The Sweet Spot: Southern Thailand & the Thai Islands

by  Christina Garofalo | Jul 20, 2017

Bringing you the world’s best travel destinations — and when you should visit them for the best value.

It’s no surprise that Thailand is one of the world’s top beach destinations. The serpent-like southern half of the country is lined by pristine coastline and a spray of tiny tropical islands on both sides.

Here, limestone cliffs erupt from turquoise seas and tropical rainforests give way to mangroves, waterfalls, and exotic wildlife. And while Southern Thailand’s topography makes for surreal vistas; it also makes the region one of the best in the world for diving, rock-climbing, hiking, and bird-watching.

From the sceney shores of Phuket to the less-trodden Trang Islands, there are spectacular discoveries no matter where you land. And all of them are a bargain.

The Perfect Time to Visit

Southern Thailand is warm year-round. The only prohibiting factor is the monsoon season, which occurs at slightly different times on both coasts.

The Gulf Coast: December, June to August
The islands in the Gulf of Thailand -- including Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao -- tend to get less rain than the rest of the country, even during rainy season. Avoid the high tourist season from January to March, and opt to visit in December, when precipitation is still quite low, or from June to August, which see a bit more rain but in short intense bursts between strong daytime sun.

The Andaman Sea: December and March to April
On the west coast, off the Andaman Sea, you’ll find popular islands Phuket, Krabi, Koh Lanta, and Koh Phi Phi, as well as more off-the-beaten-path spots, like the Trang Islands. Here, January through March are the peak (and most expensive) months, but you can enjoy good weather anytime between November and April, depending on the island. For instance, in Krabi, March is cheaper than April, but on Phuket April is cheaper than March. 

Overall, December is the driest month after the peak period, which means you're unlikely to see rain, but you will enjoy reduced room rates. April sees more rainfall than in December but still less than half that in monsoon season. For the most accurate information, it's a good idea to check the weather in advance for the exact island you plan to visit.

The Cheapest Option

For obvious reasons, you’ll find the cheapest rates on hotels during the rainy season. On the west coast (Andaman) the southwest monsoon brings heavy storms from May to October, while on the east coast (Gulf) the most rain falls between late October and December.

While it is possible to enjoy the islands between brief afternoon showers, note that ferry service is limited from May to October, and may stop running during severe weather, as the water becomes choppy and dangerous. Certain destinations, like the Trang Islands and Koh Lanta, are inaccessible for the entire offseason (though you can still access the latter via car ferry, if you wish).

Major flooding can also cause challenges depending on where you’re staying. Many waterfront accommodations are served only by dirt tracks, which -- particularly if you plan to rent a motorbike -- can be treacherous. The best piece of advice if you’re traveling during the off season is to stay flexible and use your judgement; and keep the telephone number and address for your hotel and the nearest U.S. Embassy/Consulate handy in case.

If you do your research and plan well, you can still enjoy bursts of sun, cheaper hotels and flights, and fewer crowds. Check out our post on how to make the most out of traveling during Asia’s monsoon season for more tips on how to make it work.

The Smart Place to Stay

JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa
In 2017, JW Marriott opened a five-star resort on Phuket with direct access to Mai Khao Beach. The property has three pools, 11 eateries, yoga and tai chi classes, a spa, and gym. It also hosts activities, including sunset bike tours, elephant treks, and Thai cooking classes. Guests can take advantage of shuttle service to Patong Beach and Phuket Town. You can find a room with a private terrace with views of the garden, pool, or ocean for just $148 per night in December and for $177 per night in April, compared to $334 per night in peak season. 

FuramaXclusive Farmers Boutique, Koh Samui

The recently rebranded FuramaXclusive Farmers Boutique on Koh Samui comprises 45 Thai-style bungalows. Each has a flat-screen satellite TV, a terrace, and a dining area; some also have private outdoor pools. A short walk from the beach, the hotel is surrounded by green hills and rice paddies. On site, there’s an outdoor pool, a restaurant, free wifi, and an airport shuttle. We found rooms for $94 per night in December (shoulder season) and $92 per night during the mini-high season from July to August (though keep in mind that precipitation is higher than it is in December). These offer a significant savings compared to January through May, when rates double to $185 per night.

