Famous among divers and snorkellers, the Similan and Surin islands can easily be reached from Phuket or Phang Nga and offer glimpses of the immaculate natural beauty that still makes Thailand one of the top island destinations in the world.
Even though Phuket and its soft sand beaches attract millions of visitors every year; there are still plenty of natural wonders to enjoy on the island, especially while staying in a private villa. To get up close and personal with Thailand’s abundant flora and fauna, however, it’s best to take trip to one of the region’s National Parks.
The Similan Islands and Surin Islands National Parks are among the most impressive areas of unspoilt marine scenery on the planet. Their forests, beaches, reefs and crystalline waters offer refuge to a diverse range of plant and animal life, and the picture perfect views on land and from the sea offer visitors the chance to immerse themselves in scenes they would normally only gaze at on a TV or computer screen.
Not surprisingly, word has spread and thousands of day visitors now flock to the Similan islands during the high season from December to March. If you charter your own vessel and linger a little longer, however, the opportunities to experience the region’s marine magnificence are almost as bountiful as the fish.
Named after the Malay word for the number nine, Sembelan, Thailand’s most famous (and most visited) marine park covers an area of approximately 140 square kilometres and is reachable by boat from Phuket and Khao Lak. The islands are known as Koh Bon, Koh Bayu, Koh Similan, Koh Payu, Koh Miang, Koh Payan, Koh Payang, and Koh Huyong, but more often simply referred to by numbers. Despite an ever increasing volume of visitors on day trips and live aboard tours to the region, it is still possible to experience the diverse nature of the nine islands, albeit often surrounded by fellow nature lovers. Depending on the season the Similan reefs attract everything from tiny clown fish (Nemos) to giant whale sharks. The Royal Thai navy also runs a turtle sanctuary back on the mainland in Tap Lamu, which means numbers of this ancient sea reptile are increasing year on year. The crystalline waters and protected bays provide excellent conditions for snorkellers and divers with fringing coral reefs that begin in shallow waters before slowly descending into the depths of the Andaman Sea.
Known locally as the “middle island” Koh Bon sits alone 23km northeast of the Similan Islands. Although officially part of the same archipelago, its topography differs dramatically from the granite boulders found elsewhere in this part of the Andaman Sea. The island is formed from sedimented limestone, layers of which have been laid down over thousands of years and remain visible above and below the surface of the ocean. The thick rainforest covering of the Similans is replaced by scrub grass and trees that cling to the rock. Sea eagles soar overhead and herons skim over the top of the water. The vibrant marine life includes a variety of colourful reef fish but what makes Koh Bon special the chance to spot a graceful Giant Manta Ray, some of which are up to 5 metres wide.
The beach at Koh Tachai is widely considered the most beautiful in the Similan National Park. The island itself is made up of giant granite boulders covered in dense tropical rainforest and surrounded by warm, glassy blue waters. With the majority of visitors flocking to the Similan Islands, Koh Tachai has always benefited form less visitors. A regular day trip schedule was only recently established, and there is still an undisturbed feeling to the island. Nature abounds from the moment you set foot on the beach. It is common to see tropical birds and monitor lizards walking around close to the National Park HQ. Nature treks also reveal coconut crabs, flying foxes and yet more birds and baby sharks can be spotted swimming around the rocks at the far end of the bay.
Mu Koh Surin National Park was formed in 1981 and covers an area of 142 square kilometres. Only 20% of the park is actually land with two large islands – Surin Nuea and Surin Tai – separated by a narrow channel, and a few smaller islets peppered in the surrounding seas. Granite boulders form the outer edges of numerous bays, each one lined with picturesque powder sand beaches and the area between the two islands forms one huge shallow bay, protected on either side. Extensive shallow reefs can be seen from the surface and just a few metres below lies a colourful kaleidoscope of corals and marine species giving the Surin Islands a deserved reputation as one of the best snorkeling spots in Asia.
Exploring the Similan and Surin Islands
Chartering a luxury vessel is by far the most comfortable and convenient way to cruise through the islands. The captains and crew generally know the best spots for diving and snorkelling, and you can arrive before or after the crowds at the most popular locations. Staying overnight in a remote, protected bay offers a rare chance to experience the untainted glory of a tropical sunrise or sunset.
Here some links to charter operators that visit the Similan and Surin islands:
by Wayne Hue