Islands in The Gulf of Thailand – Samui, Phangan & Tao

On the east coast of Southern Thailand are three idyllic islands. Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are known for their palm tree lined beaches, rocky coves, and mountainous interiors with tall waterfalls. They are the perfect group of islands for your beach vacation.

Koh Samui

We traveled to Koh Samui from Phuket. The journey was a lot longer and much more uncomfortable than we anticipated. It began at 8 am with a minibus pick up from our hotel. From there we switched minibuses 3 times over the next 4 hours as we traveled from the west to east coast of Thailand. Finally we arrived at what we thought was our boat dock, only to find a run-down cafeteria where we had to wait for one hour while fending off various touts. From there we had another one-hour drive in a rickety bus. It was a complete rust bucket, one of the worst we’ve ever had. The driver could hardly close the door because it was so bent out of shape. Inside, half of the bus seats were wet due to a leaking roof. As we walked down the aisle to find a seat, our feet almost went through huge holes in the floor. We finally found dry seats, but Richard’s seat was not bolted to the floor! Each time the bus turned a corner, his seat lifted off the floor and tipped to the side. We finally arrived safely at the real boat dock, but the bus doors wouldn’t open. One of the passengers had to push from the inside while the driver pulled from the outside! Thankfully, the ferry was in good condition and the boat ride went without incident.

It had been storming on Koh Samui for over a week before we arrived. As a result, many of the streets and sidewalks were flooded. There was talk that the road to our destination may not be open. We were worried what our next few days would bring, but were glad the next morning when we awoke to a beautiful sky.

There are many waterfalls in the island’s mountainous interior. One morning we hiked up to Namuang Waterfall. Because of all the rain the waterfall was actually three waterfalls. They powerfully cascaded down a staircase of boulders surrounded by dense jungle. It was a great setting and worth the hike.

Koh Samui is famous for its amazing beaches. Lamai is a long sandy beach with rocky outcrops defining its two ends. The sea was turbulent bringing huge waves up on to the beach and crashing into the rocks. These rocky bookends make a spectacular and rugged coast which is great for pictures.

There are many beach towns to choose from on Koh Samui. We stayed near Lamai Beach and were happy that we did. There are plenty of good choices for hotels and restaurants and it’s not as busy as some of the other towns.

One of the neighbouring beaches, Chaweng, is an even longer beach, but much more narrow. There is only a slim strip of sand when the tides are out. But when the tides are in, waves come right up to the edge of the hotels and restaurants. Taking full advantage of this unique setting, bars set chairs and tables in the sand at the water’s edge. We had a beer at a beach side ‘pub’ where the waves were literally breaking at our feet.

Koh Phangan

The next island, Koh Phangan, is an hour ferry ride north from Koh Samui (12 km). Every month this island hosts the full moon party, one of the biggest parties in Thailand. Any other time of the month, it is a laid-back, peaceful retreat. Thankfully, we chose to be here one week after the full moon. We stayed on the south end of the island in Haad Rin. During non-full moon party times, accomodation prices are very reasonable in Haad Rin. We found a pool-side room in a luxurious hotel for the same price we would pay for budget accomodations anywhere else.

Koh Phangan has over 30 sandy beaches scattered around its 14 km circumference. Our hotel was a 5-minute walk from 3 of those beaches, each more beautiful than the other. We spent our days lounging on one of the beaches, playing in the other and then finishing our day at our hotel pool. Life on Koh Phangan was pretty stress-free.

Sunrise beach is the largest beach in the area and much like the ones on Koh Samui, it is book-ended by huge rocky outcrops. We loved walking along the length of the long beach watching the large waves crash up to shore. A few restaurants and hotels line the beach, but they don’t make it feel crowded or busy.

The other two beaches, Sunset and Leela are on the west side and have much calmer water. Sunset beach is not very large but as you would expect, it’s a great spot to see beautiful sunsets.

Leela Beach is small and secluded. There’s not a lot of sand between the mangroves, but it is very picturesque and relaxing.

Koh Tao

The smallest of the three islands, Koh Tao, is a rocky-shored majestic beauty. Arriving by ferry allows you to see the spectacular rocky coastline of this island. It’s quite different from the sandy islands of Samui and Phangan. It’s a 90 minute ferry between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao and feels more like a cruise than a ferry with this scenery.

Koh Tao is well known for its scuba diving and snorkeling sites, so we were excited for our visit. The dives sites at Japanese Gardens were an awesome introduction to what you can see in these waters. Huge boulder sized red and blue coral fill a large area making a colourful garden. It is magical to swim between the large, bright coral, through narrow passages and caves created when three or four are stacked up on each other.

With multi-coloured fish, nudibranch, christmas tree worms and the bright coral, this area is a kaleidoscope of colours.

We had a surprise the next day when we went to a dive site called, Chumphon. A whale shark had been seen in the area that morning. They aren’t very common at that time of year (January), so we didn’t expect much. Two minutes into our dive however, we looked to our left as a huge whale shark swam by. It was at least 7 meter (23 ft) long and came within 10 m of us. It was surprising how peaceful it was to be so close to such a large creature. Our presence didn’t seem to affect the whale shark as it just continued on its way. We saw the same whale shark 4 times over the next 40 minutes. Apparently, they are also curious about us and will often swim by the same area multiple times when divers are present.

This area is also a great dive site for other reasons, mostly because of the abundance of fish. At one point I looked beside me, and Richard was swimming in the middle of a school of a thousand or more small fish. I wish I had a camera to capture this moment. Unfortunately for this dive, we forgot the camera on the boat. The last dive of the day had as many interesting fish as we had seen earlier, but no whale sharks.

We didn’t spend much time on Koh Tao’s beaches. Sairee Beach is probably the most popular. It’s a long skinny beach with palms trees growing in odd angles along its side.

In addition to diving, Koh Tao is a great place for kayaking. A few businesses on Sairee Beach rent them for a few hours or for the day. We paddled along the shore looking for a spot to snorkel. Eventually we stopped on the rocky shore unsure of what we’d find. We were surprised when we snorkeled over another large coral garden filled with colourful fish, including a stingray.

This island has so many hidden gems like this around its coast. With sites like these and water temperatures between 28 and 30°C, it’s a perfect place to spend the day in the water.

Getting to the Islands

It’s quite easy to get to any of these islands. Koh Samui has an international airport. There is also one nearby in Surat Thani on the mainland. Two ferry companies, Lomprayah and Seatran, travel regularly beween the Surat Thani or Chumphon on the mainland and each island as well as between the islands.

When to visit The Gulf Of Thailand

The best weather is between December and March. From April until August there is a high chance of rain. Monsoon season is usually beween September to November so visiting during that time is not recomended.

Coming next – The Khmer Empire in Thailand

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