The Thai Islands
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To be completely honest, the Thai Islands took me by surprise. After hearing how touristy + somewhat overrated they were, I sadly went into this trip with pretty low expectations. I had been in Chiang Mai - a supposedly magical city in Northern Thailand a few weeks earlier - and it was mostly filled with American tourists (not my cup of tea!).
But, arriving in Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, was like a dream. It’s a small island dotted with dive shops + beachside restaurants where people walk around barefoot and the mix of traveler-local is much less defined. The Gulf Islands (Koh Tao, Koh Phangan + Koh Samui) have a special place in my heart - and deserve a slow, meandering trip that’s a perfect mix of exploration and relaxation!
we ended up changing our trip around and only staying on the island of Koh Tao for a couple of nights to complete our dive course. We stayed in a (very) low-cost bungalow provided by our dive school, which I would only recommend if you’re diving all day. We stayed in the Sairee Beach neighborhood, which I loved and would recommend the Sairee Beach Cottages (they looked super nice, organized + clean!) though, I’m sure you can find a bunch depending on your price range. There were tiny bungalows everywhere for as low as $15/night!
The other islands we planned on visiting for an extended time were Koh Phangan + Koh Samui. Though Koh Phangan is typically known for it’s Full Moon Parties, there’s also a much more chill side of the island that has Bali/yoga-vibes. We were planning on staying at The Sanctuary, a well-known yoga hub (kind of like Yoga Barn in Ubud) on the beach - but we also spotted lots of inexpensive beach bungalows in the area as well.
In Koh Samui, we were planning in splurging a bit and staying at Lanna Resort. It looked wonderful and had amazing reviews - we were super sad to cancel it (but hey, when the opportunity to go to the Maldives arises, you gotta do what you’ve got to do!). Koh Samui is the second biggest island in Thailand, and has much higher-end resorts than other islands - so I’d recommend it if you’re planning on splurging a bit. It’s also one of the main ways to get back + forth to Bangkok so you’ll likely have to pass through at some point.
Getting to the islands can be as easy or as cheap as you’d like - but not both!
Be aware that there are two “sides” of the Thai Islands - the Koh Samui side (+ Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, etc) and the Krabi side. It’s likely that you’ll only be able to do one side during your trip, unless you want to be traveling a ton! After much research on my end, I’d summarize the two like this: If you’re after chill-relaxing-yoga-diving / white sand beaches go to Koh Samui; if you’re more into partying-adventure-hiking-limestone cliffs go with Krabi.
There are many different ways to get to the islands based on your budget / amount of time. For the Koh Samui side, you can fly straight from Bangkok - Koh Samui (into a beautiful little airport!) via Bangkok Airways. It’s the only airline that goes to the islands on that side, so it’s quite expensive (~$250+ roundtrip), but it only takes an hour.
You can also fly into Chumphon + take a ferry to Koh Tao / the other islands. This takes significantly longer but is much cheaper ($100 RT). We ended up doing this on the way there, and it wasn’t bad at all though it did take about 4 - 5 hours (with waiting time).
Ferries between islands are relatively cheap, simple to navigate and short. They run multiple times per day and you can just arrive at the pier to purchase your ticket. Easy peasy!
There are so many tiny little restaurants on each of the islands - and most of them have healthy food, good coffee and delicious Pad Thai. I was actually quite surprised how trendy some of the restaurants were on the little island of Koh Tao! And so. cheap. Here are some of my favorites:
Sairee Cottage Restaurant - oh my gosh the pad thai here is out of this world. We embarrassingly came back here every night and shared a large Chang, two massive Pad Thai’s with freakin’ soft shell crab and fresh grilled calamari…for $14 total. And it’s right on the beach. Don’t miss this one!
Black Garlic - if you’re looking for a western-style healthy brunch and real coffee check this out. Our dive master (from Seattle) recommended it to us for the coffee, and he wasn’t mistaken!
Coffee Culture - I came here every afternoon for a delicious Iced Americano (with Almond Milk - ah!). Really yummy + healthy food, too. It’s perfect for a chill lunch on the beach.
Whitening - Dang talk about fancy! This place was a pretty trendy spot right on the beach that served real Aperol Spritz’ (YUM) and had live music. The dinner was pretty good too!
If you go to the Thai Islands and don’t learn how to dive, who are you? Just kidding! But, the islands - especially on the Koh Samui side have the largest amount of dive shops / courses in the world! You can learn in just 3.5 days - so even if you don’t have much time you can squeeze it in.
An honest perspective: I’m SO glad that I did this, but because of weird scheduling things Dupi and I had to finish our course in the Maldives. In comparison, the Thai diving schools definitely churn out divers - we felt that we learned a lot more in the short time we had in the Maldives. That being said, if you’ve been diving before or are looking to get certified for cheap/on a time crunch definitely do it. Our school was Scuba Junction + they were great!
If diving doesn’t pique your interest, there’s loads of other snorkeling trips, relaxing hikes and chill beach days ahead. The best part about this part of the world is that there’s not much to do other than chill!