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Visiting the islands near Krabi, Thailand
Visiting the Islands Near Krabi with a Big Family
When visiting southern Thailand with our big family, one of our favorite activities was a day trip to visit Krabi's beautiful islands. The islands are full of limestone cliffs in unique, awe-inspiring formations. However, some of the most famous islands have been completely overrun and all-but ruined by mass tourism, while other islands are still relatively pristine and enjoyable. Some tours cram as many tourists as possible into each boat, while others do the opposite. Read on for our big family's tips for visiting Krabi's beautiful natural wonders...

The Islands
In Thailand the word "koh" (alternatively spelled "ko") is used to mean "island."  So "island" isn't said as part of the place name, for example Ko Yao Yai is not called Ko Yao Yai Island, since "island" (Ko) is already part of the name. The islands offered tours departing from Krabi Province may be near to, or, pretty far from, wherever you're staying in Krabi. Some are best visited from Krabi, while others are much closer to Phuket - which is something to keep in mind if you'll be visiting both places.

Going to Koh Hong near Krabi, Thailand with a big family
Gorgeous, sheltered island beach near Krabi, Thailand

The Andaman Sea and Phang Nga Bay are jeweled with islands ranging from 18 miles long with resorts and hotels, to uninhabited rocky, jungled nubs just a couple of hundred feet (about 60 meters) wide. We visited several of the smaller ones with our big family. Here are our tips for island hopping on your trip to Thailand:

#10:  Find Out Where Not to Go
Our family tends to want to avoid hordes of tourists. Massive swarms of seething humanity and natural wonders just don't go that well together. So we started writing our "must visit" list by crossing off some of the most popular places that we saw listed on anyone else's "must visit" list. You may have seen those pictures of the Great Wall of China that show that the visit these days is sometimes ruined by the wall being covered in 30,000 selfie-takers each day, with no one able to walk one step without bumping into someone else.

Tourists ruining beaches on islands near Krabi and Phuket, Thailand
Wall-to-Wall Maya Bay Tourist Crowds
Image may be subject to copyright

There are some islands in Krabi that are becoming like that, especially during peak hours in the most popular travel season. So, if you want to avoid that situation, the first step would be to figure out where everybody else is going, and why. The "why" is often answerable with "Because everyone else is going there," but in case there are other reasons, consider whether your desires could be met by visiting an alternative island. Ours could, and were.

#9:  Consider Skipping James Bond Island
Khao Phing Kan (alternatively, Ko Khao Phing Kan) is a small island in the sea off the coast of Thailand, in Phang Nga Bay, located about 15 miles (25 km) northeast of Phuket. Since it's famous, there are tour operators in Krabi as well, but from Krabi that means a boat ride of 30 miles (49 km), each way. That's a long ride, especially for what you'll see here. You'll spend a considerable part of your day just getting there, then you'll have maybe 30 minutes before they herd the group back to the boat. But there are even better reasons not to go.

Its claim to fame is that it was featured briefly in the 1974 James Bond flick starring Sean Connery called The Man with the Golden Gun. That's it. End of story. It's also undeniably interesting-looking, beautiful, and other-worldly. But so are many, many other islands in Thailand. If you absolutely must see this standing limestone rock, you'll be having the same experience as tens of thousands of other tourists.

Is James Bond Island tour worth it?
What do you do after you get that one photo?
"James Bond Island" in Thailand near Phuket
Image may be subject to copyright
There is a small, crowded beach there, not great for swimming. The famous rock itself (Ko Ta Pu) is off in the distance. After you snap a picture of it (first figuring out how to frame it without capturing 50 other phones or cameras in your shot), what else is there to do? The souvenir touts and vendor stalls will occupy the rest of your time until the speedboat leaves.

Still need one more reason not to go? A tour to just this one island, by speedboat, would cost a family of six something like US $300. For a 30-minute island stop, that's $10 a minute.

#8:  The Situation on the Famous Island from "The Beach"
Arguably the single most famous beach in all of Thailand is now Maya Bay on the island called Ko Phi Phi Le. Like "James Bond Island," people come to see this beach because it is "the" beach from "The Beach," the Leonardo DiCaprio film from the year 2000.

