By Thailand specialist Mark
There are hundreds of beaches to choose from in Thailand, where the sand is either the color of caramel or pearly white and the water is so clear you can study the seabed. Thailand is also a year-round beach destination, as when one part is wet, invariably another will be dry.
However, Thailand’s beaches are one of Southeast Asia’s worst-kept secrets. Such are their reputation that many have become swamped and Westernized as word has spread. But, I've discovered that even the busiest and most developed islands and stretches of coast have quieter, authentic pockets.
The coast at Krabi easily rivals Vietnam’s Halong Bay for spectacle. Monolithic limestone karsts form curves of natural protection around a succession of bays and lagoons. Away from the sea, the white-sand beaches are backed by tropical rainforest.
This is one of the most beautiful beach settings in Thailand that I’ve discovered so far, and it’s still surprisingly unmarred by development.
Where to stay in Krabi
Tubkaak is my choice of Krabi’s beaches, where one of my favorite resorts in Thailand - which takes the beach’s name - stands on the edge of the sand in gardens that merge effortlessly into the jungle surroundings.
The Tubkaak Resort is small enough to feel personal and the staff is very attentive. It’s set on one of Krabi’s more out-of-the-way locations but there are a couple of little neighborhood restaurants within an easy walk that give some local choice of where to eat in the evenings. From my table, I watched the dipping sun catch the sky alight as it sank behind the limestone islets into the Andaman Sea.
This is lazy-days beach time, with trips by longtail boat over the calm water to limestone islands for a private lunch, eating on a hidden cove.
This part of Krabi will most appeal as a very quiet romantic getaway or as the pure relaxation fanfare of a wider cultural tour around Thailand.
Krabi is on the west coast of southern Thailand and has its own airport with direct hour-long flights from Bangkok. The best time to visit is between mid-October and April. I tend to avoid it during the region’s green season between June and August, though the rains never hit monsoonal proportions.
It’s hard to talk about Thai beaches and ignore Phuket. The largest island in Thailand, it dangles off the west coast just across the map from quieter Krabi.
It’s a big, bustling island where large, anonymous hotels are a reality, but untainted beaches still survive if you know where to look.
Palm-fringed Pansea Beach is pristine and one of the best locations in Phuket that I’ve experienced. Only two hotels - the Surin and the Amanpuri - service the entire bay, built in a tactical fashion to prevent any further hotels from slotting in alongside.
It sounds like a minor detail, but both resorts have black-tiled swimming pools, uniquely for Phuket to my knowledge. Pools with black tiles reflect the fiery oranges and deep indigos of sunset with an almost mirror-like effect. And, looking straight out over the Indian Ocean, you’re treated to the flaming sunsets nightly as the sun drops into the sea.
Pansea Beach will appeal to couples or families looking for luxury at the upper end of the scale in a location that’s quiet but still well connected. The next bay is a 20-minute walk away and has a selection of restaurants, markets and bars. Phuket Airport is a 20-minute drive away.
Phuket's old district
Heritage in Old Phuket Town
Dig a little deeper and you can still find Phuket’s original charm. I’d encourage you to spare some time exploring Old Phuket Town. It’s been swallowed up into modern Phuket City but it was a thriving Portuguese trading port in the early 1900s, as its gloriously dilapidated buildings will testify.
Not many visitors will make the effort to come here, but I assure you it’s well worth it if you do.
The best time of year to visit Phuket is from mid-October to April, when the west coast basks under clear blue skies and the sea is at its calmest.
Around an hour’s drive north of Phuket, crossing over the Sarasin Bridge on to the west coast mainland, Khao Lak has a rugged and rustic charm, unlike the tropical-island looks of Krabi or Phuket.
At its core, Khao Lak is a traditional fishing village with a strong Thai identity, evident in its markets. Pines and acacias grow in place of the typical palm trees, which lend Khao Lak a distinctly European flavor.
