Thailand’s enticing and intoxicating islands have drawn travellers for decades. Hopping between pristine white beaches and clear warm waters is one of Southeast Asia’s must-do experiences. Thailand’s Andaman Coast, with its 550 islands has become one of the quintessential destinations in the country.
However, the real challenge is for budget or solo travellers, as the islands are increasingly known for their exclusive resorts and romantic couple getaways. This guide will help any traveller go island hopping in Thailand’s Andaman Coast, especially those who are on a tight budget or plan on visiting the islands solo. Shoestring, solo travel in Thailand has been a long-standing trend and it’s still alive and well on the country’s west coast.
Why go to the Andaman Coast?
When people think of Thailand’s beaches, the real debate lies between the Andaman Coast (west) and the Gulf of Thailand (east), with picturesque islands on both sides of the country.
There are a few differences between the east and west coast, which might sway you either way if you have limited time. The Andaman Coast on the west side is considered to have more fluorescent blue waters from its shallow sea, as compared to the deep blue of the Gulf side. The weather is also slightly different as the Andaman experiences a pretty strong tropical monsoon from the months June to November.
Although the Andaman Coast also boasts some of Thailand’s most famous and popular islands, like Phuket and Phi Phi, the large expanse of the Andaman Sea means that there are still plenty of smaller islands where you can experience a true castaway feeling. This guide will look at the Andaman Coast specifically, with its popularity outweighing that of the Gulf of Thailand.
Island hopping as a solo traveller
Long ago Thailand’s Andaman Islands were hippy hangouts and budget traveller havens. However, now you’ll more likely find luxury accommodation and couples wandering the beaches hand in hand for sunset happy hour. As a result, many people have began to disregard the islands on the west coast as not ideal places for solo travel in Thailand.
In saying that, some of the original infrastructure for solo travellers like quality hostels, beach parties and group day trips are still available pretty much everywhere, just perhaps less utilised as they once were.
So although the Andaman Coast is certainly not the solo traveller retreat it was back in the day, there’s certainly still some fun to be had if you choose the right island/s for island hopping Thailand.
When to go to Thailand’s islands?
On the Andaman Coast of Southern Thailand, the main tourist season is from November to April, when the weather is at its best. This is also the busiest time with the highest prices. December and January are the busiest months, with many tourists coming from all over Asia and Australia. The start and end of the tourist season is the best time to go if you’re looking for a more laidback vibe for your island hopping.
The off-season is from May until October, when the coast sees a pretty intense monsoon season. During these months you can technically still visit some of the islands but, the weather can be unpredictable.
Where to base yourself for island hopping Thailand
In southern Thailand, most people aim to spend as little time as possible on the mainland. However, you’ll have to utilise some of the major towns on the coast as jumping off points for your island hopping adventure. And which towns you need to head to in South Thailand depends largely on which islands you want to visit.
The main cities that tourists go to begin their island-hopping on the west coast are: Krabi, Trang and Phuket (an island itself).
Krabi is the capital of Krabi province, which covers most of the Andaman coastline. Further south is Trang province which is in close proximity to some incredible islands and is much less crowded than Krabi.
Phuket is Thailand’s largest island and is certainly more of an extension of the mainland now. Still, it’s one of southern Thailand’s biggest tourist drawcards with plenty of things to do in Phuket.
For the east coast, Surat Thani (for Ko Samui) and Hat Yai (further south, towards Malaysia) are popular cities for exploring the Gulf Of Thailand.
The best islands to visit on Thailand’s Andaman Coast
There are literally endless choices when it comes to islands to visit and it really depends on the amount of time you have, your budget and what you want to do. There are a few islands were it’s possible to stay overnight, with quality accommodation and services, plus other islands which can be seen on day tours.
A quick rundown on the best islands to visit on the Andaman Coast.
The most popular islands to visit:
- Phuket – The largest island in Thailand and one of the country’s most popular destinations.
- Ko Phi Phi – Actually a group of small islands, that have long been known for two things: upmarket resorts and an extraordinary nightlife.
