Showdown: Koh Phangan or Koh Samui or Koh Tao?

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Showdown: Koh Phangan or Koh Samui or Koh Tao

When visiting Thailand, the question is often asked: “Should I go to Koh Samui or Koh Phangan?” or, “Which is better for diving? Koh Samui or Koh Tao?”

The truth is, each of the three Kohs offers something very different, and it’s going to come down to what you’re looking for rather than any one island being ‘better’ than the others. Koh Phangan has a justified reputation as the party island, while more heavily developed Koh Samui is obviously catered more towards families and older travelers. Oft overlooked Koh Tao, with its world class scuba diving and snorkeling, and laid back vibe is an obvious draw for those who want to experience natural beauty without the seedier feel of Koh Phangan.

But, if we’re looking for a straight up comparison, here’s a showdown based on my visit to all three islands last year.

Accommodation

This one’s a bit of a hands down win to Koh Samui. As the most tourist-friendly of the islands, it’s got the greatest selection of properties. From your run of the mill backpackers to more upscale Koh Samui guest houses to the exclusive resorts that have begun to dominate the island; there’s plenty of options for all budgets.

If it’s luxury villas and vacation rentals, Koh Samui is by far the winner. With so many 6* villas dotted around the island, all offered by Tempston Luxury, this island is the winner for luxury accommodation.

Sipping the titular 'lime and soda' at Lime & Soda Resort, Koh Phangan.
Sipping the titular ‘lime and soda’ at Lime & Soda Resort, Koh Phangan.

Koh Phangan also boasted quite a few options that ranged from affordable ‘beachside’ resorts like Lime & Soda to dingy little backpackers that seemed to be held together by good vibes and rusty nails. There were also a few pricier options for those wanting to feel pampered.

Koh Tao had a smaller selection of accommodation options, but that’s to be expected from a place marketed more at backpackers than the broader demographic.

Result: Koh Samui win. Koh Phangan runner up.

Score: Koh Samui: 2. Koh Phangan: 1. Koh Tao: 0

Beaches

Let’s face it, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to good beaches in virtually any coastal town in Thailand. These three islands are no different.

Bottle Beach has become a not-so-well-kept-secret, but it's still gorgeous
Bottle Beach has become a not-so-well-kept-secret, but it’s still gorgeous

That said, as a beach purist who has been spoiled by growing up in Australia, I wasn’t overly impressed with most of Thailand’s beaches. You seemed to have the option of surf or a pretty beach, whereas in Australia beaches that don’t meet both criteria are the exception.

Koh Phangan’s town area doesn’t boast much in the way of beaches, but the island does have the well loved Bottle Beach with its white sand, pleasantly clear waters, and isolation. It may be a bit of a hike to get there overland, but renting a boat to take you over is an affordable option and gives you a nice journey along the way.

One of many beautiful beaches on Koh Phangan
One of many beautiful beaches on Koh Phangan

Koh Tao’s beach seemed to be a bit of a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde job. When we arrived at low tide it was a rather gross and muddy expanse, but the next day’s high tide made for a far more pleasant experience. Even then, the actual beach itself is rather small when it comes to staking out a spot on the sand.

Koh Samui’s main beach was a windy affair when we visited, but it had ample sand and the water was pleasant and actually had some surf. That could have had a lot to do with the wind and an offshore storm, though.

For me, Bottle Beach is enough to give Koh Phangan the edge here. It was a truly lovely stretch of quiet beach that didn’t have the crowds of Koh Samui’s main beach, or the muddy bottom of Koh Tao’s.

Result: Koh Phangan win. Koh Tao runner up.

Score: Koh Phangan – 3. Koh Samui – 2. Koh Tao – 1.

Night Life

The home of the Full Moon party is an obvious choice in this category, but let’s not call it just yet. After all, not everybody is drawn to parties full of bright lights, drug use, and the opportunity to get date raped by a complete stranger. Case in point: I was there for a Full Moon Party and decided to have a quiet night in instead.

Classy. Photo from SMH.com.au
Classy. Photo from SMH.com.au

 

While Koh Phangan’s Full Moon and Half Moon Parties are a draw to undersexed people with poor music taste across the world, they’re hardly the be all and end all when it comes to a good time. In fact, Koh Phangan was remarkably quiet for the rest of the time we were on the island. There’s certainly not a great many happening night spots on the island.

Koh Tao surprised me with its night life. With quite a few bars leading to the waterfront, there certainly seemed to be something going on every night. Lady boy shows and pub crawls ensured there were crowds of boozy foreigners out every single night we were on the island.

