9 Thai Islands You Should Visit Now
Showy Samui and Phuket may nominated the spotlight but there's a host of other Thai islands out there where the beaches are still snow-white and blissfully empty. By JIM ALGIE. Photographed by CEDRIC ARNOLD.
Published on Nov 18, 2015
Say you're looking for an under-the-radar, super-green getaway. How about an Andaman isle with more resident rare wildlife, birds and sea turtles than people? (1) Koh Phra Thong, with a human population of a grand total of 800, is renowned as one of the last nesting places for sea turtles in Thailand. Of the four species found in the kingdom, three of them (the leatherback, the olive ridley and the green turtle) nest here. Imagine watching a 700-kilogram imperiled leatherback, the largest of all turtle species, crawling across the beach at night to lay her eggs during the November to January nesting season, and you get a sense of the wonders in store on this wee patch of paradise.
The island has gone to the birds.
Wildlife-spotting tours and treks through the mid-section are prime pastimes here, but, really, all you need to do is hang in and around the Golden Buddha Beach Resort (Open November through April. Fly into Phuket International Airport and hire a car for the two-hour drive north to the ferry pier at Kuraburi. Or, the resort can arrange transfers for you from the airport via car and long-tail boat.) and remain vigilant to watch an Animal Planet documentary unfold in the wild, in real time, sans any reptile wrestling and superimposed storylines. With only 28 stilted, hardwood bungalows, this intimate spot sports a distinctly Thai aesthetic and an eco-conscious sensibility. Situated on a large swath of impeccable beachfront free of touts, sun-loungers and blaring bars, the property allows the local fauna to run rampant. So crab-eating macaques scurry across the sand in search of their staple supper. The famously shy sambar deer go for dips around dawn or dusk. And bird-watchers will have a field day with Indian rollers, Asian fairy bluebirds, ruddy kingfishers, hornbills and Brahminy kites—all frequent fliers in the island's air space.
Maintaining the delicate ecosystem and ensuring that the creatures, which depend on it for shelter and succor, continue to thrive was the original ethos of the minimalist, nature-loving founder Dick Sandler. And it continues with the Golden Buddha's new owner, Jochen Mosthaf, who has begun feeding the farm's pigs leftovers from guests, and drawing water from wells on the island rather than having it shipped over by boat. Many of the kitchen's herbs and vegetables are grown on-site, while others are sourced from nearby Kuraburi. He and his partner, Valérie Blouin, who co-manage the resort, have also started sponsoring vets to neuter the island's stray dogs, to the benefit of both the canines and the local monkeys and deer whose territory they invade.
On the approach to Kuraburi pier, parting Koh Phra Thong is sweet sorrow.
Then there are those majestic, hardback sea-giants who need so much nurturing to make it to a ripe old age. In conjunction with Naucrates, an Italian voluntourism group, and the Phuket Marine Biological Center (PMBC), the resort runs a turtle conservation center and rehabilitation clinic. Grab a flashlight and lend a hand—and both your legs—in the nightly patrols during the nesting season to tag females, locate nests and, to prevent poaching and erosion, move them to safer ground near the resort. There, the eggs are protected, and the hatchlings are measured before being released into the sea. For a little perspective on the importance of this project, the 10 to 12 turtle nests discovered annually on Koh Phra Thong account for roughly half the total found on the entire Andaman coastline in Thailand.
Naucrates, its voluntourists and the PMBC have also been cleaning the nearby coral reefs and protecting the mangrove forests that beard the island. Their tangled roots shelter juvenile fish, crabs and mollusks, prevent soil erosion and serve as the last lines of defense against floods and tsunamis—the last an issue close to the heart of an island that suffered dearly in the 2004 Indian Ocean natural disaster.
Baan Tao Tanu—the Golden Buddha runs a turtle conservation center.
But it's not just foreign do-gooders making their mark. Villagers have begun forming their own groups to protect such rare local residents as the adjutant storks—believed to be the last living flock in Thailand. Now that the nearby Koh Ra has become a nature reserve, Mosthaf says plans are afloat to turn the entire area into a national marine park. He does not believe that would be an improvement: "This island could not get more ecological than it is."
In fast-developing Thailand, remoteness is a hot commodity. That's the main allure of (2) Koh Mak. Despite its status as the third biggest island in the Koh Chang chain, it's home to only a few hundred locals and two-dozen-odd resorts hugging the eastern coastline. Translation: Koh Mak has few roads, no crime and few tourists. So head here for a family vacation or a long weekend with a retinue of friends—you'll feel like the island is yours alone to play basketball or volleyball, dive and snorkel, fish, kayak, mountain bike, or just kick back and bond at the five-star Plub Pla Koh Mak Retreat in beachside villas replete with Jacuzzis. Fly from Bangkok to Trat then catch the high-speed, 45-minute ferry (kohmakboat.com; Bt450 per person one way) from Laem Ngop, departing at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Beachside villas. Courtesy of Plub Pla Koh Mak Retreat.
Sustainable tourism does not always mean roughing it. The Racha, on (3) Koh Racha Yai, is the embodiment of ecochic with thick-walled (to reduce the need for airconditioning) villas built to merge with their environs. You'll notice trees growing out of terraces and backyards, because the owners refused to chop them down. Ozone is used instead of chlorine in the pool. The whole island is a vantage point to soak up a panorama of maritime serenity. Only a 35-minute speedboat ride from Phuket, Koh Racha Yai, which has no cars or ATM machines and only intermittent Wi-Fi, feels a world away. Fly into Phuket, from where the resort arranges land-then-sea transfers to the island via the pier at Chalong Bay.
