One traveller’s paradise is another’s purgatory. Whilst some come to Thailand in search of pristine peace and tranquility, others come for the partying at which the Thais excel. Some visitors are looking for adventure, others for luxury. It is no accident that Thailand attracts almost as many tourists as the rest of southeast Asia combined, as the kingdom has beach destinations to suit all of the above requirements.
Best All-round Beach - Kantiang Beach, Koh Lanta
This beach was in 2009 selected by the UK newspaper The Sunday Times as "Best Best in Thailand", with good reason. Kantiang's charms are immediately obvious - a long bowed bay backed by an amphitheatre of jungle-clad hills and fronted by the craggy island Koh Haa, Kantiang's broad swathe of light sand begs to be sprawled on, while its waters are perfect for swimming at all tides.
It is as much what Kantiang lacks, as what it boasts, that make it so special. There are no jet-skis, no lager louts, no crowds, no seried ranks of deck-chairs, and no annoying hawkers.
The central portion of the beach is completely undeveloped, only the northern and southern ends have been developed. The owners of Pimalai Resort, the 5 star resort at the southern end of the beach, have left a stretch of 500 metres of the middle of the beach in a completely pristine condition. The beach never suffers from any litter, thanks to a zealous cleaning campaign run by Pimalai.
While the beach is as perfectly peaceful and prisitine as any traveller could wish for, it is far from a dull place to stay. There are two very popular beach bars here. The Aqua bar at the Baan Laanta resort is a comfortable and atmospheric place to socialise, particularly at high tide, when it sits perched above the water. Later on in the evening, the scene at the Why Not bar really kicks off, due to the brilliant beach band that plays here most nights in high season.
This superb location makes the resorts here very desirable. Pimalai is the best resort on the island by a mile and also, for many peoples' requirements, the best resort on the whole Andaman coast. The Baan Lanta's location makes it a good contender for the best 3 star resort on Koh Lanta. The Lanta Marine Park View is the island's best-located budget resort.
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Most Pristine Beach - Had Yao Beach, Koh Yao Noi
Koh Yao Noi is as photogenic as its presence in a National Park suggests, and is ideally situated to offer the visitor a front-row view of the incomparably beautiful karst islands rearing sheer from the waters of Phang Nga Bay.
It is as much what the island’s Had Yao beach lacks, as what it has, that make it special: along with its 400 metres of white sand accessed via a delightful bike ride along a picturesque and peaceful jungle trail, its perfect swimming water and its shady trees, Had Yao beach also benefits from the absence of any rubbish, buildings, hawkers, and often any other people at all.
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Best Family & Sports Beach - Ao Nang
Due to its central location in the Andaman Sea and to its fabulous topography and sporting opportunities, Ao Nang is, at the moment, arguably Thailand’s best all-round beach destination and is an ideal compromise between a pristine but boring beach and a fun but polluted one. Ao Nang is busy but hasn’t lost that laid-back, small-town feel; it’s developed but still retains much of its original beauty and charm.
An adventure sports mecca, the town is within easy reach of all the exciting island-hopping, climbing, fishing, snorkelling, diving and kayaking sites in Phang Nga Bay.
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Best Day-trip Beach – Phra Nang, Railay Peninsula
Phra Nang is arguably the finest beach in Thailand, if not southeast Asia. A broad strip of white sand framed by massive cliffs, Phra Nang has just enough facilities: roast chicken and salad lunches cooked on the beach, massage ladies and people inconspicuously selling cold drinks. It still thankfully lacks all the things that spoil a beach: pollution, traffic, noise, over-enthusiastic hawkers, jet-skis and lager louts.
It is a great place to do nothing much except soak up the rays and the peaceful atmosphere, admire the scenery and maybe puzzle at the ant-sized antics of the climbers battling up the rock-faces. If you are one of those for whom relaxation is aided by watching other people do energetic things, Phra Nang is the beach for you.
If you get bored of watching the climbers falling off the surrounding cliffs, then maybe wander across to Phra Nang cave and admire or envy all the huge red-tipped phalluses there.
We've chosen this as the best day-trip beach as only residents of the uber-expensive Rayavadee resort can stay on this beach, but anybody staying on Railay or in Ao nang can visit for the day.
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Most Majestic Setting – West Railay Beach
If there is a more beautiful beach in southeast Asia, it has so far eluded the authors. West Railay is framed at its northern end by a kilometre-long rock-face called the ‘Sleeping Indian Wall’ – he is lying on his back, hands folded across his midriff, his feet sticking up and with a feather sticking out of his headdress – it’s an uncanny resemblance, particularly at night.
The Thaiwand Wall, at the other end of the beach, is the largest vertical playground in the kingdom. Watch the climbers take their tumbles, or maybe just laze about with the surf tickling your toes, wondering how anybody can possibly be bothered to do something so exhausting in such a relaxing place.
After sunset West Railay beach starts to empty and by midnight is usually almost completely deserted, except for the occasional party of illicit skinny-dippers, enjoying a dip au naturel at the northern end of the beach, where there are no resorts and so no people around.
