Thailand is Asia’s most popular destination for a reason: it has stunning landscapes, colorful culture, tropical beaches, great food and cheap massages… all the ingredients for a successful holiday. The downside is that, at least in some parts, Thailand can be overrun by tourists. But with a little effort, we managed to find some not-quite-hidden-but-still-unknown-enough gems!
With limited time, it’s best to stick to one part of the country. This itinerary combines some of Southern Thailand’s very different attractions: lazy island life, wonderful diving, and exploring lush jungle, all near each other along the Andaman Coast. There seem to be infinite options for accommodation and activities in every price range, making it hard to figure out a travel plan. This is obviously only one possible selection, but I hope it can at least give you a starting point!
Thailand Andaman Coast itinerary highlights
- 4 days blissful island life on Koh Yao Noi in Phang Nga Bay
- 3 days Surin Islands diving live-aboard
- 3 days Khao Sok jungle stay
The best time to go to the Andaman Coast is during the dry season, from November to April, although it’s preferable to avoid the peak of the tourist season around New Year’s Eve. You can fly directly to Phuket and start your trip, or you can add a couple of days in Bangkok, Thailand’s vibrant and colorful capital (see my 2 days in Bangkok itinerary for tips!).
Day 1-4: Koh Yao Noi in Phang Nga Bay
Upon arrival, take some time to unwind on one of Thailand’s many idyllic islands. Although not far from Phuket, Koh Yao Noi is still relatively undeveloped and has an authentic, laidback vibe to it. It sits right in the middle of scenic Phang Nga Bay, famous for its spectacular karst landscape and its appearance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. The bay sees many day-trippers from Phuket and Krabi, but Koh Yao Noi itself remains mercifully calm.
To get there, organize a pick-up from Phuket airport to Tha Bang Rong pier. Speedboats leave regularly throughout the day and take 30 minutes to get to the island (you can also get there by boat from Krabi, on the other side of Phang Nga Bay). We found a great driver, Nene Supaporn, who speaks perfect English and can help you with all your transportation needs (contact her at +66 839672057 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
We stayed at Dan’s Koyao Retreat, a beautiful, spacious private villa tucked away in the greenery. It has a private pool with a fantastic view and is visited by all kinds of birds, including hornbills. There are a handful of restaurants and a beach at walking distance, and scooters and bikes are provided to explore the rest of the island. Service includes breakfast and afternoon tea, and they can organize fantastic massages, other meals and activities on request. I cannot recommend this place enough!
If you really want to get away from it all, The Island Hideout is another option. A true eco-resort, it has no electricity or wifi. It is rather difficult to reach, which for some of course only adds to its appeal.
Spend your days exploring the island’s various corners by scooter (or bike if you are willing to brave the heat). Not yet dominated by tourism, it’s a good place to observe local life, with fishermen living in stilt houses, rice, coconut and rubber plantations, and the occasional water buffalo. There are several pretty beaches, although some almost disappear at high tide. Unfortunately the water is not very clear, this being a tidal bay, but you have amazing views over Phang Nga’s characteristic jungle clad rock-islets from almost everywhere.
Make sure to go on a boat trip around the bay and to surrounding islands. You can ask your hotel, but it is also easy to organize yourself: there are plenty of outfits along the main road offering boat trips and snorkeling (always negotiate!). Red Island is good for snorkeling, whereas Koh Kudu has a gorgeous sheltered emerald bay. Don’t miss Koh Roi, which feels like discovering a lost world. Passing through a cave entrance you arrive in the hidden interior of the island, which is home to a large colony of fruit bats. Of course, the most famous island is Khao Phing Kan, popularly known as James Bond Island. Although beautiful, it gets terribly crowded. As it is not so different from the rest, you won’t miss anything much if you skip it.
There is a handful of great restaurants on Koh Yao Noi. The most well-known, Rice Paddy has sweeping sunset views, it can be difficult to get a good table at that time. I thought the place itself lacked charm, but the food is good and the cocktails even better, plus the owner is very friendly.
Another great sunset spot is Coccobello, which has a fantastic isolated location. It’s a lovely drive all the way to the end of the road, passing rice fields and swathes of mangrove. The food is ok, the service rather average, but it’s a great place to come for a sundowner and stay for dinner and feel really far away from it all. If you’re looking for something more upscale, La Sala, at the Koyao Bay Pavillions resort, serves great food in a chic but relaxed setting. It’s a bit difficult to find but worth it.
For a Thai seafood lunch try The Goodview restaurant, with, unsurprisingly, good views and a sea breeze, and the best food we had on the island. Another good, casual lunch place is Chaba Café, in a pretty little garden. It’s just by the road, but there’s not much traffic anyway. They have tasty fresh juices, a mix of Thai and European lunch fare and great vegan ice cream.
After spending a few days dividing your time between the beach and pool, you’ll be rested and ready for the next part of your trip. We took the ferry back to Tha Bang Rong and headed to Khao Lak (once again driven by Nene) in time to board a boat for a 3-day diving trip…
Day 5-7: Diving Surin Islands
Although not the world’s top diving destination, Thailand has some beautiful dive sites with plenty of life, especially around the islands a little further from the Andaman Coast. We opted for the Surin Islands, which take longer to reach and thus see less tourists than the Similan islands. Both are protected as Marine National Parks, but Surin’s sites are more pristine. The dives here are a little more challenging than most in Thailand, but are also doable for less experienced divers. Waters are warm and calm, and visibility is generally good.
We decided to go with Wicked Diving, based in Khao Lak. They’re very professional and friendly, and I love that they emphasize ecologically responsible diving. Their boat is very basic, but serves the purpose. This is no luxury cruise, it is all about the diving! A full boat meant we were 20 divers plus crew. Although Wicked has a policy of maximum four persons per dive guide, this still made for pretty crowded dives… Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find smaller dive operators for a reasonable price in Thailand.
