Thailand has long been one of the most exotic vacation destinations for Westerners. From true-if-cliche images of smiling people and sublime palm-fringed beaches, to the sophisticated lure of Bangkok and the country's legendary cuisine, this nation seems to have been blessed by the Buddhist gods from all angles.
Still, for the intrepid traveler, it can be altogether disheartening to travel halfway around the world only to find your dream Thai beach packed with your fellow Statesmen (behaving badly, to boot) and an abundance of 7-11 and Starbucks-related signage.
For sure, the well-trodden beaches of Ko Phi Phi, Ko Samui and Ko Phangan are exquisitely beautiful. But if you're looking for a private piece of paradise away from Thailand's tourist masses, follow our lead to some of the former Siam's more serene escapes.
Koh Lao Liang
Offshore from Trang province, in southern Thailand, Ko Lao Liang is an enigma for most foreign tourists, who tend to stick to Krabi province to the north. And that probably has a lot do with why Thais on weekend trips from Bangkok consider the island one of their country's best-kept island secrets. Limestone cliffs tower over a perfect crescent of white-sand beach on Ko Lao Liang, and upscale sea camping tents provide eco-minded and comfortable accommodation within earshot of the gently lapping sea. You can arrange boat tours just offshore, where reefs painted the colors of the rainbow in soft coral formations teem with clownfish and swaying anemones.
A 1-hour flight from Bangkok, the island of Phuket, on Thailand's Andaman coast, is about as undiscovered as Disneyland. But armed with some insider knowledge, you can still experience the island's stunning beaches in relative peace and isolation. Nai Harn Beach, on the southern end of Phuket, has just a smattering of hotels along a thickly forested shore, and is a favorite destination for island locals. For a great snorkeling spot that's quieter still, take the dirt road from The Royal Phuket Yacht's Club's parking lot to the tiny beach of Ao Sane.
International rock jocks have long had Railay on the radar; the limestone karst formations jutting eerily from the landscape here are heavily bolted with climbing routes reaching skyward. Such a sporty slant to the beach means the sugary sands at Railay remain relatively lonely -- particularly compared with the people-patterned patches of beach elsewhere in Krabi province. From Krabi's chief built-up beach town of Ao Nang, it's just a 15-minute trip by longtail boat to Railay. However, perched outside your thatched bungalow with a frosty Singha beer in hand, you'll feel eons away.
Isolation, like many good things, often comes with a hefty price tag. If you can afford the limited luxury accommodation offerings on this island in the Ko Chang chain -- situated very close to Cambodia on Thailand's east coast -- you're sure to relish a private Thai beach experience. Past problems with Cambodia have been resolved, but the fact that Ko Kood (also called Ko Kut) was inaccessible to outsiders for many years has kept it relatively off the tourist radar. The beaches here have been likened to those of the Maldives, and you'll have your run of inland waterfalls and lush hiking trails, too.
Afloat in the Andaman Sea, off the southwest coast of Thailand, Ko Lipe is 1 of more than 50 islands in Ko Tarutao National Park. With a thick jungle interior dotted with coconut farms that opens onto perfect cove beaches lapped by crystal water, the tiny island conjures castaway fantasies. And Ko Lipe's residents -- renowned for their mind-blowing ability to free dive to great depths -- are predominantly sea gypsies who most likely originated in Indonesia.
Also part of Ko Tarutao National Park, Ko Adang is one of the larger islands in the archipelago. Apart from its beautiful beaches, you can explore inland waterfalls once used by passing pirate ships to replenish their water supplies. Hiking trails abound. In addition, if you visit between September and December, you're likely to see green sea turtles lumbering ashore after dark to deposit their eggs in the sugar-fine sands.
After Phuket -- its far more popular and crowded big sister -- Ko Chang is Thailand's second-largest island. Situated in the province of Trat in eastern Thailand, near the Cambodian border, the island is famed for its national park -- a protected area of thick forests and rocky bays. The white sandy beaches are mostly found on the island's west coast, and even though development is ever-increasing, there's still a blissfully forgotten feel to the place. The aptly named Lonely Beach, on the southern end of the island's west coast, is one of the best places to soak up some solo time on the sand. For the region's best snorkeling and diving, hire a longtail boat to take you to the tiny islands just off Ko Chang's southern coast.