Holiday in the Sun: A Guide to the Gulf of Thailand Islands

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No matter how touristy they get, there will always be something about the Thai islands that keeps people coming back for more, whether they're backpackers, honeymooners, families or friends looking for an escape from their daily routine.

I've done my fair share of island hopping over the past year and the Thai islands still stand out as some of the best in my mind ~ especially the four well-known hot spots in the Gulf of Thailand: Ko Samui, Ko Phang'an, Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan.

Each island has its own vibe, from city-like Samui to party-crazy Phang'an and adventurous Ko Tao to picture-perfect Ko Nang Yuan. Read on to find all my suggestions for each to decide which destination sounds best for you.


Ko Samui

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Where to Stay

Avoid touristy Chaweng Beach and opt for laid-back Lamai a bit further south. For basic beachfront living, New Hut Bungalows ($; Lamai Beach) is the best bang for your buck, but don't expect luxury.

You'll have to upgrade to Rocky's Boutique Resort ($$$; Lamai Beach) for that.

Bang Rak Beach is a great option for those looking to stay on the quiet and secluded north side of the island near the Maenam and Bang Rak piers and Samui Airport. Saboey ($$; Bang Rak Beach) offers intimate villas and suites and the dreamiest pool overlooking the immaculate beach.

What to Do

After you've done enough beach bumming and given flyboarding or other water sports a try, dry off and see what the rest of the island has to offer. Samui's streets are nice and wide, making it a great place to try motorbiking. You'll find tons of sights and attractions along the way, including temples, waterfalls, secret gardens, excellent eateries and shops and more.

What to Eat

Tucked away on a secluded beach with traditional long-tail boats and palms curving out towards the sea, The Beach Restaurant is a mom-and-pop stop with excellent Thai food. Go for the Samui-style grilled chicken with turmeric and black pepper. PS: The location on TripAdvisor is incorrect. Follow Road 4170 to the southernmost tip of the island and you should run right into it. It is within one mile of the Samui Snake Farm.

The Patio Restaurant ($$; Lamai Beach) proves that incredible Italian food does exist in Thailand. If you can't decide between the pizzas, pastas or calzones, just do what we did and order them all!

Don't miss the authentic New York-style buffalo wings at Bikini Bar ($; Lamai Beach), or you can't go wrong with any of their killer BBQ options.

Where to Party

Hidden away between two boulders on the beach Samui Rock Bar ($; Hin Ta/Hin Yai Rock Lamai Beach) is my all-time favorite bar. Built like a treehouse into the side of a cliff, it features Thai-style mats and Bob Marley dΓ©cor for the most chilled-out atmosphere, complete with nightly fire shows, well-known DJs and some herbal remedies.

It can be difficult to find a bar where you can actually hear yourself think or talk to your neighbor without screaming over the blaring loud music so commonly found in Thai establishments. Lava Lounge ($; Lamai Beach) comes in clutch as a cozy spot to catch up with friends over kick-ass cocktails.

As part of Soi Green Mango, Samui's #1 party destination, Ark Bar ($; Chaweng Beach) throws a raging beach party most nights, so it's a safe bet to head there if you're looking to get after it.


Ko Phang'an

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Where to Stay

Enjoy stellar cliffside views from AmaresA Resort & Skybar ($; Haad Rin Beach), located up in the mountains just beyond the main Full Moon Party beach. You'll be close enough to stumble home, but won't have to deal with all the noise.

If apartment-style is more your thing, try Moonstone Studio & Villa ($$; Ban Tai Beach). Just a two-minute walk from the beach and surrounded by cafes and restaurants, you'll have everything you need to feel right at home here.

For those who would never stray far from the water, Sea Love Bungalows ($; Ban Tai Beach) allow you to be directly on the beach in a cozy and natural setting.

What to Do

Most people flock to Ko Phang'an for the party scene, but there's actually some really beautiful snorkeling/diving spots to be found here if you can get yourself up to see the light of day. You can also retreat to Orion Healing Center or one of the island's many yoga sanctuaries for rest and relaxation rather than indulging your demons.

What to Eat

Head to Nira's Home Bakery ($; Thong Sala) for freshly baked bread and pastries, as well as healthy juices and dishes made from local ingredients. Located across from Thong Sala pier, it's a popular meeting point for locals and visitors alike.

