The Gulf of Thailand on the south eastern side of the Thai Peninsula is blessed with beautiful tropical islands that offer travelers a combination of superb weather, luxurious accommodations at reasonable prices, fine food, shopping and plethora of water sports including world class scuba diving.
Depending on the type of vacation you are after, you can choose between the larger more developed island of Ko Samui for its resorts and spas, Koh Pha Ngan for its youth-oriented party atmosphere or Koh Tao for the serenity of a marine national park and smaller scale guest houses -- or spend a few days on each island for a bit of variety. Although they make for attractive destinations throughout the year, climate may be the deciding factor on your choice of month to visit. The dry season in the Gulf of Thailand is traditionally from December to February, meaning little to no rain and days full of sunshine. The hot season is March to August and as its name suggests, these are the warmest months of the year with occasional rain. September to November is the rainy or monsoon season with hot weather and many days of sunshine, but also lots of rain showers. Fortunately though, these showers only last for a short time (sometimes just a few minutes) so can often be quite refreshing on a hot day.
Most travelers start out on Ko Samui, purely because it is the only island with an airport, or because the ferries from the mainland travel there more frequently than neighboring islands. When I first visited Samui in the early 1990's, it was a pristine island with a sprinkling of small guesthouses and bungalows plus a handful of hotels. I think I paid about $15 a night for a bungalow right on the beach -- and that included breakfast. Today, Samui is perhaps a little too over developed, rivaled only by Phuket, with new resorts springing up all over the island. Despite its growth, Samui still boasts stunning white beaches, turquoise waters and an authentic Thai experience. Most people choose to stay in the main beach areas of Chaweng or Lamai in the east and the quieter but up-and-coming beaches around Big Buddha and Mae Nam in the north of the island. Accommodation choices seem endless, whether you'd like to spend $20 or $200 a night. Here is just a tiny sampling:
Chaweng Resort (tel. +66/77-422-2301; www.chawengresort.com) is a budget option located right in the thick of Chaweng Beach, the main tourist area on a beautiful stretch of beach. The property has two swimming pools and standard room rates range from $42 to $53 a night for two people. Bungalows start from $72 per night. Rates include all taxes and a buffet breakfast.
Green Life Hotel and Villas (tel. +66/77-430-696; www.samui-hotels.com/greenlife) are located a five-minute walk from Chaweng beach. Hotel rooms with balconies but no pool are priced from $32 to $48 per night for two people including taxes and breakfast. A two-bedroom villa with direct access to the property's pool is priced at $64 a night throughout the year.
For a touch more luxury, Le Paradis Boutique Resort and Spa (tel. +66/77-239-041; www.leparadisresort.com) has a selection of contemporary and beautifully furnished traditional Thai villas set in tropical gardens right on the beach. It also has a beach-front spa and swimming pool. Contemporary villas are priced from $264 per night and traditional ones from $279 -- both include all taxes, breakfast for two people, complimentary afternoon tea served either in your villa or the restaurant, a fruit basket and welcome drink on arrival. Stay from November 1 to December 19, 2007 and receive one night's free accommodation when you pay for four nights (fifth night free).
For a truly stunning accommodation option right out of a design magazine, you can't beat The Library (tel. +66/77-422-767; www.thelibrary.name/index-2.html). This exquisitely designed ultra-minimalist, beach-front hotel is luxurious, elegant and sophisticated. It is also probably the most expensive option on the island but well worth the splurge. There are two types of accommodations: suites on the ground floor and studios on the upper floor. A long wooden walkway in the center of the property leads to a vivid red square swimming pool, the Page restaurant and a stark white library by the beach. Stay at the Library from now until December 20, 2007 and enjoy the following deals: stay four nights and only pay for three or stay for seven nights and pay for five. Studios start from $286 and suites from $357 per night for up to three people.
Koh Pha Ngan has an international reputation for its monthly full-moon parties which consist of thousands of travelers congregating on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise) beach for a night of dancing and trancing, often drug-induced. Even if that really isn't your thing, the island has many beautiful beaches, great walks, boat rides, fishing trips and surprisingly delicious bakeries that cater to the late-night cravings of party-goers. It is easily accessible from Ko Samui by high-speed ferries and catamarans (www.lomprayah.com and www.seatrandiscovery.com) for around $10 each way and takes approximately 30 minutes for the journey. Alternatively you can also catch bus or train/ferry combinations from Bangkok through the same companies or travel from Koh Tao.
If you are indeed visiting for the full-moon experience, check the website (www.fullmoonparty-thailand.com) for dates (the next full moon is October 26, then November 24, December 24 in 2007 and January 22 and February 22, 2008 etc.). Be prepared to pay a lot more for accommodation for the week surrounding the full moon, especially around Haad Rin Nok, and for many properties to be booked out.
To be in the center of all the activity, you'll want to stay in Haad Rin, but if you are looking for something a bit more relaxed and quieter, I would suggest finding accommodation on the east or north coast. Palita Lodge (tel. +66/77-375-170; www.palitalodge.com) is right on the beach in Haad Rin Nok, but it the most up-market of the noisy bungalows located on that stretch of the beach. Palita villas with air conditioning and hot water start from $41 a night in low season (May 1 to June 30) and go as high as $156 for a luxurious villa in high season (December 1 to April 30). Rates include all taxes and breakfast daily. There is a compulsory dinner surcharge for full moon night of $13 per person. A pool is currently being built on the property.
Plaa's Thansadet Resort (www.plaa-thansadetresort.com) is situated on Thansadet beach, a quiet and serene sunrise beach on the east coast of the island. Bungalows on stilts are laid out on a cliff face with sea views, private balconies with hammocks, bathrooms with hot water and electricity in the evenings (not during the day). Prices range from $11 to $16 a night for two people.
Salad Beach Resort (www.saladbeachresort.com) is located in Ao Salad, in the northwest. It is one of the larger more up-market hotels on the island with 28 rooms and 20 bungalows. Standard room rates range from $48 to $70 per night. A pool view bungalow ranges from $76 to $111 and a beach front bungalow is $95 to $127 per night for two people. Transfers from Thong Sala Ferry Pier to Salad Beach Resort are $5 per person.
Koh Tao (Turtle Island) used to be one of Thailand's best kept secrets, but today it is one of the Peninsula's most popular dive locations as well as one of the least expensive places in the world to get dive certified. It is accessible by boat from the mainland (Suri Thani), Koh Pha Ngan and Ko Samui.
If you are looking for something low key and really inexpensive, Bhora Bhora Resort (www.bhorabhora.com) has fan-cooled bungalows for $30 a night for two people. A Pirate's Hut for three guests is priced at $36 per night or an air-conditioned Captain's suite is $62. It is located in Chalok Baan Kao on Kohh Tao's south western side, with a six hundred foot half moon white sand beach with year round swimming and emerald green water. A five minute walk away is Rocky Bay -- also known as Shark Bay -- where you can swim and snorkel with sharks.
New Heaven Resort (www.heavenkohtao.com) is located in East Chalok Baan Kao on the hilltop overlooking the Thian Og Bay. The resort is set in a lush tropical garden and has its own private bay for snorkeling and swimming. Rooms with fans are priced at $25 a night for two people and sea view rooms start from $38. The honeymoon suite with air conditioning and other added amenities is $123 per night. Transfer from the ferry port to the property is $1.30 per person.
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