Thailand: The Andaman Sea Islands

After spending nearly five months depriving myself of some serious R&R on a beach, it was finally time to hit the islands of Thailand for a bit. In addition to appreciating being with friends and family along the way, I also enjoyed nearly perfect weather, a lot of nightlife, and some relaxation as I dozed and took in the sun for the better part of a month.

Following my second bit of time spent in Chiang Mai, Beth, Kathleen, and I were off to the Thai islands! After a delay out of Chiang Mai forcing me to run through the airport in Bangkok only to still miss my connecting flight, I eventually landed in Pukhet to a harrowing rain storm that lasted the better part of two hours. I made my way outside and found the bus that promised to take me downtown within a few blocks of our hostel (Beth and Kathleen had a separate, direct, flight). I didn’t realize Pukhet was as big as it was given that it's an island, and the drive to the actual downtown area took around an hour. Once arriving to the hostel I met back up with Beth and Kathleen and grabbed some food at a local Thai place roasting in heat. The following morning we awoke early in order to catch the ferry out to the Phi Phi Islands where we'd spend the next few days soaking up the sun. Following my time in Koh Phi Phi, I made my way to Koh Lanta and Ao Nang as well which are featured below the Phi Phi section.

Boat ride to Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi Islands: We woke the next morning, not spending any significant time on Pukhet island itself, and headed to Koh (Island) Phi Phi Don, the most famous island of Thailand. Phi Phi Don is known for its raucous nightlife, European vacationers, and beautiful (yet overwhelmingly busy) beaches. Generally if you Google “Thailand islands,” it’s likely a picture of Koh Phi Phi will turn up showing white sand beaches specked with hundreds of people. Despite the massive number of tourists on the island, Phi Phi is actually quite small and doesn’t allow any vehicles on the island. This helps make the island relatively quiet throughout the day, but once night breaks music blares late into the early mornings filling the only town on the island with excessive noise.

It is 100% true the Koh Phi Phi is a beautiful island, but don't be fooled into thinking this island will be a quiet and relaxing time. The majority of the tourists on the island range between 20-25 and tend to be from England or Australia, countries known for the excessive partying and drinking culture. Don't get me wrong, I love to have a good time, but these individuals take it to an entirely new level, one which after two days left me exhausted and ready for something different. We participated in the Koh Phi Phi shenanigans our first night and had an absolute blast at the beachside clubs filled with fire dancing and other entertainment late into the night. Unfortunately, this persists night after night after night, and as we only had a limited time on Phi Phi Don and wanted to partake in some of the activities around the other islands nearby, we had to call it a night early the second night out. 

Main bay of Koh Phi Phi Don at low tide

The Koh Phi Phi Islands are actually a group of islands clustered together in the central Andaman Sea. The largest, Don, is the only one of the islands, which allows guesthouses or hotels, thus making it the sole destination for anyone visiting any of the islands in the group. The others are Koh Phi Phi Ley, Koh Bida Nai, Koh Bida Nok, Koh Yung, and Koh Mai Pai. We ultimately visited Don, Ley, and Bida Nai along the way, and enjoyed some amazing diving at the later two. This was the first time I'd been able to dive since last May in Florida and it was great to get back under the water and see what Thailand diving had to offer. 

During the days at Koh Phi Phi we were able enjoy the pool at our hotel, some beachside lounging, fresh coconuts, market streets, wandering through the village, and sipping cocktails throughout the day. There was never a shortage of people watching on Phi Phi Don, and after two days I was ready to move on to another island in the Andaman Sea and a bit closer to the mainland, Koh Lanta, my favorite of all the Thai islands I stopped by!

 

 

Koh Lanta: A beautiful and secluded island tucked just south of Krabi and right up against the mainland, I'd only heard rumors about Koh Lanta before hitching a boat there from Koh Phi Phi. It's a short 1.5 hour ride to the island and once there you're presented with many options for where to go. Being cheap and lazy, I settled for a hostel right near the pier where I didn't have to worry about haggling with a tuktuk driver for a decent price. In hindsight I'd of been better off renting a motorbike right there and exploring the island a bit for a different hostel, but you live and you learn. 

Very quiet beach I found for lunch. Turned out it was actually a nudist beach...who knew?

I'd heard of Koh Lanta from a friends I'd met traveling and really felt like it'd be a bit better fit for my personality than Koh Phi Phi. After 30 minutes I knew these rumors were 100% accurate and though I only had 2 days on the island, I enjoyed every second of it. Lanta is a much more relaxed and chilled out island and within an hour of arriving I was invited by the owner of my hostel to go and watch the sunset on a very secluded beach with a fantastic westward facing view. Up to that point it was the single best sunset I'd seen during my travels (this was only day 3 of island time so many more good ones came, though it still is one of the top ones). There was absolutely no one else on the beach aside from our group and the colors were seriously awesome!

