Southeast Thailand Takes Island Hopping to a Whole New Level

It’s like playing connect the dots in the ocean.

When it comes to the gorgeous beaches of southern Thailand, many people instantly think of Phuket, Krabi, Ko Phi Phi Le (where The Beach filming is forever imprinted on the land), or the general west side of the coast around there. Lesser-known but more adventurous is the eastern side of the peninsula. There you’ll find three main islands—Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan—surrounded by many smaller islands.

The ace move here is to hit up each of the three main ones, overnighting it for a day or two, and then make day trips to the smaller ones as you go. That’s right, we’re talking about island hopping within an island hopping trip. For this reason, you may want to leave some wiggle room in your schedule for that last minute desire to extend the trip and stay just a little longer.

Most travelers begin their journey flying from Bangkok into Koh Samui, known as one of the most beautiful airports in the world. Without the occasional plane taking flight, you’d barely recognize this oasis as an airport. A river flows through this open air layout, which feels more like a picturesque shopping mall with parks, swings, shops, Thai food stalls, and beach bars where passengers can sit and savor their last Singha before heading home.

Once on Koh Samui, the island hopping adventure begins, which is as casual and straightforward as taking the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island or from Seattle to Bainbridge Island—except for the obvious: you’re in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. You’d be surprised by how much a quick a 50 minute flight from Bangkok changes the scenery, as you enter an oasis where traffic lights are nonexistent and Starbucks cups are replaced with fresh coconuts. Here’s what to do on each of the three islands.

Koh Samui
Overlap Stone has rewarding views. | Bangprikphoto/Shutterstock

Celebrate on Koh Samui

After being a ghost town for the past two years, Koh Samui’s “party district” Chaweng Beach has made a comeback in a big way. While this area leans more toward a touristy vibe and backpacker culture, it’s great for drinks on the beach, listening to local DJs, and meeting fellow travelers who are here for equal parts relaxation and rambunctiousness. You can post up at most resorts lining the shore for free if you buy a beverage, enjoying your fresh fruit smoothies and cocktails in the floating daybeds on the beach.

Many places, like The Stay Chaweng Beach Resort have kayaks and SUP boards to rent, so you can bask in the blue water between intermittent naps and mojitos. You’d be remiss not to treat yourself to the best Thai massage of your life (for only about $7 USD) at one of the pop-up tables lining the beach. By night, places like Ark Bar turn into beachfront nightclubs with impressive fire shows.

Wat Plai Laem
The temple of Wat Plai Laem is an eye-catcher. | Sandro Bisaro/Moment/Getty Images

For a more laid-back beach day, head north on the island to Maenam or Hat Mae Nam beach. In this area, you’ll find chill tiki bars, Fishermen’s Village, and a lively night market. The string lights and music will lure you in as you browse stands cooking up curry, handmade dumplings, fresh uni, mango sticky rice, and even fried scorpion skewers if you’re feeling daring. One you’ve loaded up on the island’s best food experience, reserve a bean bag on the beach in front of Coco Tam’s. The two-story bar and restaurant boasts one of the most impressive DJ sets and fire shows on the island that boats line up to see.

While the beach is constantly calling your name on these islands, you won’t want to miss out on cultural landmarks like the Big Buddha and Wat Plai Laem Buddhist temples. And don’t leave without immersing yourself in the island’s jungle life with an ATV tour, visit to the elephant sanctuary, hiking to Na Mueang waterfall or to the Overlap Stone viewpoint (which is a steep walk and not for the faint of heart), seeing some naughty rock formations nicknamed the Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks, and sneaking away to the hidden Crystal Bay Beach.

Koh Tao
Got on or under the water in Koh Tao. | sittitap/Shutterstock

Dive underwater in Koh Tao

Next up is Koh Tao, which is the smallest of the east Thai islands and is known for its world-renowned scuba diving spots. While laying on the beach may never get old for many of us, this island will get you down into the depths of the ocean. Depending on the level of adventure you’re seeking, companies like Goodtime Adventures offer a plethora of activities ranging from snorkeling cruises to deep sea diving. Sign up for one of their day excursions, which will cruise you around the island (so you don’t have to arrange your own water taxi) and show you some of the most sought-out spots for getting up close and personal with underwater wildlife.

