Traveller's Guide: Thailand's islands & beaches

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For laid-back living, white-sand shores and delicious food all at an affordable price you can't do better than these stunning hotspots, says Lucy Ridout

Why should I fly 6,000 miles to find a beach?

For the whitest sands and the most turquoise of seas, for a Buddhist culture that is both gentle and fun, for a winter-sun break that won't ruin your bank balance. Even the Post Office thinks you should go: in its recent Holiday Costs Barometer survey, Thailand came in ahead of South Africa and Malaysia as the best-value long-haul destination.

Thailand has about 2,000 miles of tropical coastline, so there are hundreds of beaches and islands to choose from. The tourist industry is well developed so transport links are efficient, there is accommodation for every budget bamboo huts for the equivalent of 4, five-star indulgence for 100 and the food is exceptionally delicious, from chilli-laced seafood curries to make your eyes water to juicy fresh mangoes straight from the tree.

The big beach resorts on the islands of Koh Samui and Phuket, in Pattaya, and along the Krabi coastline offer the works. You have a huge choice of restaurants and nightlife, a phenomenal range of shopping, and plenty of chances to ride elephants, trek through the jungle or go fishing. There is spectacular snorkelling and diving too, particularly around the Andaman Coast reefs.

It's not all about spas and golf courses, though: Thailand still offers the chance to get away from it all, on quiet island hideaways like Koh Kood off the Eastern Seaboard, Ang Thong National Marine Park off the Gulf Coast, or the Tarutao Islands in the Andaman Sea.

I'm flying to Bangkok get me to the nearest beach

Just a couple of hours by bus from Suvarnabhumi airport, Pattaya is Bangkok's nearest beach resort and the most visited in Thailand. But its biggest fans are Russian package tourists and single men drawn to the tacky apartment hotels and seedy swarm of hostess bars, go-go clubs and gay massage parlours.

Head half an hour further along the Eastern Seaboard, though, and the island of Koh Samet makes a better introduction to Thailand's stunning coastline. Fringed by white sand so soft that it squeaks underfoot, Samet is a tiny, forested drop in the Gulf of Thailand, partly under the jurisdiction of the National Park authorities. Despite the protection there is a lot of development some would say too much though it's small-scale bungalows and nothing high-rise.

Once a backpackers' favourite, the trend is now "flashpacker" and up, with hip young Bangkokians weekending at the minimalist whitewashed huts of Vongduern Villa (00 66 38 644260; vongduernvilla.com ; doubles from 1,200 baht/£23, excluding breakfast) and the handsome wooden chalets of Tub Tim Resort (00 66 38 644025; tubtimresort.com ; doubles from 1,000 baht/£19, excluding breakfast). At night, everyone dines on barbecued seafood at the candlelit tables set out on the sands: Ploy Talay is the most popular; it stages fire-juggling shows, too.

Anything more sophisticated?

Wealthy Bangkokians looking for a break used to follow the lead of the Thai royal family, who have a residence in the beach resort of Hua Hin, two hours' drive south from the capital on the Gulf Coast. But these days those in the know continue 20 miles further south to peaceful Pak Nam Pran. Here, the long, golden beach has dolphins playing just offshore, Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park is a brief drive away, and accommodation is in arty little boutique beach retreats. Pick of the crop are the exquisite, circular, thatch-roofed bungalows at the Aleenta (00 66 2 508 5335; aleenta.com ). Doubles start at 4,400 Baht (£83) including breakfast, which buys uninterrupted sea views, a big deck and a personal plunge pool.

For a livelier vibe, look to the established resort island of Koh Samui. Chaweng is the island's best and busiest beach, its four miles of palm-fringed shoreline packed with hotels, bars and clubs to suit all tastes. A stand-out hotel is the Coral Bay Resort (00 66 77 234555; coralbay.net ), whose huge, stylish wooden villas all have enormous verandas overlooking the lush, ten-acre gardens; they cost from 5,500 Baht (£103) per night, which includes breakfast.

Betelnut at the Buri Rasa hotel (00 66 77 230222; betelnutsamui.net ) is the place to eat, its Californian-Thai fusion menu is among the finest on the island. Then it's on to the fashionable Q Bar with white leather couches, lychee martinis and a buzzing dancefloor, given added tropical glamour by fabulous sea views.

And if I want to get active on the mainland?

Celebrated for its aquamarine seas and dramatic limestone karsts, Krabi province is a fantastic place to explore by sea-canoe. Guided sea-canoeing tours operate out of the main tourist centres at Ao Nang, Railay and Krabi town, leading you into secret lagoons hidden within craggy outcrops and through the creepiest of mangrove swamps; John Gray's Sea Canoe (00 66 76 528839; seacanoe.net ) charges from 2,500 baht (£47) for a full day.

