Samui Island always draws travelers for a holiday in the lap of luxury. Ko Tao, Ko Nang Yuan, and Ko Pha Ngan—Samui’s three sister islands—lure a young traveler for hammock-lazing, all-night partying, and underwater adventure.
A three-hour ferry ride from the mainland, Ko Tao or “Turtle Island” is dotted with small coconut-swaying coves, calm stretches of white-sand beach, rustic-chic restaurants, and dive shops. The island is also one of the world’s top places to enter into an underwater wonderland. The competition among dive shops has also made it one of the most budget friendly for a diving holiday.
For a quick dose of aquatic wonder and fun, visitors can grab a mask and head to Ko Nang Yuan—a small island within a short boat ride from Ko Tao. Nang Yuan Island is one of the country’s best snorkeling sites. After discovering the shoals of rich coral reefs and colorful marine life, the squeaky soft beaches and sandbars are idyllic spots for a barefoot stroll.
To see colorful tropical fishes—including whale sharks—around Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan, travelers head out to Ko Pha Ngan, the Full Moon Party’s birthplace. Pha Ngan Island has more than an all-night party to share with visitors. With secret beaches (like Bottle Beach) that are far from the crowd, plus plenty of spas to soothe your soul and body.
Spare at least two weeks for island hopping around Ko Tao, Ko Nang Yuan, and Ko Pha Ngan.
How to Get There
Local airlines in Thailand operate daily flights from Bangkok to Samui, Chumphon, and Suratthani. Travelers have to take a ferry to Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Tao.
There are several buses that can be taken from Bangkok and Phuket to the piers, and from there take a catamaran or ferry on to the islands.
Songthaew pick-up trucks and motorcycle taxis are popular for hopping around the islands.
Longtail boats are available at most beaches on the islands. They are famous for beach hopping and snorkeling trips.
BEST BEACHES IN KO TAO
Ko Tao is famous for spectacular scuba diving spots scattered around the island and beyond. The island is also noted for spellbinding beaches with turquoise waters and swaying coconut plantations. Count the very best beaches in Ko Tao as one of your tropical island beach holiday highlights.
Ao Tanot Bay
Granite boulder rocks flank this crescent bay of golden sand. The bay has a backdrop of impossibly green coconut plantations and a lookout of crystal-clear water. The beach is wide, keeping a certain distance from various hotels and restaurants, making it ideal for basking in the sun. Ao Tanot draws visitors to snorkel and swim with Marine Angelfish, Bannerfish, and Coral Trout around the reef jungle. Some visitors quench their adventurous spirit with mini-adventures like sea kayaking and rock-jumping.
Ao Leuk Bay
Ao Leuk Bay (bay of deep water) is one of the most scenic and beautiful beaches in Ko Tao. The view across turquoise water to Shark Island is splendid. Both sides of the bay are abundant with coral gardens, making them safe havens for marine life and an ideal snorkeling paradise. Ao Leuk Bay’s shallow seawater is also a playground for baby blacktip reef sharks (while their “big mamas” are further out).
Ko Nang Yuan
If you don’t have time to explore every beach around Ko Tao, make sure that Ko Nang Yuan is the first on your list. Within a short boat ride from Ko Tao, Nang Yuan is where the three lovely small islands connect through sand bars. The island is nothing less than a tropical paradise at every turn. Whether you’re looking for the softest sands, the clearest waters, or the most scenic snorkeling spots, Ko Nang Yuan has them all. You can also hike to the island’s high point and enjoy a breathtaking ocean view.
True to its name, Shark Bay is home to blacktip reef shark—where the baby shark hangs around a seafloor off the bay. Still, it’s the green sea turtles that draw a visitor to the bay for underwater thrill and beauty. At more than three feet long, green turtles are superstars in their own right. Catching a glimpse of the docile creature floating lazily underwater and shifting speed when changing direction is a once in a lifetime experience. Shark Bay also boasts a pristine white-sand beach between swaying coconut plantations and turquoise waters.
In the southern part of Ko Tao, secluded Chalok Bay is for families with kids thanks to its long sandy beach with shallow, clear, and calm water. Whether you want to build the ultimate sandcastle, swim in the ocean, enjoy stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) or catch a sunset, Chalok Bay has plenty of space to play and chill out. This southern beach is within easy access to restaurants, bars, and shops.
