Thailand’s Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao: Tropical beaches, diving and full moon parties

Thee three islands share a common beauty, but each one has a particularity that makes it stand out, from street markets to pristine waters and nightlife

A beach in Koh Phangan, Thailand.
A beach in Koh Phangan, Thailand.ROSA LAZIC (GETTY IMAGES)

The corner of the planet blessed by Buddha, the Hindu Trimurti, God, the Universe or Providence and known as Southeast Asia in addition to its list of topographical, cultural, ethnic and, of course, gastronomic wonders, also hosts some of the most beautiful seas in the world. The waters are temperate, crystal-clear on the shores and gradually acquire a range of blues, from turquoise, amber or greenish, to the purest indigo as they move away from a coastline that breaks up into white tropical sands flanked by coconut palms. There are numerous archipelagos scattered across various countries in the region: Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei... But for travelers there has been a clear favorite for more than a decade: three of the main islands in the Gulf of Thailand: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.

The three islands are easy to access and travel between, and each has its own characteristics, making it difficult to decide which one is the most beautiful. All three offer a good number of outdoor activities and nightlife, some more than others in both respects of course, a wonderful climate and perhaps the best value for money on the planet.

Although dozens of daily flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and several Asian capitals arrive at Koh Samui airport, the ideal, if you have time, is to start the journey in the coastal town of Surat Thani, which can be reached by an overnight train from the Thai capital, or an hour-long flight. Although it lacks famous monuments or paradisiacal beaches, Surat Thani is a good representative southern Thai culture. Its inhabitants are friendly and hospitable and dining at its night market before embarking for the islands and enjoying the specialties of southern Thai gastronomy is a plan that few tourists investigate, since the majority of them leave the airport or the railway station and make straight for the ferry pier.

From this city of around 150,000 inhabitants there are several options to travel to the islands. The more adventurous will be fascinated by the night boats that depart from the Ban Don pier, next to the food market, arriving a few hours later at Koh Samui, or the following morning at Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Passengers sleep quite comfortably on mattresses on deck, but it is advisable to bring a sleeping bag or wrap yourself in a large sarong that you can purchase in the bazaar. Faster and more comfortable, the catamarans operated by the Lomprayah company also link Surat Thani with the main islands of the Chumphon archipelago.

The highest point of Koh Nang Yuan, in the Thai province of Surat Thani.
The highest point of Koh Nang Yuan, in the Thai province of Surat Thani.Preto Perola (Alamy)

Koh Samui for foodies

The island of Samui is one of the most beautiful in Thailand, and one of the most-developed in terms of tourism. It offers a combination of fun and relaxation on magnificent beaches with accommodation ranging from sophisticated and luxurious resorts to moderately priced or cheap options, with excellent restaurants and a good dose of nightlife. Among the most popular beaches are Bophut, Maenam, Bangrak, and Choeng Mon, on the northern coast, where accommodation to suit all budgets can be found among luxury hotels such as the Anantara or Six Senses Samui.

If you are looking for a combination of sandy beaches and a variety of restaurants, discos and nightclubs, the ideal spot is the extensive coastal strip of Chaweng, on the eastern coast of the island. The main road runs along Chaweng from north to south, bordering the white sandy beach with a variety of beach bars, hotels like the Dara Samui, or the mythical huts where hippies slept in the 1970s, giving way later to backpackers and now converted into bungalow resorts that offer much more comfort but at very moderate prices, such as the OP Bungalow.

There are many splendid restaurants in Chaweng, showcasing some of the finest cuisine in the world, some that have been operating for a long time such as Samui Seafood. But at least one trip to the night market in the Central Chaweng area, a fun food court where you can try chicken soups, vegetarian dishes or the delicious tom yam kung, with prawns, coconut milk, lime juice, lemon grass, coriander, is a must. There is no shortage of pad thai or the famous red, green, and yellow curries, and all at much cheaper prices than in the restaurants of Chaweng.

In the same central strip of the extensive beach are a good number of bars and discotheques, live music venues, and cabaret shows featuring kathoeys, the famous ladyboys of Thailand, a country that has been a global pioneer in the integration of trans people. The Green Mango is one of the most entertaining open-air clubs not only in Samui, but in the country.

A group of tourists prepare to go diving in Koh Tao (Thailand).
A group of tourists prepare to go diving in Koh Tao (Thailand).ROMEO GACAD (AFP / Getty Images)

Koh Tao, the island of turtles

At 35 nautical miles north of Koh Samui, Koh Tao, which literally translates as “the island of turtles,” is the retreat for those seeking absolute tranquility or scuba diving. The island has some of the most pristine waters in Thailand, rich corals and a variety of marine fauna with the added advantage that diving is a year-round activity: the water temperature remains constant at around 29 °C. It is the furthest of the three islands from the mainland, about five hours by boat, or two from Koh Samui, which ensures that there are few day trippers.

Sai Ri Beach on the west coast is the main resort, with dozens of clusters of budget bungalows, but you can also opt for the luxury of Mango Bay Resort in Mamuang Bay on the east coast.

Koh Phangan, the party island

Koh Phangan is Thailand’s party island par excellence, famous for its full moon parties and a mecca for backpackers. Due to the absence of good roads, the island is not developed at the tourist level, which lends to its attraction. The island has an extension of less than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) and is easily reached in 45 minutes by boat from Koh Samui.

The best beaches, wider and with finer sand, are located in the south and on the east coast at Ban Khai and Hat Rin — where the majority of visitors stay in bungalow resorts and the legendary full moon parties are held — or Thong Nai. But the small coves in the north and northeast should not be overlooked either: Ta Pan and Khuat Chaloklum are quiet spots far removed from the hubbub of Hat Rin. A serious warning for the reveler in Koh Phangan: be very careful to avoid illegal substances. The full moon parties attract thousands of partygoers, and a large number of police patrols.

One of the famous full moon parties on Koh Phangan.
One of the famous full moon parties on Koh Phangan. Stephen J. Boitano (LightRocket

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