More remote, and more spread out, than some of the busier beach destinations such as Phuket, Khao Lak has so far avoided becoming one of Thailand’s next big resorts.
For the time being, it’s a rarely visited stretch of coastline with a range of accommodation from simple beach bungalows to exclusive five-star resorts.
The coastline is less contoured along this stretch and the water is a little more ruffled when compared with some of Phuket’s sheltered bays. It’s still an appealing beach destination for families heading to Thailand, which is reflected in the broad range of accommodation choices. The Ramada Khao Lak Resort is a good value option with a children's club.
My favorite hotel in Khao Lak is the couples-only Bangsak Village, 15 minutes by car from the main centre of Khao Lak but set on a beach in seemingly the middle of nowhere. The small thatched cottages are excellent value for money.
The nearby Similan Islands make up a marine national park and are consistently voted as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world for the richness of marine life and coral. Zipping over the Andaman Sea to the islands by speed boat takes about one and a half hours.
Khao Sok National Park
Visiting the Khao Sok National Park
One of the biggest strings to Khao Lak’s bow is its proximity to Khao Sok National Park, and the world of activity this opens up. The park is the largest area of tropical rainforest in southern Thailand with dramatic karst scenery and many orchids, birds and rare mammals including elephant and deer.
If you find, as I do, that beach fatigue can set in, the park is a tonic of activity and exploration. You can kayak through the mangroves, mountain bike along well-laid tracks, or go walking with a group of five to ten elephants.
This is a hands-on experience, and an education into elephant welfare, in which you care for the animals rather than ride them - bathing with them in the river and serving their breakfast. When you hose behind their ears, prepare to be sprayed in return.
For families in particular, combining Khao Lak with Khao Sok National Park opens the door to a break where beach and adventure are finely balanced.
The park is roughly an hour inland from Khao Lak, and easy to explore in a day out from Khao Lak. Alternatively, you could stay overnight and I recommend the Elephant Hills floating camp over Cheow Lan Lake.
Moving over to Thailand’s east coast and the Gulf of Thailand, if I had to be a castaway anywhere it would be on Koh Samui. Even the airport - essentially a wooden hut – emits that feeling of a quintessential tropical island.
Until a few years back, coconuts gave Koh Samui its main income, and plantations cover the island. You can hardly move for a palm tree and, flying in, the island appears as a mass of green, held in place by the azure sea.
Koh Samui can be likened to Phuket in some respects. It has an international airport, and also its share of Western influence and development.
The busiest beaches are on the east side of Koh Samui. They’re also the most beautiful, but overrun with international hotels and food chains.
But Bo Phut Beach is still identifiable as an old fishing village. Portuguese stilt houses run all along the sand – now containing local restaurants and bars. I’d advise concentrating your stay on Koh Samui here and not even venturing to the other side of the island.
From Koh Samui you can also travel out for a day to the Angthong National Marine Park, a protected mini archipelago with no development, where you can spot dolphins, green turtles and macaques.
Where to stay in Koh Samui
The Anantara is within walking distance from Bo Phut village. It caters for families as well as couples, with snorkeling lessons one of the activities on offer.
The best time to visit Koh Samui is from February to September. Though, if you can travel outside the Easter and summer holidays, you’ll find quieter beaches and better value for money.
It only takes two hours by car followed by a 10-minute speedboat ride to reach Koh Samet from Bangkok, making it the most accessible quality beach from the capital.
It’s a quiet destination (only a mile wide and five miles long) and after three or four days your feet might start itching. Where this island works really well is as a first port of call after a flight, if you want a few days to relax. Or, after a tour of Indochina, you can stop off here after leaving Cambodia and before flying out of Bangkok.
The Paradee Resort, a resort of pool villas on the remotest part of the island, is one of my favorite accommodation choices on Koh Samet.
Koh Samet holds the accolade as the driest island on the country. Even when it does rain, it usually lifts after a couple of hours, and torrential rain is unheard of.