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Island hopping in Thailand
Can't decide where to throw down your towel? From any of these base camps, you can easily explore the best of Thailand
Volumes have been published about Thailand's palm-peppered islands and sugar-coated beaches, their writers waxing lyrical about pillow soft sand and crystalline waters.
But with so many coastal choices, it can be a challenge to pick the perfect stretch of sand.
Seasonal weather definitely has a bearing on destination decisions.
The best bet for sunshine on the west coast (Andaman Sea) is November to April; while on the east coast (Gulf of Thailand), it's January to September.
Veteran Thai travelers always check ahead before heading to lesser-visited destinations -- many hotels, resorts and restaurants in non-A-list places close for the low season.
Choosing a full-service beachside base camp to begin a journey is a smart approach.
You can strike out from any number of such bases by using the network of ferries that connect Thailand's islands.
Base camp: Trang or Satun
Closest airports: Hat Yai International Airport (HDY), Trang Airport (TST)
Radial islands: Tarutao National Marine Park, Petra National Marine Park, Koh Mook, Koh Ngai, Koh Kradan
Koh Mook's Tham Morakot (Morakot Cave) can be accessed only through an 80-meter-long tunnel during low tide, which leads to an open-air chamber surrounded by overgrown cliffs.
To fully appreciate the white sand inside the sea cave and for the emerald green of the pool to really dazzle, visit on a sunny day.
Activities include dugong sighting trips off Koh Libong; island-hopping and stopping off to see the iconic stone arch at Koh Kai; visiting Koh Hin Ngam, a tiny island covered with polished black stones, where a sign warns that a curse will fall on those who remove any pebbles.
There are waterfalls on Koh Adang and Koh Tarutao, the latter with two prison ruins. Trekkers can hit the trails through the interiors of Koh Ngai (aka Koh Hai) and Koh Sukorn.
For rock climbing and bouldering -- previously only associated with Krabi -- Koh Lao Liang is starting to attract enthusiasts with operators such as Andaman Adventures offering personalized itineraries.
Tarutao National Marine Park consists of the Tarutao and Adang-Rawi archipelagos, the latter of which is home to the increasingly popular Koh Lipe.
The islands of the Petra archipelago are split between Trang and Satun provinces, and include Koh Libong, Koh Bulon Lae and the twin islands of Koh Lao Liang.
Between them, the two marine national parks include more than 80 islands with countless beaches to discover.
With most of the islands protected under national marine park status, visitors have their pick for scuba diving, snorkeling or just plain lazing on the sand.
It should be noted that the overall lack of tourist development means most of the islands don't have electricity around the clock, nor ATMs, but they do come with bucket-loads of tropical idyll.
There really isn't a nightlife scene to speak of on the offshore islands of the coastal provinces of Satun and north-bordering Trang, with the exception of perhaps Pattaya Beach on Koh Lipe.
International hotel brands don't have a presence here, but there are plenty of lovely independent hotels, from the hip Idyllic Concept Resort on Koh Lipe and Koh Mook Sivalai to the rustic luxury of the Seven Seas Resort on Koh Kradan.
Basic national park accommodation on Koh Tarutao, Koh Adang and Koh Petra, starting from 500 baht ($15) per night, can be booked 60 days in advance through the Department of National Parks website (www.dnp.go.th under the Tarutao National Park and Mu Koh Phetra National Park drop-down list) or by calling +66 (0) 2562 0760.
Base camp: Phuket or Krabi
Closest airports: Phuket International Airport (HKT), Krabi International Airport (KBV)
Radial islands: Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Yao Yai/Noi, Koh Racha, Koh Hae (Coral Island). Regular ferries and speedboats run from Phuket and Krabi to these outlying islands and can be booked through most hotels.
Water activities abound at all the main beaches in Phuket, be it parasailing, jet skiing, or even kitesurfing off Kata Beach.
From scuba diving around the Similan Islands (one of the best locations in Asia) to snorkeling day trips to Koh Hae, the underwater scenery in Andaman waters can be spectacular if you know where and when to look.