The following day I decided rather than spend the whole day lounging at the beach that I'd rent a bike and explore around the island a bit. Koh Lanta is a very large island relative to Phi Phi and thus took the better part of the day to get around the entire thing. The entire western side of the island is lined by very long beaches full of guesthouses, bars, and tourists, but because it is such a large island, the population of tourists isn't quite as noticeable as it is on Phi Phi Don. After working my way down along the western coast, stopping a couple times for a dip in the water and a beer, I reached the southern end of the island. This part of Koh Lanta is a National Park which I mistakenly thought I'd be able to drive through in order to do a full loop around the island. I was greeted into the National Park by a family of monkeys keen on trying to steal my motor bike and everything in my bag. I've learned quick to ignore the cuteness of monkeys and accept the fact that they're begging, thieving monkeys who won't hesitate to try and bit you if you've got something they want.As this was not an actual option I found that I'd need to drive halfway up the island in order to reach the east side.  

The entire eastern side of Koh Lanta is quite desolate and there are only a handful of small local fishing villages dotting the coast. Because the best beaches are on the west side of the island, the east side has remained very quiet and made for some great motor biking and food stops in the local areas. I met up with some people from my hostel mid-bike and joined them to go into the Old Town of Koh Lanta. It was a small, quaint little town with nothing much to do, but still a nice place to stop along the long drive. 

Unfortunately my time in Koh Lanta was limited as I'd promised Beth (Kathleen flew home) that I'd meet her in Ao Nang back on the mainland. So after a long day of bike riding, some afternoon swimming and drinks at Long Beach, and dinner at the night market, I woke up the next morning and boarded the ferry set for Ao Nang. 

Koh Lanta sunset on my first night on the island

Ao Nang/Railay/Tonsai Beach: Ok, so these aren't islands at all, but they still line the coast of the Andaman Sea and were my absolute favorite part of Thailand! I arrived to Ao Nang just outside of Krabi, the main town for access to many islands in the Andaman Sea, and made my way to the hostel Beth and I would be staying at. You've probably noticed that a trend for the Andaman Sea part of this trip has been rushing stuff, and Ao Nang was no different. We planned for one full day exploring Railay Beach (and eventually Tonsai, though we didn't know about it beforehand), and jammed everything into a very quick 1.5 day trip to this part of Thialand. This was by no means enough time to see this part of the country properly, but we made do with what we had time for and this region did not disappoint. 

View of Tonsai Beach from underneath a climbing overhang

Ao (Beach) Nang is actually a small town outside of Krabi where you first start to see some of the rock formations taking place around this area. This part of Thailand has become extremely famous for its geology, with huge limestone rocks jutting high into the sky and out over the beaches into the sea. Like Googling Thailand Islands will likely yield many Koh Phi Phi pictures, it'll also show many of the now infamous pictures of Thailand's uniquely rocky island coast. Many sites around this area have been featured in movies such as James Bond (James Bond Island) and The Beach (Koh Phi Phi Leh), so you can believe that they really are as beautiful as I say! As soon as we arrived to the beach we immediately saw some of the impressive rock formations lining the Ao Nang coast. Little did we know that Ao Nang was just to first of it, and It wasn't until the next morning that we fully appreciated the scale of some of these rocks when we finally reached Railay and Tonsai, a short longtail boat ride away. 

Railay itself is a very famous and popular destination for tourists to travel to as it has beautiful beaches and lots of activities to participate in. The only way to get to this beach is by boat, thus making it very quiet and still quite untouched. There is a small town between East and West Railay beach, but other than that, a few resorts is all the area has to offer for accommodation. The main attraction for this area, though, is the rock climbing, which Beth and I both knew nothing about. As we started to explore Railay, we found we both knew nothing about this place ahead of time and that the area, a small peninsula south of Ao Nang , is actually a combination of four different beaches, all with their own set of rock climbing, cave exploring, or hiking for views over the entire region. We started on West Railay but after ten minutes of roasting in the sun decided to make a quick trip to "another beach" and ultimately ended up at Tonsai Beach, one of the most famous rock climbing places in the entire world. 

Overlook facing north with East Railay on the right, West Railay on the left near the bay, and Tonsai in the distance near center

Tonsai was another world, and it remains one of the coolest scenes I've ever witnessed in person. Several hundred foot high cliffs line the beach littered with tiny figures scaling up their faces with nothing but beach and ocean below. As you walk out of the cave overhangs leading to the beach you start to see how massive this coastline is and how impressive it is that people are actually climbing up these walls. Following Tonsai we worked our way back to West Railay toward East Railay and explored a bit in town. Once reaching the other side of the peninsula we explored East Railay and the fourth and smallest beach, Phra Nang. 

East Railay really has nothing special to offer (nor did West Railay, but it's more famous and has a resort...), but Phra Nang was just as impressive as Tonsai, lining the coast with multiple hollowed out caves hovering over the water, and beachside hikes up into some of the larger caves still intact higher up on walls. We ventured into the woods and up into one of the larger caves overlooking the peninsula and it did not disappoint. 


Overall, the islands and beaches of this region were some of my favorite destinations so far, and they are also one of the few places I'd go back to on a subsequent trip to Thailand. I felt rushed moving through Koh Lanta and Tonsai as quickly as I did, and there are more islands (Koh Lipe for example) which I wish I'd had time for during trip. If you ever get to Thailand this is a must see area and you should be sure to plan to take as much time here as possible. 

Phra Nang Beach