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Similan Islands

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In a nutshell

Out there, exotic, unspoilt, majestic -- these are all apt ways to describe the Similans. Whether you visit for a quick day trip or a month, the beauty of these nine tiny islands must be seen to be believed.

Some 50 km from the Thai western coast among open water in the Andaman Sea, the Similan islands are known far and wide to boast some of the most spectacular scenery and best snorkelling and diving of anywhere in Southeast Asia. With Malay roots, the word "similan" means "nine" in local Moken (sea gypsy) language after the nine tiny islands of the Similan archipelago. Along with magnificent underwater seascapes, the Similans boast some of the finest white sand, turquoise water beaches in Thailand, and even a few hiking trails and viewpoints.

Officially protected as part of Mu Koh Similan National Park, which also includes Ko Bon and Ko Tachai a little further afield, the Similans are pristine. In the air, rare birds such as sea eagles, kingfisher, and the endangered nicobar pigeon may be spotted. In the water, sea turtles, rays, moray eels and whale sharks are commonly seen along with a vibrant community of tropical fish. Though the Similans were impacted by the El Nino related coral bleaching of 2010, many of the reefs are now recovering even in shallow water, and the soft coral further below the surface remains as stunning as ever.

Sound good? It is, but there is one draw back — The Similans have become extremely popular and both the waters and beaches can at times feel like something of a theme park. With that said, the beauty of this place should be enough to put up with a few crowds, and although it's an expensive trip, we think these nine Andaman islands are still well worth it. If you cherish serene solitude, consider sticking around for a night or two as the scene quiets down after the day trip speedboat tours head back to the mainland in the afternoons.

Of the nine islands, it's only allowable to set foot on two — Ko Miang (# 4) near the centre of the chain, and Ko Similan (# 8), the largest of the islands towards the north. Both have small camping areas and there are bungalows available on Ko Miang. Each also have small restaurants, but there's little in the way of information centres for visitors.

While the bungalows are comfortable — some even have 24 hour electricity and air-con — restaurants serve notoriously bland food. For its overall visitor services, the national park is unfortunately lacking. They do at least run daily boats to some of the more popular snorkelling sites, though when we asked where exactly the boats on the day we visited were heading, the man at the information booth just scratched his head and replied, "I don't know". Perhaps this is one reason why the vast majority of visitors come on day-long tours from Khao Lak, or as part of a diving tour.

The western sides of nearly all islands have dreamy white sands beaches, and there are a few hiking trails to some outstanding viewpoints, including the famous Donald Duck rock on Similan island. Where there are no beaches you'll find wind-swept trees peppered into smooth, massive boulders that look to have been tossed here like the play-toys of infantile gods.

Snorkelling may be enjoyed both off the beaches and from boats led either by the national park or any of the numerous tour companies that lead excursions to the Similans. While there are at least 25 individual dive sites in the Similans, some of the highlights include East of Eden for its long swim through lined with colourful coral and marine life, Deep Six for its unparalleled range of deep boulders and archways where large fish and sharks are often spotted, and Anita's Reef, which sprawls over a large area and features reefs, boulders, and a Chinese fishing junk that sunk in 2002.


Orientation
Ko Similan is a very remote locale, and although the national park is able to provide basic first aid, anything serious will require a lift by Thai Navy boat or a tour speedboat back to the mainland.

Cell phones typically work on islands # 4 and # 8, but internet is only available by way of painfully slow air cards, and only if you have your own or borrow one from another guest.

There are no roads, motorbikes, banks or ATMs, so bring enough cash for your stay. Tiny shops offer basic necessities in the accommodation zones from 7:00 to 20:30 daily. The restaurants, which do also serve beer, are open between 8:00 and 14:00 and again from 17:00 to 20:00. Coffee stands stay open throughout the day until around 17:00. If planning on hiking it's smart to bring some decent shoes as a few of the trails are steep and not suitable for flip flops.

In terms of accommodation, it's wise to book ahead, especially for the bungalows as they're often full. Ko Similan is one destination that requires you to rely on a tour company at some point, and it seems prudent if you want to stay overnight to let the tour company that's shuttling you to the islands know where you would like to stay. They can help arrange everything for you and pick you up at a pre-determined time for no extra charge.

No ferries or public speedboats run to and from the islands, only tour speedboats, so if wanting only to stay you're still forced to pay for at least a one day tour. Also bear in mind that the national park only operates between November 1 and May 1 each year and it's not possible to stay during off season.

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Our recommendations

Our opinion is that while the Similans are worthy of an overnight or two, it could get dull here quick as the national park office is not too helpful, food is not too good, and the islands themselves are very small. If given the choice, we'd opt for a few days on Ko Surin. Of course, the Similans are not to be missed if you're a scuba-freak -- if diving you could spend a week on a live aboard and have plenty to keep you occupied. Though you'll probably have to wait in a queue to climb Donald Duck rock, the Similans are still worth a day trip thanks to the absolutely breathtaking beaches and reefs. Say hi to the sea turtles!



Text and/or map last updated on 24th December, 2013.

Last reviewed by:
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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