1. KO TAO
Spared the developers wrath that has destroyed nearby Ko Samui and Ko Phangan mainly due to its topography (think steep mountains), Ko Tao remains a gem in the southern Gulf of Thailand. The small island is extremely mountainous, jungle clad, and home to some of the country’s most beautiful tucked in and hidden bays with some beautiful emerald water.
Ko Tao, or Turtle Island as it means in Thai, is well noted for its diving, and there are many operations here giving PADI training and certification on all levels. The rise of budget airlines means that Ko Tao is no longer too far away for a short jaunt from Bangkok. Ideally, the fastest way here is to fly down to Surat Thani and then jump on an express boat to Ko Tao. Alternatively, bus or train to Chumphon, further north on the mainland, and then boat over from there. Plenty of boats also connect with Samui and Phangan for those who want to do a bit of island hopping.
2. PHI PHI ISLAND
Untouched it is not. One of the most overtouristed spots in the world, and yet the beauty of Ko Phi Phi is undeniable, and everyone ought to make the pilgrimage here at least once, if only for the views. Now easily accessed from Bangkok with the rise of budget airlines, an hour flight down to Krabi and then hour ferry ride will have you swimming in tropical paradise in no time.
Phi Phi is actually made up of two islands, Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh, the latter of which was used as the setting for the film The Beach, and does not have accommodation on it, but its famed Maya Bay is easily visited on day tours. Most visitors stay in built up Tonsai Bay, but there are plenty of more remote beaches around Phi Phi Don which give a real jungle castaway feel.
3. KO LANTA
While a long way from Bangkok, Ko Lanta is now feasible as a weekend getaway, as several of the budget airlines now fly into Trang and have quick ferry transfers built into their tickets, whisking you from the airport to a Lanta beach in under 3 hours. Ko Lanta, while no longer an unexplored paradise, still boasts miles of beautiful white sand beaches, great accommodation options, and is far less developed than Phi Phi, Krabi, or Phuket.
More emphasis on quality relaxed beach time here than partying, and as all of the beaches run down the long west coast of the island, the sunsets here remain some of the best in the country.
4. KO LIPE
While it may be the furthest beach in the country from Bangkok, once again, the abundance of budget air flights combined with transfers from Hat Yai city to the Pak Bara Pier and waiting speed boats make Ko Lipe do-able even as a long weekend. Pattaya Beach, not to be confused with the notorious Sin City closer to Bangkok (whose beach is anything but attractive), is one of Thailand’s most gorgeous strips of squeaky white sand, a brilliant white contrasted with the lovely turquoise bay fronting it.
While small Lipe has been developed over the years, the beaches here really are lovely, and the neighboring islands of Ko Rawi and Ko Adang belong to the national park and have no development on them, perfect for spending the afternoon kayaking around.
5. HUA HIN
Famed for its history as a royal residence, Hua Hin remains Bangkok’s most popular weekend seaside getaway. While the five kilometer beach isn’t anything overwhelmingly special, not to mention quite crowded with families at its center, the town still retains a very local village feel, with excellent food, especially at its bustling night market, where fresh fish is served to every table. Hua Hin also has an excellent choice of resorts of every price, and is easily accessible by rail, bus, and car from Bangkok in just a few hours time.
To get a more secluded feel, stay outside of town at one of the fancier, hip, and self-contained resorts like Baba Beach Club for a real escape. Golf courses are also in abundance, bringing down scores of Tiger Woods wannabees every weekend, and the town also hosts plenty of festivals throughout the year, such as the International Jazz Festival, which draws top acts from around the world.
6. KO MAK
Despite being voted as one of the top 10 islands in the world by a British newspaper and having a spate of resort development to handle its newfound status, Ko Mak remains a sleepy and lovely alternative to nearby Ko Chang, and certainly one of the best beach escapes in reasonable proximity to Bangkok. The island boasts several lovely white sand beaches, some beautiful turquoise water, and a laid back vibe, which attracts a big family crowd who come back year after year.
With plenty of speed boats and connections to both the mainland and Ko Chang, it is easy to wander around the entire archipelago, and it is well worth it to spend at least one morning swimming and sunning off of Ko Kham, a beautiful islet just off Ko Mak’s Ao Suan Yai beach, easily reached by a 10 minute kayak paddle across the bay. The longest and nicest beach to stay on, with the most choice of food and accommodations is Ao Khao in the south.
7. KO LARN
It is amazing to think that one can find such clear water just off the coast of Pattaya and so near to Bangkok, but here it is. Ko Larn is a small isle, reached by a short ferry or speed boat ride from the pier in Pattaya. It gets very crowded during the day with day trippers from Pattaya, but if you choose to spend the night here, you will have it mostly to yourself, a million miles from the raucous nightlife across the bay.
There are several nice white sand beaches on Ko Larn, the biggest of which is Tawaen on the east side, a short motorcycle taxi ride from the port town of Naban. Samae Beach on the west side is also very inviting and less crowded.Parasailing, banana boat rides, jet skis, and all the other water sport activities are available here, and there are plenty of places to eat and sleep should you be tempted to extend your stay.
8. KHAO SAM ROI YOD NATIONAL PARK
Khao Sam Roi Yod is one of the better day trips a family can make from Bangkok. The National Park has something for everyone, from some nice beaches to excellent hiking, sea views, and a magical royal throne located inside of a mountainside cave. Additionally, the park is home to hundreds of migratory birds which call in here during the winter season.
Besides the quiet beaches, the excellent hiking and views, and the over 300 species of birds, many of them migrating from Siberia and Europe, the most astounding sight here is the Phraya Nakhorn Cave and its eerie royal thronel pavilion with a four gabled roof sitting in the middle of it, Getting to the cave involves a 20 minute climb up over a mountain, from where one descends into a huge cavern. In the early morning, light filters in from the openings and creates a dramatic and surreal effect on the surroundings.
9. BAN KRUT
Ban Krut is reminiscent of the Thailand of old. While it is popular with Bangkok Thais, especially on the weekends and holidays, it still flies under the average tourist radar. There aren’t many bars or shopping malls, but if you are looking for peace and quiet along a sweeping 5 kilometer sandy beach, this is your spot. There are a handful of reasonably priced resorts here, and not a whole lot to do, other then the short trek up to the beautiful Khao Tong Jai pagoda, a golden palace which stands on top of a mountain overlooking the northern end of the beach. Only 3-4 hours from Bangkok, Ban Krut remains a perfect escapist retreat.
10. KO KOOD
Koh Kood is considered by those who know it to be one of the last real paradises left in Asia. Nowhere near as built up as its neighbor, Koh Chang, Ko Kood sports some of Thailand’s last empty white sand beaches with nary a development in sight. There are many upscale boutique lodging options here. and with no nightlife to speak of, activities are mainly limited to relaxing, visiting some of the island’s waterfalls, or kayaking in the beautiful emerald water. The island caters primarily to Bangkok Thais on package tours, however in recent years there have been many more resorts springing up aimed at the foreign market. Things will invariably change here, but for now, Koh Kood remains a sleepy place and a lovely tropical holiday escapist paradise.