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Best Hideaway Beach - Koh Jum
Koh Jum / Koh Phu is a small island situated between Koh Lanta and Krabi Town. Whilst the southern end of the island is known as Koh Jum (‘Jum Island’), the northern part bears the entirely different name of Koh Phu (‘Phu Island’). Maybe this confusion with the name accounts for the island’s surprisingly low numbers of visitors, considering its ease of accessibility from Krabi airport.
Koh Jum / Phu is currently one of Thailand’s best destinations for those seeking unspoiled beauty and tranquility, although there’s not much to do beyond a bit of snorkeling and sun-worshipping. If you become bored with the almost inert tempo of life then spend a day exploring the island. Be careful, as the few deserted roads are unsealed and pot-holed, posing a challenge for the inexperienced motorbike rider. There is however less need to rent a bike in order to get around these days, as the local taxi service has recently been significantly upgraded: last year the island’s taxi driver added a side-car to his motorbike.
Always a good sign for those seeking a pristine tropical idyll, Koh Jum / Phu has no jetty or dock - the ferry from Krabi Town stops offshore and is met by longtail boats, into which visitors hop for the ride ashore.
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Best Eco-beach - Koh Lao Liang
Lao Liang is a small and little-known eco-resort island 20 kilometres offshore in Trang Province’s Koh Petra Marine Park. It combines peace and relaxation with world-class adventure sports, and houses guests in comfortable, zero-environmental-impact, walk-in safari-style tents. These are right on the beach, so if you fancy being lulled to sleep by the sound of waves lapping the shore, but don’t have the means to pay for luxury hotels, then this is the destination for you. None of the island’s trees were cut down during the construction of the few mostly bamboo structures on the island, and the stunning, archetypically tropical scenery has been preserved unscathed.
Towering limestone cliffs frame a beach whose powdery white sand is so clean that it squeaks underfoot. In the crystal-clear waters straight off the beach snorkellers will find all manner of exotic flora, such as inquisitive dolphins and fluorescent lionfish. Swim through a huge baitfish shoal and loose your limbs in a cloud of tiny sparkling silver fish, moving as if oppositely charged to your body and so maintaining a small but finite distance from your arms and legs, and seemingly clothing you in the most magical garment you’ve ever worn.
Lao Liang is by no means a luxury destination, lacking as it does hot showers, a la carte food and en-suite bathrooms, but is to be highly recommended for those travellers who feel that a pristine environment makes up for the lack of some creature comforts. The cash-free island has only a single resort and one low-key bar, which is a quietly sociable place in which it is easy to make friends with the staff and the other guests.
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Best Luxury Beach – Bangtao, Phuket
Phuket has now evolved into one of southeast Asia’s two most glamorous and jet-set islands, where top-flight resorts vie with each other in opulence, often to exquisite effect. If you have money and like to spend it on stylish restaurants and resorts, this is the place for you. The better Phuket gets for the well-heeled, however, the worse it becomes for budget travellers, who have now been mostly banished to scruffy doss-houses in noisy, smelly back-streets.
The quiet Bang Thao beach is one of Phuket's longest and broadest beaches, and is home to the huge Laguna complex, which comprises five luxury hotels and a golf course.
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Most Impressive Beach - Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui
Chaweng beach, one of the two good swimming beaches on Koh Samui, is the island’s longest beach and is home to most of the more up-market resorts.
Chaweng has a somewhat schizophrenic character, with the southern and northern parts slumbering away, blissfully unaware of the 24-7 beach party in perpetual full swing at the beach’s mid-point. The stray dogs roaming the beach can be a bit alarming at first, until the visitor realizes that they are not interested in tourists – unlike the bar-girls in the beer-bars lining the grotty road behind the beach, who will attempt to beguile the unwary male with feigned fascination and practiced flattery.
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Most Genteel Beach - Hua Hin
Hua Hin lies at a similarly close distance from Bangkok as does Pattaya, so for visitors with only a short time in the kingdom both are possible destinations. Whilst Pattaya is wild and hedonistic, Hua Hin is a place where quieter, usually older people prefer to spend their holidays. Young adults will likely get bored of its genteel atmosphere and early closing times, and there are better theme parks to amuse young children in Pattaya. The 5 kilometre long beach is wide, clean and well serviced by up-market resorts and restaurants.
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Wildest Party Beach - Pattaya
Once a sleepy fishing town, Pattaya first boomed during the Vietnam War as an official R&R spot, and has been a sex tourism destination trying to improve its image ever since. Now it’s Thailand’s biggest seaside resort and lives a somewhat schizophrenic life as a night-time bacchanalia and day-time children’s fun park.
The beaches are somewhat lackluster by Thai standards, but Pattaya’s huge range of facilities and convenient access from the capital’s Suwannabhumi airport make it a good destination for families who have only a short time in the kingdom.
Jomtien Beach is separated from the main Pattaya Bay by a hill and is popular among family vacationers, due to the slightly calmer atmosphere than that which prevails on Pattaya’s main beach.
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Most of the Other Beach Destinations
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