Everybody who vacations in Thailand is aware of the beautiful Southern islands. Phi Phi, Phuket, and Koh Pha-ngan seem to be on the bucket list of every backpacker in Asia. As such, these beaches can be quite crowded.
The best lesser-known islands of Thailand feature less crowded beaches, jaw-dropping sunsets, and a feeling of tranquility that you can’t get elsewhere. These special Thai islands include Similan, Koh Tao, Koh Lipe, Koh Khai, Koh Phayam, and Ko Mak.
It’s nice to get away from the crowds but not everybody is after a remote bungalow experience lacking in air conditioning and wifi. So which lesser-known Thai island is right for you? We’ll deep dive into each of these small pieces of heaven.
There aren’t many islands far past the West coast of Southern Thailand, but Similan is certainly worth the expedition and long boat ride. The largest of this small chain of islands is called Koh Similan. Each of the islands offers incredible diving and crystal clear waters.
The local language previously spoken in this region is called Yawi. In Yawi, the word ‘Similan’ translates to the number nine. A bit odd – as the Similan Islands consist of 11 islands. Maybe the Yawi don’t view activities like counting as very important (can’t blame them – it’s hard to think about math at all with views like these).
The island chain is quite small and very vulnerable to mass tourism. The Thai government has often opted to shut down the island chain during different monsoon seasons so double check with locals before trying to plan your entire trip around Similan. Technically, the Similan Islands are a protected National Park of Thailand.
Don’t let the strict protectionary rules and regulations prevent you from visiting Similan. These mandates have ensured that the coral reefs incredible and beautiful for your diving needs. In fact, National Geographic has ranked this area as one of the top dive sites in the world.
Tourists shouldn’t expect a vast sense of infrastructure on Koh Similan. You can find a place to sleep at night, but your chances of finding a McDonalds on the island are about as reliable as your chances of wanting to leave this beautiful place. We recommend taking the speedboat to reach Similan. The ride only takes an hour.
If you’re into diving, then Similan offers more access to marine wildlife than almost any other diving spot in Thailand. Between February and April, divers have reported seeing manta rays and whale sharks. All year long, divers have the opportunity to spot huge barracuda, stonefish, octopus, and cuttlefish. You’ll see seahorses and turtles, too.
Koh Tao is the smallest of the 3 main islands North of Surat Thani. It is just North of Koh Pha-ngan and Koh Samui. Despite being the smallest, it’s certainly the best island of the three for divers. The local coral reefs are protected so fishing in certain areas is prohibited.
Koh Tao directly translates to ‘Turtle Island’. The island is abundant with hundreds and hundreds of hawksbill turtles. There aren’t as many as a few years ago, but they are still quite plentiful. The name also stems from the shape of the island. From specific viewpoints on Koh Pha-ngan, Koh Tao actually looks quite a bit like a turtle.
Koh Tao has made quite the infamous name for itself among Western travelers. It is frequently referred to as ‘Murder Island’. This horrific nickname comes after the local police have botched the investigation of several tourist-related murders.
It is quite well known that a local mafioso runs the island. Koh Tao isn’t very big and used to belong to a small handful of families. Since the island rapidly increased in popularity, these local families became ultra-wealthy. The police who work on the island serve at their pleasure (and their pleasure alone).
After 7 different tourists have been found dead, no real accountability has been shown. After the police force botched a specific investigation for months, they pinned the blame on two young Burmese immigrants out of the blue in what Thai newspapers have called a racist coverup.
Koh Tao isn’t an island for everybody. We understand that this information might turn people off to the island (and rightfully so). However, if you are a 6 foot plus bodybuilder who loves to scuba dive, you’re likely not going to run into any issues.
Koh Lipe is Thailand’s southernmost island. It sits just a few miles away from an island that is technically part of Malaysia. When it Bangkok, the general logic most tourists abide by is the following – the further South you head, the more beautiful the scenery. We believe that is certainly the case with Koh Lipe.
