The Thai Islands: A Backpacker’s Guide

With so much to offer, and at a cheap price to boot, more and more travelers and sun-seekers are flocking to the beautiful islands of Southern Thailand.

When flying into “the land of smiles”, the average traveler receives a one-month visa to explore this breathtaking country. Many choose to begin their journey in the busy and often overwhelming capital city of Bangkok. After your typical dose of ancient temples, grand palaces, and a calm drift down the floating market, most travelers are ready to hit the islands. With dozens to choose from, narrowing down the possibilities can often seem daunting. For many explorers new to a developing country, the idea of safety and familiarity is often a plus. In this sense, I’ll focus on the five most popular islands of the South. Each island offers accommodation for any budget, from cheap beach bungalows (starting at $4 USD/per night), to luxury villas (beginning at $40 USD/per night).

Koh Tao

This is a great “introductory island” for those who are new to South-East Asia. It offers a little bit of everything, and for every taste. It’s a glimpse into the madness and excitement of the Thai Islands, but feels like more of a quick dip in the pool, rather then plunging in head first. Being the smallest island on the east coast, Koh Tao is a little slice of heaven. Because of its size, many people often rent motorbikes (ranging between $2-6 USD/per day), as an affordable and easy way to navigate around the entire island and find a personal secret paradise. While Koh Tao remains one of the smallest and less-observed islands of the South, it is still most definitely “South-East Asian” in nature. With the local “buckets” (small sand-pails full of any and every kind of alcohol, plus your choice of mixer), and the string of “lady-boys” (Thai men convincingly dressed as women) wandering the streets at every turn, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in the heart of the Thailand’s backpacker culture. With vibrant nightlife, crystal clear blue waters, and breathtaking sunsets, Koh Tao also offers some of the best scuba diving in the world. Many travelers visit this island simply to immerse themselves in the aquatic life and dozens of scuba schools offer full diving courses as well as introductory dives for beginners. Backpackers looking for cheap thrills head to Sari beach for 60 cent large bottles of Chang (local Thai beer), free nightly fire-shows, and bottom-of-the-barrel beach bungalows.

Koh Pha Ngan

Thousands upon thousands of young travelers congregate on this large island every month for the famous “Full Moon Party”. Held on Haad Rin beach during every full moon, this popular party means the island is almost constantly awash with travelers from around the world, looking to get drunk and meet new friends. With dozens of bars set up along the beach, cheap buckets and the allure of “Mushroom Mountain” (a bar on the side of the mountain specializing in “magic milkshakes”), it’s easy to see why so many backpackers can’t resist this destination. With thousands of inebriated 20-somethings, fire-lit skipping ropes and limbo bars, dozens of poorly constructed dance stages and as much UV paint as you can imagine, the full moon parties often leave you with a few injuries but hundreds of incredible memories. Koh Pha Ngan offers more then just a great party, with stunning scenery, first-rate diving, long stretches of deserted beach, and excellent food markets. Travelers looking to stay away from the dizzying excitement of Haad Rin should head to the northern-tip of the island, which offers serene, five-star accommodation. But beware – on Koh Pha Ngan everything is celebrated, with excuses such as half-moon, Shiva-moon, and black-moon as cause for a party.

Koh Samui

After experiencing the full moon on Koh Pha Ngan, many travelers head further south to the relaxing island of Koh Samui. Extremely built-up and no stranger to the tourism market, Koh Samui feels like a short vacation from your vacation. Head to Cheweng beach to meet more backpackers and enjoy accommodation of all ranges. Here you can enjoy massages and cocktails on the beach, and finish that book you’ve been neglecting. Koh Samui also offers a great assortment of day-trips, including sea kayaking through Angthong Marine National Park and elephant rides through its lush jungle regions. After visiting some of the island’s jaw-dropping waterfalls and temples, be sure to check out the peculiar stone formations known as the “Grandmother” and “Grandfather” rocks.


For those who love the sordid magnetism of hot-spots such as Miami or Las Vegas, Patong beach on Phuket is perfect for you. While Phuket remains one of the most popular tourism destinations in Thailand, it has lost much of its charm. Now over-run with restaurants, hotels, and clubs, you often forget you’re in a developing South-East Asian country. If you’re in search of some western world comforts, then look no further. KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks line every corner in the Patong area. Specialty restaurants such as Australian steakhouses or English themed pubs are designed to make people from all over the globe feel like they’ve just stepped into their own backyard. With hundreds of pubs, bars and nightclubs, young people flock here to indulge in hedonistic rituals with like-minded travelers. Even before the sun goes down, free lap dances are on offer, and you can’t walk down a main road without being offered a front row seat at a famous Thai “ping-pong show” (think a mix between a strip-show and a show from Amsterdam’s red-light district, then make it 50% more offensive). With sex tourism at it peak, beautiful landscapes being taken over by the commercial market, and prices constantly on the rise, this west coast island may be a miss for travelers on a budget.

Koh Phi Phi

Easily the most stunning of Thailand’s Southern islands, Koh Phi Phi is quickly becoming “the new Koh Pha Ngan”. Crystal clear waters, blindingly white sand, limestone caves, top-notch diving and snorkeling, great night  life,excellent fire-shows, cheap food and accommodation, interesting hikes – the list goes on and on.

With no roads, and push-bikes as the only form of transportation, the laid back, casual cool of this island makes it irresistible. Shared by locals and long-term resident westerners, this island offers a variety of activities. You can hire a private boat (starting at $6 USD/per day) to take you cliff jumping, rock climbing and snorkeling. There are many pre-arranged boat trips which often include a visit to the much-discussed Maya Bay. The striking location of the film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this small bay does not disappoint. To avoid crowds and to get a view you won’t soon forget, head to Maya Bay at sunrise or sunset.

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