once you’ve finished exploring the island, it’s time to hit the surrounding seas. Rent a kayak from whoever has the best price near Tha Khao Pier, jump in the water and turn left. It’s a long paddle and not an easy one considering you’re in the ocean, but making your way to Kudu Yai Island is 100% worth it. Think Maya Bay, the beach made famous by the movie The Beach which will continue to be shut for multiple years due to the over tourism which resulted from its fame, except without a single other human. It’s stunning. I highly recommend being well prepared for a full day out in the sun. That means pack snacks and water but also a hat, reef-safe and waterproof sunscreen, plus a UV top to protect you as you paddle.
If you’re into relaxing islands with little to do and few people around, plan to stay a few days in Koh Yao Noi. At minimum, give yourself two full days and three nights.
Tonsai is not actually an island, but it is only accessible by boat as it’s sheltered from the rest of the Krabi mainland by karst mountains which you cannot travel through. The draw here is the rock climbing, the same as it is in neighboring Railay Beach. If you’re looking for something a bit more glamorous, Railay is your best bet, but if you’re into the vibes that come along with generators which only run for certain hours of the night, then Tonsai is where you should stay. Either way, you can walk easily between the two.
How to get to Tonsai
You’ll take a ferry from Koh Yao Noi to Ao Nang which will set off from Manoh pier, where you arrived. It’s best to get timing info from the dock the day before your planned departure. There will also be someone there to sell you a ticket, in advance, or on the day of. From Ao Nang you need to get on a long tail for a short ride to Tonsai. Just let the many men eager to take your money direct you towards the right boat. They’re not scamming you, they’re just eager little beavers.
Where to stay in Tonsai
Expect things to be a bit rough and ready here in Tonsai. Fans run when the generators do, so be ok with some sweaty evenings.
Chillout bar + bungalow – this is where I stayed, and ate almost all my meals – about $15/night/double fan bungalow
Tonsai Bay Resort – villas – about $30/night/double room
Bhu Nga Thani Resort + Spa (this is on nearby Railay Beach – there are no luxury options in Tonsai) – resort – about $95/night/double
What to do in Tonsai
You’ve come here to climb, so definitely do that. There are easily bookable climbs for all levels. You definitely do not need to have your own equipment or even any know-how. Generally, the lower level climbing is at Railay, while higher skilled climbs are in Tonsai, but you can book all level tours from either beach and you’ll just be guided to wherever you need to go. Your accommodation can most likely book for you, otherwise there are plenty of little kiosks around which offer a variety of tour options for all levels. If you’d like to book in advance, take a look at The Rock Shop Tonsai which offers courses for all levels starting at about $32 for a half day. These, along with full and multi day courses can be booked via their online enquiry form.
Once your body is properly worn out from pulling itself up limestone cliff faces, head out for a day of snorkeling the nearby waters. Snorkeling day trips are easily bookable just as you booked your climbing trip. The kiosks sell it all. Generally, the trips include lunch on one of the small islands in the area as well as snorkeling gear and transport on the boat. Hot tip: those snorkeling masks are very questionably cleaned, I’d recommend picking up your own snorkel at one of the little shops in Railay or packing one for your trip. You can choose to either do a trip around the four islands which are; Chicken Island, Tub Island, Podah Island, and Phanang cave. The other option is the HONG group island tour which includes five islands.
While Tonsai was lovely, I left it with food poisoning. Realistically, this is an unavoidable risk of South East Asian travel, but it’s worthwhile to be especially careful in spots where generators are used which could mean questionable access to cleaning facilities. So, be a little more diligent with your choice of food here and pack some electrolytes just in case (Imodium isn’t something you want to take when you have food poisoning as the bacteria really just needs to get out of your system – by whatever means it might need to take). I mentioned earlier that I ate almost all of my meals at Chillout bar, this was not the culprit of my food poisoning, but rather the single meal which I ate elsewhere at a place I do not remember the name of.
If you’re super into climbing, Tonsai is a place to give priority to. Otherwise, spend at minimum two full days and three nights here.
Let me be real, I spent my time on Koh Jum in close proximity to the toilet due to the previously mentioned food positing acquired in Tonsai. And as I moved away, my travel companion moved in. But it was a perfect place to do nothing but lay on the beach regaining strength and bodily fluids. So, whether or not a multitude of daily visits to the toilet is in your itinerary, Koh Jum is perfect for recharging.
