If paradise were a place on earth, it would be somewhere on the Andaman coast of Thailand. The region is astoundingly beautiful—bright, clear, warm water teeming with wildlife from tropical fish to magnificent coral, even occasional sea cows and reef sharks (the kind that don’t eat people). The coast and islands have sandy beaches, and there are hundreds of small islands and limestone rock formations rising up out of the ocean. Inland, there are tropical rainforests, mangrove swamps, mountains, and waterfalls. If it’s an active vacation you’re looking for, there are abundant opportunities to snorkel, dive, sea kayak, or hike, especially in the numerous national parks.
Though many travelers go to one spot on the Andaman and plant themselves there for the duration, if you want to both indulge and explore, it’s an easy place to be a little more adventurous.But it’s not just the physical beauty and activities that make the Andaman coast such a great traveling experience. The region still offers a chance to glimpse rural and small-city life in Thailand. While Phuket has attracted residents from all over the world as well as transplants from Bangkok and other parts of the country, and largely feels like a commercialized tourist destination, if you travel north to Phang Nga Province, you’ll find small fishing villages along the coast where fishing families can often be found clearing nets at the end of the day or setting out squid to dry in the sun. To the south, in Satun, you’ll find a largely Muslim population and a fascinating blend of Islam and Buddhism evidenced in the houses of worship and the dress of the local people.
In the past few decades, Phuket has really blossomed into a world-class destination for vacationers from all over the world, with all of the pros and cons that go with it. But traveling either north to Phang Nga or south to Krabi and Trang, things slow down again, although even in Trang there are more and more bungalows, resorts, and hotels for visitors being built every year. Though many travelers go to one spot on the Andaman and plant themselves there for the duration, if you want to both indulge and explore, it’s an easy place to be a little more adventurous. Public and private buses can take you from Phuket or Krabi either north or south along the coast, and if you rent a car, you’ll find the highway system exceptionally well maintained and generally navigable, even if you can’t read a word of Thai.
The Andaman coast is also perfect for island-hopping, and the best way to do that is by boat. There are plenty of ferries, speedboats, and longtails to take you from island to island and beach to beach. You can fly into Phuket, spend a few days on one of the nearby beaches, then take a boat to Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, or one of the other numerous islands in Phang Nga Bay, or hit 3-4 islands in one trip; there are hundreds of islands in the region to choose from. Some, such as Phi Phi, are arguably overpopulated with travelers and resorts. But there are still some beautiful islands you can stay on that feel less exploited by tourism and kinder to the natural surroundings.
Prices are still amazingly reasonable considering the physical landscape. Even in the most coveted areas, you’ll be able to find simple accommodations, sometimes right on the beach, for less than US$40 per night, even cheaper the farther away from Phuket you are. Of course, if you’re looking for five-star luxury, you’ll be able to find that, too. Some of the best resorts in the world have Andaman coast addresses.
Planning Your Time on the Andaman Coast
How you plan your time depends mostly on what you want to get out of your vacation. If you’re hoping to pick a beach on the Andaman coast, grab a chair, and sit and relax for the duration of your time in Thailand, you won’t need to do much planning at all.
If you do choose to explore some of the region’s surrounding islands, remember that getting from one place to another can often take a few hours and involve taking land transportation to a pier and then a sometimes-long boat ride, especially if you are relying on public transportation. Many tour operators offer day trips to surrounding islands from Krabi or Phuket, and these can be an excellent way to see many different places at once, although you won’t have any control over the schedule or itinerary.
If you really want to explore each island (or stay overnight), your best bet is to take one of the large ferries from Phuket to Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, or Krabi and then use the smaller longtail boats to take you to other islands in the vicinity. Some people prefer to base themselves on one of the more built-up islands (Ko Lanta or Ko Phi Phi) and explore the surrounding islands on day trips, but it’s just as easy to sleep on different islands or even camp at one of the island national parks. If you plan on island-hopping, make sure to pack light. Longtail boats, which are colorful wooden boats used for short trips, are small, usually not covered, and sometimes a little leaky. There’s no room for a large suitcase or even a very large backpack. It is also possible to charter a sailboat or speedboat to island-hop, but the cost is in the thousands of dollars for a multiday trip.
If you’ve come to the region primarily to dive, you’ll actually find it much easier to get around, as there are numerous large dive boats offering live-aboard, multiday dive trips that will take you to some of the best diving sites in the country. Trips generally depart from Phuket, Krabi, and Khao Lak.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Phuket & Ko Samui.