Hitting Thailand has long been on my bucket list and after a 3-month stint in Chiang Mai, it was time to check out the islands. I was eager to not only revel in the beauty of the place, but also turn it into a research mission looking for the “perfect” spot to potentially relocate to for a more extended period time in the future. My core criteria included: affordability, natural beauty, plentiful activities and things to do, reliable Internet (slow is permissible, but flakey is not).
It’s sometimes redundant reading singular review of places that lack any kind of relative comparison. Whilst my trip was by no means exhaustive, I did end up checking out a number of places. Here’s a recap of my thoughts (written many months later):
Hat Yai is a bustling little town close to the Malaysian border and made by first stop. There’s a clear Muslim influence in the air and it had a different feeling to what I’ve become accustom to in Chiang Mai and the North. The direct flight from Chiang Mai made this the ideal starting point for my island expedition. The town isn’t beautiful or charming in any way, but did the job as a transport hub. On two separate occasions I was approached and informed by that I was handsome – a nice ego boost to kick off the trip!
A port village two hours West of Hat Yai. The only purpose of being here is to grab the ferry. And you’d only stay here, like me, if you didn’t quite make that day’s ferry. There’s basically only a couple of hotels and a shop or two. If you you know that you’re set to miss the ferry that day, than you’re better of staying in the Pak Bara proper or Hat Yai (departing early the next morning).
Lipe had come recommended by a couple of friends who knew their stuff (ie. had visited a few places themselves), so expectations were running high. The beaches and water was the most beautiful that I encountered on the trip. There was a nice blend of party action, chill out spots and relative isolation. I stumbled upon an apparently old copy of Lonely Planet which only used a paragraph to describe the island as a desolate place. Development will likely continue at a furious pace, but I reckon the island will continue to attract a civilised crowd and it’ll retain its charm. There’s a lack of agriculture on the island, meaning that everything is imported – something that dampens some of the exotic feel somehow. It hurts to think about how amazing it would’ve been to visit only just 5-10 years ago. Spent some time chatting to a local chap and the changes he’s seen in his lifetime is staggering – there were once Tigers on the island, which baffles in the mind. Internet speeds weren’t fasntastic, but it was workable. Good mix of some relatively upmarket places to eat and more reasonably prices local options. Dogs everywhere, and they get pretty fisty at night, just as I had to trek inland to the guest house. Swedish everywhere, but more the older crowd.
I had in mind to mind to move up North to Lanta and had heard that Ngai was a bit of a gem, so made an extended stop along the way, spending something like a week here. There’s only around 5 hotels and a couple of budget options. Eating out is limited to just the hotels too. But the island is very beautiful and quiet – I found myself quite at home. Kayak and Agoda will be your good friends to get the best rates (offering some ~30% less than the rack rate) if you’re looking to book in advance or understand your haggling room. Made a fantastic kayak trip around the island, stopping on an isolated beach, trekked inland and encountered some locals who lacked any English but kindly offered me some coconut.
I made a classic 4-island day trip from Ngai and Muk was one of the first stops. Despite its small size, the island inhabits some local people and so has a bit less of a resort-only vibe.
Just here for a few hours, but rather impressed. I can only recall some nice shallow waters, sandy beach, and general tranquility.
Lanta is a gigantic island in relative comparison. The port area is built on stilts and is somewhat hectic; so the arrival experience was a little different than landing on an empty beach. I was a bit puzzled at first why the island had come recommended; the sheer size meant that it didn’t really feel like an island. Moreover, whilst the beach and water were perfectly nice, they hardly leave you in awe. On the other hand, the size meant that everything was really spread out and it gave a relaxed vibe. You’d have no problems finding a huge chunk of beach to claim as your own. The local inhabitants and bridge link to the mainland means better food and availability of cheap eats (a welcomed change). I had a blast just scooting around on a moped, but was glad also to move on.
Koh Phi Phi Don
Quite a different picture. The island is beautiful, but very developed. Crazy, especially when you consider that everything has been just rebuilt in the years following the tsunami (which hit the island very badly). Party-goers everywhere and a bit intimidating. Some nice Swedish babes for sure. In amongst the mayhem were some good eats and a local market of sorts. The viewpoint is definitely worth the uphill trek. Other parts of the island are much nicer in my books.
Koh Phi Phi Ley
Of “The Beach” fame. It is really very beautiful. The sand, water, cliff enclave, and palm trees paint the perfect picture. I’d heard of “horrific” stories of hoards of tourists descending on the beach during the day, so decided to instead charter a 6am boat just for myself. You can sleep on the beach overnight, but there’s no options to stay here and that’s a good thing.
The Swedish Acapulco? The Beach itself is okay, but ruined by the ambience of the area, especially in the evening. The town is non existent apart from a strip of restaurants and tacky shops, curiously all of which are run by Indians.
I’d heard mixed reviews of the place, but found it generally nice. The geology is quite difference with many dramatic steep cliff-faces, perfect for rock-climbing enthusiasts. Railay is only accessible by boat and it was pretty quiet when I was there. Accommodations options generally lean towards the upper end of the market. The area is well developed, but not overwhelming.
Saved the best to last? Certainly not the most beautiful, but rates highly for liveability. Relatively “difficult” (but still incredibly easy) to get to and it was good to see that it attracts a large number of Thai tourists. Very quiet and spread out, and easy bike paths that cross the island. Options to live by, or very close to the beach for a totally reasonable cost.
Some islands I’d still like to check out:
- Koh Jum
- Koh Phangan (and Bottle Beach)
- Koh Tao