Despite being voted as one of the top 10 islands in the world by a British newspaper and having a spate of resort development to handle its newfound status, Ko Mak remains a sleepy and lovely alternative to nearby Ko Chang, and certainly one of the best beach escapes in reasonable proximity to Bangkok. The island boasts several lovely white sand beaches, some beautiful turquoise water, and a laid back vibe, which attracts a big family crowd who come back year after year. With plenty of speed boats and connections to both the mainland and Ko Chang, it is easy to wander around the entire archipelago, and it is well worth it to spend at least one morning swimming and sunning off of Ko Kham, a beautiful islet just off Ko Mak's Ao Suan Yai beach, easily reached by a 10 minute kayak paddle across the bay. The longest and nicest beach to stay on, with the most choice of food and accommodations is Ao Khao in the south.
Recommended for Beaches because: For a combination of beaches and small island life, you can't beat Ko Mak.
Dave's expert tip: To get to Ko Mak, you need to get to Trat first, reachable from Bangkok's Ekkamai Bus Station (4-5 hours) or else on the daily short flight on Bangkok Air. From Trat, tour agents will get you transport to the pier and your choice of ferry or speed boat service to get out to the island. You can also get to Ko Mak from Ko Chang if you want to visit more than one island while out in the Gulf.
Koh Kood is considered by those who know it to be one of the last real paradises left in Asia. Nowhere near as built up as its neighbor, Koh Chang, Ko Kood sports some of Thailand's last empty white sand beaches with nary a development in sight. There are many upscale boutique lodging options here. and with no nightlife to speak of, activities are mainly limited to relaxing, visiting some of the island's waterfalls, or kayaking in the beautiful emerald water. The island caters primarily to Bangkok Thais on package tours, however in recent years there have been many more resorts springing up aimed at the foreign market. Things will invariably change here, but for now, Koh Kood remains a sleepy place and a lovely tropical holiday escapist paradise.
Recommended for Beaches because: For real empty beaches in paradise, Koh Kood is one of the few left standing.
Dave's expert tip: To get to Koh Kood, you need to get to Trat town first, done either by flying Bangkok Air or else taking a bus from the Ekkamai Bus Station in Bangkok. Once in Trat, one can arrange either a speed boat or rapid ferry out to the island, with most companies including free return transport out to the Laem Sok pier from Trat.
Sleepy Koh Si Chang sees few foreign tourists. Set in the Bight of Bangkok, it receives a lot of shipping barges docked in its port, and for the most part, only gets busy on weekends, when Bangkokians wanting a bit of a city escape make the quick drive down. There is only one beach here, Hat Tham Phang, over on the west side of the island, which does offer some nice white sand and swimming. It's also worth coming here though just to explore around the small island and its quirky temples, clifftop sunset views, and there is even an old colonial palace of King Rama V to check out. There is plenty of good seafood, and prices are reasonable, without any of the hassles of the more popular islands. On Si Chang, locals just stick to their daily lives, with tourism being a very small part of it.
Recommended for Beaches because: For the sleepiest beach escape near Bangkok, Ko Si Chang is it.
Dave's expert tip: To get here, take a bus from Bangkok's Ekkamai Eastern bus station for two hours to Sri Racha. From the station, take a tuk tuk or motorcycle taxi to the Si Chang pier, from where it's a 40 minute ferry ride over to the island.
It is amazing to think that one can find such clear water just off the coast of Pattaya and so near to Bangkok, but here it is. Ko Larn is a small isle, reached by a short ferry or speed boat ride from the pier in Pattaya. It gets very crowded during the day with day trippers from Pattaya, but if you choose to spend the night here, you will have it mostly to yourself, a million miles from the raucous nightlife across the bay. There are several nice white sand beaches on Ko Larn, the biggest of which is Tawaen on the east side, a short motorcycle taxi ride from the port town of Naban. Samae Beach on the west side is also very inviting and less crowded.Parasailing, banana boat rides, jet skis, and all the other water sport activities are available here, and there are plenty of places to eat and sleep should you be tempted to extend your stay.
Recommended for Beaches because: For white sand beaches and a pleasant Pattaya surprise, Ko Larn is super.
Dave's expert tip: Ferries run every hour or two to different locations on Ko Larn from the Bali Hai Pier in Pattaya, with the most frequent departures going to Naban Port. From Naban, motorcycle taxis await passengers to whisk them off to the beaches, or you can also hire you own if you want to tool around the island.
Famed for its history as a royal residence, Hua Hin remains Bangkok's most popular weekend seaside getaway. While the five kilometer beach isn't anything overwhelmingly special, not to mention quite crowded with families at its center, the town still retains a very local village feel, with excellent food, especially at its bustling night market, where fresh fish is served to every table. Hua Hin also has an excellent choice of resorts of every price, and is easily accessible by rail, bus, and car from Bangkok in just a few hours time. To get a more secluded feel, stay outside of town at one of the fancier, hip, and self-contained resorts like Baba Beach Club for a real escape. Golf courses are also in abundance, bringing down scores of Tiger Woods wannabees every weekend, and the town also hosts plenty of festivals throughout the year, such as the International Jazz Festival, which draws top acts from around the world.
