The islands of Thailand are the stuff of castaway fantasies. White sand, rustic-chic beach shacks, a hammock gently swaying between two palm trees as a turquoise sea laps at the shore. But each is quite distinct from the next, with its own characteristics; and there are dozens to choose from.
There is one for every occasion, whether you want to party till dawn, learn to dive, eat the best Thai food or escape from the world on a secluded, romantic break.
Koh Phi Phi is a small archipelago in the Krabi Province in Southern Thailand. Koh Phi Phi Don is the largest island of the group, and is the only island with permanent inhabitants. If you're going on holiday on your own or with single friends then Koh Phi Phi might just be the island for you. In recent years it has been almost entirely rebuilt after the tsunami devastated it, with smarter places to stay than ever.
With a reputation for good times and lots of activities on offer (diving, snorkelling, cliff-jumping, boat trips to Koh Phi Phi Ley, among other islets, where The Beach was filmed), Koh Phi Phi draws a young, stylish, energetic crowd with a degree of sophistication, ready to relax or to party, particularly on New Year's Eve.
Koh Lanta is made up of a group of islands off the coast of Thailand in the Krabi province. The largest island of the group is called Ko Lanta Yai also known as simply Ko Lanta. Several beaches on the west coast of Koh Lanta Yai are each strung with a line of resorts and bungalows.
This region is an important destination for snorkeling and scuba diving enthusiasts, who come to the islands to view the coral reefs and the ocean life, including manta rays and whales. There is also an abundance of tropical plant life, including the remnants of the ancient rainforests.
If you want to have it all on holiday - sun tanning on beautiful beaches, a bit of world-class diving, a great massage, fun beach bars, kayaking through a mangrove forest, eating seafood tom yum with the locals in a friendly fishing villages - then Koh Lanta is where you get it.
Located near the border with Cambodia, Ko Chang is the third largest island in Thailand and the biggest in the Ko Chang Marine Park archipelago. It is a mountainous island known for several waterfalls, thriving coral reefs, rainforests and long white sandy beaches.
In less than ten years, Ko Chang has become a major tourist destination in Thailand, but is still far quieter than islands like Phuket or Ko Samui. White Sand Beach is one of the most popular beaches on the island. Located on the island’s north-western corner, it’s the longest beach on Ko Chang. The central section of the soft sandy beach is lined with resorts and hotels.
It's also getting popular with those who want to hop over to Siem Reap after a week in Thailand. Head to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Had Sai Noi Beach for its bohemian beach-bar scene, and visit Salakkok Bay for a rare glimpse of a traditional fishing village (fast disappearing elsewhere) and to kayak through the mangroves.
When you picture a Thai island, you're probably thinking of somewhere like Koh Lipe. Often said to have the most beautiful beaches in Thailand, Koh Lipe is one of the 51 islands that make up Tarutao Marine Park, down south near the border of Malaysia. It's got the dreamy combination of remoteness (far fewer tourists than Phuket or Samui), picture-perfect beaches and luxury hotels.
Pattaya Beach (pictured) is the busiest of the beaches and home to most of the island's nightlife, while Sunset Beach is the quietest and most secluded. Snorkelling, diving and tours of nearby islets are readily available.
The Similan Islands are numbered north to south, one to nine, and form a national park in the Andaman Sea. You can swim over untouched coral reefs in the turquoise waters, step foot on the white-sand beaches of Koh Miang (known as 'number four'), which has simple bamboo bungalows, and the largest island Koh Similan (number eight).
Just north of the national park, Koh Tachai has the softest sand and is the most popular. Close to the Burmese border, Richelieu Rock is one of the world's best dive sites and whale shark territory (February-April is the best time to spot them). Wherever you go, you'll need a boat.
Ko Samui is one of the most visited islands in Thailand. There are abundant accommodations for travellers ranging from small bungalows to exclusive villas on the island. There are several festivals that take place every year on Ko Samui, including the Buffalo Fighting Festival, the Ten Stars Samui Art Party, and several street fairs with vendors selling local delicacies, clothing, and souvenirs. Sailing enthusiasts also gather for the yearly Samui Regatta, and triathletes and their supporters flock to Samui for the annually Triathlon Event.
The coast of Koh Tao, or 'Turtle Island', is lined with little sandy coves, pretty lantern-lit restaurants - and dive shops. Most travellers are here to dive. The island is one of the world's top places to learn, and the competition among dive shops has also made it one of the cheapest.
Even if you're not a diver, there's still plenty to keep you happy (it's the kind of place pharangs come for a couple of days and never leave); Koh Tao has an irresistible charm - not to mention an excellent nightlife, including the odd full-moon party, that is a bit more grown-up than at neighbouring Koh Pha Ngan.
Glitzy Phuket offers every Western convenience you can think of, and probably several you can't. Celebrity-chef restaurants? Check. Six-star resorts with private butlers? Check. World-class plastic surgery? No problem. If you're the highest of high-maintenance, Phuket is the island for you.
The province of Phuket covers a large island and several smaller islands off the western coast of the mainland. Outside of Bangkok, it is the most popular tourist area in the country, and many of its scenic beaches feature numerous resort accommodations for visitors. Close to these beaches, tourists will find thriving nightclubs and shopping areas. Some of the other attractions on Phuket include golf courses, historical museums, and monuments.
Phuket still has some of the most glorious beaches in the islands. Many have been taken over by uber-groomed international resorts and laid with stylish sun loungers and deluxe beach bars; but if you're seeking somewhere more laid-back, head to stunning little Kata Noi.
If you're only in Thailand for a few days, schlepping all the way out from Bangkok to distant islands might not be possible. Instead, grab a day or two on Koh Si Chang (not to be confused with Koh Chang), a two-hour boat ride from the city, making it one of the Bangkok's closest beach destinations. It is popular with Bangkok residents who head here for weekend breaks, and even day trips.
While Si Chang hasn't got the softest white sand of all Thailand's islands, it still makes a fabulous escape from the hectic, polluted streets of the capital, with its green interior and fishing villages. Peaceful and almost foreigner-free, Koh Si Chang is your best bet if you'd rather spend your precious few hours on the beach than on a bus or boat.
If your idea of the perfect holiday involves three-day beach parties, Koh Pha Ngan is the place to be. Famous for its full moon parties at Haad Rin's Sunrise Beach, this island is for hard-core partygoers and dreadlocked travellers.
During peak season, the island can see 20,000 visitors dancing, drinking and cavorting on the white sands under the full moon. If you can't make it at the right time of month, don't worry - there are half-moon and black-moon parties in intervening weeks, and there's action every night of the week at the island's beach and cocktail bars.
The morning after, sleep it off in the shade of a palm tree while a Thai masseuse kneads you back into shape. There are secluded beaches far from the crowds, and plenty of spas where you can check yourself in for an afternoon of recovery, from the basic to the deluxe.