Let's hop over to Thailand's Three Sister Isles
Think of island vacations and you probably think of resorts and beaches. Basically it’s the same any island you go to, right? Where there is a beach, there is water and sand, and sea all around. And then there’s that “going on vacation” feeling of not having to work. But all those preconceptions aside, what makes traveling really special is the people that you meet and the adventures you are bound to experience.
Island hopping can be a serious alternative to experiencing all those predicted notions and more. Separated only by a few kilometers, three sister islands in the Gulf of Thailand – Tao, Phangan and Samui — can offer the “basic package“ island hopping vacation with as many add-ons as needed. Guaranteed are the sandy or rocky beaches, clear water, jungles, sun and delicious food. And with easy accessibility via Bangkok to Koh Samui from Incheon Airport, or staying one night in the capital and then combining a comfortable night train with a bus and then a ferry to one of the islands makes Thailand’s beach jewel only a day away.
But the basic package is the only similarity the sister islands have. It’s as if the siblings have only their mother in common, and the fathers belong to three different cultures and races. The people and atmosphere differ from island to island with each destination offering unique experiences compared to the next.
The smallest and least developed island is also considered the “youngest” of the three. The islet is a complete paradise for divers and snorkelers, with international diving schools spread all over the island. Greeting the sharks amidst a morning dive is no problem as there are plenty of them guarding the house reefs. (Just remember, the snorkeling mask makes them look twice as big and in reality they are a size of a kitten).
Koh Tao has been populated for less than 70 years and houses around 3000 residents. There is a distinct feeling of visiting a little village; the type where everyone knows everyone else, and information will undoubtedly spread as quickly as news about Harry Styles’ new haircut.
However, diving is the huge draw and social door opener in Koh Tao; irrespective of whether you are traveling alone or in a group, there are many diving groups where you can discover “your” people. Soon, you’ll have friends aplenty and may even find yourself sitting in the shade of patios, thumbing through marine life books with other fellow sun-bronzed and tattooed divers.
As with any sub-culture, Koh Tao people have their own patterns and codes that establish their own open, egalitarian and sincere characteristics that may differ from your initial impressions. The number of dives and the numerous sites that frequent your log book, the motives behind your tattoos, or the name card with those Financial Analyst or Lawyer titles on it doesn’t really matter. Lose yourself on the island as you will feel that you belong to Koh Tao and Koh Tao belongs to you.
Second sister, Koh Phangan is twice as big as Koh Tao and has a longer history and a larger population. As much as Koh Tao is about escaping the world above water and discovering underwater life, Koh Phangan is about stepping out of a materialistic reality and finding our own spirituality, inner peace, and balance.
Although a bigger retreat, you can get familiar with both the island and its people, and yet retain your anonymity. The roads are in better condition than Tao and offer a fantastic journey, even for those not yet-experienced bikers. A ride around the island can enable you to encounter working elephants, discover different beaches, or join up to 30,000 ravers for the legendary Full Moon Party on the shores of Hat Rin.
But what really makes the island incredibly interesting is its international population. Explore the beaches and it’s fascinating to learn everybody’s story. Meet the German girl who was a former clerk who emigrated to build a meditation and spirituality center while taking care of four abandoned puppies. Or converse with the Czech guy who sold his business in Prague to open a backpacker’s resort. Walk further down and try some Italian pasta made by the Italian guy who recently moved over or purchase a French baguette made by the French baker who calls Phangan home. In fact, probably every village has at least one business run by a Westerner. These people are all united by one life-changing decision – to leave their old life behind and start anew at the beach side surrounded by the jungle. Koh Phangan offers The Beach experience and you can certainly be Leonardo DiCaprio’s character forever. Or a week at least.
The international community on Koh Phangan also adds to the island’s incredible atmosphere, while the Thais continue to contribute their marvelous easy-going attitude and renowned friendliness. In addition, the Germans add their reliability, the Swedes their humor, and the Americans can offer a deliciously cooked steak. While the people are amazingly different, they are all joined together as one community, craving adventure and courage.
Last, but not least, our trip brings us to our final island; the world-famous Koh Samui. Some 30 years ago, Koh Samui was what Koh Pangan is now – a paradise for backpackers, a destination for singles or young couples, not one for families with kids or for the older generation. That has changed over time as the popularity of the island has grown and accessibility has become easier. Direct flights from Samui’s own airport to Bangkok and many other Asian destinations are available hourly. However, tourists be warned that flight prices to Koh Samui airport can be up to four times more expensive than the mainland airport of Surat Thani.
Smaller towns on the island can offer a broad variety of what a tourist needs – coffee shops, bars, restaurants, food markets, bike rentals, dress shops and boutiques, selling fake Gucci and Prada.
However, a major difference between Samui and its siblings is the broad variety of resorts. It is not all about the diving or chatting with backpackers from Europe. In a slightly more upmarket itinerary, enjoy relaxing at the infinity pool, dining at the resorts’ restaurants, or drinking a cocktail at a beach bar. The variety of comfort and moderate-to-expensively priced accommodation is incredibly broad, providing numerous hostel and five-star lodging options.
Koh Samui is very much the right place for those who are allergic to making decisions. The stress levels remain low as choosing a meal from the menu or which pool that overlooks the sea to swim in remains high up on the agenda. You don´t have to leave your resort as you will probably have everything on your doorstep. Should you decide to make a journey behind the resort gates, the staff will arrange a comfortable tour in an air-conditioned vehicle for you. Although, be warned that the traffic is heavier than on the other two islands.
So which island is right for you? Well, the choice of the “right” island boils down to your personality and preferences. Whether you like to go for a bit of diving, refuse to shave for the vacation period, or simply want to change your life completely, the islands have it all on offer. So take a seat on an elephant, a sip of that Pina Colada, and be a bit of a chameleon by traveling to all three beautiful islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The sisters are awaiting you with open arms.