Everyone has to experience the mayhem and magnificence that is Thailand. Yes, it is extremely popular and touristy but it’s that way for a reason. Darragh and I had our first ever taste of the tropics when we went on a three week holiday there over two years ago. We loved it so much that we returned for a month long visit earlier this year. Stunning beaches, boppin’ nightlife, sunshine and great food…who wouldn’t want to spend a month here? This post will combine our experiences from our first ever trip here with this year’s adventures, to bring you the ultimate guide to travelling Thailand!
From rainforests and mountains to tropical islands, coconut trees and coral reefs; Thailand’s un-doubtable beauty is no secret. Whether you are hanging on to the roof of a jeep racing through the forests, clinging on the back of a moped or battling through the waves in a long tail boat, a trip to Thailand is a real adventure. Globe trotters love to label their destinations with associated events or attractions and I certainly was no different. Koh Phangan? The Full Moon Party, Koh Toa? Deep Sea Diving and Koh Phi Phi? “The Beach”. There are SO many beautiful islands to choose from and we still have so many more we want to explore in the future! But for now here is the list of places we travelled to and what we did in each.
Koh Samui is home to long sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and the renowned beach bar parties. Two years ago we decided to splash the cash and stayed in the most incredible penthouse in the middle of a tropical jungle. With a private hot tub, rooftop terrace and infinity edge pool, it was complete paradise. It wasn’t even that expensive considering what we got for our money. I think it was about €100 for a three night stay between us. Having said that, it was too far out and I like to be within walking distance from the town. So if you are looking for a luxurious place to stay then I would actually recommend its sister hotel ‘Kirikayan Boutique Resort’ which is located right on the beach front of Chaweng Beach. We spent a day there and although it is a boutique hotel, it was absolutely gorgeous. Right in the middle of the town and more importantly, on the beach.
Fast forward two years and as stingy backpackers we didn’t stay in such luxurious surroundings haha. My motto is…”as long as it’s clean, has a fan and is central” then we’re happy! This time round we stayed in a pretty crappy hotel, which I actually won’t even recommend! However it was right across from the beach, cheap and really central so it suited us down to the ground. Anywhere near Chaweng Beach is the best area to stay in Koh Samui. In regards to where to go for a good boogie and a bucket or four, then it’s really all about the Ark Bar. It’s perched upon the shores of Chaweng beach and is top of everyone’s list when it comes to partying. With fire performers, drunk backpackers and party animals to entertain you, you’re sure to have a great night.
*Note* PLEASE do not entertain the locals who try to hand you monkeys, lizards or other animals for photos in exchange for money. They are usually drugged and we should not support this cruelty. It’s so heart-breaking to watch. I know a lot of us can be naive when it comes to this sort of thing, I defiantly was at first but it’s a sad reality unfortunately.
While on this topic, Koh Samui is full of tour companies that offer various different trips to animal and “Elephant Sanctuaries“. The majority of these are not sanctuaries and offer activites such as Elephant back rides, monkey performances and tiger photo opportunities. The animals are often chained up or drugged. We refrained from doing any elephant related activity this year because of how badly these animals are treated. We wanted to wait until we found a legit place to see the Elephants in their natural habitat, which we eventually did find in Sri Lanka. Two years ago when we first went to Thailand, we visited an “Elephant Sanctuary” and we were absolutely horrified when we got there and discovered all of the Elephants chained up, made dance and on leads. We felt so ashamed to be there, but it was our first time in Asia and we were naive & didn’t know. I know lots of people who also fell victim to these type of “tours” when visiting Asia for the first time. I just want to take this opportunity to raise awareness of this situation and ask you all to please do your research before you go to any of these “sanctuaries“. I don’t want you to make the same mistake we did and support this cruelty. If you are looking to visit a legitimate Elephant sanctuary in Thailand then I believe Chang Mai is the place to go. We unfortunately never made it there, but I know many people who have been and absolutely loved it!
