Compiling a list of what I considered to be my top ten Thailand destinations was not as straight forward a task as I had originally assumed. There seemed to be two main factors which when I considered the list would cause me to alter the ranking of some of the destinations: One being my mood i.e., was I looking for total peace and quiet with good snorkelling nearby, or was I feeling more inclined to go mountain trekking or sightseeing. Two, how long was I planning on staying in one particular destination, e.g., if I had decided I wanted to settle somewhere for a couple of months or so, I would probably avoid somewhere with poor internet access and few eating options. So with the list as it stands, I have tried to factor in the two variables just mentioned, and I have created what I think is a fairly accurate top ten.
10 - Koh Tao
Koh Tao is a small island located in the Gulf of Thailand, roughly 70km east of the mainland between Chumphon and Suratthani. Turtle Island, as Koh Tao is sometimes referred to, lives up to its reputation for great diving and vibrant night-life. Nice beaches, clear water and reasonably priced accommodation is certainly another factor that helps attracts the crowds. On Sairee Beach, the most popular beach on the island, there are plenty of bars and restaurants, regular beach parties with their customary fire shows, and a community of dive instructors who seem to have a passion for their chosen vocation, as well as for alcohol. One small complaint would be in regards to sun bathing, which wasn't always easy due to what seemed like a constant high tide, leaving only a short stretch of sand in places. The beautiful Koh Nangyuan, which consists of three very small islands connected by a single stretch of white sand, is a short boat trip away, and I would highly recommend spending some time there. Diving, which seems to be the main pulls to the island, is highly rated and everyone I spoke to seemed more than satisfied with their experience, with sightings of Whale Sharks commonplace. With only two visits under by belt, and one of those being a day trip from Koh Phangan, I only have limited experience of Koh Tao, but it still makes it into my top ten.
9 - Koh Chang
There are in fact two Koh Changs in Thailand; the one I am referring to here lies off the south-east coast and is the second largest island, Phuket being the first. With it's chilled vibe, nice beaches, jungle like interior, and small but lively party scene, tropical Koh Chang has to be included in my top ten. Exploring the island by motorbike is easy enough and allows you go from beach to beach, taking in it's various stages of tourism, from the very laid back to the extremely commercial. Activities on offer include: diving, snorkelling, kayaking, hiking and elephant trekking, as well as trips to the surrounding islands. For me the mix was good, half my time there was spent relaxing and partying, the other half spent riding elephants and just generally exploring my surroundings. As on Koh Tao my experience of this island is limited, but what I did see I liked and I hope to go back.
8 - Ayutthaya
I seemed to fall a little in love with Ayutthaya within a very short time, surpassing my expectations, which probably weren't that high due to the lack of recommendations from other travellers. Ancient temples and ruins which are scattered throughout the city are the main draw for tourists. In my opinion these are some of the best temples and historical sights in Thailand, and being only an hour or so from Bangkok a day trip is possible. Having said that, it's worth staying at least 2 or 3 days to explore the temples and the city in general, and to absorb the laid-back and slightly spiritual atmosphere. There's a fair range of accommodation, nice and inexpensive food can be found in the markets, and bicycles, which are a great way of seeing the city, can be rented for next to nothing. There's not too much in terms of a night-life but there are a few bars that attract tourists, ex-pats and locals alike and where a good night can be had. Thai-style clubs or discotheques can also be found and in my experience are often a lot of fun.
7 - Koh Samet
If you're flying into Bangkok but are looking to avoid the capital's hectic and humid streets, preferring instead a much more chilled island lifestyle, then Koh Samet is a good option. It's about 2 to 4 hours minibus ride from Bangkok to Ban Phe Pier (very much depending on traffic and stops), then approximately a 30min ferry ride from the pier to the island itself, which when considering the distances to other islands in the south of Thailand, makes Koh Samet fairly convenient and stress free. Finding really cheap food and accommodation isn't always easy but the amazing white sand, lazy chilled days (there are some options for the more energetic and adventurous), and lively night-life are a good mix. On the weekend it's a good place to meet young party-loving Thais as many of them seem to flock to the island to escape Bangkok. But be warned, this makes finding accommodation a lot harder so either pre-book or arrive before Friday when this shouldn't be an issue.
6 - Isaan
Whilst Isaan has only made it in at number 6, the more time I spend in the north east region of Thailand the more appealing it becomes. Therefore, I think it would be safe to assume that if I were to spend further time there, Isaan would steadily claw it's way up the list. The people, with their often laid back, helpful and friendly demeanour, is probably one of the most endearing features of this largely rural region. This more traditional side of Thailand, sometimes referred to as “the real Thailand”, is peaceful yet vibrant. Usually much cheaper when compared to other parts of Thailand, your money goes a lot further in regards to every day living costs. Accommodation, food (which is generally delicious), drink and transport, for the most part, are all inexpensive. Another feature that I noticed and loved was the importance of their local parks. Although very quiet throughout the day, by late afternoon they fill considerably with locals coming together, partly to exercise, partly to socialise. Walking, jogging, football, Sepak Takraw (a sport played throughout South-East Asia which is similar to volleyball, but differs by using a rattan ball and only permitting players to strike the ball with either their feet, knees, chest or head) and basketball are all activities that are commonplace to Isaan parks. It's a side of Thailand that many tourists don't see and that's a shame, but it's easy to understand why many people don't consider it, I guess, with it's lack of beaches and tourist friendly resorts.