Ko Tao’s longest beach has various shophouses, hotels, diving centers, a pier, restaurants, and chill cafes. Sairee beach is one of the best places in Ko Tao to catch the sunset. You’ll enjoy a dramatic sky as the sun dips behind the Gulf of Thailand and paints the sky with a vibrant array of colors. The beach is more than a mile long, which means plenty of space for beach volleyball, beach soccer, and frisbee.
Sai Nuan Beach
The secluded cove with several stilted cottages hiding in coconut plantations makes Sai Nuan a best-kept-secret beach on Ko Tao. The beach boasts a good spirit of a laid-back holiday with nature-blended cottages, hammocks, and food shacks. Encircled by clear water and abundant coral gardens, Sai Nuan is a snorkel and free-dive heaven. You can swim with Giant Grouper, Yellowtail Barracuda, Hawksbill Sea Turtle, and Green Sea Turtle.
Isolated in Ko Tao’s southern tip, Freedom Beach is far away from any crowds. Solitude-seekers go to enjoy its soft sands, lazy breeze, and clear waters. Dip into the sea to take pleasure in the most exhilarating schools of fish just 100 meters off the beach. You can hike to John-Suwan Viewpoint for a breathtaking panoramic view of the island and beyond.
Sai Daeng Beach
Tucked in the southern part of the island, Sai Daeng is Ko Tao’s best little beach where vacationers can enjoy a blissful hideaway on a white stretch of soft sand. Sai Daeng Beach is also a spectacular snorkeling spot. At the very moment you are reading these words, Green Sea Turtles, Blacktip Reef Sharks, Parrotfish, and various colorful marine creatures are flitting about Sai Daeng’s reefs.
Hin Wong Bay
The shoreline and landscape are occupied by rocks, leaving the tiny secluded beach for sunbathing. However, Hin Wong is a gateway to aquatic wonderland—where schools of tropical fish, sea turtles, blacktip Reef sharks roam around coral gardens. The bay is also home to a Bluespotted Ray—one of the most beautiful rays living in the tropical sea.
BEST DIVING SITES AROUND KO TAO
Whether you are looking forward to swimming with a whale shark or following a Clownfish to colorful coral reefs, Ko Tao is at the doorstep to a fascinating marine life world. Here are the five best diving sites around Ko Tao.
Within a 40 minutes boat ride from Ko Tao, pinnacles and underwater boulders make for the best dive site Ko Tao has to offer. The divers roll back here and look for a chance to dive along with a whale shark—the world’s largest fish. The gentle giants have existed for millions of years, and you could find some of them here from February to May, as well as in September. The underwater pinnacles are also home to schools of giant trevally, tuna, and large grey reef sharks. Manta Rays are also occasional visitors.
About five miles southwest of Ko Tao, numbers of underwater pinnacles create a captivating wall. The colorful reef walls drop from five to 30 meters below the surface, making a refuge to marine life. Giant grouper, bluespotted ribbontail rays, white-eyed moray eels, trevally, and giant barracudas are roaming around. The beauty and wonder change dramatically from colorful anemones to stunning sea fans, as you descend the reef walls. A short swim away from the main pinnacle is the “Secret Pinnacle” where you may spot a Bryde’s whale.
Midway between the islands of Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan stands a massive pinnacle with its tip raised eight meters out of the water. Sail Rock is another “Wonderwall” in the Gulf of Thailand. Your adventure begins with descending inside a four-meter-long “rock chimney.” This wall dive lets you see abundant marine life ranging from smaller reef fish near the top to larger pelagic fish like great barracudas, king mackerel, and grouper. A whale shark hangs around Sail Rock year-round.
After countless missions landing soldiers onto the beaches during WWII and serving the Thai Navy for decades, this former US Navy vessel took its last call of duty to the seabed west of Ko Tao. The 48-meter-long ship was sunk on June 18th, 2011, and has been a breeding ground for marine life. The wreck is now a famous diving spot to shipwreck enthusiasts. You can expect to see schools of fusiliers and juvenile yellowtail barracudas swirling around the cannon guns. As you’re peeping inside mysterious potholes and cabins, the moray eels, old-looking groupers, grey reef sharks, and great barracudas pump adrenaline to your adventurous dive.
Within a short boat ride to the northwest of Ko Tao, the Green Rock dive site offers adventures such as gliding along large archways and caves. Making peace with aggressive titan and yellow margin triggerfish at 30-meters deep is part of the thrill too. Hawksbill and green turtles are regular visitors, while big Jenkins whiprays and Chevron barracudas hang around deeper.
