Thailand – Similan Islands
The Similan Islands, grouped around 50 miles to the northwest of Phuket, have some of the most arresting island landscapes that Thailand has to offer. The islands are no longer the secret adventure they used to be, but they still offer spectacular diving trips and are best explored on your own
In places, the Similan Islands feel like the Thailand of a few decades ago. You can stroll along the squeaky white coral-sand beach, ducking under the occasional gnarled branch that stretches out from the jungle and weaving around the enormous wave and wind-smoothed boulders jutting into the crystalline Andaman Sea. Leaves fall towards the gently sloping beach, catch the breeze and eventually set sail on the shallow waves, floating over some of Thailand’s most revered underwater seascapes. Back on land, there are no lines of lounge beds, no gaudy umbrellas interrupting the natural shades of sea, sand and jungle, no uniformed wait staff with trays of cool towels and cold water. The most sophisticated buildings in the entire archipelago are the handful of wooden bungalows for overnight stays, a few local restaurants and the ranger stations, all set back from the beach mid-jungle. The contrast between gateways Phuket and Khao Lak, and the tranquil, undeveloped Mu Ko Similan National Park is so marked that when there’s no one else in sight you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Thailand circa the 1980s.
But during the peak months of northeast monsoon, that kind of easy escape from Phuket is getting ever more difficult, though it is still possible. Vincent Tabuteau, managing director of Asia Marine (www.asia-marine.net) knows very well what the islands were like in the 80s. He arrived in Phuket in 1983, and has been sailing and chartering in these waters ever since. At the time, it was the end of the charter season in Greece and he was offered a six-month job as skipper based in Phuket. Although he had no idea where he was going, a simple yet powerful thought emerged: “Why not?” It is testament to the magical powers of the place that he’s never looked back. “It was a very remote, tropical place,” he remembers of Phuket back then. “There were hardly any roads or charter boats, and only two hotels. It looked like paradise.”
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a time when Phuket was off the beaten track, the only people living on Phi Phi were gypsies, and Tabuteau and his crew would rarely see another charter in the Similans. But this was the world that he and his adventurous clients wanted to explore. “Divers would come to Thailand to experience something really radically new,” he says. “In the Similans, the big fish were right under your boat. You could jump into two or three metres of water and they were right there. It was like an aquarium. But on shore, there was nothing at all – no people, no resources, and nothing to buy. Thirty years ago, there was only one dive boat, Fantasy Diver, and my charter yacht, apart from the local fishermen, the Burmese and some smugglers. There was no VHF to cover the range, and it was very isolated. You had the sense of being completely alone. It was quite exciting – a little bit of adventure.”
He remembers development coming fast, with National Park ranger stations being established on Koh Similan (# 8) and their HQ on Koh Miang (#4) islands, and the Thai Navy starting to patrol against dynamite fishing. The crowds weren’t far behind. “In five years it became the spot for people who had been everywhere,” says Tabuteau.
Today the most popular stretches of islands and ocean, between Koh Similan and Koh Miang, are no longer the deserted paradise of the eighties. In addition to the charter and dive boat operators, speedboats bring daytrippers from Phuket and Khao Lak to crowd into the most snorkeling-friendly area. However, says Tabuteau, “compared to the Med or the Caribbean, it is still acceptable.”
But there is some good news for the yacht-owner. Day trips to the archipelago naturally miss out on the less visited islands and their beautiful tranquility. Sail out here on charter yacht (or your own yacht) and you’ll wake early to witness a sublimely still morning with that precious quietude; wait patiently for the last speedboat to roar off into the distance and the gentle evening light glows down over the extraordinary seascape. “It is best to stay overnight, as it really is paradise on earth when you wake up in the morning,” advises Thibault Salaun, general manager of Andaman Cruises. He’s been sailing this part of the world for seven years and his luxury charters pick up guests from the five star hotels on the west coast of Phuket, and cruise the four hours to the archipelago in time for the day’s first dive in the morning, most staying for an unhurried three days, two nights.
He agrees that it can get crowded, with islands #8, #9 and #4 seeing the most traffic by day. Even by night the anchorage at #4 can be busy as it’s the only one with a phone network, but he tends to steer his luxury charter to the more tranquil buoys at #2 or #7. For Tabuteau, the preferred anchorage is on island #8. “It has a very spectacular rock formation, crystal clear water and a beautiful beach.”