For a different perspective on the spectacular coastal scenery, head for Krabi's Railay peninsula whose sienna-and-ochre-striped cliffs have made this Thailand's leading rock-climbing centre. With more than 700 bolted routes it's good for novices as well as experienced climbers: King Climbers ( railay.com ) runs courses from 1,000 baht (£19) per half-day.

The Railay peninsula is accessible only by boat, and land backing on to its four small beaches is at a premium so accommodation is pricey and books up fast. Try the attractive whitewashed spa villas and pool-access hotel rooms at Railay Village Resort and Spa (00 66 75 819412; railayvillagekrabi.com ; doubles from 3,600 baht/£68, excluding breakfast), or the good-value air-conditioned bungalows at the welcoming Sunrise Tropical Resort (00 66 75 819418; sunrisetropical.com ; doubles from 2,000 baht/£37, which includes breakfast).

Anything beyond the beach?

Phuket is Thailand's premier resort destination but there's a lot more to this large, prosperous island than its dozen white-sand beaches. During the 19th century Chinese and MalayChinese (Baba) immigrants from Melaka and beyond flocked to Phuket to work in the tin-mining industry, introducing a fascinating cultural mix. Many of their elegant Sino-Portuguese shophouses have been beautifully restored and are preserved as the Old Town conservation zone in Phuket Town, the island's capital. Here, the immigrants' story is well told at the Phuket Thaihua Museum, itself housed in a fine old 1930s' building (Tuesday-Friday 1-8pm, Saturday & Sunday 9am-8pm; free).

There's a chance to soak up the delightful Old Town architecture in the courtyard of the China Inn Caf (00 66 76 356239), which V C serves classy Thai and Mediterranean dishes, or you can stay at Sino House (00 66 76 232494; sinohousephuket.com ; doubles from 1,600 baht/£30 including breakfast) whose rooms are attractively styled with contemporary chinoiserie.

Alternatively, should you want to immerse yourself in island history from the comfort of a luxury beachfront hotel, book in to the Indigo Pearl (00 66 76 327006; indigo-pearl.com ; rooms from 5,100 baht/£96 including breakfast) on Hat Nai Yang, 2km south of Phuket airport. The entire hotel complex has been designed to reflect Phuket's tin-mining history, with metallic colour schemes, polished cement floors and lots of industrial art.

Time to find the island of my dreams?

If you fantasise about tropical idylls that are remote but comfortable, undeveloped but affordable, then consider Koh Kood. A large, still wild island close to the Cambodian border, Koh Kood is mostly rainforest and coconut plantations crisscrossed by sandy tracks and wide green rivers, the whole encircled by heart-stoppingly beautiful aquamarine seas. Secluded Neverland Resort (00 66 8 1762 6254; neverlandresort.com ) has air-conditioned bungalows for 3250 and fully equipped tents from 7. Boats from Trat on the Eastern Seaboard take about two hours.

There's more to do on tiny-but-fast-developing Koh Lipe, part of the ravishingly pretty Koh Tarutao National Marine Park archipelago. Blessed with a shining curve of luxury-soft white sand, an offshore reef and mellow nightlife, Lipe enjoys the relaxed, anything-goes atmosphere that Thailand is famous for. It's crowded with other sybarites too of course and new accommodation is popping up all over: among the many options, the spacious beachfront bungalows at Blue Tribes (00 66 8 6285 2153; bluetribeslipe.com ; doubles from 1,500 baht/£28 including breakfast) are a good bet.

Cultural life: Thai etiquette

The Thai approach to life is famously laid-back eating and having fun being the national pastimes so you'll rarely find yourself berated for doing the wrong thing. But it is considered offensive to go topless on public beaches or to get overly romantic with your partner within sight of other people. In fact many Thais still swim in T-shirts and shorts, even jeans, to preserve their modesty. And wearing bikinis anywhere but the beach, even in a resort town, is something locals would never do.

Con-artists abound so it's wise to be sceptical when offered a fabulous tour for the equivalent of a pound, or a "special-price-for-you" deal on "top-quality diamonds". Thailand is a good-value destination but it's not Shangri-la so be careful and never leave your wallet on the beach.

Pure shores: Looking for 'The Beach'

A decade after backpackers' blockbuster The Beach gave Thailand's Andaman Sea coastline the movie-star treatment, visitors are still streaming to the uninhabited national park island of Koh Phi Phi Leh where it was shot. Maya Bay is a gorgeous crescent of dazzling white sand, overlooked by towering limestone cliffs, but these days the noisy flood of longtail boats and the inevitable scattering of discarded polystyrene lunchboxes make it an unlikely paradise.

Boat tours run from sister island Koh Phi Phi Don, just 20 minutes away, itself a tarnished idyll floundering under the demands of too many hotels. Large tour boats cost about 500 baht (£10) per person but hiring your own small longtail, with boatman (from about 1,500 baht/30 per boat), is preferable. Overnight camping trips to Maya Bay are better still, offering late-afternoon snorkelling and kayaking rounded off with a barbecue on the beach for about 2,000 baht (£38) per person. Ferries to Koh Phi Phi Don run year-round from mainland centres in Krabi and Phuket (about two hours; from 700 baht/£13).

