Island Hopping – Andaman Sea Thailand
Did you know there are well over a thousand tropical islands scattered like verdant jewels along Thailand’s coastlines both on the Andaman Sea and in the Gulf of Thailand?
This makes Thailand a world-class tropical island-hopping paradise!
Some of these islands are on a popular tourist trail and others are a little off the beaten path.
And, with transport along the coast so easily arranged via local and traditional longtail boats or private speedboats boats and scheduled ferries, there are many ways to island hop and many different routes to choose simply because there are so many stunningly beautiful islands to explore.
I have been lucky enough – and sometimes adventurous enough – to visit and explore many of these islands off the duel coastlines of Thailand: The Gulf of Thailand and The Andaman Sea.
THE GULF OF THAILAND
I’ve travelled from Chang Mai in the north of Thailand on busses and trains to get to Bangkok in the south and then I’ve travelled to the Gulf of Thailand, down through Pattaya on the eastern coast (the side bordering Cambodia) by various means including busses, cars, and tuk-tuks, and then by ferry boat over to Koh Chang (Elephant Island) and to Koh Mak and Koh Kood. Travel is always an adventure and you certainly meet the most interesting people on buses and boats and trains!
I’ve also flown into Surat Thani airport on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand and then taken a bus up the coast to Hua Hin. On another occasion, I’ve also taken a bus from the airport to the port at Chumphun and then a ferry boat over to the Gulf Coast islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao.
There are three ferry companies to choose from on Thailand’s Gulf Coast: Lomprayah, Seatran and Songserm.
The Lomprayah Service is the fastest direct service in the Gulf of Thailand from Surat Thani Airport.
I prefer to use and would recommend to you the The Lomprayah service as it uses luxury buses and high-speed catamaran ferries and you can conveniently buy tickets on arrival at the airport for a complete airport to island service.
THE ANDAMAN SEA
Island Hopping – The Andaman Sea – One of My Greatest Travel Experiences!
One of my greatest ever travel experiences – and the subject of this post – is island hopping on Thailand’s Andaman Sea. The backpacking husband and I spent a month backpacking all along the Andaman Sea, on the southwest side of Thailand, using ferries and speedboats and traditional longtail boats all the way from Krabi Thailand down to Langkawi in Malaysia.
From Krabi to Railay and from Koh Lanta to Koh Kradan and to Koh Ngai we took a local longtail boat.
From Railay to Koh Lanta we used a local ferry and then a minibus (the out of season route) to take us a little further down the coast and then we took a ferry across to Koh Lanta as it was early season and just before the main ferry and boat services along the Andaman Sea had started up.
Otherwise we used The Bundhaya Speed Boat service to access all the islands on the Andaman Sea.
On the Andaman Sea, you’ll find so many tropical islands that are so visually stunning that you’ll hardly believe they are real.
Many have verdant jungle interiors and are fringed by some of the most beautiful – and most photographed – beaches in the whole world. You will find popular islands like Koh Phi Phi Ley (of The Beach fame) and other ‘tourist magnets’.
But you’ll also discover many other islands dotted along this coastline that are so small that they often get bypassed by the island-hopping crowds looking for beach parties and so choosing to stop off on one of these can almost make you feel like you’ve been castaway on a desert island.
These smaller paradise islands are the ones we chose to stop at on route, to stay for a few lazy days and nights in palm thatched huts and resting in a hammock under swaying palm trees on stunning white sand beaches, or exploring limestone caves, snorkelling, or scuba diving on a coral reef.
While travelling along the Andaman Sea, we saw lots of uninhabited and impressive limestone monuments and tall rock stacks jutting out of the water. Hewn by the waves, some are strange shapes and resemble animals or birds and are named as such: there’s Koh Kai or ‘chicken island’.
Some of these hewn limestone rocks and islets on the Andaman Sea are famous as landmarks, like Koh Ta Pu, otherwise known as ‘James Bond Island’ because it appeared in the 1974 James Bond movie ‘Man With The Golden Gun’.
You’ll realise now that the word for island in Thai is ‘koh’.
And I want to share with you our fabulous island-hopping adventure on the Andaman Sea Thailand so that you’ll know how to do it too!