5 - Railey
Railey, a beautiful little place with its stand-out feature being it's limestone cliffs, can be found in the southern province of Krabi. Although attached to the mainland it projects an island persona due to the fact that it can only be reached by boat. Rock climbing the aforementioned limestone cliffs is a popular pastime and well worth the effort, half and full-day climbs are readily available. All levels of experience are catered for. The quality beaches and clear blue ocean, along with the jagged cliffs, help to create the effect of serenity, which can sometimes be broken when beaches are slightly crowded during peak times. Day and night the whole place has a nice community feel to it, even the monkeys seem fairly amiable. And there's plenty of reggae, a lot of it decent, which is always a big bonus for me.
4 - Koh Kradan
Koh Kradan is the most beautiful of the Trang Islands and possibly the most beautiful of all Thailand's islands. Put simply Koh Kradan is stunning! Lying in the Andaman Sea south-west of Phuket and about 40 minutes from Trang on the mainland, this little gem remains largely underdeveloped with limited structures, no roads and no motor vehicles (except for boats ferrying people back and forth). It has all the usual criteria that makes up your typical island paradise: thick inner jungle, gorgeous white sand and clear turquoise waters. But what helps to make it even more appealing is the amazing coral reef that surrounds the island. Only a short swim away it is almost certainly the best snorkelling I have encountered in Thailand, and you don't need to pay any tour company for the privilege. Eating options are a little limited and as far as I could tell there was no party scene to speak of, but then if you are looking for that then maybe Koh Phi Phi is more your bag – Koh Kradan is all about tranquillity.
3 - Chiang Mai
The ancient and historic city of Chiang Mai is certainly North Thailand's biggest tourist draw. Although a large city with some congestion problems, it's relatively chilled and stress free when compared to the likes of Bangkok. It's where the old meets the new, traditional meets modernity, which is all part of the appeal for me. Hours can be spent exploring the city, which is easily navigated and never a chore. Chiang Mai is famous for it's temples, and rightly so, but there's so much more to see and do. There's a wide range of accommodation, restaurants, bars (including some good live music venues), shops and markets; all tastes and budgets are catered for. Other things to see and do within the city itself include: Muay Thai, traditional Thai dance, museums, massage, cookery and yoga. There's an extensive range of outdoor activities which include mountain biking, rafting and jungle trekking, most of which take place outside of the city where Chiang Mai's beautiful mountains, lakes and countryside are located. A modern city with strong links to it's traditional past, Chiang Mai has a style all of it's own, which makes it an attractive alternative to many of Thailand's beach destinations.
2 - Koh Phangan
Probably best known for it's hedonistic night-life and Full Moon Parties, Koh Phangan doesn't disappoint. Having said that it's the island's more relaxed beaches on the east and west coasts that I find more appealing. There the days are peaceful and lazy, made up of sunbathing and snorkelling. But, a party is never far away, and if you really want to go at it then taxis run to Haad Rin (the busiest and most commercial area of Phangan, and home of the Full Moon Party) from nearly anywhere on the island. Hiring a motorbike is the best and cheapest way to explore, and gives you the freedom to really get to know Koh Phangan and what it has to offer. Good vibe, good people (for the most part), and although it gets flooded with tourists at times you can still find that partly secluded tropical island paradise that we all crave from time to time; you just have to look for it.
1 - Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta, my personal favourite for a number of years now, sits in the Andaman Sea just south-east of Phi Phi. It's not as pretty as Kradan, and it doesn't have the night-life of Phangan, but to me Lanta is well rounded with a near perfect balance. The busiest beach is rarely what you'd call busy, but if you want total seclusion you just hop on a motorbike and continue down the west coast where deserted beaches can still be found. The night-life on the face of it seems practically non-existent, but scratch the surface a little and you soon realise there's always a party going on, somewhere. Certain bars host live bands, sometimes local musicians, sometimes international bands. The food is decent and cheap and the people are friendly and helpful. The mix on Lanta is good, you can socialise or find solitude; have a lazy day by the sea or explore the island; eat pizza or local cuisine: have a quiet, relaxing drink to the soundtrack of reggae or down cocktails and shots as the DJ pumps out faster, more repetitive music. Will this balance be disrupted as tourism grows and development expands? Possibly, but for now all is good, so make the most of it while it lasts.