Kick back with a fresh coconut filled with the fresh juice or smoothie of your choice and let the breeze from the water soothe you at Soul Food CafΓ© ($$; Thong Sala). You can also take away all the organic goodies and super foods you could possibly dream of from the in-house shop.

Where to Party

It's a bit of a hike to reach Top Rock Bar ($; Thong Sala), but I promise, the climb is worth it. Watching the sun set with a cold drink and a spliff in hand, you'll know you've found a little slice of paradise.

Sandcastle Club ($; Haad Rin Beach) heats up with resident and guest DJs most nights of the week, mainly spinning deep and tech house music.

Every Saturday and Tuesday, head to Eden Garden ($; Haad Yuan Beach) for the best rave on the island. Don't expect to get much sleep - the party goes from 9:00pm until 12:00pm the next day.



Ko Tao

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Where to Stay

Despite the awful reviews on TripAdvisor, we actually had a really lovely stay at Ocean View Bungalows ($; Sairee Beach). We had an insane view of the beach from our large, private balcony and were just a short walk away from Sairee Beach's many attractions (but far enough away to drown out the party sounds at night!).

Going the hostel route, Koh Tao Loft Hostel ($; Mae Haad) is the place to be. This eco-friendly facility is a short walk from Mae Haad pier (the entry point to Ko Tao) and offers a stylish place to bunk up and meet other travelers.

Look no further than Koh Tao Bamboo Huts ($$; Jansom Bay) for a taste of secluded luxury. With stunning views of Jansom Bay, great snorkeling and killer sunsets, you won't ever want to leave.

What to Do

Ko Tao is all about adventure and offers some of the best diving in the world. Roctopus Diving is highly reputable and offers great packages on fun excursions and dive courses. We didn't factor in diving this time around, but scoped out some of the best snorkeling sites, including Tanote Bay and Aow Leuk Bay. Rent a motorbike and cruise around to the different beaches, factoring in some hiking, cliff jumping, swimming and sunset viewing along the way. And don't miss kayaking out to Ko Nang Yuan!

Where to Eat

It wouldn't be a trip to the islands without proper BBQ on the beach. Sairee Cottage BBQ ($; Sairee Beach) is the most affordable option and showcases stunning sunsets in a laid-back atmosphere.

Head to Yin Yang ($; Chalok Bay) for the best massaman curry you'll ever taste. The tender chicken falls apart in the slow-cooked curry, which is flavored with peanuts and just the right amount of spice. We went two nights in a row!

Health food fanatics shouldn't miss Living Juices ($; Sairee Beach) for nutritious juices and smoothies packed with superfoods. They'll even deliver directly to your accommodation! No excuses to break your detox here.

Where to Party

Kick off the night at Fishbowl ($; Sairee Beach) for great drink specials, alternative live music and epic fire shows. Get there early to snag the coveted bean bag seats, or slip away to the secluded waterfront with large rocks jutting out from the sand.

While there are many great beachfront bars along Sairee, Lotus Bar ($; Sairee Beach) stands out for its amazing music, chill ambience and fair prices. The fire shows are second to none and often turn into fire limbo and rope skipping.

If the wilder vibe of Sairee isn't for you, check out Babaloo Bar ($; Chalok Bay) for a relaxed reggae feel and excellent cocktails. The food is also supposed to be delicious with tons of vegan/vegetarian options.


Ko Nang Yuan

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Where to Stay

Just across from Sairee Beach on Ko Tao, Ko Nang Yuan is a tiny island with only one place to stay ~ Nangyuan Island Dive Resort ($$; Ko Nang Yuan).

What to Do

Ko Nang Yuan beckons beach-goers with glistening aqua water, blinding-white sand bars and one of those lookout points you just HAVE TO get a photo at. The best way to get there is by kayak from Sairee (grab one from Sairee Cottage Diving) for a 45-minute adventure in and of itself. After you've paid the 100 THB entrance fee to the island, you're free to snorkel and splash around in the see-through water, hike up to the view point, or try ziplining!

Where to Eat

Since Ko Nang Yuan is super small, the only restaurant that exists belongs to the resort. However, there are a few beach bars where you can grab a drink or light snacks like chips, pizza and quick Thai dishes.

Where to Party

While you can have a few beers at the beach bars, you'll have to head back to Ko Tao for the party scene.