When it comes to where to eat, there are so many lovely places along the street that offer fresh seafood and BBQ dishes to choose from. Some places even offer menu meals for as little as 99 baht during happy hour. Garlic pepper chicken was our go to meal in Thailand. SO good and healthy too which is always a bonus! Koh Samui was by no means our favourite island, but it has the most beautiful beach, great nightlife and a holiday atmosphere you cannot beat. It’s usually people’s first stop on their Thailand trip as you can fly directly here or get the bus and boat combo from Bangkok. I would actually recommend getting the bus and boat to Koh Toa first then making your way to Koh Phangan and across to Koh Samui from there. I will put together a recommended route at the end of this post.
Ahh Koh Phangan. Party goers will be well aware of the islands world acclaimed Full and Half Moon parties. The party itself is complete and utter madness but has the most incredible atmosphere and is something that everyone should experience on their first trip to Thailand. The days leading up to the Full Moon are actually known for being better than the party itself! So get over there a few days early and enjoy the madness. But once it’s over, I would recommend leaving. I wasn’t the Islands biggest fan and found it a bit of a ghost town after the party. The beaches weren’t my favourite either but that’s just my opinion! If you are there during the Half Moon then it’s a little different. The party is more of a jungle rave then a beach party. There is also less of a build-up in the days leading up to it than the Full Moon. Because of this, I would recommend getting the boat over from Koh Samui the day of the Half Moon and then going back the morning after.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Koh Phangan but it just wasn’t my favourite island. However it might be yours! If you want to experience the Island then I would suggest staying for maybe three or four days. If you choose to go during the quieter days in the lunar calender (i.e. when the full moon parties aren’t on) then the island can be quite relaxing. Fewer people and overall more tranquillity. The beaches are well maintained and kept clean all year round. Personally, I found that there wasn’t a whole lot to do here but some people love it, it just depends on the person. Some of the main things to do here are the Islands ‘Slip & Slide’ or the ‘Total Wipe Out Challenge’ (Impossible if you have zero arm strength like me 😂). Both were actually great craic and many laughs were had!
We chose not to come back here this year as we had other islands we wanted to explore this time round; but two years ago we stayed in a place called ‘C Villas’. It was defiantly pricey, but we had a much bigger budget back then ha. The staff were so nice here and upgraded us to the sea front villa on arrival, which had its own little pool! It really was fab and I would defiantly recommend it if you’re budget allows. It was located just around the corner from Haad Rin Beach (Where the Full Moon is). I preferred staying a bit away from the madness but also having the option to walk five minutes back to it, so it was perfect for us.
If you’re looking for the perfect cocktail of liveliness and a relaxing retreat then Koh Toa offers plenty of both. It was without doubt one of my favourite islands, so we jumped at the chance to return this year. The island is so chilled out with barbeques and tiki-torch beach bars around every corner. It is also world famous for its deep sea diving which is an absolute must when visiting the Island. Read more about our trip to Koh Toa in my next post which I will link here very soon!
Krabi (Ao Nang)
Ao Nang is a little tourist hub in the Krabi Province and was one of my favourite places in Thailand! Its stunning Karst scenery and coastal beachfront is framed by limestone headlands and islands. From hiking and island hopping to diving and snorkelling there was so much to do here. To get here, we got a boat directly from Koh Samui then a bus from the pier to Ao Nang. If you want to know more about our adventures in Krabi please read my post on Ao Nang here.
Ko Lanta is known for being the perfect Thai island to completely relax and unwind. Its remoteness is was attracts many travellers, the perfect balance of silence and noise. You won’t find any of the usual western influences here and that’s what makes Ko Lanta special. Its long sandy beaches and jungle interior make for the most beautiful visit… or so we thought. I had all these expectations in my mind and Ko Lanta was the island that I was most looking forward to visiting. However, we visited at the wrong time.
When to visit Ko Lanta
I have no doubt that Ko Lanta is insanely beautiful during its peak season, November to April. December and January are the most popular months to visit the island and I would really recommend taking a trip here during this time. The beach bars and restaurants are bustling with activity and the island hopping tours are in full swing. It’s a beautiful place to be without the crazy crowds of the other Thai islands.
However after the month of May the entire Island practically shuts down for its monsoon season. As a tropical Island temperatures here are fairly consistent throughout the year, so the odd tropical downpour didn’t scare us from visiting during the monsoon season. All the other Thai Islands I mention in this post are perfectly fine to visit any time of the year, but Ko Lanta was different and I want to make sure you avoid the same disappointment that we faced here.
