Sunset at Koh Chang, Thailand

I love Bangkok. It’s my home away from home, and at one point it actually was my home (and I hope it is again sometime soon). Still, sometimes I needed a break from the taste of black tuk-tuk smoke, the jampacked sidewalks, and all the noise, noise, noise. That’s when I’d wake up early, take the BTS Skytrain down to the Ekkamai bus station, and a short time later find myself in paradise.

While most Bangkok visitors pack their bags and head to the airport once they’re ready to trade big-city chaos for breezy beach seclusion, many white-sand beaches and crystal-clear blue waters are only 2 1/2-hour bus ride away in underrated Ko Samet. It’s also just 5 hours by bus to the even less-visited island paradise of Ko Chang. Best part? It costs just a few dollars to get to either.

Located in the Gulf of Thailand just off the coast of Rayong, Ko Samet is that rare Thai island that’s not yet fully succumbed to the demands of mass tourism. For example, water is still shipped in from the mainland, and there’s not an international resort chain in sight. The third-largest island in Thailand, Ko Chang has stunning topography and panoramic vistas, especially if you venture towards the fishing village of Bang Bao located on the island’s southernmost tip. It was here that I spent four luxurious nights at Nirvana.

Sure, because of their relative proximity to Bangkok both islands inevitably draw their fair share of backpackers and Thai tourists, but like many Thai islands, once you head south past the more-developed northern beaches by the main piers, the number of vacationers tends to dwindle to a trickle. Remember, too, that both islands still draw but a fraction of the international visitors that frequent heavily touristed, often heaving beaches such as those at Phuket and Pattaya.