OUR ISLAND HOPPING ROUTE ON THE ANDAMAN SEA THAILAND
Krabi. Railay. Koh Lanta. Koh Phi Phi Ley. Koh Ngai.
Koh Kradan. Koh Mook. Koh Bulon. Koh Lipe
THE BEST TIME TO GO ISLAND HOPPING ON THE ANDAMAN SEA THAILAND
Knowing the best time to island hop in Thailand visit is very important because the two sides that I’ve mentioned – The Andaman side and The Gulf side – have totally different and opposite monsoon seasons.
On the Gulf of Thailand – the high ‘dry’ season is from February to September and the rainy season is from October to January.
On the Andaman Sea – the high and ‘dry’ season is December to April and the rainy season is May to November. Be warned that in rainy season – when the sea swell is high – boats and ferries will not be in service and many hotels, resorts, and restaurants, will be closed for the rainy season.
We began our Andaman island-hopping trip in mid-November just as the season was getting started.
We flew from the UK to Bangkok and then took a domestic flight over to Krabi.
From Krabi, we were able to take a longtail boat around the headland to Railay Beach.
KRABI AND RAILAY
Going to Railay Beach was actually a bit of a diversion from our island-hopping route, because it’s not an island, but an area of peninsular that’s cut off from the mainland. It’s protected by mangroves and jungle and magnificent limestone cliffs and so it’s only accessible by boat.
Railay has a reputation as one of Thailand’s most stunning scenic places.
It’s a place I longed to see with my own eyes, having only ever seen amazing photographs of Railay’s sheer limestone cliffs, incredible white sand curved beaches, and crystal-clear waters.
Readers of my Backpacking Housewife books will know that in Book One, my heroine of the story, Lori, also travels from Bangkok and to Krabi and then my traditional longtail boat to Railay Beach!
My heroine, Lori, also travels to all the other islands that I travel to as part of this fabulous island-hopping trip. I’ve used my very own experiences of travelling along the Andaman Sea to meld with Lori’s (fictional) story and readers of my Backpacking Housewife books have contacted me to say that they too have since travelled this route – or plan to do so – after reading the book and being inspired by my travels. I think that is truly wonderful!
We arrived at Railay on 31st October – Halloween – and just in time to attend a Halloween beach party! We bought our tickets and attended that night for a fabulous Halloween themed spooky food buffet and to dance to live music on watch fire dancers perform on the beach. It was wonderful!
Our real starting point on our three-week island-hopping adventure is on Koh Lanta, the largest island in this chain along the Andaman Sea. Koh Lanta’s reputation as a relaxing laid-back paradise more than appealed to me.
So, to take things slowly and truly soak in the relaxing tropical island vibes of the gorgeous uncrowded white sand beaches, unpretentious beach bars, incredible sunsets, and the hedonistic atmosphere promised to us by this island, we decided to spend two weeks here.
Another reason to stay here longer was the time of year. We arrived on Koh Lanta in early November at the very beginning of the season and we had to wait for The Bundhaya Speed Boat service to start up to facilitate our island hopping further down the Andaman Sea.
We stayed at Mook Lanta Eco Resort in a gorgeous wood bungalow on stilts and it was wonderful.
The backpacking husband also wanted to go scuba diving from Koh Lanta and he dived with the wonderful Andaman Dive Adventures – a 5-star PADI dive centre.
There are spectacular coral reef dive sites nearby – all considered to be the best diving in Thailand.
Hin Daeng (red rock) and Hin Muang (purple rock), Koh Bida Nok and Koh Bida Nai, and of course the famous Koh Phi Phi (The Beach) and the further away dive sites of Shark Point and Anemone Reef
Some days I joined him out on the dive boat and, as I don’t dive, I enjoyed the views from the boat and I went snorkelling instead. I’ve never seen so many tropical fish. Even from the surface I could look down and see sea snakes, barracuda, cuttle fish, cat fish, and moray eels, box and trumpet and crocodile fish. It was incredible!
Other days, I read in a hammock or sunbathed on the beach or went for a Thai massage.
I also attended a shala to practice my yoga. There are lots of yoga retreats on Koh Lanta.
