Island hopping in the Andaman Sea – Thailand to Malaysia
Are you looking to combine a little adventure with your next beach holiday? Are you looking to chill out and truly live in the moment while sinking your toes into white sand and crystal clear warm waters? Are you longing to feast your eyes on some stunning scenery?
If so, then this year, why not consider island hopping all the way down the Andaman Sea from Krabi Province in southwest Thailand down to Langkawi in northwestern Malaysia? It’s a great way to experience both awesome excitement and total relaxation while creating the kind of memories that will last a lifetime!
Getting there: Many airlines fly to Bangkok, and connecting flights to domestic airports in Thailand are frequent and can be less expensive than you might think. Check out Bangkok Airlines or Thai Airways. Ditching the package deal might seem like a brave move but organising everything yourself from flights to accommodation gives you total control and flexibility over your trip. It’s easy to do it all yourself using the Internet, and confirmation is immediate. Go for flexible fares rather than standard ones so that if your plans suddenly change just one call to the airline and you can change flight times or dates to suit you better (for a small fee).
We flew from the UK on a scheduled return flight to Bangkok. We stayed one night in Bangkok close to the airport so that the next morning we could take a domestic flight with Thai Airways direct to Krabi. From then on we used a combo of high-speed boats run by bundhayaspeedboat.com, and traditional long-tail boat taxis while stopping off for two, three, or four nights on several carefully chosen paradise islands along the way. You may want to do your own research and find different islands to explore as there are plenty to choose from in the Andaman Sea, thereby creating your own custom made and perfectly bespoke holiday.
Boat transfers between the islands: Do note that in season (November to March) none of your boat transfers between islands need to be booked in advance as all your island accommodations along the way will help you to book your onward travel as part of their service. Just speak to reception the day before you plan to leave to arrange your onward ticket. The sea transport system between islands is incredibly well organised and convenient as tourism here is so well established.
Which Islands? There are so many islands in the Andaman Sea that it could take months to explore them all – so how do you know which ones to choose for your trip? You’ll note from our island choices that we predominantly chose the quieter islands to visit. Don’t get me wrong, we love to party on occasion, but for us this trip was all about sun, sea, sand, and relaxation. If your preference is for all night rave parties then you won’t be disappointed if you include some of the so-called party islands on your trip list. Do your research online. I hear the full moon beach parties in Thailand are really something!
Before you Travel
Do check Visa Entry Requirements before you make any firm plans to travel. Entry into Thailand and Malaysia and permitted lengths of stay can be very different depending on your passport, nationality, any re-entry requirements, and your point of entry. Check with the Thai and Malaysian Embassies online or personally visit a Consulate for up-to-date information.
Do check what travel vaccinations you might need. You can check on what is recommended for travel to Thailand and Malaysia online or through a visit to a travel clinic or an appointment with your GP.
Get Travel Insurance: You should have adequate travel insurance before setting out on any trip.
Money: The currency is the Thai Baht. It’s worth knowing that some of the smaller islands on the Andaman Sea don’t have any ATMs and so you should be sure to bring enough cash for your stay. The larger resorts will accept credit cards for a fee. The currency in Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit.
Choose where to stay: We chose and booked some of our hotels/resorts/rooms independently using online booking agents such as Booking.com, Agoda.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Hotels.com. We also searched extensively online for information on the smaller and less-touristy islands that we wanted to visit (like Koh Bulon). There are some great travel blogs on the Internet like Travelfish.org who feature both popular and lesser known islands and their accommodations. So do your research online.
Decide when to go: We travelled mid-November. It’s essential to visit the Andaman Sea at the right time of year if you plan to take advantage of all the convenient island-hopping routes. All the ferry companies close down out of the high season when the seas are rougher, so arrive between November and March for the widest range of options. If you visit between 1st April and 31st October, then travel is still possible but be prepared to head back to the mainland and travel by mini-bus and then a local ferry between each island. The mainland is never very far from any of the islands on the Andaman Sea.
High Season: November to March, is high season when average daily temperatures are around 26°C to 32°C with a cooling breeze keeping the sky-high summer temperatures at bay, and humidity levels are lower than they are later in the year.
Low Season: From April through to May the average daily temperatures rise to 30°C – 36°C as the cooling winds depart and the humidity levels rise. The monsoon weather will usually have arrived by May and is expected to last through to October. But don’t be too put off traveling at this time if that is your only option as early in monsoon season the rain might only fall or an hour or two, usually in the evening. Peak rainfall season is usually experienced between mid-September and mid-October.
Our starting point: Railay Beach, Krabi.
