With its diverse natural beauty and wide range of activities, Thailand is a great destination for all travelers. Getting there should be a breeze, thanks to its easy connections from the capital city of Bangkok and highly evolved tourist infrastructure. And island living—whether it involves all-night surfing, jungle trekking, or swinging in a hammock beach-side with a local beer in hand—is arguably Thailand at its beauteous best.
This stunning island is not only postcard-perfect, but it's also big enough to explore. Stick to the south for more undeveloped coastline beaches. Highlights include a temple dedicated to 3rd-century Chinese general Guan Yu and the Wat Phra Yai golden buddha complex near Bo Phut to the north. If you're looking for luxury, this is the island. Glamorous resorts with infinity pools perfectly positioned to capture stunning views across mountains and sea await for you.
Thailand's largest island is a great place to soak up multi-layered Thai culture. The architecture of Phuket Town, with its indigenous, Chinese and Portuguese influences, is a good example. Don't miss a visit to the former red-light district of Soi Romanee, now home to small boutique cafés bustling under the night time glow of red Chinese lanterns. Animal lovers might also want to seek out the Phuket Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in the Khao Phra Thaew Royal Wildlife and Forest Reserve. This center rehabilitates captive tourist gibbons in the hopes they can be returned to the wild, so you'll be observing from a distance.
Catch a ferry from the mainland or Koh Samui to explore the tropical jungles and pristine beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. Home to the infamous Full Moon gatherings, this is one of Thailand's best party islands. As a result, it can get crowded. New Year's Eve celebrations, for example, regularly attract upwards of 20,000 revelers. That said, it's easy to ferry or private boat out to a more peaceful locale come morning.
Small but growing in popularity, Koh Lipe is beloved for its undeveloped tropical interior and excellent marine facilities for sea kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Beach areas are dotted with dive centers if you're looking to get PADI-certified. There's also extensive leisure surf-side culture, of both the day and night varieties, all over Pattaya, Sunrise and Sunset beaches.
There are actually two Phi Phis: Don, which has no roads, and Leh, which has no inhabitants. Their fortress-like cliffs hover above beaches and tropical forests of such perfection that they've been used as backdrops for novels and films such as The Beach. Damaged in the 2004 tsunami, Leh is currently restricted for visitors as its coral reef is being re-planted. But the entire area remains breathtakingly beautiful.
This charming 10-island archipelago is located just north of Phuket. Named and numbered, the islands include off-limits Koh Hu Yong #1, a nesting ground for sea turtles and tiny private Koh Pa Yan #3, owned by a Thai princess. Koh Similan #8 is famous for its boulder-covered beaches, and Koh Bon #10 forms part of the popular Similan National Park. The abundance of underwater and beach topography in the region—including spectacular coral reefs and walls, submarine caves, rock formations, and passageways—make the Similans a total playground for divers and adventurers.
Also known as Turtle Island, Kho Tao is an international destination for discerning divers looking for the best coral reef diving. There are a number of famous underwater sites to explore, including the wreck of the Thai navy boat HTMS Sattakut, and a surreal underwater sculpture garden called Ocean Utopia. These, and many other world-class dive sites, teem with marine wildlife: stingrays, barracuda, sea turtles and reef sharks.
More eco-minded than some of the Andaman Sea islands, the vibe here is laid back. People generally come for the peaceful atmosphere and the perfect white beaches. That said, the islands are also a draw for experienced rock climbers and yoga buffs, both well catered for. Take an iconic long-tail fishing boat between the two islands, discovering some of the most gorgeous sandbar beaches in the world.
Though a large island, Kho Chang is much less known and developed than Phuket or Samui, which makes it attractive to off-the-beaten-path travelers. With dense jungle throughout the interior, and ringed by soft white sand beaches, this is an island to get lost in. If you want company, Lonely Beach is popular with backpackers seeking inexpensive beach-side accommodations and a casual party scene.
It takes a bit of work to get to Koh Lanta and its archipelago, which make up a protected marine park in the extreme south of Krabi Province. It's worth the sacrifice one you get there and get a taste of old Thailand as it was when only hippies and outcasts traveled there from the west. Dotted with rubber tree plantations, the island chain is just as beautiful as the rest of Thailand. There's a party scene on Kantiang beach, but it's anything but mass market. Like everything else about this remote paradise, these moonlit gatherings are charming and low stress.