The backpacking husband and I took romantic strolls on Long Beach and as it was so early in the season it was often deserted. We stopped off for ‘Leo’ or a ‘Chang’ beer and a bite of lunch at our favourite Moonwalk Beach Bar where we could relax on bean bag cushions at low tables made of driftwood and watch the sun go down while making memories that we know will last us a lifetime.
Koh Lanta is a truly fabulous laid back and relaxing tropical island destination!
Interestingly, in my pre-departure planning and research, I’d also discovered Koh Lanta is home to the Chao Ley – ‘sea gypsies’ – who are thought to be the indigenous people of these islands. Ban Sangka-Ou, a fishing village in the southeast of Lanta Yai, is home to around 400 Chao Ley people. But you should know that the village, although not out of bounds, is not a tourist attraction.
After a fabulous two weeks on Koh Lanta we were relaxed and excited to be moving on to our next island of Koh Ngai. You can easily check the timetable for transport from Koh Lanta to Koh Ngai on the Amazing Lanta website.
On a calm sea and under a clear blue sky, the journey by longtail boat to Koh Ngai took a little under an hour.
Once at sea and during our voyage, I was mesmerised by so many ‘pinch me’ moments.
Meanwhile, our slight, weather-beaten, and happily smiling boat captain, who was both barefoot and bare-chested, smoked a cigarette and stood proudly at the back of his boat operating the ‘longtail’ – with its ancient and noisy diesel engine attached and also belting out smoke – with his foot.
I was enthralled by views of the coastline on one side of us and all the enormous rocks and towering limestone karsts in the sea all around us and on the horizon. On sailing past one of these limestone ‘islands’ we saw what looked like a long-abandoned bamboo hut with the wind torn remains of a palm-thatched roof. Our captain pointed to it and laughed.
‘Look!’ he delighted in telling us. ‘It’s your hotel!’
Our hotel on Koh Ngai was in fact far more luxurious and I was in great anticipation of our arrival.
We’d booked to stay for two nights at the fabulous Thanya Beach Resort.
According to my research for our trip, Koh Ngai is a tiny island that is part of the Koh Lanta National Park, and it promises us warm turquoise waters, a white sand beach, and a jungle clad hilly interior.
Unlike the much larger island of Koh Lanta, there are no cars or motorised vehicles on Koh Ngai or indeed any of the small islands on this route. Electrical power on the island is provided by generators.
There are no ATM machines and so its best to find out in advance if your hotel will take card payments.
There are also no TV’s but there is Wifi. To me, it sounded like a paradise.
As Koh Ngai came into view, it literally took my breath away. It looked so beautiful, so verdant, and so very inviting, like a tropical oasis shimmering on the blue green sea. Our accommodation at Thanya Resort on Koh Ngai was stunning too and typically Thai in that it offers small, clean, and well-furnished ‘deluxe’ bungalows set back from the white sand beach and in a garden of tropical flowers.
There is also a small swimming pool and a poolside bar just back from the beach.
Koh Ngai is incredibly beautiful. It’s idyllic. It’s bliss. It’s the stuff of dreams!
Activities on offer, other that reading in a hammock and sipping cocktails on a lounger by the pool, are swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, scuba diving on the reef, beach wandering, and hiking through the jungle interior and over the hilltop to Ao Kuan Tong Beach. The official ‘Paradise’ trail is located behind reception at Thanya Resort.
The hike to Ao Kuan Tong Beach only takes around 20 minutes and is well worth the effort.
And, other that the above things to do, there is nothing to do so the island is low key and laid back.
After two amazing days and nights on Koh Ngai, relaxing and sunbathing and swimming and eating wonderful local food, we travelled a short distance by speedboat to the even smaller ‘slip of an island’ in this chain called Koh Kradan. The island is part of Had Chao Mai National Park.
When you look up Koh Kradan – as you must – you will see that every reference to this long and narrow tropical island claims it as ‘the most beautiful island’ in the Trang Province.
Kradan has, in fact, often been voted as also having the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Again, it’s an absolute paradise, and again there are no cars, no roads, no stores, no ATMs.
The waters off the beaches are crystal clear, shallow, warm, and teeming with colourful fishes.