Koh Samui boasts the greatest selection of bars of the three, but given the island feels more geared towards families and older travelers, things felt a little more sedate on the tourist friendly island.

In this case, I’m going to give the edge to Koh Tao for its greater selection and laid back backpacker vibe.

Result: Koh Tao win. Koh Phangan runner up.

Score: Koh Phangan – 4. Koh Tao – 3. Koh Samui – 2.

Activities

Family friendly Koh Samui has an obvious edge here, with the large tourist numbers translating into an abundance of things to do on Koh Samui. There are plenty of cultural sites (such as the Big Buddha) as well as naturally beautiful spots on the island including waterfalls, mountains, and marine parks; but there are also the more directly tourist driven activities such as Muay Thai fights, zoos, aquariums, and outdoor adventure tours.

Watch as I gracefully enter the water!
Watch as your fellow travelers gracefully enter the water!

Koh Tao, being a small and less developed island, thrives on the back of its excellent snorkeling and diving. As that’s a separate category, though, I won’t give the island points for that here.

Koh Phangan has a number of tours and self-proclaimed ‘eco-adventures’, as well as the obligatory elephant riding and off-roading that seem to be Thailand’s bread and butter.

The world's dodgiest zipline on Koh Phangan. Your brake was a stick!
The world’s dodgiest zipline on Koh Phangan. Your brake was a stick!

When you take away the water sports and beaches (both judged as separate categories), Koh Samui really has a sizable edge here.

Result: Koh Samui win. Koh Phangan runner up.

Score: Koh Phangan – 5. Koh Samui – 4. Koh Tao- 3.

Food

With tourists come a greater selection of food, and it’s here that Koh Samui really stood out for me. After a few days on Koh Phangan, we were thrilled to have a few more food options at our disposal than just resort food and dodgy Mexican. Koh Samui has all of the usual delicious Thai options, but its more cosmopolitan feel also meant there were great Italian, Brazilian, Indian, Mexican, and other restaurants to give a bit of variety. We also loved the large outdoor food market with its cheap street eats.

"Traditional food" at the Koh Phangan night market.
“Traditional food” at the Koh Phangan night market.

Koh Phangan had a servicable selection of restaurants with cheap prices, but we were surprised to find a better selection on Koh Tao. Choppers’ burgers still rank as #2 behind the world renowned Ferburger in New Zealand for mine, and we found a great bagel shop on Koh Tao as well.

Result: Koh Samui win. Koh Tao runner up.

Score: Koh Samui – 6. Koh Phangan – 5. Koh Tao – 4.

Diving and Snorkeling

This one’s a bit of a landslide victory to Koh Tao, really. The place is renowned across Thailand for the quality of its reefs, and we were certainly not disappointed when we spent a day snorkeling and getting horrendously sunburned on the island.

Photo courtesy of Asia Divers.
Photo courtesy of Asia Divers.

We didn’t get the chance to do any snorkeling or diving on Koh Samui, but did spend a day paddling about on Koh Phangan that was pleasant without being particularly memorable.

Result: Koh Tao win. Koh Phangan runner up.

Score: Koh Samui – 6. Koh Phangan – 6. Koh Tao – 6.

Result

By a complete fluke (I swear) we’ve ended up with a three-way draw. I guess that plays into the fact that all three have their own merits depending on what you’re looking for.

We spent a week on Koh Phangan, four days on Koh Samui, and a measly two days on Koh Tao and enjoyed all of them.

If I had to make a call, I did enjoy Koh Phangan more, but that had a lot to do with the fact we actually did something there. We were very lazy on Koh Samui, and Koh Tao was basically a hit and run so we could do a bit of snorkeling and say we’d hit all three.

I’d definitely pay another visit to Koh Samui and Koh Tao if I breezed back through Thailand again, as I’ve got unfinished business on both islands.

koh phangan or koh tao or koh samui

Your Say

Have you been to any of the famous Kohs in Thailand? I’m not just talking about the three mentioned in this post, either.

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24 comments

    • The Full Moon Party is on Koh Phangan, so that’s definitely the best place to base yourself if you’re planning to attend.

      While boats do run from the other islands, Koh Phangan is a fun place to base yourself.

  1. Hi my name is Janice! My daughter and I recently just moved to Koh Samui, and i have a question? in one of the photos it shows a photo of a fish with several fish around it. What kind of fish is that?

  2. Out of curiosity i read ur comparison of the three islands only to find out that it is rather biased towards Ko Phangan.