How to get to Koh Jum
You’ll need to take the same long tail boat ride back to Ao Nang that you took to get to Tonsai. From there you’ll take the ferry to Koh Jum. You should be able to buy the tickets for this trip from the same kiosks where you bought your climbing and snorkeling trips, or you can wait until you get to Ao Nang, the price will be the same so it will certainly be more convenient to have the tickets in your hand before you arrive to the hectic Ao Nang harbor. The trip from Ao Nang to Koh Jum takes about 40 minutes and shouldn’t cost more than 650 baht per person. Know that the ferry you are on may stop just off the coast of Koh Jum where you and your luggage will be transferred to a longtail to take you to the shore as the ferry and the majority of its occupants carry on to the more populous islands
Where to stay in Koh Jum
The southwest coast of the island is most populated with hotels and restaurants, though still vary sparsely so. But if you’re looking for even less activity head farther north along the thin island, while still sticking to the west coast.
Jungle Hill Beach Bungalows – beachfront bungalows – about $15/night/double bungalow
Koh Jum Ocean Beach Resort – beachfront with pool – about $50/night/double cottage books up early
Koh Jum Beach Villas – beachfront villas – about $260/night/double villa
What to do in Koh Jum
Since I wasn’t feeling well I spent the vast majority of my time on the beach which was not a bad way to enjoy this island. And, honestly, there isn’t loads more to do here. Since we were staying on the wrong side of the road from the beach, we spent most days eating, drinking, and enjoying the beachfront of Golden Pearl Beach Resort (Golden Pearl can be booked to stay but you need to do that via email direct with them). The food there was delicious and the atmosphere superb. Likely, you’ll be staying beachfront so let this be your opportunity to do absolutely nothing but enjoy that fact.
If you really get restless you can rent a motorbike (yes, again) and cruise around the island seeing what you can see, keep in mind pavement is scarce. Koh Jum is a bit more mountainous than other nearby islands, which means it can be quite good for a bit of hiking. Talk to the locals to see where trails start from. My body wasn’t up for hiking so I don’t have these tips for you, sorry.
How long you choose to spend on Koh Jum is completely dependent on how you deal with down time. If you’re like me and could lay around on the beach reading books for days, then take those days. I’d recommend at least three full days and four nights to really find your calm.
Koh Lanta was one of the more populated and touristic islands I went to on my Thailand island hopping trip. It served a purpose much as a Krabi had, getting from Koh Jum to Trang wasn’t possible as a one off so we stopped here as it was going to be part of the route anyways, why not add it into the itinerary.
How to get to Koh Lanta
You’ll again get on a longtail from the shore of Koh Jum and bob just off the coast as you wait for the ferry to Koh Lanta to come along. Wear a bathing suit under your clothes – this is a great opportunity for a quick dip. You’ll then get onto the direct ferry to Koh Jum. You can book this transfer at your hotel on Koh Jum, or if you’d like you can book in advance, here, for 400 baht.
Where to stay in Koh Lanta
As a fairly built up island, there are plenty of options of areas to stay in and each will have you close to food, drink, and beach options.
Lanta Maikeaw Bungalow – Bungalows – about $7/night/double fan room
Veron Lanta Resrot – Hotel with pool – about $40/night/double room
Layana Resort & Spa – Adults only resort – about $230/night/dohble room
What to do in Koh Lanta
Surprise, surprise, rent a motorbike. This is one of the islands where having transport will truly be quite beneficial as it is on the bigger end of the Thai islands spectrum. Once you’ve got wheels, go exploring, per usual.
Definitely check out the markets. There are food and night markets all over the island which will serve equally delicious food. I’d recommend asking at your accommodation to find out where the closest one is.
And, if you’re excited about Thai food, as you should be, try out a cooking class. I took one on Koh Lanta with Lanta Thai Cookery School and had a great and educational day. The lunchtime course includes four dishes, which you can eat or take home, as well as transport to and from your accommodation, for 1,500 baht per person.
