The Gulf of Thailand is probably my favourite part of Thailand for partying, diving, meeting other backpackers,and relaxing on the beach. This guide quickly runs through my experience with the three main islands, Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, and Ko Tao.
Ko Samui is a large island in the Gulf of Thailand that is home to numerous large developments, golf courses, and resorts. I have always skipped Ko Samui in favour of the smaller islands, but would like to explore it one day. One of the biggest benefits of Ko Samui is that it has an airport and is serviced with international and domestic flights, making it very easy to access if you have more money than time. The cheaper option is to take a ferry from Donsak Pier, near Surat Thani.
I have not yet visited Ko Samui, so I will not comment on what it is like, but I do want to mention Escape Yachts, which is partially owned and operated by a friend of mine. The Escape Yacht is often used for private functions, but the owners also put on some great parties open to the public which look fantastic. You can find more information about the Escape Yacht on their website: http://www.theescapeyacht.com/ or look up their Facebook page, which often has event info. I am definitely looking forward to getting to Ko Samui and checking the Escape Yacht out in the near future!
Ko Pha Ngan (or Koh Phangan) is world famous for its full moon parties on Haad Rin Beach and is located between the islands of Ko Samui and Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. To get to Ko Pha Ngan, it is possible to take a ferry from Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Chumphon, or Surat Thani.
Most tourists arrive in Ko Pha Ngan for the Full Moon Party (or half moon, new moon, or Shiva moon parties). I am sure the Full Moon Party was incredible when it first started, but I find it far too developed and crazy to deserve the reputation it has as one of the best parties in the world. People get absolutely zonked out of their minds on alcohol and drugs which leads to many injuries and even deaths, along with destruction of the formerly beautiful beaches with broken glass, cigarette butts, and even used needles. If you decide the Full Moon Party is an experience that you absolutely must have, be sure to wear protective footwear and lock up all of your valuables very securely in your accommodation. If you plan to go wild, try to stick with a friend who will have the patience and energy to watch out for you so you do not end up face down in the sand. My #1 rule for travel is “Have fun, do not die.”
For a more wholesome and healthy experience, I would recommend The Sanctuary Thailand Spa Resort (http://www.thesanctuarythailand.com) which is in Haad Tien Bay. When I stayed there I simply enjoyed the wonderful beach, but the Sanctuary offers a number of wonderful detox, cleanse, and yoga programs as well. Be forewarned that their health and wellness packages are not necessarily cheap, but if you are just after a healthy and relaxing week, it could be the perfect place for you. If you are on a budget but still like the sounds of The Sanctuary and could use time in a healthy atmosphere, there are also budget dorm beds and bungalows available on arrival.
While traveling Thailand, you will surely see backpackers with their legs and arms bandaged up from falling off motorbikes. I refer to these cases of road rash as “Ko Pha Ngan tattoos”, as they are a very common souvenir from the islands, especially Ko Pha Ngan due to its many hills and relaxed attitudes towards drinking and riding. My advice is simply to skip the bike and walk, songthaew, or take a boat ride to get around. If you do decide to rent a bike, get an automatic, wear your helmet, and be careful.
Accommodation in Haad Rin for the Full Moon Party is hard to come by. You will almost surely need to arrive well in advance or book ahead of time, as things do book up quickly. Most, if not all, accommodation will also require a minimum number of nights stay over the Full Moon Party dates, so plan accordingly. It is also very important that you lock up all of your valuables in Ko Pha Ngan over the party nights as break-ins and thefts are extremely common. It is possible to stay in areas outside of Haad Rin and take a boat ride in for the party, but be cautious as the full moon can also mean big seas and I have personally seen a boat dangerously capsize off Haad Tien Bay while trying to take people to the party. There are also ferries that bring people from Koh Tao to Ko Pha Ngan for the night that return to Koh Tao in the morning, but plan on a long night and likely having to sleep / pass out on the beach. One of my favourite memories of Muay Thai training on Ko Tao was going on my morning run and seeing the destroyed state of the paint-covered backpackers returning from the full moon party who certainly did not look to be enjoying themselves anymore.
Ko Tao (Turtle Island) is my favourite place in Thailand and I have made two visits totaling over a month now. In fact, I have so many great memories of Ko Tao that I may choose to never return so that it remains an absolute paradise in my mind.
The reason I love Ko Tao is much is that it is the perfect size. Ko Tao is big enough to offer lots of opportunities to explore and do new things while still remaining small enough to get to know lots of people and find a comfortable routine. Plus, it is just hard enough to get to that it filters out a lot of the backpackers who are only after the next “Let’s Get Wasted” party destination.
Ko Tao is world renowned for its diving, and it is one of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI Open Water certificate (it is where I obtained mine in 2007). Recently, a number of free diving schools have also opened. The water is warm enough that you do not need a wet suit and visibility is generally good, although I have heard that the waters get choppy and murky in November. Given the large number of dive resorts in Ko Tao, I would highly recommend researching your dive center in advance. If you are just beginning, it is worth ensuring that you are using a reputable dive resort and that your dive master is not a drunk (I have seen more than a few instructors off their faces and out late on work nights).
Monsoon Gym and Muay Thai Camp is a short walk inland from Hat Sairee beach and is a good place to workout. I spent a month training Muay Thai at the gym and although I found it to be wonderful exercise, I did not get much as far as training or instruction in actual Muay Thai techniques. During high season they put on weekly fights and it is not a bad place to watch a few rounds before having a few rounds in town. If you are after high quality training, there are much better options available elsewhere in Thailand and it is worth doing your research before arriving or trying a number of gyms before choosing one..
There are a number of boat trips available that will take you to various beaches and bays around the island. Shark Bay is a great place to snorkel and see black-tip reef sharks. A number of the more remote beaches are accessible by both dirt road and boat and can make a nice way to get away from the crowds for a day.
It is also worth a trip to Ko Nang Yuan, which is a small island right off Ko Tao that is almost connected by a sand bar. The usual way to get to Ko Nang Yuan is by long boat, but I understand there may be a zip line connecting the two islands now. Definitely worth checking out!
You can also find your usual assortment of cooking classes, rock climbing, abseiling, mountain biking, yoga, etc. which will be similar to that available elsewhere in Thailand.
On a normal day, I believe the best way to get around is by foot or pedal bike. If you plan to stick to the beach around your accommodation, walking is usually fine, and motorized transport should only be required to see beaches on other parts of the island. As is the case on other islands, songthaews and long boats are the best way to get to other beaches, especially if you are able to get a group together and share the cost.
If you really want to rent a scooter or motorbike in Thailand, Ko Tao is the place to do it. It is much less crowded than many other places and although you still need to be cautious, I would say there is less risk of crashing than in other towns and islands. Be cautious, however, as there are certain hills that are not suitable for scooters and you are much better off to leave the scooter at the top and walk down, rather than risk having to push the scooter up the hill at the end of your day. If you are experienced on a dirt bike and plan to explore the more remote beaches, I would say renting one is the way to go as you need power and aggressive tires for many of the hills. ATVs are also available, but I would recommend against them. People often think they are safer since they do not need to be balanced, but I believe their larger profile is much more dangerous in traffic. Familiarize yourself with all of the potential scams with respect to renting motorbikes before choosing a shop and pay extra attention when filling the bike at gas stations
The first time I went to Ko Tao I stayed in Hat Mae Haad, which is the beach right near the ferry pier. In my opinion, it is much better to continue on to Hat Sairee, which is a larger beach with less overall development and a wonderful atmosphere. There are just the right amount of bars, restaurants, and shops, in Hat Sairee and great budget huts are available a stone’s throw from the beach.