Access to this island is difficult. Getting a decent picture of it, one that doesn't have about 1,000 tourists and 30 boats competing for beach space in the background, is even more difficult. The photos one typically sees of this place look picturesque and idyllic; but the reality is that those photos were taken years ago.

For the more recent photos - even the ones that weren't Photoshopped - they were likely made by someone who took great pains to be there at an unusual time of day or season when they could somehow, incredibly, get only one or two boats, and no people, into the frame. That wouldn't be what the typical visitor would have seen in recent years. This space has been wrecked by tourism. As DiCaprio's character Richard might say:

"I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it's not some place you can look for..."

Koh Phi Phi island closes its beach to visitors
Paradise at "The Beach" - Fantasy vs. Reality
Composite of separate images which each may be subject to copyright

The small island of Phi Phi Lee, where Maya Bay and its beach are located, was so overrun with tourists that in 2018, the Thai government closed the beach at Maya Bay for 4 months so it and its coral could recuperate. At the end of the 4 months, it was announced that it would remain

closed indefinitely.

Whenever it reopens, I'd give some serious consideration to choosing a different island, to give this place a chance its much-deserved chance to recover.

#7: Reconsider Speedboats
Be wary of tour operators who overcrowd their boats. I've read horror tales of tourists being crammed into boats where the only way to fit everyone is for the tourists to all remain standing. The first thing they notice is that they won't be sitting down. All day. Fine, they think. It's probably a short ride between each island, right? Surely no more than 20 or 30 minutes, right? Then they see that there's only one small portion of the boat that offers protection from the bright tropical sunshine, but they'll be standing in full-sun, all day.

Then, a few minutes into the ride, the hard bounces on the waves at high speed result in some stomachs becoming violently upset, and, well, you can imagine that scene. And really, I just wouldn't feel safe, riding at high speed on an overloaded speedboat, particularly while standing.

Which islands should you visit in Thailand with a big family?
Our Big Family Enjoying the Ride on a Long-Tail Boat in Thailand

For any place that only offers speedboats as the means of getting there, that's a good sign that it's unnecessarily far away - you'd probably be passing up a half-dozen perfectly good islands just to speed over to some crowded spot off in the distance, and will spend most of your tour on the boat.

I'd think long and hard before booking my family on a speedboat tour, and read lots of reviews. If you're traveling with a big family, chartering a boat or long-tail might make more sense.

#6: Long-Tail Boats
There are multiple sizes of long-tail boats. The smallest ones may expose you to quite a bit more noise from the motor, which can be pretty loud. We hired a boat with captain on the recommendation of a Thai who owns the house we rented in Krabi. Compared to what we saw going on in other boats (especially speedboats!) we got a fantastic deal and had a wonderful experience.

Renting a long-tail boat for island hopping in Krabi
Our Big Family Rented this Long-Tail Boat for Krabi Island Hopping

#5: Watch Those Ropes!
Long-Tails tie down at the beaches with long ropes tied to trees or anchors placed on the shore. However, the waves continue lifting the boats up and down, and moving them sideways, which means those ropes are subject to sudden and unpredictable movements. It's best to walk entirely around the ropes.

A rope that is motionless and flat on the ground may suddenly become taut, and snap upward to shin-height or higher. If the boat is tugged backwards, a rope may jerk suddenly upwards or downwards, or even sideways, creating additional chances of catching your foot or knee in a bad spot.

Many tourists have found themselves tripped and even mildly injured or bruised by walking along a beach and trying to step over these ropes without looking where they're going or paying attention to the situation. When we saw our first set of ropes blocking our way, where about 4 long-tails were stationed in a row, I stopped our family and explained to the kids that these aren't ropes that are just sitting still, these are moving things that can unpredictably snap tight in any direction, and trip you or hurt you.

If you get to a beach that's full of boats, we'd recommend that you just stop and study the boats and waves for about 30 seconds, and observe what the ocean's motion does to the ropes in the sand. Hearing the little crack, and watching a slack rope change from lying in the sand, to being stretched taut 12 inches (30 cm) above it, in an instant, may be enough to get the kids to respect the boat ropes.

A little caution by the ropes will make the kids much less likely to end up eating a mouthful of sand, or to get a nasty scrape, bruise, or ankle injury. My kids watched as a long-tail boat rope cracked taut, and my son said:

"Whoa, that's like Indiana Jones's whip!"

