Craggy, gray blue mounds rose out of the Andaman sea like stegosaurus spines, tufts of tropical flora dusting the tops of these limestone hills before clashing with the blue sky of high season in South Thailand. It was my first time visiting the country’s world-renowned islands, and all the desktop wallpapers and blog photos I had stared at back home in the U.S. did not do this justice.
The long-tail boat I was riding in sliced through the turquoise waves, weaving in and around these mind-boggling stones as the captain, a local fisherman, steered toward Railay Beach, a short trip from mainland Krabi. I squinted at the limestone hills and realized people were rock climbing up and down the steep walls. In fact, avid climbers travel from all over the globe to ascend these sea-born peaks. Others were kayaking, disappearing into massive black caverns at the base of the structures.
Believe it or not, you don’t need to be wealthy to see these dream beach destinations in real life. Thailand is one of the most popular backpacker countries in the world because of affordable travel prices, excellent transportation services and no-hassle, on-arrival tourist visas. Stop staring at your desktop wallpaper and start planning your trip to some of Thailand’s most famous beaches.
The description above is just a tiny taste of what Krabi Province has to offer in terms of beach life. One of the more popular tourist areas on the Andaman shore, travelers flock to Krabi and spend their days paying local boaters a small fee to transport them to the 154 neighboring islands and beaches. Railay Beach and Ton Sai Beach are a hop, skip and jump away. During high season, Railay can get quite crowded, but it’s still lovely to check out. There are some pretty treacherous treks that require some light rock climbing, but the trail through the jungle brings you to some epic views and ends at an empty lagoon—a satisfying reward.
Ton Sai Beach is Railay’s chilled out neighbor, with less tourists, a hippie vibe and the sounds of Bob Marley sifting through the palms. If you want to relax and do absolutely nothing, then Ton Sai will straighten you out. Stick around for sunset on the beach; watching a tangerine sun sink over those giant stones will complete your day in paradise.
Getting To Krabi: Assuming you are traveling from Bangkok, take an overnight bus. It is possible to fly into Krabi (if so, I recommend using AirAsia to find cheap rates) but the bus is where you will get the bang for your buck. It is easy to organize tickets; ask the staff at your accommodation, and they can arrange everything for you. Pick up is generally right from the hotel as well. These buses leave in the evening and travel through the night. You just pass out and wake up at your destination in the morning. Tickets cost anywhere from 700 baht ($20) and up.
Prices for accommodation vary depending on what you are looking for but it is possible to find dorm beds for as low as 180 baht ($5) depending on the season and vacancy.
On the east side of Thailand, nestled on the Cambodian border in the gulf, lies the enchanting, less traversed Koh Chang Island. Its isle neighbors, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, steal the gulf island spotlight for full moon parties and cheap diving, but if you are looking for a more relaxed beach bungalow vibe, then Koh Chang is where to find it. Here, the locals call out to you in the streets not to sell anything, but just to say hello and welcome. With that being said, don’t be surprised to find yourself quickly engaged with the locals and exploring the island, hanging out at the beach sharing stories and drinks.
Rent a scooter and take care while whizzing about the island down steep drops and over sharp corners. The beauty in Koh Chang is in how untouched it still is compared to Thailand’s other popular islands. Thick rain forest swallows the land and the beaches are flanked by skinny palms and blue water. Find your inner-Mowgli at Klong Plu Waterfall and also look out for the deserted beach and eerie cruise ship hotel for something off the beaten path.
There is a small amount of nightlife on Lonely beach, but it’s just the right amount. Enjoy a bucket and watch the fire dancers paint the night with flames.
Get to Trat: Trat Province is about five hours south of Bangkok via minibus. Once again, it is easy to book tickets, and the staff at your Bangkok accommodation, the bus station or a travel agency can arrange the trip for you. A minibus ticket costs around 270 baht ($7). It is possible to catch a domestic flight to Trat with prices starting around 2,500 baht ($70). A 30-minute ferry ride will take you to Koh Chang island, and generally the minibus will take passengers straight to the ferry.
Once on Koh Chang, prices for accommodation vary depending on what you are looking for, but it is possible to find a bamboo bungalow for under 600 baht ($16) depending on the season and vacancy.
Other recommendations for islands in the Gulf of Thailand? Check out Koh Tao, where you can get dive certified for as little as 9,800 baht ($270) for a PADI course, including accommodation, or 9,000 baht ($254) for a SSI course including accommodation. If you are into the full moon party scene, then Koh Phangan is home to the original.