Nov 18 2012

Daytrip: Khao Lak to the Similan Islands

Published by at 7:13 am under Andaman Sea islands


If you’re daydreaming of a trip to the Similan Islands of Thailand’s Andaman Sea in the near future, you’re in luck — the national park is open from November 1 to May 1 so a new season just got underway. Fine white sand beaches, thriving wildlife, majestic seascapes and soaring views from piles of seaside boulders that look like play toys of the gods — it all awaits. It’s possible to camp out or rent a bungalow on the Similans, but the majority of visitors come on a day trip from Khao Lak (or Phuket). Here’s what to expect on a tour of one of the world’s most idyllic destinations.

Welcome to paradise.

Welcome to paradise.

After hearing good reviews from travellers staying at Thup Thong guesthouse on Bang Niang beach in the Khao Lak area, we bought a day tour with Fantastic Similan Travel. A range of tour companies can take you to the Similans, but beware that the old adage — “you get what you pay for” — usually holds true. The cheapest cost around 2,000 baht per person while the most expensive top out just below 4,000. Fantastic charges 3,200 per person, but we were given a small discount just for asking.

Note that we’re talking about snorkelling tours here — the Similans are also a fantastic diving destination and there’s no shortage of dive companies in the area, but diving is pricier. It’s also worth mentioning that, unless you charter your own boat, it’s not possible to visit the Similans independently. If you choose to overnight in the islands, you’ll still need to pay a single day rate for a tour company to take you there and pick you up in a speedboat; in other words, you’ll have to pay for a tour whether you want it or not.

Don't worry -- it's worth it.

It’s worth it.

On the morning of our tour, a minibus showed up on time to take us to the pier just south of Khao Lak beach. After trying on snorkelling gear and being briefed by Fantastic’s cheery staff, we were shuffled onto a speedboat along with a dozen or so other travellers. The boat had adequate space for everyone and cold drinks, pastries and fresh fruit were offered as we skipped over the Andaman waves. The Similans are 50 kilometres due west of Khao Lak; the trip takes about one and a half hours if the weather is good.

The word similan means ‘nine’ after the nine islands of the Similan archipelago in the Malay-derived language of the seafaring Moken people. The islands are small, most are spread several kilometres apart, and all are protected as part of the Mu Koh Similan National Park. Visitors are only allowed to set foot on two of the islands — Ko Miang (#4) and Ko Similan (#8) — due to park regulations in place to protect nesting sea turtles and other wildlife.

Land of no humans.

Land of no humans.

After arriving at Ko Miang right on schedule around 10:30, we were given about an hour to relax on the beach, do some snorkelling or hike up to a viewpoint before lunch. We opted for the viewpoint, relying on a network of fixed ropes to surmount especially steep sections. While not too difficult for the average hiker, it’s a daunting climb for the average hiker wearing flip-flops.

Due to the time restraints — and the old flips on our feet — we were forced to turn back before making it to the top, but the “wows” we could hear from those who did get there made the views sound pretty darn good. When we returned to the beach, a tasty buffet lunch of Thai curries, stir-fries, grilled chicken and rice was waiting.

Slinking up the viewpoint trail on Ko Miang.

Slinking up the viewpoint trail on Ko Miang.

To avoid feeling rushed (who wants to feel rushed in paradise?), we recommend camping out or renting a bungalow on either Ko Miang or Ko Similan, the former being the more central and quieter of the two and the latter offering the best beach but also a more crowded atmosphere. Keep in mind that the national park’s staff are not too helpful and the food served in the national park-run restaurants with limited opening hours is reportedly not too good, so anything more than a night or two might get dull.

Within 10 minutes of being whisked back onto the boat after lunch we were snorkelling off the coast of Ko Payu (#7). Much of the coral appeared dead and light greyish in colour due to coral bleaching in recent years, but bright tropical fish illuminated by rays of sun that pierced the dreamy aqua water made it a memorable 30-minute snorkel. It’s still possible to see thriving, technicolour coral around the Similans, but you’ll need to put on a tank to get to it.

Happy snorkellers.

Happy snorkellers.

After the last of 15 smiling faces emerged from the water, our boat cruised to the second snorkelling site in a calm cove surrounded by the dramatic windswept boulders of Ko Ba-Ngu (#9). The underwater scenery was similarly stunning here, but this dip proved to be the highlight of the day thanks to a handful of the area’s long-term residents swimming over to meet us.

Making friends.

Making friends.

After swimming with several not-so-shy green sea turtles, I hopped back on the boat to hopefully catch a photo of one for you, dear Travelfish readers.

One photogenic turtle.

One photogenic turtle.

Back on the boat, we headed north to the largest of the islands, Ko Similan (#8) itself, where we found the Similans’ signature landmark — Donald Duck rock — perched over a gorgeous bay with the same name. Looming high on the smooth, sloped cliffs above the bay, this enormous oval boulder looks as though its been itching to jump for the last several thousand years but hasn’t quite mustered up the courage.

Now this rock has personality.

Wouldn’t want to be there when it does decide to jump.

A series of wooden steps and what we found to be somewhat precarious footbridges lead hundreds of visitors up to Donald Duck rock everyday. Dozens of tour companies were already anchored in the bay when we arrived, and we were forced to wait in a slow-moving single-file queue before making it to the top. Once we did make it, brilliant views of the bay and its surrounding lush green hills made us forget all about the crowds.

Not a bad spot to drop anchor.

Not a bad spot to drop anchor.

Getting from the beach to Donald Duck rock and back took the better part of an hour, and we noticed many opting out of the views so as to relish their last hour on Similan with another snorkel. This is one of the most dazzling beaches we’ve seen in Thailand, but the crowds did detract from it. Spend the night if you want the same scene minus about 300 people, or head to less travelled but similarly pristine beaches on other protected Andaman islands like Ko Surin and Ko Thachai.

Social hour in Donald Duck bay?

Social hour in Donald Duck bay?

After close to five hours of touring the Similans, the tour staff tore the last few stragglers off the beach and we set off for the mainland. Along the way, a powerful storm blew through, which caused those in the back of the boat (us included of course) to be whipped by sheets of rain mixed with sea water. Breaks in the sea rose two to three metres around the boat, but the drivers did well to ride out the storm. The sun re-emerged by the time we reached the mainland, just in time to catch one of those legendary Khao Lak sunsets.

Meanwhile in Khao Lak...

Meanwhile in Khao Lak …

Although next time we’d probably opt to laze around the Similans for a night or two, we were happy with the daytrip offered by Fantastic Similan Travel. We felt safe in their hands throughout the day, but we also appreciated their lighthearted attitude. And despite the crowds, these islands retain a place on our shortlist of the most luscious in Thailand.

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