If you’re wondering how to travel between Thai islands, wonder no more! This guide is a 101 on hopping from rock to rock in this wonderful corner of the planet. It’s essential reading for anyone planning that once-in-a-lifetime adventure to the sun-splashed waters of the Andaman Sea or the Thai Gulf, helping cut down the stresses of A to B trips to let you focus on your hammock swinging and Chang drinking.
Before we get to it, we’d just say this: The Thai islands are some of the most accessible islands in the world. There’s a pretty fantastic ferry network linking most of them together, while some even boast their own airports. Smaller isles that aren’t as well known might require a bit more pre-planning and legwork but the big players – Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui – should be a cinch to get to.
This guide has all you need to know about catching boats, hopping between islands by plane, using those classic Thai longboats (everyone has to do that at least once!), and more. It’ll also lay a little groundwork for first-time travelers, to help you make the most of your island-hopping adventure to the home of peanut-topped noodles and mango sticky rice. Let’s begin…
Thailand’s two main island regions
You can make your trips between islands in Thailand a whole load easier at the planning stage. It’s hardly rocket science that picking islands that are nice and close together is a good way to minimize the traveling you’ll have to do once you’re on the ground in the Land of Smiles.
With that in mind, there are really two main groups to know about:
- The Andaman Islands – These are the western islands of Thailand, on the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. They are famed for their rugged karst cliffs (which you’ve surely seen in the travel brochures, eh?) and marine parks. The Andaman group includes famous names like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta but also plenty of small islands with more local vibes.
- The Thai Gulf – This is the sea in the middle of Thailand, on the eastern side of the mainland and south of Bangkok. The islands here are a little more spread out from each other, apart from the main clutch of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. This region is known for its glorious beaches, nightlife, and world-class diving.
Now, it certainly is possible to travel between the two island groups in Thailand. We’ll talk about that in more detail later on but suffice to say that doing so will add at least one long journey into the mix. If you’re short on time – limited to a week or a week and a half, say – then we usually recommend picking just one region and making the most of that.
How to travel between Thai islands by boat
Boat is the most popular way to move from island to island in Thailand. Some connections are quick, taking just 20 minutes or even less. Others can take upwards of five hours and involve multiple changeovers. The good news is that the vast majority of the most popular Thai islands are now linked to major mainland ports and/or other isles by commercial ferry. On top of that, there’s a decent network of pricier and faster speedboats linking out to smaller islands in both the Andaman and Gulf regions.
It’s worth getting to know the various types of boats that you can expect to find in Thailand:
- Normal ferries – The backbone of Thailand’s ferry network are large boats that can carry hundreds of passengers at any one time. These operate on the popular routes – Samui to Koh Phangan, Phuket to Phi Phi – and leave multiple times each day.
- High-speed ferries and catamarans – There are now quite a few fast ferries on offer on key routes. They are usually a little bit pricier than the standard ferry options but get from A to B a whole load quicker, leaving you more time to laze on the beach and explore those enthralling island temples. These are smaller boats, so tickets can be limited.
- Speedboats – Speedboats are the fastest sort of boat in Thailand. They whiz at 50-100km/hour through both seas, and operate on both popular and lesser-known routes. They are usually the most expensive way of traveling. There’s only space for 20-30 people on these boats.
- Longtail boats – The iconic Thai longtail boat is a staple when it comes to covering shorter distances and getting to more off-the-beaten-path islands. These are pretty, wood-built vessels with a motor attached to the back. They tend to operate routes that the commercial ferries don’t run on, or fill in as water taxis going between beaches. The rate for a private longtail boat for the day is around 3000 THB ($87) as of 2023.
Don’t be surprised if you need to add in a changeover when you go between islands in Thailand by boat. That could involve switching to a different sort of vessel or just hanging around for the connection to where you want to go. There are even times when it might be necessary to move between ports. Thankfully, taxis and songthaews (cheap local buses) know that and are usually ready and waiting to whisk you to the right boarding point.
