Want to freak out at a Full Moon Party? Laze with a Chang beer by the sea? Or experience something completely different? Thailand is on the wish list of many travellers, enticed by its tropical weather, rich culture, flavoursome food and backpacker-friendly tourism. The iconic Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands, known for being the location for the movie The Beach, may be closed for two years but there are many other beach resorts to enjoy. Here’s the ultimate guide to backpacking Thailand, its best beaches and unique things to do.
Koh Chang backpacking
Best beach: Lonely Beach, Koh Chang
Located close to the Cambodian border in the east of Thailand lies the island of Koh Chang. Only five hours away by bus and boat from Bangkok, it’s convenient to get to, yet this island is perfect for backpackers searching for somewhere a little off-the-beaten-track.
Over the years Thailand has become an increasingly popular and commercialised tourist destination, but Koh Chang – meaning Elephant Island – has remained relatively undeveloped. Lonely Beach is a cool little backpacker-friendly beach, where you can meet other travellers and chill on sunloungers during the day with drink in hand. On party nights the normally laid back bars wheel out their giant speakers and even bigger tunes for the bare-footed boys and girls gyrating on the sand. Not so lonely after all.
Things to do in Koh Chang: Zip-line high over the jungle
For intrepid adventure lovers, on Koh Chang you can spend the day zip lining through the jungle. At the Tree Top Adventure Park there are three levels of walkways, bridges, obstacles and novel ways to transport yourself through the foliage, including airborne bikes and skateboards.
As you navigate higher and higher, you start to zip line high over the trees. Personally, this terrified me, but if you’re not scared of heights you will find this exhilarating!
Koh Samui backpacking
Best beach: Lamai Beach, Koh Samui
Koh Samui is on the other end of the spectrum. Very much developed as a tourist destination for backpackers and families alike, with local restaurants and colourful bars sitting alongside McDonalds and massage parlours, it has nonetheless kept hold of its charm. Lamai Beach is a short drive from the main ferry terminal and if you can find a resort sitting on this beach, you’re on to a winner. Step onto the soft sand and you will remember why you came to Thailand in the first place. Clamber over the nearby boulders for fun – bet you can’t resist – and soak up the sunshine on the rocks with a large Chang beer.
This beach is one of the most romantic in Thailand, so if you are on a date night, why not go all out with a candlelight dinner on the sand and, if you decide on a naughty midnight dip, watch out for the ‘sea sparkle’ – floating marine plankton that glitters when you move. Simply magical.
Things to do in Koh Samui: Visit the tomb of a mummified monk
On the island of Koh Samui, legend has it there’s a ‘Mummy Monk’. And it’s true. The best known is in the temple of Wat Khunaram, a short bike or bus ride from the popular resort of Lamai Beach. It houses the undecomposed remains of a monk named Phra Kru Samathakittikhun (1894 – 1973). Here is a statue depicting what he looked like while he was alive.
Born Loung Pordaeng in 1894, he lived on Koh Samui. At the age of 50, after his children had grown up, he dedicated his life to Buddhism and was given the name Phra Kru Samathakittikhun. Excelling in meditation, he was a well-respected teacher and had many followers. In 1973, at the age of 79, he died while meditating. He instructed his followers to publicly store his body in a glass casket in the temple, to inspire future generations to follow the Buddhist teachings.
Usually in such a hot and humid climate, a body would decompose quickly. However, this monk’s low food intake, low metabolism and reduced need for oxygen, as a result of his meditation, could explain why his body stayed preserved. Visiting this temple is certainly one of the more unusual and thought-provoking things to do on the Thai islands. Wat Khunaram is open daily during daylight hours. Admission is free, though visitors are invited to donate to the upkeep of the temple.
Things to do in Koh Samui: Spot the rude rock formations
One of the more unique things to do on the Thai islands is to visit the oddly-shaped rocks on Koh Samui. Just south of Lamai beach lie the Hin Ta and Hin Yai rocks, or Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s Rocks. They are shaped like, um, certain parts of the male and female anatomy.
Folklore has it, an elderly couple named Ta Kreng (Grandpa Kreng) and Yai Riem (Grandma Riem) went on a sailing trip to find a woman to marry their son, but on the way their boat was seized by a storm. Unable to swim, they died at sea, turning into rocks as proof to the would-be bride’s parents of their true intentions. So there you have it! This popular attraction is free to enter and will guarantee a few giggles.
