Mellow out in a jungle tree house. Groove all night at a beach rave. Climb to a spectacular mountaintop view. Or just float in that turquoise water. Whatever your fantasy, Thailand has the island--or ko--for you.
Maybe you've seen pictures of southern Thailand's sugar-sand beaches with grass-roof huts snuggled into the shade of coconut palms. Or you've heard of the ridiculously cheap prices: beachside bungalows for $10 a night, spicy meals for $3. Or you've dreamed of discovering some hidden lagoon that lies beyond the reach of guidebooks, just as the characters did in Alex Garland's cult novel The Beach (which, like the Leo DiCaprio film based on the book, was set here).
The problem is that if you've seen, heard, or read about a place, chances are others have too. And, as Garland's characters learn, anywhere hailed as a paradise on earth has to fall short of expectations. The tourism industry has taken its toll on some of Thailand's islands: claptrap towns, ubiquitous 7-Elevens, longtail-boat touts haranguing passersby, and bungalow operations and hotels elbowing for room on crowded beachfronts. Phuket is the most obvious example--once the darling of Hippie Trail backpackers in the '70s, the famous beach resort has been ruined, in some travelers' eyes, with big tourist crowds and cement poured over far too much of the island.
But charm, serenity, and beauty still cling to several of southern Thailand's other isles, or ko, and we've rounded up the best of the bunch.
The Gateway Ko Samui
Don't let the single runway and the open-sided thatched-roof terminal at Ko Samui's airport fool you. Samui is the largest island on the Gulf of Thailand side of the Malay Peninsula. It's so big that it doesn't really feel like an island. Instead, Samui often serves as a springboard to the solitude found only on smaller isles. Still, there are loads of fabulous beaches, with dozens of hotels lining the shoreline. You probably don't want to spend a full week on Samui, but it's worth taking a day or two there to get over jet lag before heading onward.
One reason to hang around is the $45 all-day boat tour through Ang Thong Marine Park, a collection of 41 largely uninhabited islands between Samui and the mainland. While on the tour, you can kayak to shore, hike to a waterfall, and snorkel in sheltered coves. Several companies offer slightly different versions of this popular tour, but they all include a short clamber up to the top of Ko Mae Ko to see the pristine, fully enclosed lagoon hidden at its center, a spot that helped inspire the plot of The Beach (if you're unfamiliar with the book and film, don't worry--you'll hear about them plenty while you're here). Sea Safari Thailand is one of the least expensive operations and throws in a hokey 20-minute elephant ride at the end of the tour.
Chaweng Beach has both the best strip of sand on Samui--a wide swath of soft, pale yellow that extends for nearly four miles--and the most choices for lodging and dining. Somewhere between the pricey resorts on the north end of Chaweng and the $3 backpacker hovels at the beach's center lies The Island resort. Its layout is pretty typical for Samui: tidy cottages on either side of a shady cement walkway that's a short stroll from the shops and travel agents on the dusty main road. Call ahead to snag thatched cabin 801, where you can step off your front porch right onto the sand.
The food at The Island is scrumptious, and in the evening tables are moved out onto the sand so guests can dine by candlelight. Also, try Budsaba, a romantic collection of thatched wooden huts called salas on the grassy grounds of the Muang Kulaypan Hotel. Each hut is barely large enough to fit a table and four people reclining on cushions. Dinner costs only about $16 per person, and live traditional Thai music plays as cool sea breezes tickle your toes (as per local custom, shoes come off before you sit at the table).
The Scene Ko Phi Phi
Heralded as one of the most idyllic spots on earth, tiny Phi Phi Don consists of two mountains connected by a narrow beach that's home to a lively tourist town. It's here that happy, sun-crisped couples and crowds of backpackers throng the narrow lanes, popping into Internet cafes, bargaining for cheap silk sarongs, and arranging diving trips at travel agencies. There are a few soulless, low-rise hotels in Phi Phi, but that doesn't spoil the funky, welcoming, homegrown feel of its thriving village.
Sadly, neither of Phi Phi's main beaches is ideal for swimming. Southerly Ton Sai bustles with ferries, speedboats, and longtails hogging up the prime shoreline. Northerly Lo Dalum beach is quiet and lovely but consists mainly of mudflats, which are under water that's knee-deep several hundred feet out to sea. For great swimming and snorkeling, many tourists hire boats to take them to one of the many isolated coves around the mountainous sides of Phi Phi.