The beaches of southern Thailand can bring to mind images of full moon parties with free-flowing Chang beer and throngs of tourists. But beyond the popular islands of Ko Chang, Ko Tao, and Ko Phi Phi (the latter made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach), I discovered a breath of fresh air: hidden trails and undisturbed parks with ample room for adventuresome travelers. 

Just one hour from Bangkok by plane, Ko Samui makes a convenient entry point. The island offers accommodations at every price tag and still feels strikingly untouched once you venture beyond the commercial drag in Chaweng.

 BY LAND

Renting a bike is an ideal way to explore Samui. Begin at the southern end of Bang Kao Road, and head west along the residential drives, taking in water views over your left shoulder. Within two miles, you’ll reach Laem Sor Pagoda, a recently restored golden temple on a rocky spot of coastline.

From the pagoda, head north on the temple access road until you hit route 4170, a two-lane thoroughfare with a shoulder wide enough for safe riding. Ride a little over a mile past groves that process over 10,000 coconuts weekly and brake for a refreshing coconut water. Pedal left onto route 4173 for another 2.8 miles, following signs for Na Muang Waterfalls—and congratulate yourself with a dip once you reach the lower falls.

Note: While you’ll notice some travelers renting motorbikes on Samui, I say, avoid the temptation. A slower set of wheels is typically safer and allows you to explore the less-trafficked paths along the coast.

BY SEA

Hundreds of islands are strung along both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. To make the most of your island explorations, head out early—you’ll beat the beat the wind that rises in the afternoon as well as the crowds that swell from mid-morning through sunset. If you have the opportunity, opt for a speedboat tour instead of ferry, and island-hop ahead of the tourist pack. 

I set my sights on Mu Kong Any Thong National Park, about an hour’s boat ride from Ko Samui. The marine national park encompasses an area of nearly 40 miles and 42 islands, and you might start as I did at Ko Mae Ko (or Mother Island), famous for its saltwater lagoon.

Climb the series of stairs at Ko Mae Ko—so steep that “ladders” would be a more accurate description—and the island will reward you with a viewpoint spanning from turquoise ocean to limestone-encircled emerald lagoon. Once tourists begin arriving on other boats, retreat to the beach for a kayak or snorkeling adventure. 

Continue on to Wua Talap, an island offering birds-eye views of the national park from a series of overlooks that begin just above the beach and continue up a third of a mile. Then head back down to sea level for a well-deserved lunch at the open-air café. Pro tip: wear athletic shoes. The trails are maintained, but rocky enough that sandals prove uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst.