It is a monsoon honeymoon. The two newlyweds from desert-dry Dubai have come to the Gulf of Thailand in the rainy season. As the heavens open on day one, they run to the beach and stretch out on "sun" lounges, revelling in rain, glorious rain. From inundation to scuba diving to gourmet dining, Thailand's Gulf islands cater to most tastes. We sample six of the best islands, starting in the east.
- Koh Kood *
In the Gulf's far eastern Koh Chang Archipelago, Koh Kood is the country's fourth-largest island. Its range of resorts is limited but the quality can be good, including Cham's House, Peter Pan Resort and the excellent Soneva Kiri (about as far up-market as one can go without needing oxygen). Koh Kood's sands haven't been hived off to beach umbrella bosses or its transport to taxi extortionists, as in some other places. There's great diving and snorkelling and some river kayaking. In general, on untrammelled, undeveloped and jungle-clad Koh Kood there's not that much to do for visitors who specifically don't want much to do.
·Getting there: Fly to Trat, transfer to the pier for the fast ferry to Koh Kood.
- Koh Chang *
Koh Chang (Elephant Island) is now a significant earner on Thai tourism's balance sheet. The kingdom's second-largest island (at 492sqkm), it is still mostly jungle and sandy coves. The aptly named White Sand Beach (Hat Sai Khao) is the main place here for a seafood-eating, novel-reading, hair-braiding sort of holiday, while other places such as Bang Bao and Klong Prao offer a more local flavour. Much of the west coast has been rapidly and unsympathetically developed so, if you're looking for peace and quiet, research well before booking; the little cottages at Blue Lagoon might do the trick. There are 47 islands in the Koh Chang National Park group, offering good diving and day trips, although most do not have accommodation. Meanwhile, Koh Chang itself has good restaurants, beach dining, loads of cheap shopping, massages galore and civilised little bars.
·Getting there: A six-hour drive south-east from Bangkok, or fly to Trat, plus a ferry ride from Laem Ngop.
- Koh Samet *
At less than a half-day's travel south-east from Bangkok, you might expect little Koh Samet to be over-paved and full of ravers. On the contrary, this forested national park island off Rayong has tranquil beaches and a low-key "scene". Most accommodation is bungalows, plus a few up-market retreats such as Ao Prao Resort. There are no "must-see" activities, just beachcombing, beach dining (with fire-dancers and drummers) and swimming. Other tourist pursuits include getting around on hired motorbikes or quad bikes, and (later) drinking "buckets" of local rum. Weekdays feel like a siesta while weekends are definitely busier. Samet embodies a signature, Thai-style contradiction in being both a "protected" national park and intensively developed, particularly along the eastern beaches below Hat Sai Kaew.
·Getting there: Three hours drive from Bangkok to Ban Phe, then a ferry. Foreigners pay 400 baht ($14.80) national park entrance fee.
- Koh Samui *
The first foreign tourists on Samui, some 45 years ago, had free accommodation. As the island had no hotel they had to sleep in a temple. Today, this tourist magnet in the western sector of the Gulf (off Surat Thani) hosts more than a million visitors a year. There are two faces to its development: the teeming pub-and-club backpacker strips at Chaweng and Lamai beaches, and a coterie of exclusive resorts such as the superb Four Seasons, Intercontinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam and Six Senses Hideaway. Tex-Mex restaurants, Swiss pubs and dive shops confirm that you are in modern Thailand but a rugged jungle interior and a chain of west-coast beaches (best at high tide) are your getaway zones on this 25km-long island.
·Getting there: Bangkok Airways has multiple flights daily from Bangkok direct to Samui. A ferry runs from Surat Thani.
- Koh Phangan *
About 15km north of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan was once known principally for its full-moon beach raves at Hat Rin. Then came the half-moon and no-moon parties. In their wake, a number of resorts of growing sophistication have made the island more than a backpacker haunt. There are now about 200 accommodation options, ranging from bungalows to luxury pool suites. "Try getting away from Hat Rin. It's no more Phangan than Bangkok is Thailand," advises one blogger, sagely. If you follow that suggestion, other Phangan beaches such as Hat Mae, Hat Yao and Hat Sadet still allow the kicked-back, siesta'd-out stay you've dreamed of.
·Getting there: Speedboat or ferry from Bophut or Maenam on Koh Samui.
- Koh Ang Thong *
Just north-west of Koh Samui you'll find Mu Koh Ang Thong National Marine Park, a scattering of 42 islands with spectacular limestone formations, caves and lagoons. Ang Thong (Golden Jar) was also the fictional setting for the Alex Garland's novel, The Beach. There are daytrips and kayak excursions but little accommodation. With excellent scuba diving, snorkelling and kayaking, this archipelago is good for a very long day-trip by speedboat or a more leisurely live-aboard boat excursion. Expect to encounter both crowds and seclusion, depending on which island you visit. There is limited bungalow accommodation; book well ahead through an agent or the national park service.
·Getting there: Daytrip launch from Koh Samui. Ang Thong is closed during November and most of December for nature rehabilitation.