The province of Krabi in southern Thailand is characterised by its huge craggy sheer limestone formations and one of the best spots to see them is at Railay Beach, also known as Rai Lay. West Beach at Railay is one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand and so hotels here tend to be more high-end, but if you’re are on a budget then don’t be put off, because just a short walk away is East Railay where you will find some very good mid-range hotels and backpacker accommodations.
Railay is a peninsula accessible only by boat due to the high cliffs that surround it but it is well worth the effort to get there. We travelled from Krabi pier to Railay in a traditional long-tail taxi boat and we stayed two nights. There is lots to do here – rock climbing (Railay attracts rock climbers from all over the world), sea kayaking, diving, snorkelling, jungle trekking, cooking, white water rafting, quad biking, or simply relaxing (my preference) sunbathing, lazing on the beach, sipping cocktails, and eating fabulous Thai food.
A low key group of islands with long stretches of quiet beach, a hint of hippy, and an indigenous population of sea gypsies – a narrative that sounded so irresistibly romantic that it put Koh Lanta high on our trip list. It’s not a remote destination by any means, as it is less than an hour’s boat ride away from Krabi, but it is quiet by most other Thai tourist spot standards, as many visitors give it a miss and head for Phuket and Penang instead. It’s a popular spot for scuba diving and also a perfect place to day trip to nearby islands – like the quintessential paradise island of Koh Muk (also written as Mook) which is famous for its Emerald Cave. Then there is the stunning Phi-Phi Island – made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio as the location for the movie ‘The Beach’. We went over from Koh Lanta to Phi-Phi for scuba diving and snorkelling but found The Beach itself far too touristy and busy for us.
Koh Ngai (also written as Hai)
Koh Muk and Koh Kradan join Koh Ngai to form the ‘Trang Islands’, a triangle that makes it easy to hop from one to the next by long-tail boat. We chose to spend two nights on Ngai, which is only around four km long by two km wide. The research we did described it as exactly what we were looking for – quiet beaches and great snorkelling by day and nothing else but a quiet dinner and a bottle of wine under a starry sky at night – and so Koh Ngai made our trip list on that premise.
Koh Kradan is among Thailand’s more visually spectacular islands and this was the main attraction for us. It also boasts clear warm waters, a slither of white-sand beach, and an outcrop of low-tide sandbars that make for the beach walk of your dreams. It’s not a dive location but there are some good snorkelling spots. It’s a no shoes no news kind of place with views that make you pinch yourself. As on Koh Ngai, we stayed two nights.
Oh my goodness, a part of me wants to keep this place a secret! This island was the highlight our Andaman Sea trip. It is off the beaten track – almost unknown – we had to contact the small beach resort/hotel directly as there was no mention of it on any of the Internet hotel booking sites. We decided to slow down a bit and stay here four nights and we were glad we did. There are a few small shops on the island, a small village with a school, one or two authentic restaurants, but there really is nothing else to do here except to be. We stayed in a gorgeous bungalow right on the pure white sandy beach. I could have stayed here longer – possibly forever – and when the Bundhaya speedboat came to pick us up, all the passengers already on board looked awe-struck by the idyllic vision of Koh Bulon. ‘Where is this?’ they asked us as we reluctantly dragged ourselves and our backpacks on board. We simply replied – ‘This is paradise’.
We had originally planned to stay on Koh Lipe for two nights. This is the transit point by sea into Malaysia and the immigration office is right there on the beach. We had heard so many great things about Lipe and it came highly recommended to us by many people who had been there – but, you know, it just wasn’t for us. The beach was too noisy, the water too crowded with long-tail boats, and the restaurants and bars too busy. So we called it quits after one night and decided to go through Thai immigration and continue on to Langkawi a day earlier than expected. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Langkawi but we were now going to be there for four nights instead of three.
Breathtaking views from the mountain top, cable car and sky bridge – lush jungle with beautiful waterfalls and wild monkeys – and that’s before we even mention the beaches or the Malaysian food that is as tasty as Thai food but even less expensive. Langkawi is a Duty Free island and so everything here is super affordable. We went shopping here for clothes and duty-free drinks – a litre bottle of our favourite tipple was ridiculously inexpensive. We hired a taxi for whole days to take us all around the island and we had the most amazing time. Most nights we ate in a restaurant called Casablanca that is close to Kedawang Beach, as we simply couldn’t get enough of their fabulous menu. The seafood was plentiful and delicious – and I even had lobster. We loved Langkawi!
Are you ready to go home yet or does the adventure go on?
What you do next is entirely your own choice and that choice is either to fly from Langkawi back to Bangkok to explore this vibrant city before meeting with your return flight home or to extend your trip and take in other exciting places in Asia or beyond. We stayed on Langkawi for four nights and then flew onto explore Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and the islands of the Philippines before finally making our way back to Bangkok. A trip of a lifetime!