Ever since Khao Lak first came up on the ‘Tourist Radar’, the islands along the coast of Khao Lak have been a major appeal for divers, snorkelers and anyone who has ever dreamt of spending time on a paradise island. With their clear waters and white sandy beaches, these islands are lifted straight out of the sunblock ads. But experiencing these islands in any kind of comfort can be expensive, especially as most visitors to Khao Lak travel as a family. More often than not people have to make a choice based on their budget. They can either do “Cheap Charlie’ trips to the islands and try to visit as many as possible, and run the risk of being packed onto an overcrowded boat which rushes them around the islands on a tight schedule. Or they can book a slightly more expensive trip and focus on experiencing the best of just some of these islands, and maybe return again the following year to visit the rest.
I have been lucky enough over the years to experience both of these options first-hand, and I would always recommend people to pay the money and take the higher priced option (Usually works out 100-110 Euros per adult). Mostly for comfort and safety reasons (that money has to be saved somewhere!) but also in the interests of sustainability. The cheaper the price, the larger the group needs to be in order to operate. The larger the group, the bigger the impact on the ecosystem you wish to enjoy. It’s as simple as that. Also, when you consider that it is an all-inclusive day out on a boat with a free lunch, door to door transfers and all your entrance fees already included, 100 Euros suddenly doesn’t sound that much. Anyway, the most important thing is to make sure you choose the right group of islands to visit. Here are a few pointers to help you make your choice;
The Similan Islands
The Similans are a group of 11 islands which are arranged in an almost straight line, about 55 km directly west of Thap Lamu Pier. It takes about 1 hour 15 mins to reach the islands by speedboat. The 3 southernmost islands have been claimed by the Thai royal family as a conservation area and are closed to the public. Koh Tachai, the northernmost island is also closed at the time of writing, but there are frequent rumors that it will re-open at some point. The Similan Islands are home to some of the best beaches in Thailand. The white sand is so bright that it keeps the water crystal clear almost every day. Below the water there are plenty of coral reefs which are rich in marine life. The corals here are often not as colorful as people expect, this sometimes due to the depth of the water and also due to their exposed positions.
Most trips to the Similan Islands will include 2 beach stops and 2 snorkel stops. Although in recent years the Similans have become a bit over popular and this has of course had an effect on the health of the islands and the reefs, the islands are still worth a visit. Especially for those who want a good balance of time on the beach and time exploring the reefs.
The Surin Islands
As these islands are a bit further north, I would recommend booking a trip that leaves from Baan Nam Khem pier. From here the boat ride is about 1 hour 40 mins. It is possible to do a shorter boat ride if you leave from Kuraburi pier, but it is a much longer minibus ride to get to the pier so the overall travelling time is about the same and I would prefer to be on the boat the extra 20 mins than in a minibus.
The Surin Islands are easily the best snorkeling reefs around. It has been said that they are the best in Thailand. The reefs are shallow, often just under the surface, and full of densely packed, healthy corals that come in all shapes and colors. If you are imagining the backdrop to Finding Nemo then you are about right. The islands are also home to a tribe of Moken sea gypsies who have lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle in this area for centuries. Their village is open to the public as it gives them the opportunity to sell handmade necklaces and trinkets which provide them with money for necessities such as rice and diesel for their boats, and also keeps some of their traditional wood carving and weaving skills alive.
There are fewer beaches in Surin than Similan, and the sand here is not quite to white and picturesque. Most day tours will give customers a chance to relax on the beach for an hour or two during the trip. The main focus however is snorkeling.
Local Snorkel Sites
For those who do not wish to travel too far there are options. Koh Pha and Khao Na Yak are both much closer to Khao Lak. Koh Pha is a small island not far from Baan Nam Khem pier. Before the tsunami Koh Pha was a beautiful little island with white sand and a couple of palm trees stuck on top. Just like in a children’s book. However, since the tsunami the island has been lowered significantly and all the palm trees have been washed away. Now it is nothing more than a sand bank that is exposed when the tide is not too high. Much of the reef was also destroyed by the tsunami. Although it is slowly coming back. The water here is not always very clear due, and there is not a huge amount of color, but there is a lot of marine life around if you look for it.
Khao Na Yak is a peninsula very close to Thap Lamu pier. It has mangrove rivers on one side and a beautiful long beach on the other. As you cruise around the peninsular it is often possible to see monkeys and fishing eagles in the trees. On the flatter land there is also a savannah grassland that is perfect for photo shoots or bird watching. The snorkel reefs are mostly at the very tip of the peninsular. The corals on the outer edge are very large and healthy. There is also a great amount of fish that call the reef home. This is my favorite local snorkel site and it is definitely a destination I would recommend for families with kids.