Some of the most famous islands for backpackers sit on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. Though Thailand actually contains several islands in the Gulf spreading all the way from Malaysia to Cambodia, the most popular one for foreigners sit near the provincial town of Surat Thani, far south down the long peninsula connecting Thailand to Malaysia. Luckily, I got to visit both over the course of two separate trips. Due to the busyness of some of them, I found that I was ready to leave some of these islands by the end, but nonetheless, here's my compilation of three (two of which I visited out of five total I'll feature in the Gulf) of the Thai islands in the Gulf of Thailand!
From Krabi we hopped a three hour bus ride with some seriously hungover British backpackers and made our way towards Surat Thani, the nearest mainland town viable for getting ferries out to three of the biggest tourist island in Thailand, Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, and Koh Tao. These are often referred to as the Big 3 in this part of Thailand, famous for their rowdy nightlife, full moon parties, cheap diving, beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and all-around good times.
Koh Pha Ngan: We found ourselves first on Koh Pha Ngan, infamously known for its genesis of the Full Moon Party, an all-night long party celebrating the monthly occurrence. If you find yourself on the island during this evening (and if you don't pay much attention to the moon's phases, you'll not mistake the day or two leading up to this night), you'll be greeted by tens-of-thousands of island hoppers hoping to get hopped up a lot of not bueno things for your body. Beth and I did not actually go to Koh Pha Ngan for this event as it has become REALLY busy over the last couple of years, and this time around they were calling for roughly 100,000 people due to the fact that the full moon in December 2015 fell on Christmas, causing many solo backpackers away from their families to make the trip over to the island. Many people coming for the full moon don't actually stay on the island, but rather come from the mainland, Koh Samui, or Koh Tao, and just stay up all night dancing the entire night away on the beach.
We, instead, came with the intention of going to the Half-Moon Party, what we'd heard was a similar (but more tame) type of evening buried deep in the jungle. Even if you're not one for these types of events, it's still something that everyone should try and witness at least once. Though we were on the island for half-moon, we actually still didn't even go to the jungle event either as there was a cover fee to get in which we decided was not worth it. Instead we found ourselves enjoying the company of some of the people at our $3/night hostel right on the beach and went out to a beachside bar only accessible by boat or 4-wheel drive vehicles through some dense jungle over a pot-holed road like I'd never seen before.
As you can see, Koh Pha Ngan has become synonymous with moon-based parties, and once you're on the island you realized that there is essentially a moon-phased party every night of the week. If a bar isn't hosting an eighth-moon waning party, then you're sure to find a different bar having a Thursday-night party or a fifth-Monday in a month beach-themed bar crawl. There is never a lack of entertainment on Koh Phangan.
Aside from the party life, the island is actually also extremely beautiful and has a lot to offer. As we only had two days on the island we only got to explore a little bit, but the entire interior is filled with dense jungle, mountains, waterfalls, and hiking trails. Many who come here spend their days exploring the island rather than the underside of their bed sheets. We explored with a girl we met from Holland, Marije, one day of our two and found an awesome mountaintop temple finishing up a 10-day silent meditation retreat as we arrived. We were shown a great view of the island below from one of their seclusion spots and got a layout of the surrounding islands as well. Unfortunately my phone was stolen roughly 12-hours after this and I have zero photos of Koh Pha Ngan to share from my own camera. Thank God for friends who don't get their phones stolen.
Koh Samui: Following two days on Pha Ngan (which was plenty), we set sail for Koh Samui, the largest of the three islands in this region. I was particularly excited for Koh Samui as it'd be the first time I'd seen my parents since July (Dad) and September (Mom), and we'd be spending Christmas on the island before heading off to Chiang Mai and Bangkok to complete our trip together.
Beth and I arrived on an early morning ferry and managed to get ourself to the hotel my parents had booked for the week. After backpacking and staying in hostels and cheap guesthouses for five months in a row, it was an amazing feeling to finally get a little luxury when we arrived. We were immediately able to get into the room even though it was 8:30 AM, and enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet and some beach time all before 11! I can't remember the last time I had a full breakfast buffet (which was delicious), fancy drinks by the beach/pool, and a clean, high-pressured shower all in one day! My parents arrived by early afternoon and we spent the rest of the day (Beth's last day) lounging by the pool, reading, and catching up before hitting the town for an amazing (and cheap) seafood dinner right on the beach (literally, the tide was sweeping the sand away from under our chairs)!
Unfortunately, the first two days on Koh Samui were filled with rain. Lots and lots of rain. This was the first time in Asia where my travels had been somewhat handicapped due to weather, and it was really bad timing since my parents were visiting. We tried to make the most of it and still drove our rental car around the island, exploring some of the small villages buried far away from the tourist areas on the island (mainly on the south end), finding some hidden seafood restaurants, attending a cooking class, and sipping beers until the storm passed, but it still limited us to exploring more than just that. The interior of Koh Samui is also filled with dense jungle, waterfalls, and caves, and before the rain started we managed to find one waterfall but it was nothing special.
Our subsequent days of nice weather took us to the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Marine Park which we hoped would be a great place to get some quality snorkeling and island views at. Unfortunately, like many other places in Thailand, this national park has been completely decimated by tourism. The snorkeling was murky and filled with trash, the islands we visited in the marine park were littered with Chinese and Korean tourists pushing everyone out of the way to get the same photo 10,000 other people have, and we were piled on a boat with 50 other people all expecting much more from a place rated the #1 thing to do in Koh Samui on Trip Advisor. We were all thoroughly disappointed by the experience we had at Mu Ko Ang Thang, and though the islands were beautiful, it was not what I expected from a "protected" marine park.
The highlight of Koh Samui, for me, was being able to spend time with my parents again and enjoying the delicious seafood on the island. We were treated to some huge portions of fish, prawns, crab, and lobster each evening fresh from the sea that day all for very cheap ($15/meal vs. $85 at least back home for the same amount). My whole family loves seafood so we took advantage of this while we could. After five days on the island though we shipped off to Chiang Mai for a few days up north away from the beaches.
Koh Tao: Unfortunately I was unable to visit this island, the third of the main ones in this part of the Gulf to visit. If you're reading this, though, in order to plan a trip to Thailand, I'd recommend it after hearing loads about it from other travelers. Known around the world as one of, if not the, cheapest place to learn to dive, Koh Tao is filled with dive shops galore, beautiful beaches, nightlife, seclusion, mountaintop views, and pristine waters. It has some of the best diving in the world as well, and during the dry season enjoys crystal-clear waters perfect for high visibility. I ran out of time during my island visits and was unable to capitalize on it despite my love for diving.
All-in-all, if I could recommend any of these three islands to visit, I'd say Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao are a must. Koh Samui felt highly over-tourised compared to most other places I've visited in Thailand (traffic galore and dirty), Koh Pha Ngan, though roudy, has its perks and is beautiful. Koh Tao is the island, though, that I hear most positive things about, and nearly everyone I've met traveling has said it was their favorite of these three. On a subsequent trip I'll have to make my way back here, but until then, this is all I can share. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Gulf of Thailand Islands where I'll visit Koh Samet and Koh Chang, two of my favorite spots so far along my trip.