By Terry Blackburn, Philip Cornwall-Smith, Dennis Duncan and Jo Smith
Although best known for its laid-back lifestyle – beach lounging, yoga, massage and beauty treatments – and its hard trance party scene, Thailand's beaches also offer a multitude of other activities – watersports, golf, cycling and hiking – for the more adventurous.
Where Eastern Seaboard
Pattaya has hosted raunchy mass tourism since US troops came for R&R during the Vietnam War. Uneven clean-ups of both pollution and the sex trade have resulted in crude contrasts: eyesores scar a potentially fine corniche; few swim in waters that are no longer dirtied by sewage; watersports and attractions draw families, go-go bars remain top of many visitors’ must-see lists.
As if in a counterfeit Elmore Leonard novel, guys in vests pose with bikes, babes and Ray-Bans. Menus come in English, German, Arabic and Russian – nationalities that recur in lurid reports on underground activities in the Pattaya Mail. Yet mainstream tourists face little risk and some stay to open businesses, hence pubs called Rosie O’Grady’s, Scot’s Bar and Pat’s Pies. Morphing into a town, Pattaya now boasts malls, 15 golf courses and a largely artificial culture. The centre is walkable, or you can flag down a songtaew anywhere.
The next bay south, longer, cleaner Jomtien Beach, has sparser boutique resorts, delectable seafood and fewer Pattaya-esque mistakes.
A favoured retreat for Bangkokians, this dagger-shaped isle immortalised by poet Sunthorn Phu is actually a national park. Chic resorts are now gentrifying its shambolic fringe of resorts with minimal amenities and aesthetics, but pricing out its young regulars. Boats from Baan Phe dock at Na Dan, near which the squeaky white sand of Had Sai Kaew starts the string of pretty east coast bays.
Thailand’s second largest island is one of 46 national park isles bordering Cambodia. Since ex-PM Thaksin proclaimed it the ‘next Phuket’ in 2002, a land-grab by developers has outpaced supposedly sensitive planning. Trucks shake and rumble the road around forested mountains, which contain three waterfalls. Ko Chang is named after an elephant-shaped southern headland. Though pachyderms aren’t indigenous, Thais don’t miss a trick, and there’s a refuge at Ko Chang Elephant Camp (22/4 Had Khlong Son, 08 1919 3995, firstname.lastname@example.org), and Chang Chutiman (0 9939 6676) runs elephant treks.
Boats dock at Tha Dan Kao, while shops, bars and restaurants centre on north-western Had Sai Khao beach. Dive shops access the so-so reefs (October-April/May) and offer watersports, including dinghy sailing on Klong Prao. Some head south to islands (open in dry season only) such as Ko Mak, which boasts white sand and internet, and the larger, ever more exclusive Ko Kood.
Canoeing and kayaking, diving, dinghy sailing, elephant trekking, hiking, massages and beauty treatments, snorkelling, Thai cooking courses.
Founded as a royal spa, Hua Hin retains palaces, a quaint railway station and traces of fishing village charm, having restrained pollution, prostitution and development.
The king still lives at the art nouveau Phra Ratchawang Klai Kangwon (‘Far from Worries Palace’) in Hua Hin, but it’s tourable when he’s away. Its miles-long beaches stretch north past condos, resorts and the stunning teak Phra Ratchaniwet Marukhathaiyawan palace to Cha-am, a ho-hum resort catering to raucous Thai sanuk. South is Pranburi, a yachtie haven with designer hotels. Sand and water quality are middling, and weekends can get crowded.
Hua Hin’s beaches are generally quieter south of the Sofitel towards Had Khao Takiap. The pace is picked up on Khao Takiap where a sandy beach ensemble of water sports, coconut palms and great Thai eateries has blossomed. Hua Hin has a walkable centre, but limited transport.
Diversions include golf and Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park (0 3261 9078), where you can kayak in wetlands amid karsts that inspired its ‘300 peaks’ name.
Ever-smarter hotels, restaurants, spas and villas upgrade Samui, but impair its water supply and landscape of sweeping beaches, rugged capes and forested hills. Yet somehow its laid-back roots remain: fishing, coconuts, backpacker huts, New Age pilgrims.
The commercial/official hub of Nathon port boasts Hainan-influenced teak shophouses, a market and great hawker food. Just south at Lipa Noi beach, Samui Dharma Healing Centre (Sawai Home Bungalows, www.dharmahealingintl.com) runs Buddhist fasts at simple beach huts. The North Coast water is less clear than in the east, but calm year-round. It spans Bophut, Samui’s most charming village, and Had Bangrak – called Big Buddha Beach for the 12-metre (39-foot) statue in Wat Phra Yai – which is tranquil despite the cutely rustic airport nearby.
