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Islands in the Gulf of Thailand: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao



A heart Swing over the ocean at sunset

Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao are three tropical islands located within 68 kilometers of each other in the Gulf of Thailand. This makes them a major tourist route for travelers in Thailand. It can be challenging to decide how much time to spend in each place.


Despite their close proximity, each island has a unique vibe. Here is everything you need to know about Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao to help plan your adventure!


How to Get to the Islands in the Gulf of Thailand


A woman traveler waiting for a ferry boat on a dock

Getting to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao can be difficult. To reach the three islands, there are only two main transportation options. The first is to fly directly to Koh Samui, the only island with an airport. While flights can be pricey, there are occasional good deals, and flying is the quickest way to reach the islands from Bangkok.


The second option is to take a ferry. There are two main departure points on the mainland: Chumphon in the north and Surat Thani in the south. Lompraya offers multiple daily trips from these mainland ports to the islands, as well as between the 3 islands themselves.


The waves from a ferry boat with Green engine covers and a blue sky

The Gulf of Thailand has unpredictable seas, so if you're prone to seasickness, it's important to check the weather before traveling. If you're feeling adventurous and want to save money on accommodation, you can consider taking the night ferry from wither mainland port. You can find the complete ferry schedule on the 12go Asia website.


Koh Samui Island in the Gulf of Thailand


A woman standing in prayer pose under two lit up dolphins

Koh Samui is the southernmost of the three islands in the Gulf and is one of the largest islands in Thailand, covering an area of approximately 228 square kilometers. The terrain on Koh Samui is diverse, featuring lush jungle waterfalls and beautiful beaches.


Here are some of the must-see attractions in Koh Samui:


Pink flowering trees and large boulders overlooking the ocean in Thailand

Waterfalls

If trekking through the jungle is your thing, you will be delighted to discover that Koh Samui has 44 waterfalls. Some of the biggest waterfalls are Khao Yai, Hind Lad, Na Muang 2, and Tan Rua. Be sure to bring sunscreen, mosquito spray, a swimsuit, and appropriate footwear for slippery rocks.


A rainbow over the great sea with waves

Beaches

Koh Samui has over 50 kilometers of coastline, so there are plenty of beaches to choose from. Chaweng Beach has a lively vibe with bars, restaurants, and lots of action. Lamai Beach is more laid-back and serene. If you are looking for something a little more private, Maenam, Thaong Takhian (Silver), or Thongson Beach may be for you.


A golden Buddha sitting in lotus position on a boulder in Thailand

Cultural Activities

Koh Samui offers many sites for those who love Thai culture. A must-see is the 12-meter golden Big Buddha statue located on the northeast coast. Other notable Buddhist temples include Wat Khunaram and Wat Plai Laem. A trip to Koh Samui would not be complete without visiting Hin Ta and Hin Yai (Grandpa and Grandma Rocks) near Lamai Beach. These iconic phallic boulders offer amazing ocean views.


Grandma and grandpa rocks overlooking the ocean in Koh Samui

Dining and Accommodations

Koh Samui is a large island with a wide range of restaurants and accommodation options to suit every budget. Be sure to explore the Thai street food at the night markets. Whether you're looking for affordable hostels or luxury hotels, Koh Samui offers something for everyone.


Final Thoughts on Koh Samui

A woman holding a freedom sign at on overlook with a white fence background

Koh Samui is quite similar to Phuket, with a lot of hustle and bustle, including traffic and many older men with young Thai girls. However, the waterfalls are amazing, and there are some quiet beaches to relax on.


I spent 5 days on Koh Samui, which was more than enough time to see everything on the island and frankly, it was too much time there for me. My recommendation is to stay for a maximum of 2-3 days. Also, be careful when renting a motorbike here unless you are an experienced driver.


Koh Phangan Island in the Gulf of Thailand


A Brown sign with white writing Koh Phangan near the beach with a long tail boat

Koh Phangan is located 22 kilometers north of Koh Samui and offers a completely different experience. The island is 125 square kilometers and features a diverse landscape of jungles, hills, small villages, and stunning beaches. While the monthly Full Moon Party attracts backpackers on a gap year from all over the world, the overall atmosphere on the island is incredibly laid-back.


Some of the highlights of this tropical paradise known as Koh Phangan include:


People dancing at a full moon party on a beach

Full Moon Party

Koh Phangan is famous for its all-night beach parties, which take place on the night of the full moon every month. What began in the mid-80s with around 30 travelers has now become a massive event, drawing crowds of up to 30,000 visitors.


The Full Moon Party is held on Haad Rin Beach in the south of Koh Phangan and mainly attracts young people. The festivities include live music with DJs, as well as plenty of alcohol-filled buckets and various drugs. If you plan to attend, it's crucial to go with a group and have a safety plan in place, as there have been numerous incidents of theft, drugging, and overdoses.



Beaches

Koh Phangan boasts some of the most stunning beaches in all of Thailand. Mae Haad Beach on the northwest coast is incredible, offering opportunities for snorkeling, massages, and a walkable sand bar connecting to Ko Ma.


Thong Nai Pan Noi is divided into 2 areas, both equally stunning with white sand and clear blue ocean. A bit off the beaten path, this beach in the northeast of Koh Phangan is a must-see. With several affordable accommodations, this could be the Thai paradise you've been craving.


