Which Thai Island is Right for You? - This American Girl

koh tao


The mythical islands in Thailand conjure vivid images of paradise. Limestone karsts emerging out of the glassy turquoise sea. Palm trees swaying over white sand beaches. An underwater world teeming with colorful coral and tropical fish.


koh phangan


Indeed I’ve had wanderlust for the beaches in Thailand since the first time I saw a postcard of the legendary Koh Phi Phi. However what the postcards don’t show are the airports, resorts, and bucket drinking backpackers. Thailand has certainly changed from the paradise it was a few decades ago.


koh phangan


Heeding the warnings of other travelers, I set out to find the bits of Thailand where I could still feel the magic. Seeking escape from the development, the crowds, and the insanity, this is what I found:


koh tao


Koh Tao

This small island in the Gulf of Thailand is one of my favorite places I visited during nine months in Southeast Asia. Granted, its coastline is quite developed and touristic, however I doubt I’ve ever had as much fun. Koh Tao is world famous for diving, but every beach had rocks and reef close by, which meant all I had to do was rent a snorkel mask for a dollar to immerse myself in the underwater world. Staying down on the south side of the island I escaped the huge crowds in Sairee Beach but could easily take a taxi or motorbike in the evening for sunset and fire shows. Despite the small size of the island there was an incredible variety of food from authentic Italian to healthy vegetarian to some of the best Thai I’ve had anywhere. All this aside, what I loved most about Koh Tao was walking the tiny, rugged jungle trails that wrapped around the island and up to viewpoints. I rarely saw another soul and it reminded me how much I love adventure and exploration in nature.


Why You Might Love It

Most popular place on earth for dive certifications

Wide range of accommodation from backpacker to luxury

Amazing variety of food

Great snorkeling opportunities right off the beach

Awesome parties starting at sunset on Sairee Beach which incredible fire shows

Many viewpoints for great photos


Why You Might Not Love It

Like many of the Thai beaches it’s quite touristic

Finding accommodation can be difficult and expensive for people who aren’t diving (most hotels are dive resorts offering accommodation to their dive students)

Many roads are steep and unpaved making motorbike accidents common


Read my guide to Koh Tao



koh phangan


Koh Phangan

A short ferry ride from Koh Tao, this is the island that invented the infamous full moon party. Per the recommendations of other travels I sought to find the quiet spots on Koh Phangan where the magic still lived. After heading to nearly every beach on the island I never found them. Every beach was completely covered with people and hotels playing trance music. Still, this island is one of the most picturesque I’ve ever seen. Crowds or no crowds I had special moments on my bike overlooking palm covered hills, walking out at low tide on the sandbars, and watching some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life.


Why You Might Love It

Stunningly gorgeous nature and jungle

Many health conscious restaurants, stores, and detox centers

Wide variety of yoga studios and yoga training programs

Big music scene with DJs from all over the world throwing parties every night of the week

The infamous full moon party

Newly paved roads make for easy exploration


Why You Might Not Love It

Crowded beaches

Accommodation can get very expensive especially during full moon parties

A lot of development and busy streets with traffic


Read my guide to Koh Phangan



Lonely Beach Koh Chang


Koh Chang

Other bloggers really built up Lonely Beach on Koh Chang. I read about bonfires parties with reggae and fire dancers, beautiful quiet beach days, and cheap wooden huts on the beach. Unfortunately I didn’t find any of these on Koh Chang. I stayed in Lonely Beach, where resorts lined the entire strip of sand playing loud music day and night, never found cheap accommodation, and the parties resembled Ibiza more than the Caribbean. Though when I explored beyond Lonely Beach I found peaceful, quiet spots that were indeed, lonely. I saw the sunset on a bay nearby an orange robed monk, watched fishermen cast their reels in completely deserted bays, and heard rumors of spots with gushing waterfalls and mangrove bays.


Why You Might Love it

Makes a good stopover on the way to Cambodia

Lots of untouched jungle on the island to explore

Small town feel, friendly locals

Deserted islands nearby

Beautiful sunsets


Why You Might Not Love It

Treacherous roads for driving on

Limited restaurant options

Expensive accommodation for solo travelers

Crowded with loud parties (or maybe you would like that?)


Read my guide to Lonely Beach on Koh Chang



Tonsai Bay


Tonsai Bay

It’s not technically an island, but Tonsai Bay in Krabi certainly feels like one. With no cars and scant electricity it offers the laid-back island life not easily found in Thailand. During my time on Tonsai I slept in a rustic wooden hut in the jungle, climbed over rocky karsts to explore different beaches, met many interesting world travelers, walked slack lines, practiced acro yoga with strangers, and danced all night to reggae. While I enjoyed the vibes on Tonsai, it felt limiting to me in how small and crowded the beaches were, and ultimately I headed to a different island where I could find long isolated beaches to clear my mind.


Why You Might Love It

Easy to access by boat from Krabi Town

Connected to Railay and other sandy beaches

Shockingly stunning scenery with limestone karsts and a turquoise bay

Mecca for rockclimbers

Laid back hippie vibes

Inexpensive local Thai food


Why You Might Not Love It

Very rustic and/or expensive accommodation

Difficult to use wifi if you need it

Small, crowded beach with many rocks


Read my guide to Tonsai Bay



Koh Lanta


Koh Lanta

I feel a deep sense of nostalgia for Koh Lanta. The week I spent there was one of the most transformative and blissful of my life. Every morning I woke up at sunrise in my tiny rustic wooden hut and ran for miles on Long Beach. The trees still cast a shadow over the shore at this time and the only other people awake were a few runners or early swimmers. When I reached the end of the beach I swam in the crystal clear water and walked back slowly under the sun as the restaurants began to open. I took out a motorbike every afternoon and rode for miles and miles across one side of the island or the other. I stopped along the way at undeveloped, deserted beaches where I napped and swam, napped and swam. Roadside Thai restaurants served cheap, local food and the servers didn’t speak any English. My heart aches a little when I recall the sunsets on Koh Lanta. The orange ball of fire that melted into the horizon, the sky becoming an explosion of purple and pink. I felt magic in Koh Lanta.


Why You Might Love It

Empty, undeveloped beaches all over the island

Great range of accommodation from backpacker dorms to rustic huts to luxurious resorts

Muslim Thai community with authentic little restaurants on the roadside and open air food markets

Stunningly beautiful sunsets

Long beaches for taking long walks or runs

Calm clear water for swimming, kayaking, or stand up paddleboarding


Why You Might Not Love It

Less jungle covered than some of the other islands

Need to take day trips to other islands for snorkeling

Some of the beaches are pretty overrun with “vacationers”

Some really good restaurants, but not a huge variety


Read my guide to Koh Lanta 


There are many other islands in Thailand and in two months I hardly scratched the surface. I’m looking forward to discovering even more of what this amazing country has to offer. For tons more information on Thailand, and ways to plan a vacation there, check out a travel agent site like First Choice which creates great getaway packages.

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