It wasn’t just that everything was closed, I actually quite liked the remoteness of it. My main issue was the beaches. The stunning beaches that I researched online looked as if a tornado came and swept it into disarray. They were completely abandoned and filthy. Sadly rubbish had washed ashore and it seems that the locals do not maintain the beaches during these months, which was so disappointing. The Island tours also stop running during this period which again, was very disappointing. It was like a ghost town and I know from meeting other backpackers that it is completely different during the peak season. It is often peoples favourite Island!
The whole experience wasn’t all bad and certainly did not turn me off from visiting again. In fact it just gives me an excuse to come back and explore the Island again! Every season has its pros and cons and one pro was the prices! We stayed in the most incredible family-run hotel called “Khum Laanta Resort’. We had our own little porch where breakfast was served to us every day, a really spacious modern room and a gorgeous pool right on our doorstep. It was just a short two minute walk to the beach and the staff couldn’t do enough for us… all for €5 a night! Madness! Even if you are there during the peak season, I would still recommend staying here, it was fab.
Things to Do
One of best things to do in Ko Lanta in any season is to rent a moped and head out to explore the island. You can rent one directly from your hotel for as little as 200baht a day so you cannot go wrong. There is basically just one large road on the Island making it impossible to get lost which is always a bonus! Be sure to go off the beaten track and explore the hidden beaches and bays, you will feel as if you are the only one on the Island… and you basically will be during the off-peak. Be careful of the monkeys…they are wild and want your sunglasses!
Go on an Island hopping tour (there’s many to explore) or take a cooking class. Unfortunately we didn’t have either of these options available to us as they were closed, but I do know that these activities are meant to be so much fun during the peak season. Luckily we got to do a cooking class in Vietnam (click here to read), so we got over that one a little easier. ‘Time for Lime’ is the most popular course on the Island where you can cook up a traditional Thai feast! As regards to Island hopping tours, I wanted to do the “4 Island Tour” which of course was closed but I will link more information about it here. It is meant to be breath-taking and a lot less touristy than the other island tours in Thailand. I want to come back to Ko Lanta just to experience this tour! Let me know in the comments below if any of you have done it.
For animal lovers, visit the Lanta Animal Welfare Sanctuary. It’s open every day from 9am to 5pm and free to help the animals, cuddle a cat or walk the dogs. While you are there it would be nice to make small donation in return.
Visit the Koh Lanta National Park. The park consists of several islands with the largest being Ko Lanta Noi and Ko Lanta Yai. It is home to laid-back monkeys, stunning beaches and a picturesque lighthouse which you can hike up to on a rocky peninsular cliff. You will get stunning views of the surrounding cliffs and islands from the this park. The park is open from 8am to 5pm daily and admission is 200baht. Well worth spending a day here!
How to Get to Ko Lanta
The best way to get here would be to go to Ao Nang/Krabi first and then get a shuttle bus via ferry. The whole trip takes about 3hours and will bring you straight to your hotels doorstep.
Where to Eat
The ONLY place I can recommend was the only place that was open practically. It was called ‘Sole Mare Italian Pizzeria & Restaurant‘. It is an Italian and is owned by an Italian so the food was just delicious! Be sure to check it out, we ate there every night… talk about a carb overload! No regrets!
Phuket is home to stunning coastal beaches and emerging high end beach resorts. I am lucky enough to say that we did indeed, stay in one of these lavish five star beach resorts! We met Darragh’s family here this year and it was the most INCREDIBLE treat and a much needed escape from our backpacker life. We stayed in the ‘Katathani Phuket Beach Resort’ located on Kata Beach. Phuket is blessed with more than 30 different beaches but the most popular areas to stay are Patong, Kata, Karon and Kamala. Being honest, we didn’t get to explore a whole lot of Phuket as we were fully indulging in the luxury of our hotel and catching up with family. However we take a day trip out to ‘James Bond Island’ which I would highly recommend doing! The tour started off on Panak Island where explored the stunning underground limestone caves. Then we moved on to Hong Island where we went canoeing around the lagoon. This was my favourite part of the day. We had the entire lagoon to ourselves, paddling through and around the limestone rocks. Just incredible. A transitional Thai lunch was also included on Panyee Island, a floating Muslim fishing village. It was so fascinating to see and interesting to learn about how the local people go about their daily lives here. So simplistic and worlds apart from the life we lead. Next up was ‘James Bond Island’ in Phang Nga Bay. This was (as the name suggests) made famous for its starring role in the James Bond movie ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’. Ironically, we actually went here the day after Roger Moore passed away! Such a stunning island where various limestone cliffs vertically jut out of the emerald blue water. The entire area surrounding this island is spectacular to see, although like most tourist attractions it can become very crowded with boats during the peak seasons. Last stop on the tour was Naka Island where a few Pina coladas were consumed followed by a dip in the sea. The tour can be booked in any of the tourist offices on the island but if you want to know more about this tour, click here. You can also take trips over to Phi Phi Island directly from Phuket. This might be a good idea if you are tight on time but otherwise I would recommend spending more time on Phi Phi than Phuket. There is a lot more to do there and I much preferred it.