On the east, Chaweng’s crescent of fine sand, swimmable waters and arching palms is both party central and a vaguely sleazy lesson in non-planning, boasting Samui’s better shops. Over a ridge with giddying views, beautiful Lamai bay has crystal waters, lovely sands and boulders at the southern end. Two of these, Hinta Hinyai (‘Grandpa and Grandma Rocks’), resemble genitals and have become a tourist trap. Lamai town is a mess, with poor restaurants and hostess bars. Roads then fork inland to Nam Tok Ta Nim waterfall, with mountain views en route, or around the quieter southern beaches at Laem Set and Taling Ngam.
An hour by ferry from Samui, Pha-ngan is ten years behind, slightly less beautiful, but friendlier. It attracts a blend of backpackers, entrepreneurs, dreamers and wasters to its smaller, craggier, often reef-laden bays, despite erratic electricity and torturous transport. Coconuts and fishing remain village mainstays.
East of the commercial centre of Thong Sala port sits Wat Kow Tahm Meditation Centre (www.watkowtahm.org). The other ferry dock, Had Rin West, is rocky and shallow, and backs on to the headland’s better beach, Had Rin East. Home of the Full Moon Parties, it would suit swimming and snorkelling were it not for the longtail traffic.
Many visitors still come for one thing only: Full Moon Inc. Every month up to 10,000 committed partyheads rave to the hard trance on Had Rin East at the world’s biggest beach party.
Where Gulf of Thailand
‘Turtle Island’ resembles a turtle diving south to Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Samui. Rocky and jungly, it has a long western strand facing Ko Nang Yuan, three islets linked by a tri-star beach. Non-divers can feel out of place, but relish 11 quiet beaches, notably Leuk, Jansom and June Juea. Tao is walkable, but has bike taxis and a few songtaew.
Boasting good coral, swim-throughs and an abundance of large fish, the 24 dive sites have good visibility (late May-early Oct).
Thailand’s largest, richest island (49km by 27km/30 by 17 miles) has been a trading post for millennia. A 19th-century tin rush turned Phuket City into the province’s capital, drew Chinese settlers and left the rainforested hills scarred. From the 1970s Phuket mined an even richer seam: tourism. Fishing villages became smart resorts or ramshackle shanties, offering diving, yachting and ‘eco-adventures’.
Over bridges from the mainland, Route 402 skirts Phuket International Airport and threads south to Phuket City past rubber plantations, the Heroines’ Monument (to two women who helped repel the Burmese in 1785) and Kathu, where Ban Kathu Heritage Centre (Ban Kathu School, 0 7632 1246, open by appointment) hosts a dusty Mining Museum. Like Singapore, Melaka and Penang, Phuket City retains Sino-Portuguese shophouses and mansions, gaily decorated in Greco-Roman and ‘lucky’ Chinese motifs. Some tin baron homes along Thanons Yaowarat, Krabi, Thalang and Deebuk have become bars, boutiques or galleries; Chinpracha House (Thanon Krabi, 08 9646 9080, 9.30am-4pm daily) preserves that lifestyle perfectly. Named from bukit (Malay for ‘hill’), Phuket City hugs Khao Rang hill. The park at the summit offers views west to Phang-nga bay and the Sea Gypsy village on Ko Siray.
Most tourists stay around the bays that scallop the western and southern coasts, and now at the long northern Mai Khao beach near Sirinart National Park (0 7632 7152/8226). Ao Bang Thao Mai fits hotels and golf courses of Phuket Laguna around lagoons in old mining pits, while many of the ritziest hotels, shops and villas snuggle in quieter Surin and Kamala beach. Tsunami-hit fisherfolk share Kamala beach with Phuket FantaSea (www.phuket-fantasea.com), a gaudy theme park with a vast buffet restaurant and a 3,000-seat theatre for a pyrotechnic spectacle, including elephants.
Ringed by hills, the crescent of Ao Patong is raw tourism, with pestering touts, gem stores, stalls selling fakes and hostess bars clogging the Soi Bangla strip. The developed lower west coast has arguably the best beaches, from broad, duned Karon to prettier, family-friendly Kata, where twin bays frame the snorkel-friendly Ko Pu islet. Kata Yai hosts September’s windsurfing championships.
There are stunning views from beyond here, and particularly at the southern cape Laem Phrom Thep, which gets crowded at sunset. East around the cape arcs dramatically beautiful, windswept Nai Harn beach.
Try eco tours by Siam Safari (45 Thanon Chao Fa West, Chalong, 0 7628 0116, www.siamsafari.com), Phuket Union Travel (64/23 Thanon Chao Fa West, Chalong, 0 7622 5522-33, www.phuket-union.com) or Asian Premier Holidays (74/90 Poonphon Night Plaza, Phuket City, 0 7624 6260, www.asianpremier.com). Mountain bike specialists include Bike Tours (10/195 Thanon Kwang, Phuket City, 0 7626 3575, 01797 6540, www.biketoursthailand.com). Several 4WD tours twist through the jungles and plantations. Elephant treks are mostly short bush rambles; some include mangrove kayaking.