During the November to April high season, snorkelers can explore the coral right off the shores of Kata Yai beach in Phuket.
During the rainier “green” season, the waters around nearby Koh Racha provide better clarity.
Professional operators such as Siam Dive n' Sail offer liveaboards and yacht charters to explore the teeming waters.
Dotted with limestone outcrops, Ton Sai and Railay are popular rock climbing destinations. The island of Koh Yao Noi follows close behind for vertical rock face escapades. These places offer a different vantage point on Krabi's theatrical seascape.
And, of course, "The Beach" was filmed at Koh Phi Phi. To get that quintessential tourist shot, walk up to the viewpoint on Phi Phi Don and snap a few frames of the double-crescent beaches.
Especially during high season, local Thai families head to Sirinath National Park along Nai Yang Beach to picnic beneath the shade of the casuarinas trees and escape Phuket's crowded beaches.
The relative difficulty of reaching Haad Hin Kluay (aka Banana Beach) via a narrow and steep-ish dirt road (400 or so meters from luxury resort Trisara) makes it a viable option for those wanting to chill on the beach.
If you want to spend your whole vacation in quiet surroundings, Koh Lanta, Koh Yao Yai/Noi or even Phang Nga province are interesting alternatives.
Another easy option is to charter a long-tail boat for the day and ask the captain to take you to a secluded beach on one of the smaller uninhabited islands in the Andaman Sea.
Phuket is Thailand's largest island and has several nightlife enclaves.
Bangla Road runs perpendicular inland from the sea-hugging Taweewong Road and is lined largely with red-tinted joints -- exceptions include Seduction Beach Club and Disco.
Bangla then crosses Rat-u-thit Road, also home to a few places to frolic. For a lower key night without the distraction of professional ladies, Phuket Town's popular watering holes include Sanaeha and Ka Jok See.
Nightlife in Krabi is focused on Ao Nang, with popular beach bars including The Last Fisherman, a handful of merry-making spots in Centre Point entertainment complex and Luna Bar, just around the corner on Nopparat Thara Beach.
During high season, the nocturnal scene at Railay, just south of Ao Nang on the other side of the limestone outcrops, picks up with versions of full moon, half moon, and black moon parties complete with fire dancing. Most of the action takes place on Railay East.
Beachfront and sea view digs are highly coveted on Phuket. If you want to go cheap, inland hotels such as Chinotel go for less than 900 baht (US$28) per night.
Base camp: Koh Samui
Closest airport: Samui International Airport (USM)
Radial islands: Koh Phan Ngan, Koh Tao, Koh Nangyuan, Angthong Archipelago
The ubiquity of bronzed bodies stuffed in wet suits gives it away -- Koh Tao is a PADI paradise, reportedly overshadowed only by Australia's Cairns when it comes to issuing the most dive certifications in the world.
Professional dive centers such as Planet Scuba and Big Blue Diving offer courses and trips to varying sites depending on the season, while Good Time Adventures also makes Koh Tao's granite boulders their playground for climbing and abseiling.
Though kayaking is a run-of-the-mill sport in this part of the world, the experience of paddling through the 42-island maze of the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park is unbeatable.
There are a few fanned bungalows ranging from 500 to 1,400 baht ($15-$45) per night via the Department of National Parks on the archipelago's headquarters on Wua Talap. Unless you're honing your mosquito-whisperer skills, however, a day trip would more than suffice.
For visitors preferring to stay dry, Bophut on Koh Samui has the liveliest of the island's walking streets, with vendors vying for attention alongside the gamut of restaurants and bars down the cute sea-fronting Fisherman's Village street.
With clear water lapping up on both sides of the sandbank connecting the three islets that collectively make up Koh Nangyuan, “nothing” is usually the order of the day, with lazy snorkeling right off the alabaster shoreline just about the only activity.
On Koh Phan Ngan, Haad Yuan on the eastern coast is a quiet stretch of beach that backs onto forested hills, fronted by comfortably swimmable shores.