What’s a trip to Phuket without visiting Bangla Road, home of lady-boy dancers and hangovers. This street is chaos and resembles the madness of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. It is the epicentre of nightlife in Phuket where you’ll find the biggest clubs, bars and questionable performances. This is a street that doesn’t sleep so you are guaranteed a good night out! As Thailand’s biggest Island, Phuket is a lot more developed than some of the other islands. For that reason, it wouldn’t be my absolute favourite place to visit. It is stunning of course, but there are other islands I would prioritise over it namely Phi Phi, Koh Toa and Krabi. There is however something to suit everyone here. From the sin city of Patong to the cultural capital of Phuket town and the luxurious family resorts of Ao Bang and Katya; you’ll find everything you want in a holiday here.
Koh Phi Phi
You really just can’t beat Phi Phi Island. We spent six glorious days here (on both trips to Thailand) soaking up the sun and the breath-taking scenery. The island itself has no roads or cars and therefore is highly water dependent. Taxi Boats are the best way to explore the Island off shore although scooters and mopeds can also be hired. Please be careful when hiring a moped and not just in Thailand, everywhere. The biggest advice I can give you when it comes to mopeds is to rent it from your hotel. It may be slightly more expensive but you won’t need to give them your passport as they should already have a photocopy of it from check in. NEVER give anyone your passport unless it’s to the hotel. If you have an accident and damage your moped in any way, even a scratch, they will try to charge you ALOT of money and will not give back your passport unless you pay it. This happened to a friend of mine this year and she ended up paying a bomb for little damage. Take photos of your moped before you take it out. This eliminates the risk of them holding you accountable for any scratches or dints that may already be on the bike.
There is so much to do on this little island. We rented a boat and took a day trip out to ‘Maya Beach’, home to Leonardo Di Caprio’s 1999 hit film “The Beach”. Although this can become quite crowded at times, the views really are spectacular and is a must do when visiting Phi Phi. Read more about what we did in Phi Phi in my next post that I will link here very soon.
The countries capital where the familiar and the exotic collide. The steamy city of Bangkok is a city of contrasts that offers visitors the entire Thai experience with a twist. Explore the beautiful Buddhist temples, catch a tuk tuk to hidden markets, hop on a long tail boat through the floating markets or get lost in the streets of Chinatown, there is so much to explore here. In my experience, people either love Bangkok or hate it. After our first visit here I was left unsure, but we only spent two days there. This time round we had a few days longer to explore and began to see its charm shine through.
Only in Bangkok will you see traffic jams lined up beside long tail boats, food stalls shadowed beneath luxurious rooftop restaurants and spiritual temples sharing the same street space as sleazy neon-lit bars. In total, we didn’t spend too long here (the island beaches were calling). Two or three days would give you plenty of time to explore. We stayed in the ‘Dang Derm hotel’ located in the heart of the very famous Khaosan Road. This hotel is extremely popular with backpackers for its location and affordable accommodation, as is its sister hotel the ‘D&D Inn’ located a few doors down. Both hotels are really nice
*Top Tip* When checking in to either of these hotels, be sure to ask for a room at the back of the hotel if available. We were put in a room facing the street and felt as if we were sitting in the nightclubs. Darragh and I were literally shouting to try and hear each other speak! Haha it was actually ridiculous, there was no way we could sleep there so changed room the next day. Other than that, both hotels are perfect! Ha
For those of you who aren’t aware what Khaosan road is, it is “the centre of the backpacking Universe” as described by the book “The Beach”. A 1km strip packed with budget-friendly guesthouses, hotels, cafés, tattoo parlours, food stalls, markets, bars and nightclubs where anything goes. The entire street is complete chaos. Come 7pm the place is hopping with partygoers, street food charts, scorpions on sticks, nightclub reps enticing you in and stunning lady boys. A truly unique Bangkok experience not to be missed!