Wicked’s 3 day, 3 night live-aboard leaves at the end of the day from Khao Lak. Depending on weather and circumstances, you’ll do a total of 10 dives at several of the Surin Islands, some on the way there, and Richelieu Rock on the way back. Our two dives at Richelieu Rock were by far my favorites. This unique dive site is a solitary peak in the middle of the sea and attracts a wide array of marine life. It can get crowded with divers at times, but the advantage of a live-aboard is that you get there early, before any day trippers arrive.
Diving in Surin Marine National Park, you can expect beautiful underwater scenery, with lots of colorful fish and pretty corals. But we were surprised at the lack of bigger stuff: no sharks, few turtles or bigger fish (except at Richelieu Rock), let alone mantas or whale sharks. We were there at the height of the whale shark season, but were told by dive guides they rarely, if ever, encounter them. So although we had a great time diving, I left feeling a little worried about Thailand’s seas…
Day 8-9: Khao Sok jungle stay
Upon return to Khao Lak, we had picked up a rental car to drive to Khao Sok (about 1 hour). Although not absolutely necessary, it’s nice to have your own transport to explore the area, and driving here is easy. A small town of sorts has sprung up around the Khao Sok National Park visitor center. From here you can visit Khao Sok itself, including the stunning artificial Cheow Lan Lake, and the various other national parks and wildlife sanctuaries near it, most importantly Khlong Phanom National Park. The parks are home to lots of wildlife, from wild elephants to tapirs, but only the extremely lucky will see more than some monkeys.
There are plenty of jungle-setting hotels with individual bungalows to choose from. I recommend staying at one of two neighbors: Our Jungle Camp Eco Resort or Art’s Riverview Lodge next door. The latter is more jungly and has great views over the river and cliffs, but Our Jungle Camp has the better rooms (go for a treehouse!). Both have good, atmospheric restaurants. Other restaurants in Khao Sok are mostly lined up along the main road. Of these, Pawn’s serves the best food.
It’s easy to hike in Khao Sok National Park without a guide. There are several hiking trails, although none go very far inside. We opted for the Ton Kloi waterfall trail, which starts from the visitor center where you pay your entrance fee (unfortunately rangers there are not helpful at all). The park opens at 8am, go early to avoid the heat. The flora is beautiful, and the first part of the path is wide and easy. The small bar at the end of the main trail is a lovely spot to take a break with a fresh coconut, surrounded by butterflies. Officially you can only go past here with a guide, but we went on our own and the trail, although much narrower and through denser jungle, is easy enough to follow (although we didn’t go all the way to the waterfall). A great app to find hiking trails and keep track of your location, even offline, is maps.me.
The waterfalls in the area are only really impressive right after the rainy season. In the rainy season itself most jungle trails become inaccessible, although this is when you have better chances of seeing wildlife. We came across some long-tailed macaque, but that’s about all you’re likely to see, despite the regular “wild elephant” warning signs. Be careful of leeches though, they are very common here! We wore long pants and closed shoes with socks and still managed to pick some up…
Another nice, short hike is up to Khlong Phanom Park viewpoint, near the Khlong Phanom visitor center. If you’re here between December and March, inquire about seeing the rare Rafflesia flower, one of the world’s largest and smelliest flowers.
Spend the next day exploring Cheow Lan Lake, the area flooded by the creation of the Ratchaprapha dam. The drive there, especially the first part, is very scenic. Most people come with organized tours but you can easily arrange a private or shared long tail boat upon arrival at the Ratchaprapha marina. A boat trip is the best way to appreciate the stunning scenery, and to escape the heat. We negotiated a private 4-hour tour for 2500 baht.
After a tour of the spectacular limestone cliffs, including the famous Three Sisters rocks, our skipper took us to Coral Cave. A 30-minute hike gets you to a small lake with several raft houses. Cute dusky or spectacled lemur are often seen here. Upon request, a guide will ferry you across on a bamboo raft-boat to the cave. The cave is not big but very pretty, especially if you have the place to yourself (give groups a head start if you happen to arrive at the same time).
Everything seems to cost money here, so not only do you need to pay 200 baht p.p. to the cave guide, you also pay an extra 200 p.p. to enter Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary (yes, this side of the lake is no longer called Khao Sok). Drinks and snacks are available at the beginning of the trail, but it might be a good idea to bring a packed lunch. There is also a floating hotel here which seemed like a nice place to spend a night, Praiwan Raft House.
Day 10: Back to Phuket via Takuapa and Khao Lak-Lam Ru
Time to head back… But if like us you’re lucky and your flight from Phuket doesn’t leave until late afternoon, there are some nice stops to make on the way to the airport. Go for a walk around the charming old town of Takuapa, with its antiquated Sino-Portuguese architecture and Chinese shrines and shops. Stop for a snack at the quaint café in front of the Sin Chai Tueng shrine.
Next, head to Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park, a small nature reserve along the coast just below Khao Lak. Have lunch at the park’s pleasant restaurant, with views over the sea. From here, a 1km nature trail leads to a beautiful hidden beach. Wear appropriate walking shoes, my flip-flops were not such a good idea… Alternatively, drive half a km further south along the main road and you’ll come across another shorter and easier trail (marked “small sandy beach”) leading to the same beach. There is a shower and a basic refreshments stall.
From here it’s an easy drive to Phuket airport, from where you can head back home or continue your travels. While not exactly adventurous, Thailand is a wonderful, varied destination, and I will definitely have to go back to explore the north, too!
Have you been to Thailand or are you planning on going? Let me know your thoughts below!