The Andaman Sea of southern Thailand offers ample opportunities for the island-hopping adventurer. During the high season of November through March, the Thai islands of the Andaman Sea host many travelers with the most popular being the more northern Islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. In an effort to avoid the crowds and create a more relaxing trip, I created an itinerary that would provide a more laid-back experience. As such, my adventure began on the coastal beaches of Krabi and meandered south via ferries and speedboats to the small island of Koh Lipe. I was mostly successful in my quest to avoid the crowds. However, in the end, I would find there is just no escaping the regular reminders of the over-development of what many refer to as paradise.
Already in island mode thanks to my five days on Railay Beach in Krabi, I patiently wait for the ferry that would technically start my island-hopping tour of the Andaman Sea in southern Thailand. Although not an island at all, Railay Beach feels very much like an island as it is accessible only by boat. As a result, Railay proved to be a great jumping-off point as I began my exploration of the Andaman Sea and the islands of Koh Lanta, Koh Ngai, Koh Adang, and Koh Lipe.
Despite my research revealing that Koh Lanta is now quite firmly fixed on the tourism radar, it didn’t seem very busy. In fact, I feel it strikes a nice balance between offering beautiful not-so-crowded beaches and just enough modern conveniences. So far, it seems to have managed to maintain its Thai island charm.
Perhaps due to its large size, it feels much quieter than many other developed Thai Islands. In fact, Koh Lanta is large enough that it requires a scooter or hired driver to explore all the different regions of the island.
Koh Lanta’s lack of postcard-perfect white sand beaches may be another reason it is not quite as popular as other islands in the area. However, I found its combination of quiet Khaki-colored sand beaches, rocky coastal cliffs, and aquamarine-colored water to be quite attractive. I’ll take that over a crowded white sand beach any day.
Looking to relax, I had no desire to go into tourist mode on Koh Lanta. I decided my three days here were best served exploring the beaches close to my accommodation and foregoing a trip to the small village of Lanta Old Town.
Swimming, hiking, and beach combing are all that I was interested in during my visit to Koh Lanta. However, the more I combed the beaches, the more it became apparent that trash and plastic are a regular thing on the beaches here. Unfortunately, I would come to discover this was merely one example of an increasing problem on the beaches of the Andaman Sea.
Despite the trash washing up on the beaches here, I found Koh Lanta to be a very pleasant place. It ticked most of the boxes I was looking for in an island when creating my itinerary for a quiet and laid-back experience. In all fairness, I spent most of my time very close to my accommodation while here. However, I did see enough to know I would like to go back and explore Koh Lanta more thoroughly.
Koh Ngai: 3 Days
Although less pleasant and less comfortable than the experience on the ferry, the speed boat ride between Koh Lanta and Koh Ngai would have me arrive at my next island in fine shape. I was prepared for the worst due to reviews and warnings. However, the trip via speedboat really wasn’t that bad in my opinion. Your mileage may vary depending on your sense of adventure and the resilience of your sea legs.
Arriving on the small island of Koh Ngai, I was greeted by fine off-white sand and gentle sea breezes. In the distance, Karst limestone cliffs jutted from the aquamarine waters where just a few longtail boats lined its shores. A handful of mid-priced resorts lined the beach, spread out enough so that the island didn’t feel overcrowded.
Often compared to its neighboring island of Koh Kradan, Koh Ngai seems to offer a few more accommodation choices at arguably better prices. Both islands are known for their quiet beaches, mid to high-priced accommodations, and great snorkeling right off of the beach.
Although the coral off the beaches of Koh Ngai appeared somewhat degraded, they continue to attract a large number of tropical fish which makes for an enjoyable snorkeling experience. In addition, I came across other wildlife daily such as large monitor lizards and hornbills.
As there is no town to be found on the small island of Koh Ngai, the food choices outside of the resorts are almost non-existent. Fortunately, I came across a lovely little family-run beach restaurant serving up tasty Thai food among other things. Watching this beautiful family interact with their young child and cats while dining beachside was a highlight of my experience on Koh Ngai.