KO PHA NGAN
In the 1960s, Ko Pha Ngan Island was on the Hippies Trail—a legendary overland journey. The tropical island beckoned young and care-free travelers for its secluded coves, powdery white-sand beaches, swaying coconut trees, and friendly local fishers. Now, thriving in the so-called Banana Pancake Trail, Pha Nang’s spirit is still alive and kicking. Every month more than 20,000 young travelers, year-gappers, and flashpackers follow the hippies to Ko Pha Ngan for a sensation of tropical romance, beauty, and more.
7 Best Things to do in Ko Pha Ngan
More than 30 beaches in different forms and sizes are scattered around the island. Some beaches like Haad Rin (the Full Moon Beach) is famous and touristy. Other isolated beaches – Leela and Haad Salad, for example – are splendid with white sands, turquoise waters, and giant swings between coconut trees. Beach-hopping is a must-do while traveling in Ko Pha Ngan. Pack a beach towel in your day pack, grab a bike (200-300 Thai bath/day), and hit the beaches.
Dancing in the Sands
No trip to Ko Pha Ngan is complete without dancing and partying at the Full Moon Party. The Australian backpackers threw the first Full Moon Party at Haad Rin Beach in the 1980s. It becomes the world’s most famous beach party—if not a rite of passage—to young travelers worldwide. Today, thousands of young travelers and backpackers land on Ko Pha Ngan monthly to rave it up on the full moon at Haad Rin beach. Don’t sweat it if you miss the full moon. The insanely fabulous Half Moon Party and Black Moon Party set the dance floor on fire every month.
Exploring The Underwater World
Ko Pha Ngan has a lot to offer when it comes to snorkeling and scuba diving. For diving enthusiasts who don’t bother leaving the island, Haad Salad and Mae Haad beaches are the best diving spots along Ko Pha Ngan’s shoreline. Expect to spot sea turtles, small reef sharks, and colorful tropical fish hanging around the coral gardens. Sail Rock diving site brings gorgeous reef walls, and, hopefully, a blue shark. It’s only 15 kilometers north of Ko Pha Ngan.
Namaste All Day
Ko Pha Ngan is full of spirit thanks to young and care-free travelers who maintain the unique vibe. After basking in the dusk-until-dawn beach party vigor for three days, discerning travelers start to look for peace, meditation, and balance on a yoga mat. Ko Pha Ngan hosts a wide variety of Yoga centers such as La Casa Shambala, the Wonderland Healing Centre, and Blooming Lotus Yoga. Some yoga communities are in a tropical setting that facilitates peaceful transformation. Others nestle along the beaches. You can sign up for a casual yoga class to free your mind and body or commit to a week-long retreat for all levels.
Feast Your Eyes, Satisfy Your Hunger
Some visitors live off eating only bananas and pancakes while traveling in Ko Pha Ngan. There is a street food heaven in this tropical paradise. From 4pm, the Thong Sala Night Market plies its trade for eye-popping, tongue-smacking, and finger-licking-good food at a rock-bottom price. Squid and scallops in banana leaves are barbecued over hot charcoal, while the wok bubbles with fierce and fiery seafood tom yam soup. Many snacks are good for grab-and-go: deep-fried silkworms, grilled pork skewers, and steamed spring rolls. The Thong Sala Night Market is right next to a 7-Eleven store in Thong Sala.
Chase the Waterfalls
Renowned for its powdery white-sand beaches and the world-famous “Full Moon Party,” the tropical island has hidden gems, like stunning waterfalls. One of the most noteworthy is the Than Sadet Waterfall—the favored haven of Thailand’s late kings. King Chulalongkorn frequented this waterfall 14 times. Than Sadet combines three waterfalls, making it an ideal spot for hiking and swimming in a tropical setting. Put yourself in good hiking shoes, pack some water, towel, and sandwiches, then rumble on the waterfall trail. The waterfall is approachable from different spots, including the Than Sadet Beach.
Learn Thai Cooking, Bring Home the Bacon
After eating lots of Thai dishes, you might want to learn how to make green curry with the bold taste of galangal, sweet and sour pad Thai noodles, fiery chili paste, and more. Thai food is renowned worldwide for its unique flavor, and above all, it’s always fun to cook exotic dishes. Signing up for Thai cooking class means bringing a taste of Thai (and even a career inspiration) back home after your holiday. C&M Culture Centre, Proud Home Cooking, and Muai’s Thai Traditional Cooking Academy are among the places to learn Thai cuisine basics and the ingredients necessary to your favorite Thai dishes.