Boats at anchor, Koh Racha Yai. Ken Gillham/Getty Images.
Backpackers were the Marco Polos of the region's modern travel era, discovering islands like Koh Samui and Phuket long before the Jet-Ski set began to whine. You can channel the free spirits of old-school wanderers and their contemporary brethren at the other isle of (4) Koh Chang, this one in Ranong province. Settled some five decades ago by itinerant cashew-nut farmers, the island is bastioned around the bays of Ao Lek and Ao Yai, a long stretch of beach that also serves as the main walking strip, as there are not even motorcycles here. The thatched-bungalow accommodations are studies in Spartan sustainability, though Cashew Resort has the most abundant amenities. The neo-hippies and punks will enjoy their tunes and herbal supplements, but don't expect any howling-at-the-full-moon parties to disturb your peace. Fly from Bangkok or Rangoon to Ranong then take a taxi to Saphan Pla Pier, from where several long-tail ferries leave daily for the one-hour trip. During the monsoon season from May until October, the boats rarely run and many of the resorts are closed.
Koh Chang, Ranong, Thailand. David Greedy/Getty Images.
A deep-dive into full eco-marine immersion can be found two ways in the quintuplet of the (5) Surin Islands. For minimum impact on the environment and maximum freedom, rent a two-person tent already pitched on the beach from the National Marine Park station. These islands are renowned for the wild assortment of marine life, from whale sharks to ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp and barracuda. Long-tail boats departing from the National Park station every morning and afternoon will putter you out to the area's best snorkel spots. To dive, book a liveaboard from Phuket, and live the life aquatic as a true aquanaut. Fly into Phuket and then get a taxi to the pier at Kuraburi for the 90-minute speedboat journey, which costs about Bt1,700 round trip. In addition to tents, Sea Dragon Dive Center offers three-night cruises including Richelieu Rock, Koh Tachai and the Surin Islands, aboard the M/V Andaman. The Surins is inaccessible during the monsoon season from around mid-May to early November.
The south of Thailand still sports a strongly Islamic culture and set of traditions. You'll be warmly welcomed into the fold by members of (6) Koh Yao Noi's community-based tourism club. The club's trophy case gleams with prizes for their trailblazing work, like the World Legacy Award from National Geographic. Through Koh Yao Noi Eco-Tourism Club, homestays can be arranged with local Muslim families that include day trips to watch the fishermen and rubber-tree tappers in action. This is a friendly but conservative community: dress accordingly. Alcohol is served only in the resorts, the star of which is the Six Senses, whose shady property, complete with outdoor muay Thai ring, in-house yogi master and beachfront cinema, winds around a hill on the island's northeast. Fly into Phuket and catch a taxi to Bang Rong Pier where five ferries depart daily for the hour-long journey at Bt50 per person, or, if you're staying at Six Senses, they can arrange the 20-minute car and 45-minute speedboat journey.
From the hilltop retreat at Six Senses Yao Noi. Leisa Tyler/Getty Images.
THE REAL BEACH
Literary legend has it that the Ang Thong National Marine Park in the Gulf of Thailand provided the inspiration for Alex Garland's novel The Beach rather than Koh Phi Phi—the place made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio's visit in the film adaptation. Drawing parallels between the imaginary vision of an uncharted oceanic retreat and this archipelago of 40-plus islands is elementary. Only (7) Koh Paluay, with its mountainous backdrop, is inhabited and, even here, all the locals are sea gypsies who still fish for a living. Some day trips include lunch in the village, where you can enjoy flashbacks of what Koh Samui used to be like before it landed on the mass-tourism map. If you visit the most precious emerald in Ang Thong's tiara—a green, saltwater lake walled in by limestone ramparts on (8) Koh Mae Koh (Mother Island)—you can pick a leaf, quite literally, from Garland's novel. Fly into Koh Samui and head for Big Buddha Beach to hire a speedboat, though there is a multitude of different boat tours, yacht charters, and camping and kayaking trips available. Accommodations are offered on Koh Wua Talap through the Department of National Parks.
The saltwater lake in Koh Mae Koh. ©Donyanedomam/Dreamstime.com.
TOURS OF BEAUTY
Sitting pretty in Songkhla Lagoon, the lower part of the country's largest lake, and encircled by rustic resorts, (9) Koh Yo is notable for southern Thai touches, a benevolent climate and agro-tours of some truly spectacular scenery. Much like the mélange of seawater from the Gulf and freshwater from the mountains that sloshes around Songkhla, the region, positioned in the northeastern crook of the Malay peninsula, is a melting pot of Thai, Chinese and Malaysian cultures, cuisines and traditions. Start the morning by taking a longtail boat to watch the fishermen trawling for net profits, before breakfasting on a seaweed salad, a vitamin-rich snack plucked straight from the lake. Afterwards, the time is ripe for visiting the orchards of jackfruits, sapodillas and mangosteens, or head for the Institute for Southern Thai Studies, a repository of finery in fashions and handicrafts. Fly from Bangkok into Had Yai and take a taxi across the Tinsulanonda Bridge to the only island in the lagoon. Rajamangala Pavilion Beach Resort, the nicest hotel option, has great beachside views and a mere 25-minute commute to the island.
A fish farm in Songkhla lagoon. Joel W. Rogers/Corbis.