Another must do is the Bangkok Weekend Market. The ‘Chatuchak’ market has to be seen to be believed! 14 hectares of 15,000 stalls that attracts over 200,000 visitors per day. It is MASSIVE. We thought we covered so much of the market but later realised that we were wandering around the same tiny area for hours without noticing haha. Anyone who knows or follows me will know how much I love markets so this was just the dream day for me! I love looking through all the handicrafts and finding quirky hidden treasures. Put your haggling hat on here and stick to your price or walk away… they will always follow and you will always win in the end hehe.
You cannot leave Bangkok without visiting one of the city’s multiple sky bars. In this urban jungle of skyscrapers it can be difficult to know which bars are worth visiting or not; But being well located and famous among tourists the ‘Vertigo Moon Bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel’ was a definite first choice. Although it was quite expensive compared to other sky bars, it offers the most amazing 360 degree views of the city and the cocktails were to die for!… or should I say cocktail? as backpackers we just went for the one and the experience!
Recommended Travel Itinerary
The following route is based on the assumption that you would be travelling to all of the islands mentioned above. Given the fact that the Thailand visa is for a max of 30days or you may be going on a two or three week holiday, it is unlikely you would cover all of these islands in the one trip. This itinerary is more to give you an idea of the best order to travel to each of these islands that will save you both time and money. You can choose which islands you want to visit and which to save for the next trip!
- Chiang Mai: You can fly directly to Chiang Mai from some neighbouring countries or alternatively directly from Bangkok Airport after you land. People tend to spend two or three days here. I would also suggest checking out Pai while you are up here. We didn’t make it there this time round but heard it is super cool with lots of hippie vibes and backpacker fun!
- Bangkok: The best way to get here from Chiang Mai is to get the sleeper train. I would recommend spending two days here.
- Koh Toa: We got the bus and boat combo here from Bangkok. Shop around for these tickets as prices can be negotiated! I believe 1100baht was the norm. Tickets can book up fast during the peak season so give yourself plenty of time to book in advance. They can be purchased online also. I would recommend staying three or four days here or even longer if time allows. Bare in mind that if you want to complete your PADI diving license here that it will take four days.
- Koh Phangan: Hop on a short ferry ride from Koh Tao (about one hour) and you are in Koh Phangan. Tickets can usually be booked through your hotel. I would recommend two or three days here.
- Koh Samui: A very short boat trip from Koh Phangan. I would suggest two days here or maybe even skipping it altogether. It is extremely touristy, overpriced and just doesn’t offer the same charm that the other islands do, in my opinion.
- Ao Nang, Krabi: Get the bus via ferry ticket here from Koh Samui. It takes about 6 hours and is about 800baht, but again prices can be negotiated so shop around for the best price. I would suggest spending about three days here.
- Ko Lanta: We got a shuttle bus transfer here by road from Ao Nang with a short stop in Krabi town. It took about two hours but dropped us straight to our hotel. I would suggest staying maybe four or five days here…IN PEAK SEASON!
- Phi Phi: We got the early morning ferry straight to Phi Phi from Ko Lanta. It took exactly one hour and cost about 500baht. I love Phi Phi so I would recommend spending most of your time here, five to seven days.
- Phuket: Hop on a short ferry from Phi Phi and spend around two days here before flying out to your next destination.
Thailand really does have it all when it comes to sun, sea, adventure, culture, or festivities. Even after two trips here, I just know I’ll keep coming back for more! I really hope you found this post helpful. If you want to find out more about any of the Islands just click on the links provided in this post. I hope to have separate posts up on Krabi, Koh Toa and Phi Phi up very very soon, so keep an eye out! If you have any other tips or tricks I’d love you to post some in the comments below.
Thank you so much, as always, for reading!