A sprinkling of bungalows and resorts have sprung up in recent years, but with rocky outcroppings on both ends of the beach, it remains fairly tranquil, accessible only by boat and a not oft-used mountain footpath.
Chaweng on Koh Samui is the epicenter of sea, sand and shopping during the day, and also where debauchees descend at night.
Ground zero is the Green Mango strip, where there's plenty of space in the clubs to move, with the nearby and unassuming Hendrix Bar on Soi Solo the preferred spot to de-bass and re-hydrate till the light hours of the morning.
Over on Koh Phan Ngan, the full moon parties with their cult-like notoriety, need little introduction. Once a month, hedonists and the plain mad numbering in the tens of thousands flock to Haad Rin beach to party as though tomorrow has been cancelled.
For less mainstream revelry -- considered by some to rival the full mooners -- Ban Tai hosts fortnightly half moon parties, held a week before and after the full moon shindigs.
As the country's third largest island, Koh Samui has by far the most varied options for accommodation.
On Kao Tao, rustic cottages at Charmchuree Villa are spread among stunning environs. Just a 15-minute boat ride away, the sole resort on Koh Nangyuan lets you call dibs on sun spot before the camera-wielding day trippers descend.
Base camp: Koh Chang
Closest airport: Trat Airport (TDX), owned and operated by Bangkok Airways( www.bangkokair.com). The Soneva Kiri(www.sixsenses.com/soneva-kiri) resort on Koh Kood also has a private airstrip with direct flights from Bangkok.
Radial islands: Koh Mak, Koh Kood, Koh Wai, Koh Rang, Koh Chang archipelago
From the privately owned Koh Rayang to the flat Koh Kradat, booking an island-hopping tour is a good way to see this oft-overlooked section of the Gulf of Thailand.
For divers and snorkelers, the water around the Koh Rang islands are best, with idyllic beaches also found on Koh Kra and Koh Rang Yai, both part of the archipelago.
With a low-key, local feel, Koh Mak is small enough to walk around in a few hours. Just off the northwest coast is Koh Kham, which can be easily reached by kayak or on foot via a sandbar during low tide.
There are also a number of waterfalls hidden amid the forested interior of these islands, best visited during the rainy low season. Among the more popular cascades ( Koh Chang Archipelago National Park entrance fee applicable) are Than Mayom and Klong Phlu on Koh Chang, and Klong Chao on Koh Kood.
Just off the bottom tip of Koh Chang is Koh Wai, a small island with a smattering of bungalows along its northern shore.
From the pier near Good Feeling Resort, the beach stretches in both directions. It can get relatively busy with visitors from other islands.
Koh Kood, the fourth largest island in Thailand and the furthest east in the province of Trat's waters, has been bestowed with the moniker, “Maldives of Thailand."
In recent years, a couple of high-end resorts have moved in, but due to the distance from the mainland, the island's beaches remain empty.
As the largest of some 52 islands in the Koh Chang Archipelago National Park, and second largest island in Thailand, Koh Chang is where the local party is found, namely on White Sand Beach (Haad Sai Khao) and the misleadingly named Lonely Beach (Haad Tha Nam).
Toward the northern end and finer sand of White Sand Beach is popular 15 Palms, a chilled-out beachside bar and restaurant, which also serves up a generous surf 'n turf barbecue buffet every night for 349 baht.
The always happening Sabay Bar features a live band and fire shows on the beach, while Oodies Place is usually abuzz with blues aficionados and regular patrons looking for a jamming night out.
Further down along the west coast, a distinctive bohemian vibe can still be felt at Lonely Beach (think bungalows and buckets), with nightly parties all down the block.
Over on Koh Mak, Coco Cape offers a range of accommodation within the same resort, including the stilted Baan Chom Klurn, with its large wooden sundeck that cantilevers over the water.
The eco-friendly villas at Soneva Kiri by Six Senses on Koh Kood are among the most luxurious in the country. More wallet-friendly yet picturesque stays on the same island are available at Away and Captain Hook.
What's your favorite Thai island? Tell us about it in the comments box below.