Centuries ago, before apps like Instagram and websites like Tripadvisor, people used books to plan and inspire their travels.
One of the most memorable was 1996’s The Beach by Alex Garland. Adapted four years later into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the novel tells the story of a young backpacker who stumbles on a pristine island in Thailand where a small community of Westerners live in isolated bliss.
Despite rapid modernisation, there are still hundreds of islands in Thailand where The Beach could be written and lived out today. Here are five Thai islands where you can find a beach of your own.
Tourism has grown at about the speed of a coconut tree since the early-1980s, when a group of German scuba divers discovered Ko Mak – a star-shaped island skirting Cambodia’s maritime border in Thailand’s far east. And that’s just how people on Ko Mak wants to keep things.
“We want tourists to understand we are happy,” says Ek Suddhidhanakool of Ko Mak Seafood Restaurant, Cooking School and Museum. “But if business gets too much, maybe it will change our lifestyle and our happiness will be gone.”
Spend your days on Ko Mak learning how to cook spicy seafood curries with Ek, practising yoga at Ko Mak Yoga Studio or diving with Steve Hullford of Ko Mak Divers. You can also hire a mountain bike; there are 24 kilometres of roads and trails to explore.
How to get there: Bangkok Airways flies from Bangkok to Trat thrice daily. From Trat Airport, catch a taxi to Laem Ngop Pier. Speedboats to Ko Mak leave every two hours until 4pm.
Where to stay: Acoustic Camp – a tent camp sandwiched between the jungle and the north end of dreamy Ao Suan Tai Beach.
A kangaroo-shaped island skirting Burma’s maritime border on the northern tip of Thailand’s Andaman Coast, Ko Phayam ticks boxes with young families not for what it has but for what it doesn’t: the go-go bars, gridlocked traffic, full-moon parties and crimes that have turned some of Thailand’s more popular islands into cringe-worthy parodies of their former selves.
“Ko Phayam has a calming effect. The days pass very quickly here but you enjoy every second of it,” says Linda Chevrier, a Thai national whose French father established the island’s first bungalow complex in the late 1980s.
“Another drawcard for me is curiosity to see how the island changes year after year and the hope that it will stay the same.”
Where to stay: CEDE Boutique Beach Resort on Long Beach has nine oversize suites plus a restaurant and bar set on an expansive timber deck looking over the sea.
How to get there: Nok Air flies twice daily from Bangkok to Ranong. From the airport, a half-hour taxi ride will take you to Ranong Pier. Speedboats depart to Ko Phayam up to nine times daily during the high season from November to April.
Ko Phra Thong
A pancake-flat island 200 kilometres north of Phuket, Ko Phra Thong has an interior with an ecosystem unlike any other Thai island – a tropical savannah that bears striking resemblance to the plains of Africa.
But, instead of elephants and giraffes, Ko Phra Thong’s savannah supports storks, deer, wild boar, monkeys and leopard cats.
The island also has the longest stretch of sand in all of Thailand: Golden Buddha Beach, which is 12 kilometres from end-to-end and appears untouched.
“We offer dawn safaris where, if you’re lucky, you can spot some of the animals on the savannah,” says Lory Follador of Horizon Eco Resort. “But most tourists are not interested. They come because this is a ‘lost island’ and to be by the sea.”
Where to stay: Horizon Eco Resort on Golden Buddha Bay has dozen-odd bamboo bungalows plus a barefoot restaurant and bar on the beach.
How to get there: Catch a bus from Bangkok’s Mo Chit station to the town of Khurabri but get off at Mangrove Pier, seven kilometres north of the Khurabri bus station. Because so few people go to Ko Phra Thong, there are no tourist ferries. You’ll have to charter a long-tail fishing boat for the hour-long trip instead.
Set halfway between the tourist mecca of Phuket and the Malaysian border, Ko Mook (Pearl Island) is a little-known jewel of the Andaman Coast.
Its most popular attraction is the Emerald Cave, a tropical lagoon concealed inside a towering limestone amphitheatre that’s almost too beautiful to be true. Every day during the high season, the cave is crammed with day-trippers who arrive on long-tail boats from Phuket.
To see it without the crowd, get up early, hire a kayak from Mong’s Bar on Farang Beach and paddle north along the rocky coastline for 20 minutes to the mouth of a sea cave, where a 50-metre-long subterranean river will take you into the lagoon.
Kayaking around the entire island takes three to four hours and is a fantastic way to tour the virgin beaches and coves of Ko Mook’s north coast.
Where to stay: Set on a forested hillside a short stroll from Farang Beach, Nature Hill, has six architecturally designed bungalows with folding French glass doors made from salvaged wood.
How to get there: AirAsia flies three times daily from Bangkok to Trang. From Trang Airport, take a 50-minute minibus ride to Kuan Thung Khu pier, where a 15-minute ferry ride will connect you to Ko Mook.
On a clear day, you can see Ko Kradan from Ko Mook’s Farang Beach. But it’s hard to imagine the beauty that awaits the moment you step off the boat: water bluer than turquoise, coral gardens brighter than Stephen Hawking and sand whiter than a Trump rally.
With the exception of hospitality staff who work at the half-dozen bungalow properties lining the main beach, Ko Kradan is uninhabited.
There’s nothing much to do other than swimming, snorkelling, swinging on a hammock or exploring the walking track that cuts through the island’s jungle-clad interior. Let’s hope things stay that way, for Ko Kradan is arguably the most beautiful island in all of Thailand.
Where to stay: Kradan Island Resort is a ramshackle collection of palm-thatch and timber bungalows only a few metres from the shoreline. The food in the open-sided restaurant is average but the views are out of this word.
How to get there: Hitch a ride on a speedboat from the Fisherman’s Village on Ko Mook during the high season between November and May. Ko Kradan pretty much closes during the rainy season.