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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