We made a habit of taking the few extra steps to walk completely around the ropes, past the anchors. It was tempting to take short-cuts and walk near the anchor, but still on the rope side of it. But even there, the ropes' motions can be tricky, and surprisingly fast. In cases where the path was completely blocked, I'd pick up our littlest one and get her across, because what is knee-height for me was waist-high for her.

#4: The Deal
As with most activities and local transportation in Thailand, it is not necessary to book anything in advance online, before getting there. Doing so will only ensure that one or more middle-man service providers get to add a phenomenal mark-up to your purchase. You will pay double, or triple, if you book in advance, over the internet, from another country.

You'll also lose the opportunity to shop around, compare prices in person, and to see exactly what sort of operators you'll have providing the tour. Don't worry - they aren't going to run out of boats. Even in peak season, I'd be very surprised if you couldn't book a next-day, or even same-day, tour, in person.

Before finalizing an agreement to pay for a tour or boat rental, it's essential to know a few things in advance:

  1. How many people will be allowed per boat?
  2. Will lunch be provided and is it included in the cost?
  3. If you're renting a boat, verify the price is for the boat (not per passenger)
  4. How much time will you be allowed at each stop?
  5. Are there enough life-jackets, including child-size jackets?
Getting to the beaches on the islands near Krabi, Thailand with a big family
Our Big Family Enjoying the Swing on an Island in the Andaman Sea

#3: Mislabeled Photos
I found sorting through options for Thailand's beaches, beach towns, and islands incredibly confusing because of the common phenomenon of mislabeling pictures. It is extremely common for someone to post a picture to a website and label it "Ao Nang Beach" when it's really "Klong Muang Beach," a nearby, but different beach with a different view and vibe. "We had a wonderful time at Railay," a traveler might write, while posting pictures of a beach 30 minutes away from Railay.

The same thing happens with the islands near Krabi. Just because you see a photo on a travel advice website that is labeled with the name of a specific beach or island, it doesn't mean that's where the photo was made. In most cases, I don't believe this is intentional.

I think it's the result of tourists going to lots of places and not keeping up with which is which, then just slapping a place-name label on a photo at the end of the day, or after returning home. This would be an easy mistake to make when you take a day tour that stops at 3 or 4 different islands.

How to figure out which islands to visit near Krabi
Our Big Family Checking Out One of the Many Islands Near Krabi

In other cases, tour operators and travel agencies may just be trying to give you a supposedly "representative" photo of what a tour would be like. Since I'm generally a fairly precise guy, and I do my research before traveling, it was infuriatingly bewildering to find that each island would be commonly labeled with at least 4 different unrelated names, depending on the source of the information. It is very likely that any given image is actually of a place that is located somewhere else in the general area of the name mentioned on the label.

If there is a specific formation of cliffs or a certain type of beach or island you truly want to visit, and you want to see the exact place that you saw somewhere in pictures, then I'd be sure to verify which is which, using multiple sources, before booking.

#2: What to Bring
For a big family, there are a few essentials for a day trip to the islands near Krabi:

  1. Money, specifically paper currency, in Thai baht - some of the islands are national parks which charge an entrance fee
  2. Camera
  3. Sun protection: sunblock, sunglasses, hats, etc.
  4. Toilet Paper: we saw restrooms on the larger islands, but none had paper
  5. Snacks for the kids (even if a lunch is provided)
  6. Water (or extra water, even if water is included)

#1: Listen to Your Captain
Wanting to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I had my own ideas about where to go, and when. But our captain  had a set route in mind, and wanted to stick to it. His route turned out to be perfect. We'd see a crowded island off in the distance, and just as we were arriving, they'd all be packing up and leaving to go to a different island. He knew the schedules of the other operators and he threaded the needle on them, which often gave us entire beaches all to ourselves for up to half an hour at a time.

Having a beach to yourself is by no means a typical experience. If you book something online, or from an agency in a beach town, it's much more likely that you'll have a "busload of tourists" experience on the islands. We were very fortunate to have a thoughtful and helpful Thai host who hooked us up with a local captain who operates independently of the big agencies. Once you're in the captain's hands, we'd recommend trusting the captain to know where to go.

Going on a long-tail boat ride to see the islands with a big family
Our Big Family Enjoying a Private Long-Tail Tour

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