If Thailand's tropical islands are the country's crowned jewels, Ko Surin could be the brightest of them all. Protected as the Mu Ko Surin National Park, Ko Surin actually consists of two relatively small islands — Ko Surin Nuea (north) and Ko Surin Tai (south) — as well as a handful of islets and some magnificent underwater seascapes.
Though many choose to visit on a daytrip, Ko Surin really warrants spending a night or two in order to adequately absorb the unspoilt natural beauty both on land and underwater, including some of the finest white sand beaches and shimmering emerald waters to be found anywhere in Asia.
Along with Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, Ko Surin and the surrounding area (including Richilieu Rock) is considered to be one of Thailand's (and Asia's) very best diving and snorkelling destinations. Whale sharks are often sighted off the north coast of Ko Surin Nuea, and angel fish, butterfly fish, moray, surgeon fish, sharks and sea turtles, to name just a few, are consistently seen in the coastal waters.
Sadly, Ko Surin's precious coral reefs were hit hard in 2010 by bleaching caused by unusually high ocean water temperatures blamed on global warming. Although much of the colourful algae within the coral has died off, some of the coral has held on to its colour and Ko Surin is still an excellent place to dive and snorkel. There is a seemingly endless selection of diving operations throughout the Ranong, Phang Nga, Khao Lak and Phuket regions that offer trips to Ko Surin and Richilieu Rock. A few tour companies and the national park also organise daily boat trips for snorkellers.
Though best known for its marine wildlife, Ko Surin is also home to healthy populations of monkeys, snakes, monitor lizards, crabs of countless varieties, and abundant bird life. Untouched jungle covers most of the islands, and though one rugged trail runs over the mountainous interior of Ko Surin Nuea, most of Ko Surin is not only virtually impenetrable but also officially off limits to visitors.
Long before the Thai government declared it a national park (or even claimed it as their territory at all), Ko Surin was a centre of Moken sea gypsy life. While some of the Moken have become Thai citizens, many are still "stateless beings" who are a nomadic people speaking a unique language, which is a descendent of Malay. A small Moken village is found on Ko Surin's southern island, and evidence of Moken culture — including their signature thatched roof boats and mystical wooden pillar statues built as dedications to ancestors — may be found throughout the islands. If visiting the Moken village, which has become something of a tourist spectacle in recent years, please be respectful of their traditional culture.
Aside from the Moken village, all of Ko Surin Tai is off limits to visitors, and apart from the Mai Ngam and Kong Khad camping areas on Ko Surin Nuea it's not permissible to set foot on most of the northern island either. Sea turtles still nest on the southern island, and overall Ko Surin is truly a haven for plants and wildlife, so these regulations are solely in place to protect the ecosystem. If found breaking the rules and hiking on restricted ground, expect to be fined 2,000 baht and kicked off the islands. It is however still possible to explore the waters around all parts of the islands and enjoy a glimpse of Ko Surin's untouched beaches and bays, rocky coastline, and mangrove forests.
By David Luekens.