The Thai island of Koh Tao may have been in the press recently for tragic reasons, but this shouldn’t overshadow the country as a stunning holiday destination, with peaceful temples, gorgeous beaches and plenty of raucous fun too.

Of course Bangkok has been infamous for a while, with ladyboys, ping-pong shows and The Hangover II helping
to cement its reputation as a ‘What happens in…’ kind
of destination.

But after a few nights in the chaos, there are a number of ways to spend the rest of your time in Thailand.

You can head north to explore the luscious rainforest, perhaps from a high like we did, on a rock climbing course; alternatively you could head to one of the many idyllic islands dotted around the coast.

This is our first port of call, so sling your flip-flops into your bag and head to one of these perfect island paradises…


 Best for watersports: Koh Samui

This island isn’t for everyone, particularly not if what you’re after is an unspoilt, serenely beautiful corner of the world to relax in.

But if you don’t mind your tropical paradises filled with blaring night clubs, crowds of tourists, fast food chains and a bit of a seedy underbelly, then there is actually plenty of fun to be had on Samui – especially in the form of watersports.

There’s sailing, snorkelling, kayaking and kiteboarding for starters, as well as a few more extreme options – ever fancied a go on a Jetlev-Flyer? This uses powerful jets of water to blast you into the air, Iron Man-style. Book yourself a session with Water Edge Sports.

What else? Always wanted to tick ‘bungee jump’ off your bucket list? Chaweng Beach is the place to do it. The 50m jumping platform is suspended over a giant plunge pool, and you can choose whether or not you want to get dunked. 

If you’re after something a little more laid-back, consider the fishing village of Hat Bo Phut on Koh Samui, where the many local bars and restaurants will host parties, and at midnight there is a celebration with pretty lanterns and fireworks on the beach.


Best for diving: The Similan Islands

Practically every list of the world’s top diving locations rates the Similan Islands near the top, and that’s because they have some of the most jaw-dropping underwater sights.

The archipelago of nine islands is a National Marine Park with calm, clear waters (up to 30m visibility) that are ideal for underwater explorations.

The west coast is famous for its huge granite boulders that peek above the water’s surface and drop up to 50m underwater, creating tunnels and swim-throughs for divers to investigate.

Keep an eye out for the clown triggerfish and the white-tip reef sharks here, along with rare oriental sweetlips and harlequin sweetlips (both psychedelic-looking creatures).

On the east coast of the island there are lush coral gardens with sea anemones and a wide variety of reef fish, and if you’re lucky you might catch glimpses of ghost pipefish, sea moths, frogfish and ribbon eels.

Of the many famous dive sites here, Elephant Head, East  of Eden and Christmas Point are three of the most popular.

What else? The best beach in the Thai Islands is, naturally, hotly disputed, but many agree that Donald Duck Bay on Koh Similan, the most developed of the nine islands, is a strong contender.

It’s so named because you can see a huge boulder out to sea that is bizarrely shaped a lot like the cartoon character.

If you want a few hours’ break from diving, this is a great place to lay down your towel and enjoy the scenery.


Best for full moon parties: Koh Pha Ngan

Haad Rin, the beach on the far south of Koh Pha Ngan, is notorious for having the wildest, most debauched full moon parties in Thailand.

Long-standing traditions for a night out here include tripping out on magic mushroom shakes (not that we’d recommend it), drinking buckets (yes, actual buckets) of Sang Som rum with Thailand’s version of Red Bull, painting faces with fluorescent squiggles, jumping through burning skipping ropes and watching fire poi. That’s in no particular order, but is always followed by a rave on the beach that lasts until the sun comes up.

What else? If you’re feeling a little toxic after a few days of partying here, give the boozing a break and make the most of all the sports.

There are two Muay Thai boxing schools on the island where you can sign up for lessons ( or you can join in games of beach football, table tennis or volleyball at sundown on most of the bigger beaches.


Best for wildlife: Koh Tarutao

Once upon a time, the Thai government used to send its crooks to the island of Tarutao – to look at it now, this seems like the last thing that would put anyone off a life of crime.

The island is full of dense forest that’s teeming with wildlife: on the land and in the surrounding waters you can see sea turtles, whales, monitor lizards, crab-eating macaques, mouse deer and countless species of birds. Not much of a punishment, hey?

Some of the island is sign-posted in English, making it easy to follow wildlife trails, either on foot or by mountain bike (it’s easy to hire these on the island).

Just be sure to ask the island’s rangers before planning a lengthy trek, as parts of the island are more difficult to navigate than others.

What else? There is plenty of budget guesthouse accommodation on Tarutao, but it’s also very popular with campers as there are decent facilities and it rarely gets too crowded. It only costs 65p per night to camp if you have you own tent and other roughing-it equipment.


Best for exploring: Phuket

Spend the day strolling around Phuket Old Town to see shrines, temples, quirky cafes, museums and even a mini ex-red light district. Built during the tin boom in the last century, you will also see Sino-colonial mansions, once occupied by Phuket’s tin barons.

What else? To get out on the water, take a boat trip from the northern end of Phuket and wind around the stunning limestone islands, stopping off at beaches and to check out James Bond Island, so named for its starring role in The Man with the Golden Gun.


Best for Temples: Koh Sirey

It wouldn’t be right to visit Thailand without checking out at least some of its fabulous monuments to Buddhism.

Most of the really impressive temples and statues are on the mainland, but the tiny Koh Sirey, which is connected to Phuket by a bridge, has one that’s well worth exploring.

Wat Sirey, located at the top of a hill, is an unusual Buddhist temple with a series of rooms housing golden Buddha images. There’s also a giant reclining Buddha statue here. Once you’re at the top of the hill, the views of the island are every bit as impressive as the Wat itself.