How to travel between Thai islands by plane
There are just two islands in Thailand that have the added benefit of their own airport. The first is the hub of the eastern islands: Koh Samui. The second is the largest island in the country: Phuket. The best way to look at these two is as a gateway to their respective regions or as a good bridge between the two regions themselves, the Andaman in the west and the Thai Gulf in the east.
Over on Koh Samui, Bangkok Airways run and operate the airport. It’s a downright fantastic airport at that, with open-air departure halls, free coffee and tea, and boutique stores lining the concourses. It’s served by almost-hourly links to and from Bangkok, along with regular connections to Chiang Mai and Phuket besides. You’ll land just south of ferry ports that host boats linking to Koh Phangan but about 35 minutes’ drive across the island from the bigger ferry ports in Nathon and Lipa Noi.
Phuket International Airport, meanwhile, reigns as the third-busiest airport in Thailand. It’s not privately owned like its compadre over on Koh Samui, which means you can pick from a whole range of different carriers, including long-haulers. Yep, arrivals here include connections with Singapore Airlines, TUI from London, and Qatar Airways via Doha. Most importantly for those wondering how to travel between Thai islands, however, there are short-haul domestic links on Bangkok Airways from Koh Samui.
There’s one more airport that you should know about when you come to string together island-hopping trips in Thailand. That’s Krabi Airport. It’s not technically on an island but is the gateway to the eastern Andaman region. Land there – and there are daily links from Samui and Bangkok – and you could be lazing on the gold-tinged beaches of Koh Lanta after a mere two hours’ transfer.
How to travel between Thai islands by car or bus
Nope, there aren’t highways crisscrossing the shimmering seas of Thailand. But there are a couple of islands that can be accessed by car or bus because they enjoy good road links to the mainland.
The most obvious one is Phuket. You can literally drive right across on the big Sarasin Bridge, which links Phuket to Phang-Nga Province. That makes it possible to drive over from the port in Krabi after coming off boats from other islands like Phi Phi, Lanta, or Koh Jum. But it also means you can drive all the way down from Bangkok to get your island hopping started, though that is at least an overnight trip on hectic roads.
Then there’s Koh Lanta. The long, thin isle is one of the stand-out draws of the Andaman region. It’s got beach towns to suit just about everyone, from party hubs to romantic honeymoon spots. It doesn’t have a permanent bridge link just yet (we’ve heard it’s in the works and will be done by 2025 at the latest) but you can drive over thanks to a regular car ferry that leaves every 30 minutes or so. That’s super helpful when you’re looking to connect from other islands like Phuket or have made the long trip over from the Thai Gulf by road.
Getting from the Thai Gulf to the Andaman
One of the biggest questions we get asked about how to travel between Thai islands is how to move between the two main island regions. The answer? There are two ways: Overland with boat connections or by flying. They both have their upsides…
- Flying – Flights operate between Samui Airport and Krabi and Phuket over in the Andaman every day. They can be pricy – like $100+ per person – but are reliable, aren’t affected by weather, and take less than an hour in the sky.
- Overland with boats – Because there’s such a big price difference in this, most people still go for the overland and boat combo, which costs $20-30 per person. Expect a long day, no matter if you’re traveling east to west or west to east. Things will begin with a ferry off of the island you’re currently staying on. Then you’ll board a minivan to drive the whole breadth of central Thailand. Then you’ll need to hop on another boat to get to where you want to go on the far side. It’s not unusual for these trips to take over seven hours a pop!
How to travel between Thai islands – our conclusion
Thailand has some of the most alluring islands on the planet. Visions of talcum-white beaches and hills topped by tufts of rainforest abound here, as do deluxe hotels with infinity pools just meters from the Indian Ocean. Thankfully, said islands are also typically rather easy to access…
A comprehensive ferry and boat network means you can get between the most famous isles in just a few hours in most cases, provided they are close enough together. On top of that, some islands even benefit from their own airport and flight arrivals. Getting to smaller, lesser-known islands will be trickier but can be done, mainly due to longtail boat taxis and speedboat links.