The East Coast & Islands
Thailand's slim peninsula extends 1,250km (777 miles) south from Bangkok to the Malaysian border at Sungai Kolok. The towns of Cha-Am and the royal retreat of Hua Hin are just a short hop south of Bangkok, and the ancient temples of Phetchaburi -- the last outpost of the Khmer Empire -- are a good day trip from there. Passing through such coastal towns as Prachuap Kiri Khan and Chumphon and heading farther south, you come to Surat Thani, the jumping-off point for islands in the east: Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, and Ko Tao. If the beach resorts of Phuket dominate the tourist landscape on the west coast, Ko Samui, a heavily developed resort island in the Gulf of Siam, dominates the east. Nearby Ko Pha Ngan, famed for its wild full-moon parties, continues to gain prominence as a rustic resort destination, as does Ko Tao for its access to some of Thailand's best dive sites.
With its fine islands and beaches, the Gulf of Siam is truly Thai paradise. Whether you come armed with little money and lots of time, or lots of money and little time, there's an adventure and a little bit of heaven for everyone among its palm-draped beaches, lacy coral reefs, small mainland towns and fishing villages, and Buddhist retreats.
The West Coast & Islands
The island of Phuket, linked by a causeway to peninsular Thailand, was one of Thailand's first tourist developments. Today, it's a perennially popular mass-tourism magnet. In the dry season (Nov-Mar), this coast is a great place to island-hop, either by Destination Air's amphibious aircraft service or by ferry.
With its increasing wealth and popularity come less savory influences, however: Mafia activity and unscrupulous developers keen to earn a fast buck from the pristine environment are common, especially as resort centers, such as Patong, in Phuket continue to rebuild after damage caused by a tsunami in December of 2004.
The province of Krabi has been a bit more eco-savvy than bolder, brassier Phuket and has long banned such beach activities as jet skis and parasailing, making it popular with crowds looking for nature, not nightlife. The province encompasses all the land east of Phang Nga Bay, including Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. Close to Krabi town, Ao Nang Beach and Railay offer backdrops of dramatic limestone cliffs, powder-soft beaches, and high-end resorts. Ko Phi Phi is still a popular venue for snorkeling and dive trips despite the tsunami damage; however, the island's National Park designation (theoretically, meant to preserve its outstanding beauty) has been shamefully ignored. Ko Lanta Yai, better known as Ko Lanta, lies southeast of Krabi Town. Once home solely to Muslim fishing villages, it now boasts the whole gamut of resorts from budget to superluxe.
Right at the southernmost tip of Phuket is the idyllic isle of Ko Racha (sometimes called Ko Raja or Raya), with its jade-green seas. Northward is Phang Nga province and, on its west coast, Khao Lak, the gateway to popular dive spots around the Similan and Surin Islands. This coastline was worst hit by the tsunami in 2004, but such volunteer groups as ETC have done much to alleviate the pain by teaching new skills to the unemployed. To the south, Trang Province's white-sand beaches, caves, and waterfalls make it one of Thailand's best-kept secrets.
During high season (Nov-Apr), bookings for all west coast resorts should be made well in advance; expect hefty surcharges across the Christmas/New Year weeks. This season is great for all watersports. Many hotels offer discounts in the off-season, when heavy rains bring very strong winds and rough seas. Swimming becomes dangerous then, with heavy surf and a strong undertow. Islands in the eastern Gulf of Thailand (Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, and Ko Tao) are more sheltered, and off-season discounts and fewer crowds make this region most appealing then.