Yoga Studios

Koh Phangan is a hotspot for yoga, boasting more than 50 studios with new ones popping up regularly. It's an ideal location to complete a 200-hour yoga teacher training alongside like-minded individuals. Additionally, many places offer activities such as drum circles and ecstatic dance for those interested.


It's important to note that young women traveling to Koh Phangan for yoga should be cautious. The island has a history of cult-like activities masquerading as yoga teachings, with self-proclaimed gurus being accused of sexually assaulting students. It's essential to thoroughly research and ask for recommendations to find a reputable studio.


A Wooden bungalow in the jungle

Dining and Accommodations

Similar to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan offers a variety of food options and accommodation choices. The accommodations are generally more rustic, featuring traditional Thai-style bungalows. One of my favorite places to stay is the Grand Sea Beach Resort.


If you're planning to attend a Full Moon Party, be sure to make a reservation for accommodation well in advance.


Blue yellow and orange sunset over the ocean with boats

Final Thoughts on Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan is a popular island paradise that is constantly changing due to the increasing number of tourists. However, there are still secluded places where you can find your own piece of heaven.


Personally, I am not a fan of the Full Moon Parties, but I have many friends who enjoy them. If you are skilled at riding a motorbike, Koh Phangan is the perfect place to explore and find your peaceful spot. I recommend staying on the island for anywhere from 4 to 7 days. Staying longer than that might make you never want to leave.


Koh Tao Island in the Gulf of Thailand


An orange sunset with a turtle statue on the beach

Rounding out these 3 popular tourist islands in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tao is the most northern and smallest at only 21 square kilometers. Also known as Turtle Island, Koh Tao is a mecca for scuba diving.


Although small in size, here are some of the many things to do and see in Koh Tao:


Scuba Diving tanks on a boar with blue Sea and wooden bungalows in the background

Scuba Diving

Koh Tao is one of the most affordable places in the world to learn scuba diving. There are approximately 75 dive schools on the island, catering to every type of diver and many instructors who speak multiple languages.


Within a short boat ride from Koh Tao, there are around 30 dive sites. The conditions at these sites vary depending on the time of year, but some of the best sites include Chumphon Pinnacle, Southwest Pinnacle, and Sail Rock.


A Green boring clam in yellow coral

Snorkeling

If you're interested in exploring the underwater world but are hesitant about scuba diving, snorkeling on Koh Tao is a fantastic alternative. There are numerous spots with tranquil beaches and incredible marine life.


Snorkeling from the shore in Koh Tao is easily accessible, with some of the best sites including Hin Wong, Shark Bay, Tanote Bay, and Sai Nuan. Many companies offer multi-site snorkeling trips by boat, although some only provide masks and not fins. You can also rent a longtail boat with a few friends for a private snorkeling tour of the island.


A sign over the ocean at a look out love Koh tao

Hiking to Viewpoints

The geography of Koh Tao includes mountainous jungle, and there are several treks that lead to breathtaking viewpoints. Some of the most popular treks are John-Suwan, West Coast, Deisha, and Tanote Peak.


If you decide to go on a jungle hike, make sure to bring water, sunscreen, and bug spray, as Koh Tao can get extremely hot and humid.


The calm ocean at nangyuan island in thailand

Nangyuan Island

Many tourists who visit Koh Kao enjoy spending time on the picturesque island of Nangyuan. Nangyuan can be reached from Koh Tao by long-tail boat or ferry. The island is known for its beautiful beaches, snorkeling, and a stunning viewpoint.


Nangyuan Island is privately owned and staying there can be quite expensive. Additionally, there is an entrance fee to step foot on the island. The island consists of three islets connected by sandbar beaches, and the water surrounding it is bright turquoise. It's worth visiting for an afternoon.


Massaman curry dish with tofu and rice on a White plate

Dining and Accommodations

Tourists on Koh Tao are often pleasantly surprised by the wide range of dining options available. Thanks to the island's diverse international community, visitors can enjoy restaurants offering cuisine from Indian and French to Mexican, in addition to the amazing local Thai food.


Finding suitable accommodation on Koh Tao can be a challenge, especially during the high season when the island is fully booked. Each part of the island has a unique atmosphere, from the lively hostel scene in Sairee to the more relaxed vibe in Chalok.


The view from a bungalow overlooking the ocean with an island

Final Thoughts on Koh Tao

Koh Tao has a reputation for being dangerous due to unfortunate incidents in the past, but I can assure you, it is one of the safest islands in Thailand. The biggest danger is intoxicated tourists who don't know how to drive motorbikes. When in doubt, go slow and wear a helmet.


I might be a bit biased since I live here, but Koh Tao is my favorite of the three main tourist islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The Thai locals are kind and will treat you like family. The food, diving, snorkeling, and beaches are exceptional.


A hawksbill turtle swimming over a Green Palm leaf

If you plan on visiting all three islands in the Gulf of Thailand, I recommend saving Koh Tao for last. You may not make it to the other two. Oh, and did I mention the turtles?



A lady scuba diving with a torch

Jennifer Varner is a retired mental health counselor who is currently living her best life as a gypsy and travel blogger. She is a PADI Divemaster and yoga instructor based in Koh Tao, Thailand. For any questions about travel in Thailand, feel free to contact her at jenvdotcom@gmail.com.

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