I have visited the Thai Islands on 3 separate occasions, once in wet season and twice in dry season over the course of the past 5 years. I have visited the following islands so I can talk from experience: Koh Samet, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Railey (Krabi), Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe.
One thing I have noticed is that compared to 5 years ago, development has been rapid leading to higher prices and making it harder for backpackers to visit the islands on a budget.
My tips on visiting the Thai islands on a budget are as follows:
1. Islands on the east coast tend to be cheaper than the islands on the west coast
2. Consider visiting in wet or shoulder season as prices tend to more than double in dry season
3. If visiting in dry season then make your bookings as far in advance as possible, as turning up on a small island (especially Koh Phi Phi) without a booking may leave you homeless or leave you staying in a cockroach infested hut.
East Coast Islands & Beaches
In part 1 of my guide I shall cover the East Coast Islands & Beaches, and in part 2 of my guide I cover the West Coast Islands & Beaches.
Koh Samui is often referred to as a packaged tourist destination, however it is actually one of my favourite islands and I do not believe it is simply for packaged tourists.
Backpacker friendly beaches on Koh Samui:
This beach tops the list for the best beach on Koh Samui and yes, it is a beautiful beach with soft, fine white sand stretching 6km. It is also known as the lively, party beach on Koh Samui as there are many bars and restaurants to choose from.
The beachfront at Chaweng is lined with mid-high range hotels which can make it difficult to get to the beach, however there is one public beach access road in the centre of town so it’s not too much of a problem. If you are a backpacker you are likely to find cheaper accommodation on the road opposite the beach, rather than directly on the beach.
Lamai seems to have gotten a reputation for its lady bars, however there is more to Lamai than this. The beach at Lamai is almost as beautiful as Chawang, however the sand is a little more grainier and harder on the feet.
The thing I like about Lamai is its nightlife. Although there may not be the clubs like there are in Chawang, there are still a number of bars and restaurants, including an Irish pub that seems to have live music most nights.
Each night a budget friendly, lively night market breaks out between the 7-Eleven and the girly bars selling various types of food including Thai, Italian and Indian. Grab a dish at the night market for around 70B, and a beer from the 7-Eleven, then pull up a seat. What more does a backpacker need?
Budget guesthouse tip:Name: T &T House (has a swimming pool!) Cost: 500b – Double room w/ attached bathroom and fridge Location: Lamai beach road (next to T & T supermarket)
Koh Phangan is well known for its famous full moon parties, however this is a little jewel of an island that has more to offer than its full moon party. The island is extremely hilly and therefore extremely pretty, especially when exploring the island on the scooter, bobbing up and down the hills overlooking the beautiful sandy bays. However make sure you rent a newish scooter as some of the older ones struggle with the steep terrain and you may find yourself in a predicament if your bike decides to not make it to the top.
If you’re on a budget and want to explore the island but don’t mind balancing your backpack on your scooter then there are many places hiring scooters opposite the pier when you arrive. Scooters start at around 150b a day for an automatic, and considering a songthaew costs 150b per person one way to Haad Rin – a scooter is a great value option.
Backpacker friendly beaches on Koh Phangan:
Haad Rin is where the full moon parties are held, however visit either side of the full moon and you’re likely to be surprised at actually how quiet it is here. We were extremely dubious about visiting Haad Rin due to its reputation of being a raucous party destination, and actually avoided it when we first arrived in Koh Phangan, however we were glad we decided to give it a chance.
We explored the whole island by scooter, and this was hands down our favourite beach. The sand is white, extremely fine and the beach shelves gently into the bright blue sea.
The town had plenty of cheap eateries and all the sort after tourist amenities. At night there are restaurants with tables on the beach, along with stands selling ‘buckets’. As we visited just after a full moon party, it was like the calm after the storm – bucket sellers weren’t doing a great trade, and the shops were full of neon t-shirts just waiting for the next party.
The centre of Haad Rin is a reasonable size with a number of cheaper backpacker bungalows being situated on the opposite side of Haad Rin to the famous full moon party beach (but still only a short 5 minute walk). We were able to get a double room with wi-fi, attached bathroom and hot water for only 400b – I am aware there are cheaper than this, however we liked the feeling of these bungalows.
If you arrive at full moon, but want to stay somewhere a little quieter then consider Haad Yao, although bear in mind there are a limited number of cheaper accommodation options.
Haad Yao is home to a number of dive operations including Reefers which offer PADI courses, as well as fun dives to the nearby Sail Rock which is famous for its whale sharks. However when we visited visibility was poor and the whale shark must have decided to hang out somewhere else. The beach here is nice (although in my opinion not as great as Haad Rin), and is lined with mostly mid-range and expensive hotels. If you want something cheaper then you need to look on the road down to Haad Yao rather than directly on the beach. But don’t expect value for money.
Budget guesthouse recommendations:Name: Sun Moon Star (for those on a tight budget – although the beds are extremely hard!) Cost: 350b – double room w/attached bathroom and free wi-fi in the restaurant Location: On the road down to Haad Yao (just before you reach reefers dive shop) Name: Shiralea bungalows (has a pool!)
Cost: 600b – double room w/ attached bathroom and free wi-fi in the restaurant. 3 night minimum Location: On the road down to Haad Yao next to Reefers diving