by Greg Jorgensen
When asked which one of Thailand’s islands is the best, it’s easy to shrug your shoulders – there are so many! Choosing a favorite island or beach is very subjective – it’s like asking someone what the best ice cream flavor is – there’s no one answer (even though everyone knows it’s chocolate chip mint).
However, there are two islands that stand out when you’re looking for an easy escape from Bangkok without needing a flight or an epic land journey: Ko Samet and Ko Chang. We’ll take a look at each one and lend some helpful information and tips on where the hotspots are and how to make the most of a visit.
Samet is the closest and nicest island to Bangkok. You can be sitting on a beach four hours after you walk out your door in the capital. It’s shaped like a giant golf tee with beaches on all sides, but the most popular ones are on the eastern side. There’s a variety of accommodation available, from dank flophouses to fully-equipped cabins with swimming pools. Almost every one of them has a restaurant and most offer some type of evening barbecue dinner on the beach.
Unless you’ve been here many times you’ll be hard pressed to tell the beaches apart. From Sai Kaew Beach on the top right of the island down its gently sloping shore to Ao Chao is essentially one long stretch of sand broken up by the odd shoal or rocky outcropping. Past that and all the way to the southern tip lie beaches with a bit more of an isolated feel to them, accessed by footpaths through the skimpy undergrowth or by speedboat.
The west side of the island is little-visited and offers few nice beaches, the one exception being Ao Prao, which has a few upscale resorts that are largely isolated from the partying that goes on nightly on the east coast. Similarly, the northern shore is popular with families and those looking for serious peace and quiet.
Pros: Easy to get to and easy to enjoy –if you’re looking to make new friends and have a good time, this is definitely the place to go. The sand is incredibly silky-soft, the water clear, and there’s no high rise buildings on the island – great place to relax.
Cons: Despite being a national park, there are jet ski rental businesses in some areas and not a lot of information about how to get around the island’s wonderful footpaths. If you’re looking for world-class restaurants and bars this isn’t the place, but what’s here is quaint and enjoyable.
If Ko Samet is the ying, Ko Chang is the yang. Although still close enough to drive to from Bangkok, it’s juuuust far enough away to make it a bit of a slog. The land journey takes about 5-6 hours, you then take the ferry across (1hr), and one more short drive to your resort. There’s also an airport in the city of Trat, which then leaves you with a 30-minute drive to the ferry pier. This is a good thing though, as Ko Chang is largely devoid of the weekend-getaway crowd who come to let off steam. Almost everyone here has traveled a fair distance to stay for at least a few days, and the vibe is that of serious beach goers who love the peace and tranquility that the beach can bring.
Shaped kind of like the elongated head of an elephant (chang, although it gets its name because of how it looks from the water), most of the good beaches are dotted along its west coast, facing into the Gulf of Thailand. It’s also the kingdom’s second largest island after Phuket. There’s rarely a crush of crowds on Ko Chang outside of long weekends, and there’re plenty of chilled-out beaches where bars pump reggae and serve lazy drinks to relaxed people all day long. However, there’s a good choice of upscale resorts as well, and the beaches on the northwest end of the island have been going through a constant construction boom for what seems like a decade now.
White Sand Beach is the most developed and most crowded, as it’s the longest and closest to the ferry terminal. To its south you’ll find Klong Prao, Kai Bae and Bai Lan Bay, each have their own vibe and even different sand colors. Generally speaking, the further south you go the less developed and more chilled out the beaches become.
If you circle right around the island and come up on the other side, you’ll find it almost completely devoid of tourists, with a handful of small villages that don’t have an opinion either way on Bob Marley or getting cornrows in their hair. The interior of the island is dense jungle, with a few hikes to some nice waterfalls as well as tall hills that provide a great view.
Pros: Far enough away to feel like you’ve traveled somewhere but still close to Bangkok if you need to catch a flight at nearby Trat Airport. A wide variety of beaches, bars and hotels to choose from, and big enough that you can easily spend a few days getting lost on various treks.
Cons: Development is rampant and you have to travel further than ever to escape it. Getting there is a bit of a pain and involves a number hours commuting by land. Traffic on the island is getting bad, and traffic just shouldn’t be part of a beach vacation.
While we’ve pointed out some of the downsides of both destinations, Ko Samet and Ko Chang are incredible islands, ideal locales to get away from it all, completely decompress and enjoy tropical beach bliss.