I was especially excited to read during my trip research about Koh Kradan’s famous sandbars – not the ones selling cocktails – but the white sand powder soft ones that are exposed when the tide goes out.
These sandbars are just off the beach, accessed at low tide, through knee high clear and bath-water-warm aquamarine sea. I anticipated that walking on them would be like spending time on your own private island and that watching the sunset from that perspective would be absolutely magical.
Koh Kradan is an island with an interior of rolling hills and a pristine jungle as backdrop to the narrow palm fringed white sand beach off a submerged coral reef. On arrival, our boat dropped us off just out from the beach which meant us climbing out of the boat and wading ashore with our luggage – another reason to favour a backpack over a suitcase!
We stayed three nights on Koh Kradan in a bungalow in a row of sea view rooms at The Reef Resort.
We enjoyed cocktails at the onsite Polynesian style tiki-bar and we ate dinner in the hotel restaurant.
The Reef Resort is a gem and it’s the only hotel on Koh Kradan with a swimming pool. It was wonderful.
Just opposite Koh Kradan is the picturesque Koh Mook (also known as Koh Muk – and muk means pearl in Thai – so it’s also called Pearl Island). The island is especially famous – and incredibly popular with tourists – for its Emerald Cave with an 80m long tunnel opening out to a skylight lagoon and a hidden beach.
On Koh Mook there is also an authentic fishing village and a handful of hotels and resorts.
We didn’t stay on Koh Mook. We only visited by boat on a low tide (it is only accessible by sea) and as a day trip from Koh Kradan. We left early in the morning straight after breakfast and took a longtail boat to try and arrive at the cave before other boat loads of tourists and day trippers like ourselves.
On arrival at the cave, we were given life vests and a hard hat and a torch, and we swam along the very dark tunnel to eventually find the Emerald cave and the stunningly beautiful and sunlit lagoon.
The high walls inside the lagoon are emerald-green in colour and the sunlight filtering through the jungle skylight above reflects this shimmering colour off the rock walls and into the pool of water below. That’s why its known as The Emerald Cave. It really is magical!
I also used this amazing cave experience and lots of others from this trip as research for my book ‘The Backpacking Housewife.
After two days and nights we travelled from Koh Kradan by speedboat once again to the next island in the chain. And, the next island in our island-hopping adventure, is one that is often overlooked by many tourists, as it’s not often advertised or mentioned in any of the usual hotel booking sites. For this season it’s ‘off circuit’ and considered ‘far away’.
We almost overlooked it ourselves and only discovered it by chance during our trip research.
In my book, that makes Koh Bulon Lae a bit of a well-kept secret and a must-see destination!
We booked with the resort directly and, if I thought I’d found paradise before on Koh Lanta or Koh Ngai or Koh Kradan or Koh Mook, then I believe I was mistaken. Prepare yourself for Koh Bulon Lae!
KOH BULON LAE
Koh Bulon Lae is located on the Andaman Sea between the Trang Islands and Ko Tarutao Marine Park. I can remember that the journey was fast and exhilarating and took a couple of hours.
The first thing you’ll see on approaching Koh Bulon Lae is the a beautiful white-sand beach fanned by tall swaying palm trees. Either side of the beach are limestone rocky inlets and back from the beach is dense jungle.
The backpacking husband and I were the only ones who got out of the boat at Koh Bulon Lae and upon our approach to the island, where we transferred from speedboat to longtail boat to reach the beach, everyone on board stood up and gasped in awe at what they saw. I heard someone say, ‘Oh my… this place is incredible. Where are we. Where is this?’
And we replied, ‘It’s paradise!’
Beyond all this stunning tropical island scenery, at the other side of the island, is a fishing village, some orchards, and a little school. Tourists and visitors can stay in basic guesthouses run by local families. There isn’t actually many places to stay however and so booking ahead is essential.
We stayed on White Sand Beach at Bulon Resort in a sea-view bungalow.
In anticipation of our stay on Koh Bulone Lae we had booked for four nights instead of the two we’d spent on Koh Ngai and the three we’d spent on Koh Kradan. We guessed we’d want to linger here, and we’d guessed right. Our stay on the island was amazing and wonderful. Our bungalow on the beach was idyllic and our time on Koh Bulon Lae was perfect.