    I would like to add that whenever i had been to Ko Samui or Ko Phangan, no matter which beach, the water always appeared murky with low visibility while the water at beaches on Ko Tao were always crystal clear.

    In my humble opinion Shark Bay on Ko Tao as well as Ko Nang Yuan the tiny island off the Sairee Beach shore of Ko Tao are the prettiest beaches in the whole area as long you love Coconut Palm Trees, soft white sand, turquoise crystal clear water.

    In terms of diving however its true Ko Tao is a diving destination, the island is dotted with dive shops and schools which also makes a fundive being really effordable but you better forget about world class diving as by now almost all corals around the island are dead.
    But at least u can rent snorkeling gear and a kayak everywhere while this is another story on Ko Phangan.

  3. I’m choosing Samui as I want to stay in a luxury private pool villa, I’ve been to Samui and Phanghan before, enjoyed Phanghan more but I really didn’t do anything when I was on Samui previous times, so I’ll be making more of an effort this time. I’ve no real interest in Ko Tao, things to do are limited from what I know, aside from scuba and drinking beer with backpackers, both of which I’d prefer to avoid.

    My favourite beach getaway in Thailand is Ao Nang though, pure tourist trap but there’s so much to do, climbing and exploring and the amazing beaches around Rilay.

    • Samui is definitely where I’d recommend if you were looking for luxury. I know Phangan has some luxury lodges and I imagine Koh Tao would as well, but both definitely cater to more of the budget, backpacker style crowd.

      I haven’t made it to Ao Nang yet. I’ll have to check it out next time I’m in Thailand.

  4. So…if I want to have a dead-gorgeous beach, but I don’t want to get bored (food or activity-wise)…what do you suggest?

    This is for my wife and I, traveling as a couple. We’d like to do some snorkeling, but no scuba.

    My current plan is to fly in and out of Koh Samui, spending a few nights there as bookends. But we’ll spend the rest of our 7-10 days on Koh Tao or Koh Phangan.

    Would love your recommendation.

    • If you’re looking for good beaches and a mix of activities, I’d probably say Koh Phangan. Bottle Beach there is quite beautiful, and the island itself is quite ‘wild’ in terms of the forests and mountains. I found Koh Tao was great for snorkelling, but was more of a backpacker place than anything.

      I quite like Koh Lanta and Krabi (not in the same area) as they’re close to Koh Phi Phi and Phuket if you’re after activities, and have spectacular beaches in their own right.

  5. I’ve gotta admit, I wasn’t a huge fan of Koh Tao. I LOVED Phangan though. We skipped Haad Rin completely and headed over to the northwest side of the island. Crazy cheap bungalows right on the beach, hardly any people around, and so much to do! I loved the food, there was a great night market. Renting a motorbike was pretty much a necessity, though. Ahh, just thinking about it is making me want to go back right now!

    • I think part of what made us like Koh Tao was that our time there was so limited. We literally had the one day to ourselves and then one day on a snorkelling tour, so it didn’t get old.

      Koh Phangan was really nice outside of the Full Moon Party BS. I almost went back there on this trip.

  6. […] “Family friendly Koh Samui has an obvious edge here, with the large tourist numbers translating into an abundance of things to do on Koh Samui. There are plenty of cultural sites (such as the Big Buddha) as well as naturally beautiful spots on the island including waterfalls, mountains, and marine parks” -Aussie on the Road […]

  7. Thanks for this! We are planning to go to Koh Tao but I can´t simply find a good place to stay at, close to the beach.

    • It’s definitely a nice middle ground between the tourist friendly stuff of Koh Samui and the more laid back, party atmosphere of Koh Phangan.

  8. I’ve only really been to Koh Samui of these three, and I probably wouldn’t rush back – it’s just a little bit resorty for me! I’m really keen to get to Koh Tao at some stage soon, it looks awesome.

    • Yeah, that’s the impression that I got as well. I’m sure it’d be perfect if I were a sixty five year old retiree or I wanted to take the kids along, but it wasn’t my cup of tea as a young couple traveler.

      Koh Tao was lovely and I really wish we’d had more than two days there. Koh Phangan wasn’t too bad either, and it wasn’t hard to avoid the party crowd.

  9. Chris, I haven’t been to any of these beaches….so I guess next time all three have to be on the itinerary.

    • Definitely, Corinne! Thailand is so blessed with good beach spots, and I’m sure there are even better (and less crowded) options that I’ve yet to uncover.

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