This island is a tad more difficult if you are on a tight budget. Begpackers (yes, we spelled that correctly) will likely have a rough time here, but you’ll be able to find a moderately priced Airbnb or homestay that won’t break your budget as long as you know where to look. The prices here vary depending on the season, so expect the cost to double during peak season.
If you want to reach Koh Lipe, you can fly into the Hat Yai airport. You’ll still need to take several different modes of transportation to reach your accommodations. If you land at Hat Yai airport, you need to take a shuttle bus to the pier (Pak Bara) and then hop on a ferry to Koh Lipe. From there, you can hire a motorbike to bring you and your bags to your hotel. Assuming that you took a taxi to the airport, this implies that 5 different modes of transportation were necessary to bring you to Koh Lipe.
There are other piers that offer ferries to Koh Lipe, however, it’s likely that these other options are closed for a majority of the year. The Pak Bara pier is the only ferry option that runs during monsoon season, too. Monsoon season might sound ominous, but it really just means you’ll experience light showers for 2 hours in the afternoon (which is sometimes a Godsend when sitting in the hot Thai sun).
There are plenty of tiny beaches on Koh Lipe, but there are 3 main beaches that most tourists frequent when they visit the island. The most peaceful and natural beach is ironically named ‘Pattaya Beach’ and is truly a far cry from the similarly-named Pattaya Beach in the raucous party capital of Thailand.
The other two beaches are named Sunrise Beach and Sunset Beach. Guess what you can do there? As each name implies, they are great destinations to watch the sun rise and set every day. Sunrise Beach faces the mainland but you won’t be able to see on even the brightest of days. Sunset Beach is said to offer the most beautiful view on all of Koh Lipe.
The main road in Koh Lipe, ‘Walking Street’, is not aptly named like the beaches. You will find that plenty of motorbikes frequent this street so plenty of non-walking activity takes place. Walking Street is the main road that connects the various neighborhoods of this small island. In fact, Koh Lipe is so small that you can walk to any beach in around 45 minutes.
Koh Lipe is a great place for those after a fun fishing trip or an incredible diving spot. The nearby Koh Tarutao marine national park is revered for its incredible coral gardens. Most people report seeing turtles around the area.
Koh Khai Islands
The Koh Khai islands might be extremely tiny, but they are also extremely beautiful. They’re a must-see if you take a day trip from Phuket to explore the islands of the Andaman Sea. Koh Khai’s 3 main islands are located just 15-20 minutes away from Phuket’s main pier (if you take a speedboat).
Before reading the remainder of this paragraph, remember that ‘Koh’ translates to ‘island’ in the Thai language. The names of the 3 Koh Khai islands are beyond confusing. The first is ‘Koh Khai Nai’. The second is ‘Khai Nai Island’. The third is ‘Koh Khai Nok’. It’s pretty impossible to differentiate the three unless you are an astute student of Thai geography.
These beautiful, picturesque islands don’t offer a single hotel or homestay. There is practically no infrastructure save for a few wooden shacks that sell various trinkets or drinks. The main source of income on these islands is the beach chair/umbrella industry. Despite the tiny nature and lack of infrastructure, this is actually my favorite island chain in Thailand.
There are a few small bars present where you can purchase cocktails and order local Thai food. Despite the lack of facilities, the staff working on the island were able to print pictures of us and put them in a picture frame made of seashells within 10 minutes of our boat’s arrival. I don’t even remember posing for the photograph? There is an entrepreneurial mindset present here that everyone should be able to appreciate.
The best bar in the Koh Khai islands is absolutely the Reggae bar. When we landed on the island, it was love at first sight. We saw a man wearing Bob Marley pants (yes – pants) and a rasta bandana. He was standing on a table juggling 3 empty beer bottles while singing ‘No Woman, No Cry’. It was immediately clear where we would spend the next 3 hours.
I first heard of Koh Phayam from the man who was juggling 3 empty beer bottles wearing Bob Marley pants. He said it is the ‘only free island left in Thailand’. After a few more questions, he stressed that the Thai military dictatorship has a rather tight grip of control on most islands in Thailand. Koh Phayam is famous among local Thai people because there are only 2 police officers on the entire island.
