This is my second trip to Thailand so this time around I decided to go be a beach bum for a bit and do some island hopping before heading up north to Chiang Mai, taking in the easy, breezy island attitude.
Koh v Ko
As an American I think the Thai language sounds beautiful but trying to speak it myself is a whole other story. I sound like I’m choking on Pad Thai while native speakers seem to sing their way through their sentences. The Thai language, like Chinese is tonal, so it is how you say the word that matters making the Koh versus Ko debacle almost a non-issue since you would say both words the same way. Both words mean island so you will see these two interchanged a lot if you plan on visiting some of the 1,430 Thai islands.
The second largest island, Samui is located in the Gulf of Thailand and it was a fishing village turned tourism mecca. It is easy to hop a quick flight from Bangkok to get here to relax on their white sandy beaches and be shaded by palm trees. The middle part of the island is mostly jungle, uninhabitable but the surrounding areas are full of beaches and places to explore.
I’ve been in and out of countless airports over the years but I will say that arriving to Koh Samui from sky rather than sea provides for a breathtaking view of the island not to mention it has the sweetest little airport. Once you start to descend for landing a gold shimmers in the distance above the treetops and as you approach you can see more and more of this 40 foot gilded statue. Sitting in Mara posture, this buddha is a symbol of enlightenment and purity.
Coming or going by ferry? Make sure to carve out some time to visit this temple, Wat Phra Yai, as it’s not far from the pier.
You can go see Loung Pordaeng, a mummified monk who died while meditating over 40 years ago in Wat Khunaram. They fitted him with some shades after he lost his eyeballs but otherwise he has been preserved in pretty good condition. This was at the request of the monk that he be displayed like this in an upright coffin.
Chaweng and Lamai
Chaweng is the largest of the beaches on Samui, and is the picture perfect paradise beach you are looking for. It is a high tourist location and not far from the beach is the main road that is bustling with activity from the restaurants, bars and shopping. On Wednesdays and Fridays there is a big beach party at Ark Bar with swimming, DJ’s, an afternoon BBQ, evening fire works and fire dancers. Lamai is another famous beach on the island, with the same pristine beaches that Chaweng offers. Be sure to check out the rock formations, Hin Ta and Hin Yai (Grandfather and Grandmother rocks). These rocks that strikingly resemble male and female genitalia, yes that’s right, genitalia, have a great local folklore story behind them. The tale is that there was a grandmother and grandfather who lived with her son until it was time for him to marry so they set off to a neighboring island for him to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage. The boat capsized in a storm on the journey and the old couple died together at sea and as they perished they formed the rocks to show their approval of the couple to wed.
Much like Samui, a large part of the island is a mountainous National Park and most of the activity rests in the outer areas of the island. Phangan is a total party island and it’s famous for the full moon parties where backpackers flock, during high season in the tens of thousands, covered in body paint to dance and drink buckets of booze in celebration of the full moon. The Leo DiCaprio movie The Beach is based on this island and it is truly a beach paradise. During the time of a full moon party a lot of accommodations have a minimum nights stay and if you are staying in Haad Rin, the beach town where the party is located, be prepared for some late nights and raucous fun as the island has “warm up parties” several days before the Full Moon Party.
Just north of party beach Haad Rin is a quieter beach, Baan Tai that is a little more removed from the full moon party atmosphere. It is close to the pier for the ferry in an out of the island and there is a great coral reef about 200 meters off the shore that makes for good snorkeling.
I know what you are thinking, “Hey, where is the Koh?” It’s true, Phuket is actually an island and was at one time called Koh Phuket, but it is so big that it is really hard to feel like you are even on an island and maybe just at the shores of mainland Thailand so somewhere along the way the Koh was dropped. Koh or not, there are some stunning spots to visit here on Thailand’s largest island. You have about a dozen or so beaches along the west coast and the larger city of Phuket town on the east coast giving you some diversity if for some reason you would tire of beach life.
This year I opted to stay put for a week at one beach in Phuket, Nai Yang, which is furthest north and close to the Phuket Airport. Nai Yang is a serene, family vacation beach spot, with a small main road sprinkled with souvenir shops, diverse beach front restaurants and small guest houses and hotels. There is the Sirinath National Park on one end of the beach provided a shaded oasis and a reef on the other giving you some options for activities in addition to relaxing on your lounge chair.
Nai Yang has a great low key, small town vibe and I have gotten to know a lot of the business owners here making it feel all the more like a home away from home. It is always more enjoyable patronizing locations where you get to know the owners and staff and here are a couple of our favorite spots!
Nai Yang Coffee and Meal
This became our morning hang out with the the nicest young Thai woman business owner, Pan, and the most friendly staff, serving tasty breakfast and lunch options and as the name suggests, delicious coffees.
A beach front restauarant offering reasonably priced dinners, this is the place to see the sunset on the beach and have a good meal. They offer local specialties, thai dishes as well as international meal choices.
Shah Baba Indian Restaurant
One of the best Indian restaurants I’ve been to this place has hands down the nicest, most welcoming service. The fact that they serve amazing Naan the size of a small child doesn’t hurt either.
Bread & Butter
Although I have come to love Asian and Thai food the more time I spend here, I need a little taste of home every now and then. Bread & Butter is a little cafe located in Dewa, a high end resort near the beach and this is where I come for lunch when I need some strong AC, a parisian style pastry or a crusty baguette sandwich and free wi-fi.
Here are a few islands on the list for the next time around, but better yet go exploring, head there yourself and let me know how it is! There is just not enough time to see all the beautiful places this country has to offer!
Right outside of Krabi this is a quieter island with snorkeling, diving and mangrove forest kayaking.
The place to go recover from the full moon party, just north of Koh Phangan, it’s also THE place to go for diving, and there are two different species of turtles that breed and nest here.
Ko Phi Phi
One of the more famous spots in Thailand, Phi Phi is a group of six islands and although I’ve heard the most beautiful, it is also heavily populated with tourists. Phi Phi is home to the famous Viking cave and where they harvest Swiftlet nest for the Chinese bird nest soup. Also a must go for divers and snorkelers.