The Snorkel Party Cruise is perfect for those who want a relaxed atmosphere and a chance to explore Koh Tao both under and above the water. Enjoy a day of snorkeling, swimming, laying out on the boat’s topdeck with an ice cold Leo, and a stop at yet another island, Koh Nang Yuan, where you can bask on the beach or climb to the viewpoint for an incredible view of Koh Tao from offshore.

snorkeling thailand
Feel like a mermaid in these waters. | Goodtime Thailand

Want to go deeper? The company, as well as many others on the island, also offers intro, advanced, and open-water scuba diving lessons and day trips. Get certified (for a much better price than back in the states) and swim amongst the world’s most incredible fish and reefs. And if that’s not daring enough, check out the island’s Shark Bay to swim with baby sharks or a more remote spot like Tanote Bay, filled with boulders for spotting hidden sealife or cliff jumping.

If your sea legs aren’t up to par, that’s quite alright; there are plenty of entertaining activities on land, as well. Rock climbing will take you on top of Koh Tao’s mountains, or you could enjoy the day in town exploring the windy backstreets filled with local eateries, surf shops, and beachside bars.

For an excellent meal, Sang Ka Koh Tao is a darling family-owned restaurant that has delicious whole fish and Khao Soi (a mouthwatering northern Thai dish with noodles, coconut curry broth, and juicy chicken) . But our favorite hidden gem was a food stand, up the street from the pier and across from the 7/11 that was whipping out drool-worthy satay skewers. If you’ve had too many spicy Thai peppers or just want to add some variety to your meals, Thaita has amazing Italian food, like the tortellini topped with shrimp and calamari or gnocchi with blue cheese. Spots like Koppee and Natural High are great for enjoying the views with some coffee or cocktails, and a night out at Fish Bowl is a must for karaoke and partying alongside every tourist on the island.

Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan has more than just a Full Moon party. | Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Escape to quieter parts of Koh Phangan

Before you say, Hang on, isn’t this a well-known party island?—hear us out. Yes, Koh Phangan is home to the monthly Full Moon party that takes place on Sunset beach. And while you probably didn’t travel across the world to drink gin buckets with backpackers and study board students, it is certainly a sight to see if you happen to be on the island during one. The all-night extravaganza consists of facepaint, DJ’s, fireshows, dancing along the beach and catching a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise, if you make it until the end.

But what many tourists don’t know about Koh Phangan is that the north coast is much quieter, filled with white sand beaches, beautiful rooftop restaurants, lush mountains, rocky cliffs, and secret waterfalls. If you’re seeking some reprieve from the party scene, visit the fishing village Ao Chaloklum, the golden sands of Haad Khom (also known as Bottle Beach), Thong Nai Pan beach’s surrounding rainforests, and Secret Beach. A reservation at Tomorrow X High Life Villas is a must for a rooftop dinner, tropical cocktails, lounging in the infinity pool, and catching an epic sunset.

Full Moon party
So many more islands to go. | Phangan Boat Trips

And lastly, like the others on this list, the island hopping does not stop once you’ve reached your destination. Companies like Orion Boat Trips offer full day excursions that will take you off the coast to the famous Ang Thong National Marine Park islands. One of Thailand’s National Parks, this famous archipelago of 42 islands is filled with wildlife, hidden caves, crystal blue lagoons and is the backdrop for several movies including the James Bond island from The Man With the Golden Gun.

Orion’s local guides pack in a fun-filled day with several stops for snorkeling, kayaking, a visit to the Ta Le Nai Lagoon (known as the Emerald Lake or Blue Lagoon), and a hike to the Wua Ta Lap viewpoint, which offers a spectacular panoramic vista over all the islands. Back on the boat, you’ll enjoy local cuisine and catch a killer sunset from the top deck on your way home.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Abby Maddigan is the social media manager at Thrillistwho recently relocated to Denver and is accepting all local coffee shop recommendations. Follow her on Instagram.