A Guide to Island Hopping in Southeast Asia
It's no wonder islands are common honeymoon destinations. The seaside spots offer gorgeous views, and they're often represented as symbols of ultimate relaxation. With so many islands to choose from, however, the options can be paralyzing. That's why, instead of settling on just one, many couples make the most of their post-nuptial vacation by planning their travels around a number of places close to one another.
When you think island-hopping, what (and where) do you picture? Tropical stops scattered across the Caribbean? The white-sand beaches surrounded by bright-blue Mediterranean water in Greece? The hundreds of locales in Fiji, housing as many overwater bungalows? These destinations are popular, sure, but there's an area many honeymooners fail to consider when planning the trip of a lifetime. Thailand—and nearby Malaysia—offer wanderlust-inducing islands worth considering for your journey, and the following itinerary proves why.
Any one of the dazzling islands dotting Southeast Asia's Andaman Sea would make an amazing honeymoon destination. But the couple looking for a bit more adventure should take notes from writer Carey Jones and her husband, John, who island-hopped for three weeks from Langkawi, in Malaysia, to Khao Lak, in Thailand. Getting from place to place mostly by ferry, speedboat, and wooden longtail was half the fun. What they found along the way—from amazing activities, to delicious local food, to luxurious stays—only solidified that they made the right choice. Here, Jones takes us along the entire thing, and provides recommendations for your own agenda. Bon voyage, newlywed explorers!
Day 1, 11 a.m.
Touchdown in Malaysia
We fell in love with Langkawi from the sky, first seeing its craggy mountains and endless beaches as our flight approached the airport. The island (part of an archipelago of the same name) is fairly popular with tourists, but travel just half a mile from the coast and you're in rural Malaysia—all roti canai (flatbread) stands, migratory birds, and water buffaloes. We based ourselves amid the rice fields and coconut trees at Teratak Damai Langkawi, a lush property with two rustic rumah kayu (wooden houses) and two airy rumah kampong (village houses). Over the next two days, we explored half a dozen beaches; our favorite was Tanjung Rhu on the quieter northern shore, with views all the way to Thailand.
Day 3, 3 p.m.
Our affection for Langkawi grew even more once we saw it from the water on a trip with Eva Zimmermann, a German expat who runs a cruising business. Throughout the day on her wooden schooner Damai Indah, we dove off the prow, kayaked by stony caves, and settled back on the boat for bottomless gin-and-tonics, a stunner of a sunset, and a lavish dinner of red snapper and prawns marinated in garlic, olive oil, and Scotch. While we ate, Eva told colorful tales of life on the sea, while her German shepherd, Rebecca, lay curled at her feet. That night, we checked into the hillside hotel Ambong Ambong Rainforest Retreat, where the suites are built right into the tropical rainforest. Waking up to a monkey dancing on our balcony railing, we were glad we'd taken the hotel's advice to keep our valuables locked inside!
Day 5, 2 p.m.
From Langkawi, it's about a one-hour speedboat ferry to tiny Koh Lipe, one of Thailand's southern-most islands, and the main entry point for boat-hoppers. We'd never been through an immigration post quite like it: a tiny hut set on a spectacular white-sand beach, with sunbathers all around. Spicy fare abounds here—and concessions are not always made to the wimpy Western palate; at the stall Papaya Mom, we feasted on papaya salad with raw prawns and a whole red snapper grilled with lemongrass and lime leaf.
Day 9, 10 a.m.
Some Much-Needed Tranquility
After two days exploring Koh Lipe's beaches and eating more incredible food—and two extras nursing John's foot after an unfortunate encounter with a blue-spotted stingray—we made it to Koh Libong, via a scenic ride on the Tigerline Ferry. Luckily, our itinerary consisted of... nothing. Blessed nothing. We tend to get antsy at resorts, but with our beachfront villa, plush lounge chairs, and slushy pineapple drinks, Andalay Beach Resort Koh Libong was one place we didn't want to leave. We spent three blissful days watching dramatic tides rush in and out.
Day 12, 7:30 a.m.
A Morning on the Water
I noticed that the ferry from Koh Libong to Koh Lanta passed right by a set of islands usually visited as a day trip—so why not visit them on the way from point A to B? Our Airbnb host in Lanta helped us hire a longtail boat for a private trip, picking us up from the Libong pier for a "four islands" tour. On Koh Mook, we swam in pitch darkness to Emerald Cave, a spectacular cliff-ringed pool allegedly used as a pirate hideaway. We snorkeled right off the boat near Koh Chueak and Koh Waen. And we lazed around the comically idyllic beaches of Koh Ngai, the rocky peaks in the distance a perfect backdrop for our many (many) Instagrammable photos.
Day 12, 4 p.m.
A Villa of Our Own
Koh Lanta is a larger island with a range of places to stay, including quiet family resorts, traditional thatched huts, and five-star hotels. For four nights, our base was on the eastern coast in Old Town, far from the more popular beaches. This village of centuries-old wooden buildings is comparatively untouched by visitors; instead you'll find kids bicycling, chickens running in the street, and food stands on the side of the road. Our incredible villa, dubbed Londo House, was built on stilts out over the water, with two spacious terraces and an infinity plunge pool. The best part? It cost a fraction of what we would have paid for something similar on the western side. And with a rental scooter, we could reach the gorgeous beaches in just 15 minutes.
Day 15, 8 a.m.
As in many tropical locales, Thailand's coral and marine life are healthier the farther you get from civilization. We took that to heart for our snorkeling trip, departing early on a private longtail booked through Lanta Dream & Paradise. After about 90 minutes, we reached Koh Rok, a pristine national park with no hotels and few campgrounds, where you can dive right off the beaches and coves. Our guide had a lung capacity that far exceeded ours, diving meters below the surface to gently rouse anemones, point out schools of clownfish, and show us moray eels.
Day 17, 10 p.m.
Live Music in Phuket
Phuket Town, the main commercial area, has hundreds of years of history as a trading hub, with Sino-Portuguese architecture (known for its terraces and inner courtyards) that most beachgoers never see. We spent a night wandering a street market, sampling crisp-skinned roast pork and spicy noodles. To escape the local crowds, we ducked into Rockin' Angels Blues Café & Band. Our one drink turned into many after an eight-member band got onstage, playing the best Creedence and Clapton covers we'd ever heard. Rock music in southern Thailand—who knew?
Day 18, 3 p.m.
Lap of Luxury
Phuket does lavish resorts very, very well. At the Nai Harn, we honeymooned, full stop. Our hardest decisions: Do we take in this ridiculous view of the bay from the pool, or the beach? Splurge on a massage, or nap on our terrace daybed? Eat seafood from the waterfront restaurant, or at the hotel's equally delicious Thai/Western fusion spot? So difficult, we know.
Day 20, 9 p.m.
A Birthday Finale
We couldn't resist one last stop. The Sarojin, in Khao Lak (about 75 minutes from the Phuket airport), may well have spoiled us for all other resorts for the rest of our days. (The extravagant, and complimentary, breakfast is served until 6 p.m. And it includes sparkling wine.) John's birthday fell at the end of our stay, and the staff helped me orchestrate a day of surprises. After an incredible Thai dinner, he pointed down the beach to a traditional sky lantern, illuminated by fire, waiting to launch. "Guess what?" I said. "That's for us." We ran across the sand to release it, and as we watched it ascend into the starry sky, we made silent wishes—mine being to one day return to this paradise.