Offering serene beaches, quiet nightlife, and great snorkeling, the mostly undeveloped island of Koh Ngai enabled me to unplug and just enjoy the beach without distraction. It was exactly what I was hoping for on my Andaman Sea itinerary.
Koh Adang: 7 Days
Traveling from the island of Koh Ngai to Koh Adang requires a speed boat trip to Koh Lipe. From there, a short 10-minute longtail boat ride would get me to the shores of Koh Adang.
Arriving on the shores of Koh Adang, I’m greeted by off-white colored sand with flecks of black throughout. As with other islands in the area, the sea is colored in hues of turquoise, aquamarine, and deep blue. The beach is also filled with hermit crabs. So many, in fact, that I found myself being careful not to trample them as I make my way across the beach to the resort.
Koh Adang is a mountainous Island with a lush jungle covering its interior. Thanks to its place among the islands of Tarutao National Park, it is mostly undeveloped. A ranger station and camping facilities are located on the south of the island. A few concrete structure bungalows offering cold water showers and fans are also available for rent at the park. There is only one resort on the whole island. The aptly named Adang Island Resort offers more modern-day conveniences such as hot water, air conditioning, and wifi.
Due to its lack of modern accommodations and dining options, most think of Koh Adang as a day trip from its more developed neighbor Koh Lipe. It is for this very reason that I chose to stay a full week on Koh Adang. Lured by promises of beautiful views from the rocky viewpoints of Chadoe cliff, jungle hikes to a Pirate Waterfall, secluded beaches, and snorkeling among healthy reefs, it did not disappoint.
Although the coral near Adang Island Resort appeared to be mostly dead, kayaking provided me with access to gorgeous beaches with healthy coral and great snorkeling right from its shores. Most of the time I had these beaches all to myself. Well, just me and the hermit crabs. I even made the acquaintance of a black-tipped reef shark amongst the diverse marine life here.
I found the accommodations of Adang Island Resort to be more than adequate. Although the food options were limited, what was offered was mostly satisfying. A 10-minute longtail boat ride to Koh Lipe is provided by the resort multiple times a day. This is a nice option for anyone who feels the need for a change of scenery and more food options. However, I was content hanging out on Koh Adang for the entirety of my seven days.
Koh Adang is a great example of the need for the preservation of what is left of our natural spaces via national parks. I had a great time exploring all of its nature and beautiful scenery. It was also great to see that most of its coral reef appears to be healthy when getting away from the resort.
Initially, I was very pleased to see how clean and trash free the beaches are on Koh Adang. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it became clear that not even the islands of the national park system are safe from the constant onslaught of plastic floating across the sea. I found quite a bit of plastic trapped within the mangroves and vegetation that lined the backs of the more secluded beaches. This most likely occurs because there is no one there to regularly remove the trash as they do on the park and resort beaches.
As disheartening as this was, I was about to be even more disturbed by what I found on Koh Lipe.
Koh Lipe: 14 Days
My Thai island-hopping tour of the Andaman Sea would conclude with a two-week stay on Koh Lipe. As I mentioned previously, I prefer to travel slowly. This island hopping tour was a departure from that. So, I wanted to end it with a longer stay on the last island and just relax.
My research of Koh Lipe revealed that it was more developed and it had enough going on that it could keep me entertained during my 14 days there. Despite being small enough that you could literally walk the whole island, Koh Lipe has a walking street filled with bars, dining, and convenience stores. Even more importantly, it has white sand beaches on which to pass the time away.
With its powdery white sand beaches melting into bright turquoise waters, scenic views of neighboring islands, and beautiful sunsets, Koh Lipe had all the ingredients of a paradise island.
Unfortunately, Koh Lipe appears to have been overrun by rampant, unchecked development. Its two main beaches, Pattaya Beach and Sunrise Beach, are completely lined with resorts without an inch to spare in between them. To make matters worse, both beaches are almost completely lined with longtail boats, three boats deep in some cases.