The experience, and the island, is imprinted in my mind as an ultimate paradise tropical island.
It’s quiet and it’s laid back. It feels, somehow, other-worldly and timeless.
And, one morning, a strange thing happened. The backpacking husband and I were sitting on the beach at the waters edge with the warm clear sea lapping against our feet while we were gazing out at the sunrise, when a man appeared from the jungle behind us. A naked man.
The man was tall and very lean and quite old looking. He had wrinkly suntanned skin and long limbs and matted and straggly hair. He wasn’t Asian. He looked Western. He looked like a castaway who might have lived in that jungle an awfully long time and this was his morning route. He ignored us completely as he strode right past us and waded into the sea, where he bathed and, I can only assume, he did the other things that people usually do in the morning.
We ignored him too. We looked away, not only to give him his privacy, but because we didn’t quite know if we were shocked and appalled or rather envious of his simple island lifestyle.
After a while, he came out of the sea and walked back across the beach and disappeared into the jungle again. I watched him then and saw the path he took was marked by a driftwood and seashell dreamcatcher. I imagined that he must have a basic hut in the jungle where he lived.
I pondered on him then and his life story and sometimes I wonder if he is still there?
And, the thought of being able to stay on Koh Bulone Lae forever – living with beach access and living on fish and coconuts – for some reason, seemed like the perfect life to me!
Sadly, we had to leave Koh Bulon after three nights and four amazing days, and we consoled ourselves with the thought of the next beautiful island in our island-hopping adventure on the Andaman Sea Koh Lipe.
Koh Lipe is the most southern island in Thailand and so it’s the last island in the Andaman chain.
Koh Lipe also serves as the Thailand border with Malaysia. Immigration is a hut on the beach and where we must hand over our passports if we are to travel on to Langkawi, Malaysia.
We had planned to stay for two nights on Koh Lipe and I was excited to experience the island.
I was looking forward to it and I’d read about its hippy vibe and hedonistic reputation and its popularity with travellers.
But, to be honest, at first glance I was rather disappointed with what I saw because it was really really busy.
I blame our gradual slide from feeling relaxed on Koh Lanta, to totally chilled on Koh Ngai, then laid back on Koh Kradan, and mostly horizontal on Koh Bulon Lae.
I feel this is why Koh Lipe, for us, was a big culture shock.
On arrival, our boat struggled to get into the bay because there were so many other boats jostling for position there.
We eventually got off the boat and walked up the beach and every stride we took was over the mooring ropes of the decorative and flower adorned longtail boats all bobbing along side by side and so close to each other that they knocked together. Swimming off the beach wasn’t an option.
And, lining the top of the beach, where we’d become accustomed to seeing green jungle and tropical foliage and colourful fragrant flowers, was stall after stall selling tourist trinkets and t-shirts.
It was all too much. Too busy. Too crowded. Too touristy. Too noisy.
Now, I can’t speak for the whole island as there are three beaches on Koh Lipe, Pattaya, Sunrise, and Sunset beaches. and I’ve only experience one of them – Pattaya – where we’d booked to stay simply because it’s where the immigration office is to be found for onward travel to Langkawi Malaysia.
I’ve since been advised that our visit that Pattaya Beach was not the best place to stay for peace and quiet because of the boats and the noise and the crowds on walking street and the late-night bars.
So, if I do ever find myself on Koh Lipe again, I would definitely look to stay at Sunrise Beach, which is apparently the largest and the quietest of the beaches on Koh Lipe, with far less boats and lots of good hotels and restaurants in the area.
Maybe it was the initial disappointment of finding Pattaya Beach on Koh Lipe so busy, or it was our anticipation about reaching Langkawi, where we’d planned to spend a whole week exploring before moving onto the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, but we decided to cut short our stay on Koh Lipe.
We checked out early the next morning to get through immigration and to take the ferry to Langkawi Island – our gateway into Malaysia – and to many more fabulous new adventures!
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing my photos and reading about my experiences.
Perhaps you’ve also been to islands in Thailand?
If so, which was your favourite and why?
Are these islands on your travel bucket/wish list?
I do hope my tips are inspiring and useful to you.
Let me know!
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