Recommended for Beaches because: For being Bangkok's nearest nice beach, enjoy Hua Hin.
Dave's expert tip: The fastest way to get here via public transport is to take the BTS Skytrain in Bangkok to the Victory Monument station, and then grab a minivan from here. The vans leave throughout the day as soon as they get 10 passengers, and only cost 120 baht, and get to Hua Hin in less than 2 hours.
Koh Samet is the closest thing resembling the island paradises you'll find further south (such as Koh Samui or Phuket) without having to travel far from Bangkok. While its old hippie days and sleepy island days are long gone, the island still boasts nice white sand beaches, and the water here is far cleaner than in places like Hua Hin or Pattaya. You do have to pay a ridiculous "national park" fee of 200 baht, despite the island being full of 7-11s, endless development, and nothing suggesting national park status (other than in name), but if you come during the week, you'll find some of the beaches pretty quiet, especially the further south down the island you go. Sai Kaew beach gets packed with Thai partiers on weekends, and you'll have to share the surf with jet skis and banana boats, but south of Ao Wong Deuan, things get pretty tranquil.
Recommended for Beaches because: For Bangkok's fastest real island escape, Koh Samet is the one.
Dave's expert tip: Don't be mislead by the touts at the Ban Phe boat pier telling you that you have to buy a return ticket in advance. They are the same price from the other side.
Khao Sam Roi Yod is one of the better day trips a family can make from Bangkok. The National Park has something for everyone, from some nice beaches to excellent hiking, sea views, and a magical royal throne located inside of a mountainside cave. Additionally, the park is home to hundreds of migratory birds which call in here during the winter season. Besides the quiet beaches, the excellent hiking and views, and the over 300 species of birds, many of them migrating from Siberia and Europe, the most astounding sight here is the Phraya Nakhorn Cave and its eerie royal thronel pavilion with a four gabled roof sitting in the middle of it, Getting to the cave involves a 20 minute climb up over a mountain, from where one descends into a huge cavern. In the early morning, light filters in from the openings and creates a dramatic and surreal effect on the surroundings.
Recommended for Beaches because: For a mix of birdlife, scenery, hiking, beaches, and a surreal cave, Khao Sam Roi Yod is a must visit national park.
Dave's expert tip: It's best to have your own transport to get here, although you can arrange a taxi or motorbike from Pranburi town.
One of Bangkok's quickest beach getaways, Cha-am is packed with Thais on the weekends, as hordes of Bangkokians come down to eat the fresh seafood and escape the city heat and smog. While the main beach here is nothing special, further north you'll find few people and even some nice stretches of white sand. Often lumped together with neighboring Hua Hin, Cha-am is a bit more subdued, and there is an excellent choice here of posh private resorts, such as the happening BaBa Beach Club, to choose from. The seafood here is outstanding, and if you like kite boarding, or just generally flying kites, you'll love it here, as the strong winds that sweep the region make it an excellent spot to fly. There's even an annual kite festival held here every year, one of Thailand's more unique local fiestas.
Recommended for Beaches because: For inexpensive seafood and a quick beach escape, Cha-am is worth a trip.
Dave's expert tip: You can get here via minivan from Bangkok, or even charter a whole private taxi for around 2,000 baht.
Ban Krut is reminiscent of the Thailand of old. While it is popular with Bangkok Thais, especially on the weekends and holidays, it still flies under the average tourist radar. There aren't many bars or shopping malls, but if you are looking for peace and quiet along a sweeping 5 kilometer sandy beach, this is your spot. There are a handful of reasonably priced resorts here, and not a whole lot to do, other then the short trek up to the beautiful Khao Tong Jai pagoda, a golden palace which stands on top of a mountain overlooking the northern end of the beach. Only 3-4 hours from Bangkok, Ban Krut remains a perfect escapist retreat.
Recommended for Beaches because: For being the best kept beach secret nearest to Bangkok, Ban Krut is wonderful.
Dave's expert tip: Without your own wheels, the 8:05 express out of Bangkok will put you into Ban Krut in time for lunch, and is the most convenient way to access the town.
Prachuap Khiri Khan is one of Thailand's least discovered destinations. The extra hour or two it takes past Hua Hin to get here keeps the Bangkok weekend escapists at bay. While the main town beach isn't anything special, you can head to Ao Manao beach located on the Wing 5 Airforce Base property (you need to show ID and sign in at the checkpost to access it) just outside of town, which is one of the most pristine strips of pure white sand around. During holiday periods, the Air Force also open up access to climb Khao Lommuak mountain, a steep rock scramble which has been made accessible via ropes, giving stunning panoramas from the top. There are lots of cute dusky langur monkeys at the base of the climb, so tame they'll even perch on your shoulders for photos. Seafood in Prachuap is some of Thailand's freshest and most inexpensive, and there's a lovely night market along the beach with tons of simple eateries to choose from.
Recommended for Beaches because: For Thailand's most inexpensive and sleepy beach escape, Prachuap Khiri Khan is at the top of the list.
Dave's expert tip: You can take a bus from Bangkok's southern bus terminal to get here, but the morning express train is a faster and better option.