Koh Phangan or Koh Tao? Which Thai Island is Better?

koh phangan vs koh tao
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The choice between Koh Phangan or Koh Tao is not an easy one to make. Two of Thailand’s most popular destinations, they are both filled with beautiful sights and attractions. But one is world-renowned for its wild parties and hedonism while the other has a reputation for laid-back living and underwater action.

These two islands, along with Koh Samui, make up Thailand’s three most visited island destinations. And although they are geographically close and share many similar features like stunning beaches, great food, and endless sunshine, they do have distinct personalities that give very different holiday experiences.

Will it be party central Koh Phangan that takes your fancy or laid back, dive mad Koh Tao? Let’s find out. Here’s our breakdown of the key similarities and differences between these two islands to help you make the decision. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Getting there and away

both Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are reached via ferries.
Photo by Darren Lawrence Pexels.

Since neither of these islands has an airport, access to both is via ferry from various locations. For Koh Phangan, take a bus or a flight to Surat Thani and then a ferry from there to the island, which will take roughly 3 hours. Alternatively, fly to Koh Samui and take a ferry for approximately 30 minutes across to Koh Phangan.

For Koh Tao, the ferry from Surat Thani will take around 4 hours and from Koh Samui around 90mins. Or you have the additional option of flying into the domestic airport, Chumphon, and taking a 2.5-hour ferry from there. 

Both islands are extremely popular destinations, so transport to and from them is easy to book and frequent. Plenty of competing bus and ferry companies help to keep the prices relatively low. But if you’re traveling to either island during the full moon period, book ahead as the boats will fill up fast! 

Conclusion: it’s a tie for accessibility. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Nightlife

Koh Phangan's full moon parties are legendary
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Let’s not pretend you haven’t heard about Koh Phangan’s legendary nightlife. Once a month, this island is home to the legendary full moon parties; wild, all-night-long beach festivals featuring cocktail buckets, fire dancers, pumping music, and crowds of drunken revelers. And in between those nights, there are the slightly calmer but still pretty wild half-moon festivals. And also, once a month, the black moon parties, which involve lots of black light, neon paint and psychedelic trance music. And … well, you get the idea, this is an island that knows how to party, it has built a reputation on it, and it does it with style. A full moon party is an experience everyone should have at least once. 

Due to its proximity to the party island, Koh Tao’s own nightlife is often overlooked. But though Koh Tao may have a laid-back reputation, it’s no longer the quiet island it once was. It’s still the place for sunset cocktails and hammock beers, but its growing popularity has also brought upscale cocktail lounges and beach clubs. And it boasts some awesome beach parties, acclaimed DJ’s and bar crawls that will help you party till dawn. Alas, it just can’t quite compare to Koh Phangan. 

Conclusion: if you want to party, it’s got to be Koh Phangan. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Diving

Koh Tao is a world class dive location
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If you’ve heard about the parties on Koh Pangan, you’ve probably heard about the diving on Koh Tao. Scuba is this island’s first love and you’ll find more dive schools and dive bars here than you’ll know what to do with. The island’s stunning clear waters, abundant marine life, incredible dive sites, and low prices make Koh Tao one of the most popular places in the world to dive and gain diving qualifications. 

Given their neighboring states, you’d perhaps expect to experience the same diving around Koh Phangan as Koh Tao, and in some ways, you can. It’s the same clear seas, filled with the same marine life, and one of the best dive sites in Thailand, Sail Rock, sits equal distance between the two islands. 

However, although you can definitely dive from Koh Phangan, they are not dedicated to it in the same way as Koh Tao. There are fewer schools and courses available, and prices are higher. One of the reasons for this is because, apart from sail rock, you’re further from the best dive sites. Some dive trips will take you to Koh Tao first to join up with trips from there, which adds cost and travel time to your dive day. 

Conclusion: For diving, it’s Koh Tao, no question. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Beaches and Beauty

you'll find beauty and stunning beaches in both these island locations.
Photo by Valeriy Ryasnyanskiy Unsplash

Thailand has some of the best beaches in the world, and these two islands have some of the best beaches in Thailand. Whichever island you choose and whichever beach, you will be rewarded by pristine soft white sand and clear, jewel-toned water. Whether you want to party, snorkel, sunbathe or snooze, neither of these islands will let you down. 

Although tiny Koh Tao is only 21km², it packs some incredible beaches into that space. Visit the busiest, liveliest beach, Sairee, for watersports, beach bars, and music. Or head to Freedom Beach for something more remote and tranquil. Similarly, on Koh Phangan, you can have your fill of developed strips with DJs and beach clubs, like the full moon party location Haat Rin. Or get off the beaten track with a trip to Bottle Beach accessible only by boat or several hours hike. 

