Thai islands for nature lovers

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First published 2nd December, 2012

Many of Thailand's islands have seen staggering development in recent years, but a slice of unspoilt paradise can still be enjoyed in several marine national parks. If you're hoping to traverse rugged mountain trails, relax on near empty beaches, meander mangrove forests and sea-caves by kayak, be pestered by monkeys rather than touts and doze off to the sound of waves instead of beach parties, these islands are for you.

To be clear, we're not saying these are the only natural havens in the Thai islands; in fact, we're preparing a related story that covers "Thai islands to lose yourself on", many of which will also fit the bill for nature lovers. Hiking trails, quiet beaches, waterfalls and viewpoints can also be found on more developed islands like Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Ko Lanta and Ko Chang.

What sets the following islands apart is how they're at least partially protected as national parks and are, first and foremost, bastions for plant and wildlife instead of tourism. Note that Andaman coast national park islands shut down between May 1 and November 1. Camping is the preferred means of accommodation on many, electricity is limited on most, and the majority have only basic national park run restaurants. Yet each differs in size, terrain and available activities, so choose wisely -- and have fun daydreaming while you're at it.

Lazy days on Ko Tarutao.
Lazy days on Ko Tarutao.

Ko Tarutao
Beginning with the most beastly of them all, Tarutao's 150 square kilometres of soaring mountains covered in old growth jungle were deemed so unforgiving by a 1930s Thai government that 3,000 of of the country's most dangerous criminals were outcast here. The TV show Survivor found Tarutao suitable for its whinging contestants -- but if you don't allow a park ranger to accompany you on the far reaching trails, you may wind up whinging (or worse) a bit yourself.

Hiking to waterfalls and viewpoints, mountain biking, snorkelling, lounging on vast empty beaches, boating to inland caves and hanging with notoriously brazen monkeys are among the activities offered on Tarutao. With a choice of rock hard bed bungalow or beach tent for accommodation, Tarutao is especially suited to those who embrace creepy crawlers as friends and neighbours.

No beachside tailor shops on Ko Adang.
No beachside tailor shops on Ko Adang.

Ko Adang
Like Tarutao, Ko Adang looms in breathtaking fashion off the coast of far southern Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Apart from a secluded and tacky resort which absolutely shouldn't be there by virtue of Thai law -- Adang offers strictly national park bungalow or tent accommodation and a bare bones Thai restaurant for sustenance.

Unlike Tarutao, Adang is a short longtail boat ride from the highly developed Ko Lipe, and many choose to do a day trip to Adang during an otherwise swish Lipe holiday. Only a couple of nearby waterfalls and a viewpoint with sweeping Andaman Sea views can be reached without the help of a guide due to Adang's sheer cliffs and untamed jungle, but some decent snorkelling can be enjoyed off the main beach and a handful of spectacular coves tucked beneath the mountains are reachable by longtail.

Ko Ra cubicle.
Ko Ra cubicle.

Ko Ra
Practically unknown and rarely visited, Ko Ra is a long, thin and rugged protected national park island just off the Andaman coast. Ra's only place to stay is a privately owned eco-lodge which offers homely bungalows and a staff who become more like friends after a day or two. This is one place where the term "eco" isn't just a ploy to attract customers -- the lodge began as home base for a coral reef conservation project, it continues to foster support for a sea turtle conservation group, and it's largely self-sustainable.

Staying on Ko Ra is pricier than the usual national park islands, but the food is better, the experience is totally unique and it's possible to stay long term as a volunteer. Activities include jungle trekking with an outstanding guide, sea kayaking, snorkelling, organic gardening, meditation, yoga and letting your worries fade into a seaside hammock.

Ko Lao Liang beckons.
Ko Lao Liang beckons.

Ko Lao Liang
Two neighbouring blips of dramatic limestone boulders that rise from the Andaman Sea, Ko Lao Liang is similar to Ko Ra in that it's only facilities are run by a small, environmentally-conscious private company. Unless stopping by on a day trip from nearby Ko Surin, Lao Liang can only be visited as part of a package that includes a rustic but comfy seaside stay and buffet meal enjoyed communally. Especially suitable for those who prefer a healthy dose of adventure with their beach paradise, scuba-diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and some excellent rock-climbing await.

School is out on Ko Libong.
School is out on Ko Libong.

Ko Libong
The only island to make our list that offers a few bungalow joints to choose from, Libong is a relatively large but scarcely visited Andaman island partially protected as a wildlife refuge. It's a great place to forget the "real world" and is home to a charming Muslim fishing village, but Libong is best known as the world's foremost refuge of the endangered dugong, or "Asian sea cow".

Closely related to the manitee, these gentle, chubby giants can be spotted on a guided kayak trip through Libong's expansive inland mangrove sanctuary. Although not the best for snorkelling thanks to its slightly murky water, Libong also offers a handful of hiking trails, viewpoints and secluded beaches.

Energy conservation on Ko Surin.
Energy conservation on Ko Surin.

Ko Surin and the Similan Islands
These two idyllic Andaman Sea destinations are similar in many ways: both are home to some of Thailand's finest beaches, accommodation and restaurants are run by national parks, each are relatively far from the mainland and both are tiny as islands go. Surin is actually two teeny neighbouring islands while the Similans encompass nine dots of rock, jungle and sand, only two of which can be walked on due to park regulations.

As for activities, beach-lounging is always a favourite and both offer fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities. Yet most come explicitly for the top notch scuba diving and snorkelling -- if you want to meet sea turtles, make your way to Ko Surin and/or the Similans.

Although they're both well worth a visit, we're slightly partial to Ko Surin thanks to it's thinner crowds and the many Moken "sea gypsy" operated longtail boats which can be hired for a day of private exploration (the Moken have a small village on one of the Surin islands). In contrast, most touring in the Similans is by way of speedboats run by travel companies. Ko Surin also gets points for its more helpful national park staff, but the Similans boast a more dramatic landscape defined by enormous coastal boulders that look like play toys of the gods. If you can't decide, why not visit both?

Tarutao taxis.
Tarutao taxis.

Ang Thong Islands
We'll leave you with the 42 pristine isles of Ang Thong National Marine Park off the eastern Gulf coast, which inspired that book-turned-movie that always pops up in Thai island pieces like these: The Beach. This marine park was in fact one of the filming destinations that hosted Leo Dicaprio and crew, and it's not hard to see why Ang Thong was cast in the role of hidden island paradise.

Snorkel or dive in cerulean blue water, sun-bath on squeaky white sand beaches, gaze over an emerald lake ringed by mountains and venture through limestone sea caves in a kayak. If wanting to spend a night (or six), the national park offers basic accommodation and a restaurant, similar to what you'd find on Ko Surin or the Similans.

So which is the most nature-tastic of them all? The truth is, each are incredible, so it entirely depends on your tastes. Hikers and bikers should not miss Tarutao. Go for Adang if you want a taste of nature without straying far from resort world. If itching for something completely different, head for Ra or Lao Liang. Libong offers the rare chance to see an endangered dugong in the wild. Surin, the Similans and Ang Thong are all safe bets for fantastic diving and snorkelling in a picture postcard paradise. Why can't all of life's tough decisions be as fun as this one?

About the author:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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