Like many travellers, I first fell for Thailand on a gap year. Backpacking between Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phi-Phi, I was bewitched by the postcard-perfect beaches (we still sent postcards back then), delicious, fiery cuisine and friendly, laid-back vibes. Nostalgic memories have inspired my wife and me to return to the ‘Land of Smiles’ for another island-hopping adventure.
This time, however, we’ll be more like flashpackers than backpackers – the $5-a-night bamboo huts that served us well back then no longer cut it, instead little luxuries like air-conditioned rooms, heated water and Wi-Fi are a must. We also want to discover new places (Thailand boasts more than 1,400 islands), so we plot a course that takes in a bunch of relatively ‘hidden’ islands off the country’s breathtaking Andaman coast.
Related article: Thailand insider guide: Phuket's top beaches
Our holiday actually starts in Malaysia. The first Thai island we’re visiting, Koh Lipe, is a 90-minute speedboat ride from Langkawi. After a scenic journey through entrancing emerald green waters, we dock at Hat Pattaya, one of three seductive beaches on Lipe, an L-shaped island that has recently seen a spike in development, especially in high-end accommodation, but still retains its relaxed feel.
We’re drawn, time and again, to Hat Chao Ley (Sunrise Beach), a delightful 2km strip of powder-white sand. It’s fringed by longtail boats, certified diving resorts and family-run eateries that ply us with papaya juices and mouth-watering meals (think grilled squid with coconut sauce, white snapper with lime and chilli, and green curry with sticky rice).
We’re immediately transfixed by the primeval forested peaks of Koh Mook (also known as Muk), a sleepy gem in the Trang Archipelago and a two-hour boat trip north of Lipe. We enjoy bike rides across an island studded with coconut trees, rubber plantations and rustic hamlets where cheerful locals wave and smile as you pass (and tempt you to pit stop in their humble restaurants for the likes of pad Thai and spicy squid salad).
The calm waters that surround Koh Mook are ideal for kayaking and we paddle over to Tham Morakot (Emerald Cave), a secluded tunnel that leads to a lagoon where you can take a dip. Pirates apparently used to hoard their booty here, but these days, in high season (November-April) at least, the cave is a popular stop for boat tours from Phuket. We kayak back to Hat Farang (Charlie Beach) and, when the sky starts to pinken, scale the beach’s rickety clifftop bar for iced Chang beers and a gorgeous sunset.
Buzzing by speedboat to Koh Ngai (also called Ko Hai) we pass the iconic karst (limestone) formations that soar from the water – what a spectacular introduction to this popular island. With its crystal clear waters, Ngai is a great place to snorkel and hike.
We tread an undulating trail to Paradise Beach, where we fossick for shells and sip from coconuts. Later, after snuggling up in a tree swing, we enjoy happy hour cocktails and a beachside candlelit dinner at Koh Ngai Seafood Restaurant. We share two large crabs, one in a sweet and sour sauce, the other in a coconut milk and pineapple curry. Both are absolutely delicious.
Taking a mix of boats and buses, the journey to our final island, Koh Phayam, eats up the best part of a day (we almost feel like backpackers again). Thankfully, it’s worth it. Close to the Thai-Myanmar border, kangaroo-shaped Phayam is a rustic beauty.
We hire a scooter and bump along the island’s narrow lanes and dirt tracks, pausing at dreamy, hammock-festooned beaches, keeping an eye out for wildlife (wild pigs, snakes and hornbills call Phayam home) and savouring some of the best food of our trip. Over our last meal – stuffed squid, curried prawns and barracuda in tamarind sauce at a friendly little joint called Kruq Khun Kao – we raise a toast to the last, fabulous fortnight. Our appetite and affection for Thai island-hopping has been well and truly rekindled.
Go-to kohs: Koh Phi-Phi
Go-to kohs: Phuket
Take time out from the spectacular beaches and soak up the charms of Phuket Town, where arty cafés, galleries and restaurants are nestled inside beautifully preserved old shop-houses.
Go-to kohs: Koh Samui
Go-to kohs: Koh Phangan
Famed for its raucous monthly Full Moon Party, this still largely unspoilt island is blessed with secluded coves, photogenic temples, hiking trails, waterfalls and plenty of monkeys.
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