In the south of Thailand you will find the popular destinations of Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, and Phuket. These areas are well known among foreign tourists and are convenient destinations to travel given the number of both domestic and international flights to Krabi and Phuket. If you are looking for a relatively developed destination that still offers beautiful scenery, great beaches, and a touch of Thai culture, this may be the region for you.
I personally think that Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, and Phuket are better suited for families and retirees than backpackers, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not worth a short visit. If you look hard enough, there are some gems hidden amongst the large resorts, hotels, shopping malls, and tourist streets.
Although Krabi is a town, most of the best beaches and resorts are found in Krabi province and when people talk about Krabi, they are usually talking about Krabi province or Ao Nang, which is the most popular beach close to Krabi town. Krabi hosts an international airport which makes it an easy destination to get to and since it hosts over 130 islands, there are plenty of areas to explore. Some of the most popular places to head in the Krabi area include Ao Nang, Ko Lanta, and Ko Phi Phi.
Ao Nang is a former backpacker hotspot which is getting more and more commercially developed and westernized. Ao Nang is around 40 minutes from the Krabi airport and thus many tourists will refer to Ao Nang as “Krabi” when talking about the Ao Nang area. Ao Nang makes a good base for accommodation as there are loads of options, from budget to luxury, and it is easy to get out to the cliffs or beaches of Rai Leh and Phi Phi on day trips.
Ko Lanta is less busy than Ko Phi Phi and Ao Nang which makes it a nice destination if you want to get away from the party. Ko Lanta actually consists of a number of islands but Ko Lanta Yai or “Big Lanta” is the main area where tourists stay. Ko Lanta is not as close to Krabi airport as Ao Nang or Ko Phi Phi, but it is a nice place to get away from the crowds and offers a more ‘cultural’ experience than the more Westernized parts of Krabi province. When I was in Ko Lanta, it was possible to find a number of family run accommodations, whereas in Krabi the ownership tends to be more corporate.
Ko Phi Phi is a beautiful Marine National Park that was always popular because of how easy it is to get to from both Phuket and Krabi, but it became even more touristic after its use as a film location in Leonardo DeCaprio’s movie “The Beach”. Ko Phi Phi is actually an archipelago of six islands and hosts wonderful marine life and beaches. Unfortunately, with time, Ko Phi Phi has become increasingly commercialized, but it is still beautiful and absolutely worth a visit if you are in the area.
In my opinion, the best thing to do in Krabi or Ko Phi Phi is to get out and see the scenery of the Adaman Sea. Whether that involves joining a sailing, snorkeling, or diving boat or signing up for a tour and going rock climbing, kayaking, kiteboarding, or even cliff jumping, the important thing is to get out and see the islands. The views are phenomenal and you will certainly get some screensaver worthy photos to remind you of your travel adventures when you return home.
The most memorable experience from my time in the area was a boat trip around the islands of Had Chao Mai National Park. The highlight of the trip for me was when I swam through Morakot Cave (Emerald Cave) into a beautiful secluded beach in the middle of a rock with cliff faces all around us. Amazing!
Phuket is the Disney World of Thailand. There are lots of commercial developments in the area including Western style shopping malls, aquariums, crocodile farms, nature safaris, Elephant shows, and of course, world renowned Patong party beach.
Phuket is slightly more expensive than other places in Thailand due to its popularity among Western tourists, but you should still be able to find all standards of accommodation, restaurants, and bars, including budget dives to 5-star luxury.
I believe that if you go to Phuket you have to be willing to embrace the commercialized nature of the area and take in the shows and attractions. I only spent a couple of nights in Phuket, but I did splurge on going to the Phuket FantaSea show, which was honestly just like a Las Vegas style theatrical show with dancers, pyrotechnics, and magicians. It was certainly entertaining and probably worth the steep price of admission, but probably not the type of thing I would normally want to travel to Thailand for since the same types of shows are available all over the world.
For a more nature-oriented experience, there are numerous opportunities for snorkeling, sailing, and scuba diving off the coast. However, due to the amount of tourism in the area I would strongly encourage you to seek out eco-friendly tour operators to make sure you do your part to avoid any further environmental impact to the region.