Pattaya Beach had almost no place to swim, other than a couple of small roped-off areas. However, if your idea of a great beach experience is sitting on a thin strip of sand sandwiched between rows of boats and bars with booming techno music, Pattaya Beach may be for you.
Considering Koh Lipe’s small size, I decided to take a walk into the interior of the island. The disappointment continued as I came across dilapidation and dump sites full of trash. These were common on the interior of the island. Just as it seems the development of this tiny island was poorly planned, so are the methods of waste management.
Now, you may be getting the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time on Koh Lipe at all. This is not completely true.
However, I offer up this information as I discover it for two reasons. First, it is out of true concern for the future of Thailand’s many jewels which are its islands. To me at least, Koh Lipe is a prime example of how rampant poorly planned development can degrade and even destroy a beautiful place. It bothers me too much to simply overlook it.
Second, as more people continue to find and read this blog, I feel an increasing responsibility to accurately represent the places I visit. This blog was initially started as a creative outlet. It was a means to improve upon and display my photography in an artistic way with a few poetic words thrown in for good measure.
As such, I tend to fill the blog with carefully composed photographs that demonstrate the beauty, while excluding the not-so-beautiful. Careful composition is a large part of the art of photography after all. However, moving forward, I plan to start mixing in a bit more of a documentary approach in an attempt to keep it real.
With all of that said, on to the beautiful stuff.
As you go farther north on Sunrise Beach, the Longtail boats tend to thin out. On the northern end of Sunrise Beach, lies the gorgeous North Point Beach. This beach is a beautifully curved white sand beach with interesting rock formations at its most northern point. There are almost no longtail boats here. Despite several swanky resorts on the beach, It tends to feel less crowded as the beach is much wider. I spent most of my beach time here. It is especially pleasant early through mid-morning.
In addition, the sunsets on North Point Beach are pretty epic…
Due to its poorly planned over developed state, Koh Lipe mostly felt like a tiny island bursting at its seams and spilling into the sea. There is just too much on this tiny island to be sustainable. The constant reminders of this are everywhere you look and it just overwhelms the obvious beauty that once was. Unfortunately, Koh Lipe feels very much like a paradise lost. Then again, I suppose beauty (or paradise) is in the eye of the beholder.
My island-hopping tour of the Andaman Sea included only a very small sampling of the islands off the western coast of Southern Thailand. However, I feel I was mostly successful in achieving my goal of avoiding crowded beaches and creating a serene laid-back experience. Although the lovely island vibes were somewhat diminished by the seemingly ever-present beach plastic and overdevelopment in places, I mostly enjoyed the experience.
To be fair, beach plastic is not uniquely a Thailand problem. It happens all over the world and much of the plastic travels across the sea from other places both near and far. In addition, many wealthier countries export it’s plastic waste to Thailand. The intent is for it to be recycled. However, that is not always the case. Thailand has begun a process to ban this practice by 2025.
There are numerous articles on the topic with disagreement on the causes and the solutions. Many blame overtourism. Although I believe overtourism plays a role in the problem, I think the sources and causes actually run much deeper than that. The problem can’t be solved by blaming tourism alone.
The issue of pollution is something that I find particularly distressing on my travels, especially when witnessing it firsthand. But, what can be done as a traveler and visitor of these places? Yes, there are organizations such as Trash Hero and We Love Koh Lipe (Formally Trash Hero Koh Lipe) that organize clean-ups and make attempts at education. It is great that these organizations exist. However, what can we do as individual travelers? I’ll leave a simple list to start with right here:
- First, we can simply dispose of our trash properly. It sounds so obvious, but I have witnessed many people, both foreigners and locals, leave their trash on the beach or throw it into a river without a second thought.
- Reduce our use of plastic. There are actually some resorts on the islands that encourage this by issuing refillable water bottles to their guests. This is a great program. However, we can also do this ourselves as much as possible.
- Use reusable grocery bags. We have several of these and use them every time we shop in an effort to reduce the use of plastic bags.
I understand that these are only small steps in an attempt to address a huge problem. However, I can only control what I can control. Imagine what can be achieved if every one of us cares enough to do the same.