Back to the outdoors, there is a fairly large cave called Mai Kaew Cave, the entrance is on private property. Though my understanding is that the caves themselves are not actually owned by these same people, the family will charge you for a guide to see the cave and that’s the only way you’re getting past them. You can decide how you feel about that. An alternative to the cave is hiking to Khlong Chak Waterfall. Jackson, of Journey Era, does a great job of outlining the route, so I’ll point you towards his post on the trek.
Like Phuket, Koh Lanta has a dog shelter which welcomes your help. Volunteering at an animal shelter is an excellent way to give back to a community. Volunteering at a school or an orphanage for a hot second when you have no relevant skills, is not. There is plenty that Lanta Animal Welfare would be more than glad for you to do including cuddling kittys, walking dogs, and cleaning. If you’re confused about what I mean about appropriate volunteer work, I highly recommend you take a moment to read Two Dusty Travelers information about ethical voluntourism.
And while we’re on the subject of animals and ethics, please, for gods sake do not ride an elephant. Sadly, elephant riding is still very popular and photos of it pop up on all the Koh Lanta tourism sites. Don’t do it. No Instagram post is worth the torture these animals endure. I’m glad to help you understand what is and isn’t an ethical animal encounter. And should you doubt my authority, Nat Geo has a word to say on it too.
Koh Lanta is big and there is plenty to do, so it depends on your overall vacation goals as to how long you might want to spend here. If you don’t like the busyness of it, you might want to only spend two days, three nights, but if you like having people around make it three days, four nights.
Not somewhere I’d ever even remotely heard of mentioned before going, it seemed like an interesting place to stop to break up my time Thai Island hopping and get a taste of something a bit different. Trang was a great little undiscovered, entirely local city to spend a few days in.
How to get to Trang
O.K. something real weird happened on my minibus from Koh Lanta to Trang. It was packed full of unaccompanied Thai minors who were being picked up from random resorts across Koh Lanta. They all seemed to know each other but spoke no English and didn’t have a single chaperone with them. At one point we stopped along the side of a fairly busy road and a man came over to the side of the door and said a girls name. The girl put her head against the seat in front of her and just said no. The other children tried to coax her to get off, but she wasn’t having it and we left. It was all incredibly uncomfortable and I do not know what was happening but only pray that my worst fears were not being seen out right there on that bus. I’d booked the minibus through my hotel so was pretty shocked that there was anything weird happening on it. But who knows.
Anyways, minibuses are my least favorite form of transport but unless you can splurge on a private car they’re your best bet to make the just over two hour drive from Koh Lanta to Trang. I guess book at your hotel – though inquire about what company they use and see what information you can get to make sure you avoid the uncomfortable situation I was put in.
Where to stay in Trang
Trang really truly is not a touristy city and as such does not have a huge range of accommodation options, but here are a few to get you started/
Sleeper House – Guesthouse – about $15/night/double room with shared bathroom
Green House at Trang Guesthouse – Guesthouse – about $30/night/double
Rue Rasada Hotel – Business geared hotel – about $60/night/double
What to do in Trang
I greatly enjoyed walking around the town, popping into little shops. This is a very functional city. It’s not here for tourists. I actually got my prescription glasses filled here. Nifty little trick – get your prescription written at home, the numbers are universal, but the cost is a fraction overseas.
There’s an amazing night market in Trang which you should go to as often as possible.
Then, is potentially your last opportunity for a motorbike during your time in Thailand. You’re gonna be jumping on some bigger roads than you’ve been on during your time out on the islands, but you’re ready for it by now, I can tell. Plus, the 15-20 minute drive out to the Thung Khai Botanic Garden is entirely worth it. It’s one of those places that would be dripping with selfie sticks were it in a more tourist ridden locale. But it’s not, so it isn’t, and that’s the best. There’s a walkway which wraps through the treetops and it’s gorgeous, and relaxing, and you should go.
Next up is a further 45 minutes of driving from the Botanic Gardens to Ton Te waterfalls. Another stunning spot to make up for the lack of coastline in this area. Plus, no people, just peace
I encourage you to spend a few days in Trang, even if it feels less glamorous than island hopping – it’s truly so much fun to dig into the culture here.
From here, what’s next? I carried on down to Malaysia. And, if you have time, I encourage you to do the same. Or you could loop around and head back north up the east coast of Thailand. Or you could go back to your desk and your cat – I get the appeal of the latter of those two things. The world is your oyster my little traveler, enjoy it.
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