Centra by Centara Phu Pano Resort, Krabi
Just before the New Year, Centra by Centara Phu Pano Resort Krabi opened with 158 posh rooms with private balconies; some have views of the limestone hills and outdoor spa baths. Just a short drive from Ao Nang, the resort has a swimming pool, air-conditioned rooms, flat-screen TVs, a gym, and free wifi. There's a free speedboat shuttle to Nopparatthara Beach, and activities like sailing and windsurfing. We found the best deals in December and March -- the second driest months -- for just $45 per night, and $56 per night, respectively. However, rates were only $63 per night midweek in peak months of January and February -- so you can get the best of both worlds.

What to See and Do

Diving is one of the most popular activities in Southern Thailand, thanks to calm, clear water with visibility (in good months) up to 100 feet.

The most famous diving destination is Koh Tao (on the Gulf), as it's one of the few places on earth where it’s possible to see whale sharks (March to April). You’ll also find countless tropical fish, reef sharks, rays, and barracuda. It’s also a great place for first-timers, because there are calm, shallow sites, and dive schools are situated all over the island. Go between April and September for optimal visibility.

The tiny island of Koh Lanta has the best dive sites in the Andaman: Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. Sea life here includes Pacific reef fish, including Moorish idols and pufferfish, as well as manta rays and leopard sharks. You’ll get the best visibility from October through April.

In November, people flood the beaches (and riverbanks) throughout Thailand to celebrate Loy Krathong, the festival of lights. In honor of the Goddess of water, people bring krathong (offerings) of banana leaves, flowers, and candles to the water and set them free. The view of thousands of glowing  krathongs dancing on the ocean is truly breathtaking. The festival is held according to the Lunar calendar, so be sure to check dates in advance.

Tham Morakot (Emerald Cave) on Koh Muk is a long limestone tunnel that leads through a semi-submerged cave to a small, cliff-framed beach. To get there, rent a kayak for about 300 Baht (approx. $9 USD) or charter a long-tail from 800 Baht (approx. $24 USD); leave early to beat the crowds.

If you will be in Thailand during the full moon, join the throngs of people from around the world for the epic Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. The event was started in the 1970s by tourists on Haad Rin admiring the moon, and it's now world-famous. Even if you’re not the all-night-partying type, it is worth seeing the spectacle (preferably from a second-story) of 30,000 people on the beach covered in neon paint, dancing to music around flame-throwers.

Don’t make the common mistake of leaving Phangan after the party. Almost 90 percent of the island comprises tropical forest, 40 percent of which is protected national park land -- it is a fount of natural beauty.

Following the full moon, head north to Chaloklum (you'll want to get as far as possible from Haad Rin), and hike or take a long-tail boat to Hat Khuat (Bottle Beach) -- a nearly deserted white-sand beach with calm, turquoise water for swimming and snorkeling. Visit the nearby Guanyin Temple, which is perched above the forest. From one of the west coast beaches (Hat Yao, Hat Salad, or Ao Mae Hat), watch the sunset over Ang Thong National Marine Park -- an archipelago of 42 forest-covered islands with towering limestone mountains.

If you have the time, head south on the Andaman Sea to Koh Tarutao Marine National Park, which comprises 51 islands (most uninhabited). There, visit Son Bay, where turtles come to lay their eggs and home to Luu Doo Waterfall. The park is also home to some of the healthiest coral reef in the area.

Nature lovers also won’t want to miss Khao Sok, on the Andaman coast, which is part of the oldest rainforest in the world. Among the dense foliage, don’t be surprised if you spot snakes, monkeys, and even tigers.