What else? The island is home to hundreds of cheeky wild monkeys. Every evening islanders and tourists go to the recreation park near a mangrove swamp to feed the savvy primates their favourite bananas.


Best for swimming: Koh Phi Phi

Ko Phi Phi is probably best known for a combo of diving and partying, but the most exciting activity on the island is The Adventure Club’s shark watch tour (

This is an early morning three-hour trip on which you get to swim with black tip reef sharks.

You’re taken out on a long-tail boat to an area of shallows where the sharks like to swim, then you’re given the opportunity to do some snorkelling and swimming in the water with them.

The company is known for being environmentally conscious and promoting sustainable tourism. Plus, they’re so confident that the sharks will be there that if you don’t see any, you get a full refund.

What else? Toughen up those muscles by scaling limestone cliffs at one of Ko Phi Phi’s top rock climbing spots, such as Hin Taak Climbing Area or Ton Sai Tower.


Best for deserted beaches: Koh Kood

Well there certainly aren’t many of these left in Thailand, but there is one sandy spot that you can genuinely call secluded.

Koh Kood is an absolute pain to get to (from Bangkok it’s a flight to Trat airport, then an hour’s boat ride from the mainland), which puts off lots of tourists but explains its serenity.

But once you get there … no land lines, virtually no internet access or electricity, just clean white sands, the odd hammock tied to a palm tree and plenty of blue waters if you fancy a dip.

Aow Pharo, Bang Bao and Siam Beach are some of the most pristine stretches, perfect for a lazy day sunbathing, while Tapao Beach is also known for being a top swimming and snorkelling spot.

What else? If you can be bothered to climb out of your hammock, Koh Kood island has lots of pretty waterfalls to visit.

Klong Chao Waterfall is a top spot for splashing about and has the royal seal of approval, as it was once visited by Thailand’s King Mongkut in the 1850s.

Click NEXT to read about rock climbing in the North



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Photo: Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures


An alternative adventure to exploring Thailand’s islands is to head north to go climbing and look out over the lush jungle.  Novice Lucy Winstanley Norris went from trembling to top-of the world in no time…

“The view across the Mae On Valley is spectacular, even for northern Thailand, where waves of lush tropical jungle rising into misty hills are an everyday sight. But there’s something about this vista that is especially knee-trembling: the fact that I am 40ft up, clinging to a sheer rock face with nothing but a rope for reassurance should my fingertips fail me.

More significant than the rope, it suddenly occurs to me, is the knot, which begins to gnaw at my mind – did I fasten it tightly enough? Will it hold me if I fall?

Truth be told, at the beginning of the day I had not expected to be supported at such heights by a rope I had tied myself. Enrolling for a day’s beginner rock climbing course in the northern city of Chiang Mai, I anticipated much in the way of balancing exercises and rope-tying practice, with a little climbing in the afternoon, if I was good and impressed the instructor with my figure-of-eights.

In fact, once we’d been shown our way around a rope and harness and taught how to belay a climber, we found ourselves at the foot of what appeared to be a mighty tall cliff, squinting against the sun at the faraway summit.

This brevity is essential, I later realise: there’s very little you can learn about rock climbing from ground level. To progress at all, there’s nothing for it but to put feet and hands on solid rock and start upwards.

And so, after stepping forward (well, being shoved by my husband when the instructor asked who wants to go first), I gingerly grasp an outlying lump of rock that appears to be firmly attached to the rest of the cliff face. Jabbing the opposite foot at a narrow shelf about three inches high, I step off the ground.

Our instructor, Mario, shouts words of encouragement as I scramble for purchase on the craggy rock. “Good job!” he calls up enthusiastically when I stretch beyond my comfort zone to clip in a carabiner.

As I reach higher, and the hand-holds become shallower and seemingly invisible to the naked eye, he calls out potential places where I can re-position my fingers and feet: like magic, ledges and small protuberances emerge from the cliff, which I grab gratefully.

I’m just starting to think I’m getting the hang of it when, after about 20 minutes’ climbing, I realise I’m at the top of the route. Satisfaction soaks in and I pause for a minute, hugging the rock with my forearms for balance, and turn my head to look down. I can see two small blobs at the foot of the rock, but thankfully I am distracted from getting the wobbles by an incredible view.

While many enthusiasts head to the south – to Railay or Tonsai in Krabi, where white karsts rise out of a clear aquamarine sea – for me, the vast expanse of untamed forest is unbeatable.

Rising out of the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, Mae On’s limestone crags loom out of the foliage somewhat abruptly. Known as Crazy Horse Buttress (we’re told the rock formation resembles a horse’s head, though I can’t see the likeness), the site we’re at is home to a vibrant community of Thais, expats and travellers of all ages – as well as Buddhist monks who come here to meditate in the caves in peace.

We spend our day practising abseiling down the rock face, popping into dark caves and clambering back out again. By our final climb, we’ve learned to stay close to the rock so that, with careful balancing, the smallest of mantles will suffice to leverage our weight towards a better grip.

The distance between hand-holds is greater than before and I have to stretch further, with less to grip onto. At times only the very tips of my toes are touching the wall as I lean towards ever scarcer, and ever smaller, ledges and outcrops.

My fingers and forearms scream with the strain. By the time I reach the top, I am physically and mentally exhausted, but looking out makes it all worthwhile. The miles of bamboo forest roll out beneath me like an emerald carpet, broken only by the sky in the distance. Unlike some of the other vistas I’ve seen in Thailand, this view I feel I’ve earned.”

Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures offers one-day courses from $125pp