We flew straight to Koh Samui on the morning of our release from the ASQ. We had already planned to do a bit of island hopping to compensate for the relatively stationery lifestyle we had experienced for the previous several months. The three islands in the southern province of Surat Thani were our first choice of destination thanks to their natural beauty, ease of access and differentiation. By visiting these three islands, we would be able to cover a variety of landscape and activities, as well as fully experiencing the island lifestyle in southern Thailand.
Sitting in the western edge of the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao are stereotypical tropical islands. They are hot and humid, and are essentially mountains popping out of the sea covered in lush foliage and ringed by beaches and coral. The common sights are hills covered in coconut palms and mango trees, bright aquamarine waters bumping up against coastlines of either rugged rocks or sandy beaches.
They all have steep windy roads that lead you along the coast and through the interior jungles that deliver you to amazing viewpoints, hidden beaches, and secluded accommodations. Although they all target tourists as their primary industry, each of Samui, Phangan and Tao are very different in size, culture, infrastructure and overall feel.
Being the second largest island in Thailand (Phuket is the largest), Samui is the most developed island among the three, boasting numerous luxury resorts, spas and retreats. It also provides a great indoor/outdoor shopping mall with international brands. In addition, Samui is famous for its sophisticated food scene with different varieties of international cuisines at architecturally designed venues.
Only 30 minutes away from Koh Samui by speedboat lies Koh Phangan, Thailand's 5th largest island. Although Koh Phangan is well known for its monthly full moon party, it is less developed with a more natural environment compared to its bigger sister Samui. We fell in love with a few stunning white sandy beaches on the west coast of the island. Koh Phangan is said to attract people who are in pursuit of awakening and happiness. We saw a lot of vegan restaurants and yoga centers but didn't find any shopping malls or many luxury resorts. Apparently a lot of digital nomads have been attracted to and live on the island.
One hour ride on the speedboat from Koh Phangan lies the smallest of this island group, Koh Tao. It's well known for diving and snorkelling. The island is full of beautiful white sandy beaches and shallow calm waters teaming with colourful fish. One can literally walk one meter into the water from a beach and watch fish swimming! You can't get more natural than that! We did a snorkelling trip around the island and saw some amazing marine life - many varieties of coral and thousands of fish. We imagine diving must be amazing too as so many diving enthusiasts come to Koh Tao to get their PADI certificates. On Koh Tao no car rental is available, only scooters! We often saw a family of 3 or 4 on one single scooter, with kids eating and drinking and adults looking at their phones to kill time as a passenger :) It's a very laid-back island!
So after having visited all three islands, we feel each of them really cater to different crowds with different priorities, comfort zones and expectations. Samui provides the most modern comfort with good infrastructure, establishments and facilities; Phangan sits in the middle - maybe a bit more on the rustic side; Tao is purely rustic and natural. We are glad that we visited all three islands to have a diversified experience. We spent one week on Koh Samui, one week on Koh Phangan and 10 days on Koh Tao. We wish that Ying were not so prone to the seabather's eruption (baby jellyfish sting) and the temperature were a few degrees cooler on Koh Tao. If that was the case, we could have easily spent another week there exploring those hiking trails and snorkelling at more beaches!
Since it's still Covid time, let's also have a look at people's behavior around Covid restrictions. On Koh Samui, mask wearing was a must almost everywhere indoors and outdoors. We only took off our masks on beaches when no one was around. On Koh Phangan, mask wearing was limited to only a few indoor places. On Koh Tao, other than 7-11 convenience stores, no mask wearing was required and only the occasional person wore masks. We basically phased out mask wearing on Koh Phangan and then totally forgot about the existence of masks on Koh Tao!
In terms of restaurants and bars, Koh Samui had abundant restaurants to choose from despite fewer customers. Koh Phangan was also adequate with enough variety to keep you entertained. Koh Tao was a different story - we struggled to find restaurants that were still open, and if we were lucky and found one, the menu and supply was always limited. On one occasion, we ordered a fresh coconut juice and after waiting for 30 minutes were told they had to send someone to climb up a coconut tree and harvest a fresh coconut as they didn't have any supply in the pantry! On another day, we had to drive our scooter up and down steep roads to find some late lunch after visiting three different restaurants that were permanently out of business.
On all three islands, we were constantly offered Covid discounts and promotions. It was a bitter sweet experience with that as it made everything extremely inexpensive for us but was driven by desperate need to attract customers for the venues which made us really aware of our privileged position. For example at resorts we had discounts of 40 to 60% on our stays, and at restaurants and bars most were discounting their menus by around 20%. We rarely shared a beach or restaurant with other people. It’s something we are getting used to being the center of attention at restaurants - to the extent that we now are worrying about what life will be like when other people start to go out and we have to share!