Canoe trips explore sea caves in the jungled karst islets soaring out of Phang-nga Bay. The eco-sensitive pioneer of this now often reckless mass activity, John ‘Caveman’ Gray, has split from Sea Canoe (0 7652 8839/40, www.seacanoe.net) to offer similarly inspirational tours at John Gray’s Sea Canoe (0 7625 4505-7, www.seacanoe.com). Bring water, a T-shirt and sunscreen. Most boat tours of Ao Phang-nga National Marine Park take in ‘James Bond Island’ (Ko Tapu, where The Man with the Golden Gun was shot).
Phuket is Thailand’s diving HQ, with a recompression chamber in Patong and 50-plus companies, including White & Blue Dive Club (0 7628 1007-8, www.white-bluedive.com), Dive Master (www.divemaster.net), Scuba Cat (0 7629 3120, www.scubacat.com) and South-east Asia Liveaboards (www.seal-asia.com). Aside from day trips, liveaboard tours take in dramatic reefs and pelagic fish at the Similan, Surin or Phi Phi islands. Access and visibility drop during the monsoon, when beach rip tides also make swimming risky.
A 70-kilometre (44-mile), one-hour drive north of Phuket, Khao Lak suffered most from the tsunami, but has recovered fairly well. Its long sweeping beach and parallel lush virgin forest remain two of the South’s natural highlights. Although stretches of beachside land remain barren, resorts have reclaimed the prime sites.
Krabi Airport brought mass tourism to Laem Phra Nang, a breathtaking karst cape. Roadless and cut off by towering cliffs, the cape is getting ever-denser accommodation on the back-to-back bays of sandy West Railay and mangrovey East Railay. A trail leads past caves to the paradisical Had Phra Nang beach, home of sunbathers and full-moon rites to its cave’s fertility deity.
Longtail ferries leave from humdrum Krabi Town, passing Susaan Hoi, a fossil shell beach, but most people reach it by boat from nearby Ao Nang, a laid-back hub of resorts, restaurants and internet cafés.
Agencies hawk trips to islands, reefs, lagoons and inland eco tours, including Sea Canoe (www.seacanoe.net), the scuba outfits Aqua Vision (0 7563 7415, www.aqua-vision.net) and Reef Watch (0 7563 2650, krabidir.com/reefwatch), and, in Krabi Town, Chan Phen Travel (145 Thanon Utarakit, 0 7561 2004).
Railay is a rock-climbing centre with hard après-climb partying. Climbing outfits offer training, most reputably are King Climbers (Ao Nang, 0 7563 7125; Railay, 0 7566 2096, www.railay.com).
Inhabited mostly by Muslim Thais and chao lay (sea gypsies), fast-upgrading Ko Lanta Yai belongs to a National Marine Park blessed with dive sites and awesome karst outcrops. Down the sandy west coast from the northern pier hub, Ban Sala Dan, backpacker bungalows, lively bars and internet cafés crowd Had Khlong Dao and Ao Phrae-Ae (‘Long Beach’). As the roads deteriorate south through Had Khlong Khoang, Had Khlong Nin and Ao Kantieng, designer getaways mix with ramshackle huts.
From Ban Sala Dan, land, boat and kayak trips explore the east coast’s caves, mangroves, Muslim village life in Sangka-u, and Lanta, a town of old wooden shophouses. Other tours take in a bat cave and a seasonal waterfall.
Ko Phi Phi
Where Andaman Sea
The wondrous pelagic vistas of this island duo drew so many visitors since the 1980s that Phi Phi became a byword for development, from damaged reefs and brackish water to garbage overload. Damage to Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh while filming The Beach proved minor compared with how the 2004 tsunami scoured the tourist village on the sandbar of Phi Phi Don. Thaksin hampered its recovery so it could be turned into an upmarket eco-resort, but with backpacker volunteer help the crowded mess of bars and guesthouses returned regardless. Areas unaffected by the wave have fared better.
Boat trips take in Leh’s impenetrable cliffs, picturesque bays and the Viking Cave, so named for its mariner’s murals, where men on bamboo scaffolds harvest swift’s nests for the Chinese soup delicacy. The many scuba shops do early and late dives to avoid the daytripping hordes.
Boat trips, diving.
When to go
Thailand is tropical but has various climate zones. It stretches north to Himalayan foothills and south to a near-equatorial, rainforested peninsula with different monsoons in each ocean causing rain intermittently year round; most severe in late Oct-Dec in the Thai Gulf (Pacific Ocean) and June-Oct in Andaman Sea (indian Ocean), most pleasant in May-Oct and Nov-Mar respectively.
Thailand's official tourist information website (www.tourismthailand.co.uk) contains maps and e-brochures with useful information about things to do and transport in all major destinations.
Time Out guidebooks
For more information about the best places to eat, drink, stay and explore, pick up a copy of our guidebook 'Bangkok & Beach Escapes', available from the Time Out shop, at the discounted price of £8.99.