And there’s more to both of these islands than just the coastlines. Head inland to explore the lush jungle and climb rocky outcrops to reach waterfalls and panoramic viewpoints. And if you’re not much for hiking, both islands are easy – and fun – to explore by scooter.

Conclusion: There’s nothing to pick between these two beauties! Koh Phangan is much larger, so it offers more beaches and areas to explore. But Koh Tao is small enough that you can explore every inch of it and (try to) visit every beach. So it’s a tie. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Beds and Budget

you'll find a collection of budget accommodation on both Koh Phangan and Koh Tao
Photo by Alexander Kaunas Unsplash

Due to its reputation, Koh Phangan has long been a must-stop on every gap year and backpacker tour. So it has no shortage of hostels, beach huts, and budget accommodation to cater for its crowds. And the competition keeps the prices low. You can find a bed on Koh Phangan in peak season for less than $10 a night. However, prices change dramatically around the full moon, and beds fill up fast, so book ahead! 

Koh Tao has a similar reputation for being budget-friendly, but in this case, it’s to accommodate its dive bums who sometimes stay on the island for weeks and months at a time. Dive hostels and beach huts can be found all over the island, and again, a bed can be had for around $10. Both islands excel at street food and budget beers, so living costs are comparable. 

But Koh Phangan’s size gives it an edge here. There are simply more hostels, hotels, and resorts available on this island, giving you have more choice, especially if you’re looking for something more high-end. For instance, on booking.com, Koh Phangan has double the amount of accommodation options and substantially more luxury and 5-star choices than tiny Koh Tao can manage. 

Conclusion: for budget, Koh Tao wins because the prices don’t shoot up for several days every month. But for beds, it has to be Koh Phangan for the sheer range of choices. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Activities

enjoy a range of watersports and activities on these beautiful Thai islands.
Photo by George Hiles Unsplash

If you’re ready to try something other than drinking, diving, and sunbathing, you’ll find no shortage of other activities to entertain you here. Tourism is the main industry for both these islands, so you’ll find them skilled in the art of entertaining tourists with trips, tours, activities, and adventures. 

You can hike, scoot, kayak, snorkel, SUP, and sail your way around both islands, and Koh Tao’s craggy granite landscape offers world-renowned rock climbing and bouldering. Plus there are plenty of traditional Thai entertainments available such as cooking courses, massages, Muay Thai exhibitions and training gyms. For adrenaline junkies, you’ve got zip lining, water parks, and trapeze schools, and if you run out of things to do on the islands, you can take day trips to nearby Ang Thong Marine National Park. 

Conclusion:  Both islands will keep you active and adventuring all day long, but Koh Tao’s rock-climbing playground gives it the edge. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: Mixed Vibes

whether you choose Koh Phangan or Koh Tao you'll find chilled out vibes or a party scene to suit you.
Photo by Alexander Kaunas Unsplash

Although they have their set reputations, both of these islands are capable of breaking with expectations and showing a different side to themselves. Yes, the full moon times on Koh Phangan are sheer madness, but if you visit at a quieter time of the month and stay on the other side of the island from Haat Rin, you’ll be surprised by how peaceful and relaxed the island can be. You can have a relaxing evening in a hammock or enjoy chilled sunset beers listening to acoustic guitar and feel miles away from fire dancers and cocktail buckets. 

And while Koh Tao has long been known as the quietest, most chilled of the Phangan-Samui-Tao trio, its growing popularity has brought changes. It’s still a land of hammocks, chillout zones, and beanbags on the beach, but now you’ll find luxury resorts, elegant bars, and exclusive beach clubs popping up too. And you’ll only need to witness one Koh Tao pub crawl to have serious questions about its laid-back reputation.

Conclusion: we’re not declaring a winner for this section. We’re just trying to let you know that neither island is only one thing, and if you plan your trip and activities accordingly, either island could provide you with the vibe you’re looking for. 

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao: The Conclusion

Koh Phangan or Koh Tao? it all comes down to your preferred holiday activities.
Photo by Robert Eklund Unsplash

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that Koh Tao has taken the win. But there’s very little in it, Koh Phangan won on nightlife and Koh Tao on diving and rock climbing, while they tied on everything else. And that’s the important thing to take away with you. Both of these islands are beautiful, packed full of all the things that make Thailand special, and you’d struggle to have a bad holiday on either of them. So making a choice can come down to their two main character traits. 

If you want hedonistic revelry at a dusk till dawn beach party, then Koh Phangan is the place for you. On the other hand, if you want to experience some of the best and most affordable diving in the world, and maybe a little rock climbing too, then Koh Tao is your island. 

And if you just want to sunbathe on a beautiful beach in the sun? Well, either island can help you with that, and whichever one you choose, we know you won’t be disappointed! 

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.