5 island escapes less than three hours' drive from Bangkok
Who says you need to jump on a plane to find white sands and azure waters?
Koh Kham, Chonburi
Located south of Pattaya just off the coast of Sattahip, Koh Kham is a 61-rai island under the management of the Royal Thai Navy. Until relatively recently, visitors were only permitted on the island on weekends, though Koh Kham is now open to visitors every day between 9am-4pm (no overnight stays). The boat from Khao Ma Cho Pier takes around 20 minutes and costs B200 for Thais or B500 for foreigners. Note that the island is limited to around 400 visitors per day, so it's best to get there early (ticket sales for the 8am boat open at 7am, or you can book ahead here). Despite its proximity to Pattaya, the island's national park status means it is well preserved with white sandy beaches, clear waters, and fish-filled coral reefs. Activities include snorkeling, glass-bottom boat tours (B20/person) and hiking the trail to the viewpoint. There are rules in place to protect the island's delicate marine life, including no touching of coral reefs, no removing anything from the island (coral, shells, etc.) and no plastic, glass or Styrofoam packaging—for this reason, it is recommended that you purchase lunch from one of the affordable vendors on the island.
Koh Kret, Nonthaburi
OK, it may not be the white sands and azure waters you had in mind, but Bangkok's closest island is not without its charms. This tiny, car-free island located on the Chao Phraya River is accessible by boat from Pakkred Pier in Nonthaburi, or you can take a ferry straight from Sathorn Pier near BTS Saphan Taksin. On arrival, you'll immediately be drawn into a slower pace of life, wandering the various temples and museums like Wat Poramaiyikawat and the next door museum, which displays items like votive tablets, crystal ware and porcelain. Also check out Kwan Aman Pottery Museum, which exhibits a number of ancient Mon ceramics. Another highlight is the local market which has stalls selling local pottery, handmade decorative items and a variety of food like tod mun nor kala and Mon-style khao chae. Get a drink here and it’ll be served in pottery that you can take home with you. Beer lovers can even stop by Chit Beer to take a brewing course or just enjoy a nice, cold pint.
Koh Larn, Pattaya
Perhaps the most popular island near Bangkok, Koh Larn is only 30 minutes by boat from Pattaya’s Bali Hai pier. The ferry service runs every 1.5 hours to two hours starting from 7am to 6.30pm daily and the fare is B30 per person. A speedboat service is also available at about B1,500-B3,500 for a group, or B300 per person each way. The island is not only popular because it’s convenient to get to—it is also home to a few nice long stretches of white beach with clear waters. Among the island’s most beautiful beaches are Ta Waen and Samae. Here, you can also partake in parasailing, banana boat riding, jet skiing or exploring the island by motorbike. As there are a number of resorts available, you can spend a night here or just enjoy a day out and take the last ferry which leaves at 6pm back to Pattaya.
Koh Si Chang, Chonburi
Head north from Pattaya and you'll find Koh Loi Pier, from where you can catch a 50-minute ferry to nearby Koh Larn from 7am-8pm daily. Though the beaches here are nice, the island's rich history and charming fishermen’s village take center stage. Other attractions include the Chinese temples, Saan Chao Pho Khao Yai and Wat Tham Yai Prik. The island was once home to King Chulalongkorn’s Judha Dhut Palace—the world’s largest golden teak wood mansion—which in 1912 was relocated and restored in Bangkok’s Dusit District as Vimanmek Mansion (now closed). Active vacationers can enjoy swimming, kayaking, hiking and biking, otherwise you can relax with fresh seafood on the beach. There are many resorts on the island—check out Paree Hut Resort (www.pareehutresort.com), priced at B3,400/night on weekdays and B3,900/night on weekends, inclusive of breakfast.
Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, Ayutthaya
Here's another one that might not scream "island," but it is surrounded by the Chao Phraya River, so it counts! When it comes to Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, the location isn't the only thing that challenges perceptions. Accessible via a cable-sala ride across the river from Ayutthaya's Bang Pa-In Palace, the temple's architecture is very unique in its European style—though it resembles a Catholic church, it is in fact a Buddhist temple. No, it’s not a typical cable car either. You have to ring a bell, after which monks on the other side will pull your cabin via a ropeway across the river, free of charge. Built in the reign of King Rama V, the design of the temple was inspired by European cathedrals, drawing on gothic art with its colorful stained glass windows. This peaceful spot will take you back in time with its rich history.