- Ko Lanta – This laidback island is where people get caught up in island life and seem to never leave. It has more of a hippy vibe but still has regular beach parties.
- Ko Lipe – This slice of paradise is quite far away from Phuket and Phi Phi, yet it draws plenty of people for its dreamlike beaches and diving.
Lesser visited and quieter islands:
- Ko Muk – It’s hard to understand why this heavenly island is not more popular, but this peaceful place is a must for anyone wanting to relax on beautiful beaches.
- Ko Ngai – Small and pristine Ngai is known for its expensive resorts and as a honeymoon favourite, but it’s also blessed with incredible coral reefs off its coast.
- Ko Jum – Not far off the mainland between Krabi and Ko Lanta, this island is an underrated laidback haven where people tend to return again and again.
- Ko Libong – Trang province’s biggest island and yet somehow not that popular, Libong is a quiet island where you can explore local fishing villages and interesting flora and fauna.
- Ko Bulon Leh – Further south and just above Malaysia, this island flies completely under the radar and yet it has pristine beaches and small villages. It’s also known to have a more sustainable approach to tourism as compared to the other, usually overcrowded islands in the Andaman Sea.
Best islands for solo travellers on Thailand’s Andaman Coast
As I said above, many of Thailand’s Andaman Islands have become more upmarket and crowded with resorts marketed to honeymooners and busy with day tours catering to families and large groups. However, there are, of course, still plenty of islands where solo travellers can avoid feeling lonely, left out or bored.
If you’re into energetic parties, I would recommend Phi Phi, which although overly popular, still has some of the best nightlife on the Andaman coast.
For relaxation and ultimate suntanning locations, I recommend Ko Muk, Ko Lipe or Ko Bulon Leh, with Lipe being the busier and more popular of the three. These are more laidback and smaller options, with a range of accommodation and plenty of beaches to explore without the crowds and endless parties.
However, the best all-round island for solo travellers, is definitely Ko Lanta. It’s perfect for anyone wanting to party at night, relax during the day or join day tours to other islands. It also has a co-working space for digital nomads and plenty of good accommodation options for all budgets. It’s a place where you might book three days and end up staying a week.
How to travel between the islands
Island hopping in Thailand is incredibly easy, especially on the Andaman Coast. The main way to get between islands and the main land is by ferry or long boat. Ferries vary between fast, express boats and slower, local ferries. Prices also vary depending on company and timing, but many tickets include a drop off and/or pick up from the pier, which avoids an otherwise expensive taxi ride.
For less visited islands, long boats are often the best or only option and they seem to be either empty or completely overcrowded, depending on your luck.
It’s best to book boat and ferry tickets through your accommodation or a travel agent. Surprisingly, the tickets are often cheaper this way than if you buy them directly at the pier and they often include drop-offs and pick-ups from/to your accommodation. Shop around though, because prices can vary quite a lot.
How to get around the islands
The best way of exploring the islands is with a hired scooter or moped. You’ll find plenty of shops and hostels renting them out to travellers on either a per day rate, or even weekly rate if you’re planning on staying a while.
They’re easy to ride and are the most convenient way to get from the beaches to the bars without walking too much or paying for expensive taxis.
Depending on the island, hiring a scooter can be anywhere from 150 baht to 350 baht per day.
Where to stay on Thailand’s islands
There are a range of accommodation on Thailand’s islands. While some are more exclusive islands with mostly up market resorts, you’ll usually find plenty of budget hostels and mid-range guesthouses as well.
If you’re travelling solo, then hostels will be the best place to meet other people and join some social activities and tours. However, some of the smaller islands don’t necessarily have standard hostels with dorms and you might have to look for budget guesthouses and bungalows instead.
On the other hand, I also managed to find some beautiful budget guesthouses when you want to relax and enjoy the quiet islands in peace.
I usually look on Booking.com for some ideas about places to stay, but it also pays to have a look on some of the quieter islands once you arrive because you can snag some good deals by just walking in.