Thailand’s beautiful east coast islands, collectively known as the Chumphon Archipelago, were once the sole preserve of the hippie backpacker generation, but many of those who flocked here during the 1970’s would have trouble recognising their fond memories beneath the rapid development that has since attracted both the package holidaymaker and luxury traveller.

Whilst a new generation of gap year students can still find vestiges of former times tucked away in the more remote locations, the lost-world bliss of barely touched tropical paradises enjoyed by previous travellers is forever submerged in commercialism. Nevertheless, the islands still maintain their beauty and the advantages of development have been much improved accommodation and facilities.


On the largest and most developed of the eastern island chain, the simple thatch and bamboo huts that used to occupy the beachfronts of Ko Samui have been largely replaced by luxury hotels and boutique resorts. So popular has the island become that there has also been a buying boom in holiday homes by many of its most frequent visitors. In the backpacking days, the island was only accessible by ferry from Surat Thani on the mainland, but is now well served by an international airport.

The principal beaches are situated on the north and eastern coasts, beginning with the secluded, exclusive and expensive Laem Yai, followed by the long quiet golden sands of Hat Maenam and Hat Bo Phut, catering in the main for midrange and budget accommodation standards.

The east coast is home to the small white sand bay of Hat Cheong Mon, with a couple of up-market resorts, and is followed by Ko Samui’s longest, busiest and best white sand beach, Hat Chaweng, which is also the tourist shopping and nightlife capital of the island, and has accommodation and dining choices to suit all styles.

Further south, Hat Lamai is also a fine beach, and although the island’s second most popular, has a more relaxed feel, yet also enjoys a thriving nightlife, albeit tinged with a slightly seedy edge. Hat Lamai is also the place to see the curiously shaped rock formations, Hin Ta and Hin Yai, which commonly feature on postcards of Ko Samui, with their striking resemblance to sexual genitalia, making them highly popular for amusing photographs.

On the south coast, Hat Laem Set offers a quieter beach experience and good accommodation, including a luxury spa retreat.


Hat Bangrak, or ‘Big Buddha Beach’, whilst not particularly recommended as a place to stay due to the prevailing predominance of budget accommodation, is home to Wat Phra Yai, and its twelve metre high golden Buddha, and provides a popular cultural break from sunbathing.

Another often-visited attraction is the Samui Monkey Theatre, near Hat Bo Phut, which features demonstrations by the working monkeys of the island, trained to collect coconuts from the island's plantations. Near the southeastern tip of the island, are the Butterfly Garden and Samui Aquarium & Tiger Zoo.

Jeeps and mountain bikes can be readily hired for excursions into the jungled terrain of the island’s interior. Although the water quality around Ko Samui is good, serious divers and snorkelers will probably wish to venture further afield to the outer islands of Ko Tao or An Thong.


An almost entirely uninhabited archipelago of 42 islands, west of Ko Samui, An Thong Marine National Park is a superb day cruising adventure to visit its unspoilt beaches, natural beauty and dramatic scenery. The inland sea at Ko Mae Ko is one of its most popular sightseeing attractions. The archipelago is also popular for Sea Kayaking and snorkelling.


North of Ko Samui, and reachable by speedboat or the slower ferry service, Ko Phangan is a beautiful haven of white sand beaches and offers a much more isolated feel than Ko Samui.

Development here lags far behind that of its larger sister, in large part due to its backpacking history, in pursuit of which it is still much visited by budget travellers and young hedonistic students. Nevertheless the island is now beginning to undergo transformation.

Although somewhat tarnished by its earlier reputation for uncontrolled drug taking, especially evident at the monthly Full Moon Party on the twin beaches of Hat Rin, for those willing to dispense with luxury accommodation and settle for a beach bungalow, the island is a beautiful escape from the busier Ko Samui.

Nowadays the Thai police have substantially tamed the infamous Full Moon Parties, which, although some discreet illegal drug taking certainly still occurs, are far more likely to be fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption.

The island's most developed facilities are to be found at Hat Yao, and Ao Chaophao on the west coast and the afore mentioned Hat Rin Nok and Hat Rin Nai, which are the only beaches to offer nightlife.

 For those seeking more seclusion, the east coast beaches at Hat Yuan, only reachable by water taxi from Hat Rin, are a good choice. Ko Phangan has a host of other very fine beaches, but at present many of these offer only fairly basic accommodation, such as the beautiful bays of Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi and Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai on the north-east tip, which only reveal their vistas after a long and bumpy ride.

Other more accessible beaches include the northwestern Ao Chalok Lam, Hat Khom and Ao Mae Hat with its picturesque conjoined island, Ko Ma.


The furthest flung of the eastern islands, Ko Tao is a favourite with the diving fraternity and, unlike Ko Phangan, offers a wider choice of accommodation possibilities.

In spite of its remote location in the South China Sea, the island is reachable by speedboat or ferry from Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and mainland Chumphon, and is well worth the visit if you appreciate relative quietude, warm clear waters and a relaxed atmosphere.

 With almost fifty dive schools offering their services at reasonable cost, the island is an excellent place for both beginners and expert divers, boasting over 25 dive sites within easy reach. Despite its popularity, since the island has such appeal for those active underwater, the beaches are usually left very quiet, and are well suited to isolated relaxation.

The longest and most popular beach on Ko Tao is Hat Sai Ree, on its western coast, with good accommodation choices. Beyond the beachfront, there are also some cliff top resorts. To the south is the island’s the next most popular beach, Ao Chalok Ban Kao, accompanied by its scenic cluster of smaller bays Ao Jun Jeua, Hat Sai Nuan and Ao Jansom all of which are within easy walking distance.

Ao Thian Ok, Hat Sai Daeng, Ao Leuk, Ao Tanote and Ao Hin Wong are the most visited of the east coast beaches and consist of fairly basic accommodation, but do offer good snorkelling and diving.


A short long-tail boat ride from Ko Tao, Ko Nang Yuan is a small, unique and lovely gem, and its surrounding reefs are the focus of much of the best diving in the area.

With stunning good looks, Nang Yuan comprises three islets conjoined by two coral sand beaches, and fringed by shapely rocks. Its three small bays offer good swimming and excellent snorkelling, with visibility often in excess of 30 metres (100 feet).

With a single resort consisting of a range of basic but good quality bungalows, the island is a remote hideaway for those likely to enjoy its remote ‘shipwrecked’ feel and who are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, though in high season, an invasion of day trippers from Ko Tao and the occasional cruise ship can often make their presence felt.


When visiting Thailand’s east coast islands, an alternative to the Surat Thani to Ko Samui ferry route is the smaller ferry from Chumphon on the mainland’s east coast to Ko Tao which allows for a circuit in either direction of the islands, rather than retracing your journey. Both Surat Thani and Chumphon have direct connections to Bangkok by rail and air.

If you are travelling via Chumphon, the 41 islands which collectively comprise the marine element of Mu Ko Chumphon National Park, are well worth taking a day to cruise.

Several of these pretty islands are home to the valuable swifts whose nests are to prized for the famous Birds Nest Soup, and small communities of harvesters can be seen on these islands.

Due to Thai conservation efforts, both to protect the birds and the surrounding corals, a few sites are restricted for visits, though you can step ashore with the permission of the caretaker. Snorkelling and swimming are the main activities here, but a dive tour can also be arranged from Chumphon.