Railay Beach, in Krabi, is home to the most spectacular of Thailand’s limestone cliffs. Hence its reputation as one of the best places in the world for rock climbing and bouldering. There are no cars or roads here; explore the coastline by kayak instead.

The Koh Phi-Phi Marine National Park -- which comprises Koh Phi-Phi Don and the uninhabited Koh Phi-Phi Leh -- is best known as the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach. While you’ll have to stay on Phi-Phi Don (where you’ll find warm, pristine water by day and Full Moon-esque parties at night), you can visit the famous Maya Bay on Koh Phi-Phi Leh by kayak for the day or book an overnight boat tour to stay after dark. We recommend this, if you don’t mind a chaotic, dorm-like sleeping set-up for a night.

If you’re visiting Phuket, don’t miss Phang Nga Bay, which houses 40 small islands -- among them, many caves, mangroves, and lagoons.

After all the hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling, treat yourself to a famous Thai massage, which stretches your body as well as working on pressure points. An hour massage can run as little as $10 USD.

Tips to Save Even More

When booking accommodations, if you’re willing to forgo the frills, it is easy to find comfortable, bare-bones bungalows near the beach for cheap (around 600 THB, or $18 USD per night). Hotels with pools and restaurants will cost about twice that and then some when you get to the larger resorts. Airbnb is also growing in Thailand and is worth checking out. Often, you can rent an entire apartment for less than the cost of a hotel room.

Get ready to haggle. Anything from a market is fair game, and room prices can be negotiated, as well, especially in low season or for longer stays. Just remember to be courteous.

Wait until you are in Thailand to book tours and excursions; though it's possible to book online, you’ll overpay. There are travel agencies all over the tourist areas and they’re prepared to lower prices to sell you their tours. Go from one place to another comparing prices and negotiating to find the best deal. 

Hiking is a great way to cover many of the islands’ sights for free. At Ang Thong National Marine Park off the coast of Koh Phangan, for instance, take sturdy shoes for the climb up to a popular viewpoint. The Nam Tok Phaeng waterfall awaits at the end. (Note that the trail is closed during the November and December monsoon rains.)

If you’re planning to go to Krabi, skip refined Railay for the more rustic and bohemian Tonsai Beach. It’s slightly harder to reach (you’ll need to take an additional long-tail boat during high tide) but accommodations are far cheaper and the crowds are non-existent. Plus, you still have access to the area’s main draw: climbing. Basecamp Tonsai, for instance, offers deep water soloing trips for 1,500 Baht (approx. $44 USD), inclusive of gear, lunch, and water; as well as climbing courses for all levels.

Traveling by scooter is the easiest, most popular, and cost-effective way to navigate the islands. However, there are essentially no laws on the road, so stay alert and only drive if you feel comfortable.

Eat on the street. From chicken skewers to Som Tam (papaya salad), street food in Thailand is not only the cheapest way to eat, it’s the most authentic. Thai people rarely cook at home, as the cost of eating out is so low -- usually from 20 Baht to 50 Baht per meal (approx. 60 cents to $1.50 USD). Thai food standards are generally quite high, so you shouldn’t have a problem stomach-wise, but it is always a good idea to follow the locals when choosing a stall.

Buy beer at 7-Eleven rather than at the bar. A beer in 7-Eleven is about 35 Baht (about $1 USD), while the same beer will cost 100-170 Baht (approx. $3-$5 USD) in a restaurant or bar. It's legal to drink outside anyway.

Avoid getting ripped off by researching the cost of airport taxis, asking taxis to run the meter, and agreeing on a price for any service ahead of time. Also, remember: nothing is free.

Overall, note that while places like Phuket and Koh Samui are often easier to get to and are beautiful, you will pay much higher rates here than you will at the smaller, lesser-known islands (like the Trang Islands). All are home to breathtaking vistas, dense foliage, and pristine beaches; you don’t need to pay the big bucks to find that.

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