At night, as the liveaboards and charters are left to bask in relative peace, time stops, while thousands of stars under huge clear skies wheel overhead. This is one of the most enchanting times to swim, says Salaun. “The fish come over to the yacht because they are attracted to the light of the boat. It’s very beautiful.”
With limited land resources – there is a government-run restaurant on both Koh Similan and Koh Miang, and tourists can rent the government cabanas or tents – spending time in The Similans is inevitably all about being underwater. There are two very different worlds to explore below the surface of the Andaman Sea, depending on your location; diving an east side dive site, like East of Eden, opens up to a landscape of sand, with the occasional boulder and sloping coral reefs, whereas west side dive sites, like Elephant Head Rock off Koh Similan, is all boulders, with exciting swim-throughs and challenging currents.
“Island 8 is the easiest place to go snorkeling,” says Tabuteau, whose clients on mid-range bareboats or larger, crewed boats are snorkelers rather than divers. “The rocks are spectacular and it is the most protected island. They always like to see the turtles. There used to be dolphins, but not anymore – it is still an extraordinary place.”
While the coloured corals like the huge fans and polyps, as well as the corrugated giant clams, crabs and lobsters hiding behind rocks and bright anemones make up the underwater landscape, divers to the Similans are here to hang out face-to-face with whale sharks and mantas, although many venture further to Richelieu Rock, in the Surin National Park (the Surins are another 50 miles north), for whale shark sightings. The underwater visibility in the Similans is renowned for being extraordinary, and the giant boulders that tumble down the jungle-clad hills of the islands make an otherworldly dive experience that stretches down to 35 metres or more.
There are also other big fish, like giant trevallies, barracudas, giant triggerfish, batfish and golden pilot jacks. Check sites like www.southeastasiapilot.com for dive conditions, but note that at the time of print one of the most renowned dive spots, East of Eden is closed, in order to precipitate regeneration.
The islands are named from one to nine, (sembilan in Malay means nine), and the group are home to numerous dive sites. Boulder City and Shark Fin Reef, in the south, close to Koh Huyong (#1), Koh Payang (#2) and Koh Payan (#3), whose beaches are closed as a sanctuary for turtles. Koh Ha (#5) and Koh Hok (#6) are connected by boulders, which are submerged at high tide, and further north is Koh Payu (#7) where the famed East of Eden, can be found alongside its partner West of Eden, which remains open. Koh Similan (#8) lays claim to the only wreck; rather than a historic reminder of Thailand’s seafaring past, it is a diving liveaboard that ended its days back in 2002. More dive sites stretch from here up to Koh Bangu (#9), the most northerly island of the group.
By day, Salaun helps his clients avoid the masses of snorkelers and swimmers by steering them to the tranquil island #2. “It’s one of the top 10 spots for scuba diving in the world,” he says of the whole archipelago, but leaves it up to his Thai captain to find his clients the best dive spots. “My clients are really impressed by the diving here – especially the colours of the corals – and they always love the turtles. Divers come every day, but it’s still beautiful, not like in other places where it can be disappointing. The Similans is a great spot, and not at all damaged.”
To stretch your legs on dry land, the climb from Koh Similan’s Donald Duck Bay to Elephant Head Rock on the north of the bay is a great way to get in and among the giant boulders. Grappling up the smooth, sun-warmed rock feels wonderfully prehistoric, and gets you a perfect view of the island’s bay. While on Koh Miang, it’s a jungle walk and climb through dense greenery, passing lizards to get to the top where egrets, eagles and other birds wheel and dive.
According to Bill O’Leary and Andy Dowden (www.southeastasiapilot.com), Koh Similan (#8) is the most anchorage and dive-friendly island in the group, and as a result can get quite busy in the high northeast monsoon season, which runs from November to April. The swell, squalls and breaks caused during the southwest monsoon (May to October) prohibit anchoring anywhere in the group, and mindful of the incredibly valuable asset that the Similans are, the National Park is closed during the southwest monsoon and diving is forbidden so that fish can reproduce in peace. After all with an underwater resource as rich and overwater landscapes as beautiful, protecting the Similans from future degeneration is essential in order to preserve this rare, natural destination.