The nearby Valentine Stone charges a small fee to enter. It’s supposed to be a naturally formed heart-shaped rock, perfect for a romantic moment. That is to be debated, but it is nevertheless a cute photo opportunity.
Exploring the area you will find a newly opened fish spa as a natural, slightly tickly, pedicure, as well as pleasant views over the local surroundings to enjoy.
Ko Lanta backpacking
Best beach: Klong Khong Beach, Ko Lanta
In Thailand’s western Krabi province is Ko Lanta, a group of islands with an intoxicatingly laid back vibe. Some areas are more popular than others but head a little further south than most and you will find the charming Klong Khong Beach. The beach itself is partly stony, but you won’t have trouble finding a beachfront resort with a large pool to lounge in and cool off from the heat. And it’s a great view from the awesome bars with friendly locals ready to challenge you to a game of pool or a bet on that night’s match.
Wander around the area and you’ll find totally chilled restaurants where you can relax on cushions and tuck into a bowl of noodles while you listen to a local band’s impromptu jam session. Or why not spend the day learning to make your favourite Thai dishes at the nearby highly recommended cooking school. Take home some skills and impress your friends.
Things to do in Ko Lanta: Cook a Thai feast
With ingredients including coconut milk, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, galangal, basil and lime, the deliciously sweet and spicy Thai cuisine is well-loved around the world. Taking a cooking course is one of the best things to do on the Thai islands for food lovers, as it’s a great skill to take home and try in your own kitchen.
On Koh Chang, just six hours from Bangkok by bus and boat, there’s the Blue Lagoon Thai Cooking School. Here, you join a group and agree a menu of dishes to make, from starters, to Thai curries and even dessert. From preparing the herbs and spices, to cooking and tasting the food together in a sumptuous Thai feast, this is a day to remember. There’s a real sense of community as you share the experience and enjoy the food you’ve made. As an added bonus, the teacher gives you a full recipe book to take home.
If you’re in the main Ko Lanta backpacking area of Long Beach, head south to the Khlong Khong area and check out Kwan’s Cookery school and restaurant. Kwan is bursting with personality and loves teaching people how to cook well-known Thai dishes. It’s best for just one or two people at a time and she will show you how to make things like fresh spring rolls and dipping sauce. Yum!
Koh Phangan backpacking
Best beach: Sunrise Beach, Koh Phangan
Take a boat to Haad Rin on Koh Phangan and you’ll be greeted with day-glo vests and body paint in all the colours of the rainbow. For this is the home of the legendary Full Moon Party. This is a backpackers’ mecca, with countless resorts, cheap restaurants, tour operators and bars where you can stretch out on sofas and watch back-to-back films on a big screen. Travellers are everywhere you look – you’ll be in great company.
Sunrise Beach is where you want to head for the time of your life, surrounded by tens of thousands of fellow partygoers, on almost a kilometre of sand. Fill your boots on the festival vibe as you grab a bucket of your favourite spirit mixer and dance to some banging tunes on the biggest sound-systems you’ve ever seen. We’re not going to spoil the fun by saying too much more about what happens here. Just stay careful, kids.
Things to do in Koh Phangan: Go waterfall hunting
If you enjoy nature, why not rent a motorbike and find some of the islands’ hidden waterfalls. In the heat of the day, it’s a wonderful feeling to cool off in a jungle oasis.
Waterfall hunting is one of the easiest things to do on the Thai islands as almost all of them will have at least one. Some you will need to find for yourself on a map, some will be signposted and others will be fully geared up for tourists and even charge a small fee to enter.
The reward is a place where you can relax, enjoy the jungle surroundings and take a refreshing dip far away from the crowds.
Backpacking Thailand – more unique things to do in Thailand
This is by no means an exhaustive list. The key to choosing your beach destination in Thailand is knowing what vibe you’re looking for. But there are no wrong choices here. Take your time and if your schedule allows, why not island hop and maybe you’ll find your own Thai beach paradise and even more unique things to do in Thailand.
Now check out my must-read guide to backpacking Malaysia, Borneo and Singapore.