The real inspiration for the enclosed lagoon beach of Alex Garland's original novel was in the Gulf of Thailand, off Koh Samui. Here, the 42 islets comprising Ang Thong National Marine Park offer a much closer echo of the secret paradise that Leonardo DiCaprio and friends were seeking. Dolphins play in the deep-blue water, and long-tailed macaques, monitor lizards and dusky langurs inhabit the lush rainforest and chiselled limestone crags. The Beach itself is on Koh Mae Ko, where a path leads through natural rock tunnels to offer a spectacular panorama from the rim of its encircling cliff wall.

Day-tripping boats around the Ang Thong archipelago depart from Koh Samui (00 66 77 421285; highseatour.com ; 25), as do luxury yachts (00 66 2 240 2582; seatrandiscovery.com ; from £50) and dedicated kayaking trips (00 66 77 413231; bluestars.info; £41). The only accommodation in the archipelago is in simple National Park bungalows ( dnp.go.th ; doubles from 500 baht/£10).

Travel essentials: Thailand

When to go

Because Thailand has coastlines bordering both the Indian Ocean (the Andaman Sea) and the Pacific Ocean (the Gulf of Thailand), the country is affected by two different weather systems. The Andaman Coast and the Eastern Seaboard enjoy their best weather from December to February: this is known as the cool season which in Thailand actually means a balmy average of 27C. The rainy season hits these coasts between May and November, when tourist boats stop running to the more distant islands and some beaches flounder under dangerously heavy seas. But diving continues when it can and you'd be unlucky to get a fortnight of grey skies. Hotels and tour operators offer big discounts during this "green season". The Gulf Coast of the southern peninsula also gets its driest weather from late December to April, and it's a safer bet than the Andaman for July and August holidays too; November is the wettest month on this coast.

Getting there

Most beach-bound tourists fly into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and then continue on a domestic flight. You can fly nonstop from London to Bangkok with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Qantas (0845 774 7767; qantas.com ), Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thaiair.com ) or Eva Airways (020-7380 8300; evaair.com); non-stop flights take just under 12 hours and cost from about £560. Indirect flights on other airlines start at about £350.

Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi, Pattaya, Trat and Trang all have useful airports for the beach. They are served by domestic routes operated by Thai Airways ( thaiair.com ), Bangkok Airways ( bangkokair.com ) and Air Asia ( airasia.com ).

Alternatively, there are overnight trains from Bangkok to Surat Thani (10 hours; 1,279 baht/£24 for a first-class berth), from where you can connect by ferry to Koh Samui (90 minutes-6 hours) or bus to Krabi (3 hours) and beyond. Long-distance buses also run from Bangkok to all the mainland beach resorts, though these have a mixed safety record. A 10-hour journey on a comfortable "VIP" government bus to Surat Thani costs less than £15.

Red tape

If you are a UK passport holder arriving by air and intend to stay 30 days or less; your passport will simply be stamped on arrival. If you are arriving via an overland border however, you will only receive 15 days on arrival; see the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website ( mfa.go.th/web/2637.php ) for details. For a longer stay of up to 60 days you need to apply at the Thai embassy in London (29-30 Queens Gate, London SW7 5JB, 020-7589 2944; thaiembassyuk.org.uk ) or at one of the honorary consulates; these visas usually cost £28 but they are being issued for free until 4 March 2010.

Getting around

Regular ferries connect all major islands with the mainland. The Foreign Office warns: "There have been a number of instances of passenger boats sinking, usually due to overloading and/or poor maintenance. During the full-moon party speedboats to and from Koh Pha Ngan are often severely overloaded. You should exercise care at all times when travelling by passenger ferry or speedboat and avoid travel on vessels that are clearly overloaded or in poor condition. You should also ensure that life jackets are available."

For transport around islands and beach resorts you have the choice of flagging down a public pick-up bus, chartering a tuk-tuk taxi or hiring a longtail boat or car-with-driver. Cars and motorbikes are widely available for rent: jeeps cost from £17/day, small cars from £28 and motorbikes from £3.

Health

Thailand's climate, wildlife and cuisine present Western travellers with fewer health worries than many Asian destinations. There are no compulsory inoculation requirements, but most doctors advise vaccinations or boosters against polio, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis A and, in many cases, typhoid.

Thailand is malarial, with the disease being carried by night-biting mosquitoes, but the risk to tourists in the vast majority of beach resorts and islands is considered to be so low that anti-malarial tablets are generally not advised. You should however check with a specialist travel clinic such as the Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad (MASTA: 0870 606 2782; masta-travel-health.com ).

More information

The brand-new edition of my book, The Rough Guide to Thailand , is out now. The UK office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand is at 17-19 Cockspur St, London SW1Y 5BL (0870 900 2007; tourismthailand.co.uk ).

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