Thailand Travels Part 2: Islands of the Andaman Sea
Pictured: Koh Phi Phi Leh
Islands of the Andaman Sea
So you’ve spent a couple days in Bangkok. You’ve navigated the crowds and you’ve had your fill of gridlocked traffic and blaring horns. It’s time for a change.
You’re in the right place, or close to it anyways – the Andaman Sea is a short flight from Bangkok and is home to some of the most naturally beautiful scenery on our planet. From quiet and laid back Koh Lanta to the party atmosphere of Koh Phi Phi Don, rock climbing on Railay, bioluminescent boat tours on Phuket and everything in between, there’s enough to stay happily busy well into next monsoon season and then some. Throw in the consistently friendly Thai culture and still-reasonable prices, and you really have a winning recipe for getting away from it all.
Pictured: Kuta Beach, Phuket
When to go
Along with most of Southern Asia, Thailand has two main seasons: a wet monsoon season and a dry season, with a short transition period between the two. It’s a common misconception, but “monsoon” is not a storm. It’s a weather pattern that brings humidity, clouds, and intermittent rain to the area for about half the year. Understandably then, the high tourist season is during the dry time between October to March. Much of the northern hemisphere is cold and grey during this time which makes these islands an even better escape. It’s still possible to explore during wet season – you’ll find less people, lower prices, better availability, and the weather’s not all that bad anyways (if you don’t mind a little rain). As Koh Lanta’s tourism industry likes to remind you, the island is open year round.
Pictured: Koh Lanta
Where to go
With its convenient international airport, Phuket is a good starting off point for the rest of the islands. As far as Phuket itself, I personally could take it or leave it. Its main tourist beach, Patong, is overcrowded with sunburned retirees, their excess body mass overlapping tired beach chairs, drinking umbrella-garnished mai tais served to them by local kids. Not my style. There are better beaches on Phuket besides Patong, but the real gems of the Andaman Sea are found on the other islands, accessible by ferry boats which depart several times a day in high season. And if you ARE there in high season, show up early or buy your ticket in advance – the ferries fill up. If you do stay on Phuket, I’d suggest staying clear of the beaches in favor of Phuket’s Old Town – it’s inland, but it’s far less touristy.
Pictured: Viewpoint on Koh Phi Phi Don
Koh Phi Phi Don
It’s stunning. Shaped like an “H”, the outlying areas are mountainous so most hotels and all the nightlife are centered on the flat and low lying isthmus. There are sandy beaches on both sides but only one is suitable for swimming – the other is too busy with boat traffic. There’s a hikable viewpoint in the mountains that gives a great panorama of both Phi Phi Don and neighboring Phi Phi Leh; try sunset for the most dramatic views. At night, the island comes alive with fresh (and cheap!) seafood, fire shows, muy Thai boxing, and music well into the wee hours of the morning. If that’s not your scene, bring earplugs or find accommodation away of the island’s main center. By day, there are a few smaller beaches and caves hidden well away, just begging to be found and explored. They’re only accessible by boat so plan on renting kayaks or hiring a longtail driver.
Pictured: Tourists on Koh Phi Phi Leh
Koh Phi Phi Leh
Koh Phi Phi Leh is easily among the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The coral filled, turquoise blue water is inside an idyllic bay; its warm waters calmed and shielded from the open sea by naturally occurring limestone cliffs on all sides. The area is so drop dead gorgeous, in fact, that a daytime visit practically assures you’ll be but one of hundreds of other tourists, each trying to imagine the place without all the other people gawking at it. My suggestion? Unless you want to see a bunch tourists with questionable swimming abilities flail about in the bay, their lives seemingly dependent on the integrity of their water wings, skip the daytime circus altogether. Instead, come to Phi Phi Leh at night, see the sunrise, and get out of there before the water wings show up.
Thankfully, Koh Phi Phi Leh is a protected wildlife area and as such there is no hotel accommodation. That leaves just two ways to see it at night from Koh Phi Phi Don: the first and best option is to join the camping group that leaves nightly. You’ll meet up with around 20 fellow travelers and take a boat over. The camping includes dinner, breakfast, sleeping mats, and your first “drink bucket” is free. I’ve camped with this group on two separate trips and both experiences were amazing. There’s just something about hanging around the campfire playing cards, singing, and fire dancing well into the night. Here’s a tip: Drinks can be pricey with the camping group so bring your own, and make sure to keep track of your bottles. Camping is the preferred way to see the island without the tourist masses.
The second way is slightly more independent, but not ideal. You may be able to convince a longtail boat driver to take you from Phi Phi Don to Phi Phi Leh at night, but a lot depends on their availability and what kind of off-hour rates you can negotiate. If its seclusion you’re after, it can be found just as easily with camping – all you have to do is break away from the group to find your own little stretch of beach. Plus, blasting up to the shore in a longtail will disturb the folks who ARE trying to sleep under the night’s quiet sky.
Pictured: Elephant on Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta is the opposite of party crazed Koh Phi Phi. The beaches here are serene: long stretches of empty sand allow room to spread out, and the lazy surf adds to the laid back vibe as the water gently laps the sandy shore. Because of its small, elongated shape, the island has lots of beach area with relatively little to explore inland from the coast. Koh Lanta’s main drawback is it’s not quite as beautiful as the Phi Phi Islands, but the friendly atmosphere and lack of crowds more than make up for it. (If you’re into laid back beach islands like Koh Lanta, I’d also suggest looking at Sri Lanka’s south coast.)
Pictured: Sun setting over Krabi
Back on the mainland now, Krabi’s a tourist town and transportation center. Along with Phuket, its international airport makes for a good spot to begin or end a trip to the Andaman Sea. The town itself is small, crowded, and loaded with markets and restaurants. It’s worth exploring for an afternoon, but the town’s better suited to passing through and not really a destination in and of itself.
Pictured: Rock climbing Railey
Railey’s also on the mainland just down the beach from Krabi. Huge limestone cliffs along the coast make for a rock climbers paradise. Accommodation can be hit or miss and relatively pricey, but if you’re into climbing its worth checking out. Railey is often a first or last stop for people transiting via Krabi.
Pictured: Boat on Langkawi
Langkawi, Malaysia is at the southern end of the island chain. It’s accessible by ferry as well as by bridge from mainland Malaysia. There’s also an international airport on the island. Langkawi is big enough to spend days exploring by motorbike or rental car – the beaches here are as good as any, and the interior of the island has some day hike-worthy lagoons and waterfalls. There’s one main street for nightlife on the west side, but otherwise nights are fairly quiet. The best part of Langkawi? A distinct lack of crowds; you’ll find less people here than even Koh Lanta. Despite the relatively few people, roads and facilities are good, and there are plenty of accommodation options. The whole island is duty free too, so those beers cost even less.
Finding your getaway
This post isn’t even close to a comprehensive listing. And that’s part of the intrigue of this place – going somewhere new and finding your own paradise. Each island has its own distinct character. Whatever your idea of the perfect island getaway, you can probably find it somewhere in the Andaman Sea.