It seemed quite clear what he was getting at, but I wanted to know what else there was to do on the island. Koh Phayam is quickly becoming an alternative tourist destination for those who don’t want to be overwhelmed by large crowds or heavy traffic. In fact, Koh Phayam doesn’t allow cars on the island.
You shouldn’t expect much in terms of your accommodations. Only a few of the homestays offer air conditioning and most of the rooms have a minimalist flair to them (just the basics). However, there are apparently a few places you can access wifi on the island.
Koh Phayam is often called ‘Koh Samui in the 1970s’. As you venture across the island, spotting rasta bars and vegan eateries, it’s easy to understand why this comparison is so popular. You’ll see backpackers in elephant pants doing yoga and few people are wearing shoes. Of the few tourists who venture out this way, the island certainly attracts a specific type of personality.
Long Beach in Koh Phayam might not be the prettiest beach in Thailand, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you visit Long Beach, there’s a solid chance you’ll be the only person on the beach. I believe that makes it beautiful in its own right.
Ao Khao Kwai is another popular beach in Koh Phayam and is a bit more scenic than Long Beach. Monkey Bay is another favored natural area on the island. The monkeys here may very well understand the island has a rasta feel to it and as such, act a bit less aggressive than their Phuket counterparts. However, it’s best to act with care when venturing into Monkey Bay.
Thailand isn’t necessarily famous for surfing. While there are some beaches that offer waves, most Thai beaches never experience enough swell in order to justify the business expenses of a surfboard rental shop nearby. Koh Phayam is an exception to this rule. While the waves aren’t incredible, Ao Yai beach faces the Indian Ocean and receives a rather heavy swell during certain seasons.
Ko Mak has been previously ranked as one of the top 10 undiscovered islands in the world. A list like this is sure to make these isolated islands discovered, however, that was not the case with Ko Mak. The British list came out in 2010 and the only articles about Ko Mak since have come from a niche, alternative travel bloggers.
Ko Mak is actually the largest privately owned island in Thailand. It’s about six or seven square miles in size. Don’t expect much in terms of nightlife as the island is rather quiet come nighttime. That’s the appeal of a well-kept secret! However, the lack of appeal lies in the fact that no ATMs exist on the island.
There are some absolutely stunning beaches on Ko Mak. However, one of the attractions to this specific island is the bizarre sculptures that exist in a famous outdoor museum. A local artist began placing these sculptures around his property with the belief nobody would ever see them. There are hundreds of life-size, Picasso-esque erotic sculptures that are very NSFW. It’s quite interesting and a great place for funny selfies.
We highly recommend renting a bicycle if you visit Ko Mak. There aren’t large hills and the short distances required between landmarks make motorbikes somewhat unnecessary. If need be, you can always hop onto a songtaew – one of the pickup truck taxis that can make your trip faster.
Thailand has beautiful beaches, however, the beauty of a beach lies in the idea that you’re not swamped by hundreds of drunk tourists causing a racket nearby. The isolated paradise dream still exists in Thailand. You just need to know where to look. It might take a few extra hours to reach these destinations, however, your efforts will be endlessly rewarded when you’re sipping a drink on a private beach.
The issue with lesser-known islands is quite a contradiction. If you want to visit the most isolated islands, you need to do a lot of research to find these little slices of heaven. However, if an island is frequently featured in article after article, it greatly diminishes the chances of truly being an isolated island. We strongly believe in the beauty and tranquility of the islands mentioned above. It’s worth noting that even the busiest of Thai beaches are empty during certain hours of the day. You can always find peace if you know where to look.
What is the best island in Thailand?
Phi Phi islands are the most famous islands in Thailand. They have been featured in several famous movies and attract tourists from all over the world. Whether you wish to party, scuba dive, kayak, hike, or lounge on the beach, Phi Phi is an area that truly offers everything.
How do you reach Thailand’s islands?
The two most popular methods of transportation to small Thai islands include speedboats and ferries. Some larger islands like Koh Samui have an airport, however, most are not large enough to accommodate a landing strip. Speedboats are fast but often expensive. Ferries are cheap but often slow.