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.
Ko Surin lies in the Andaman Sea some 60 km off the west coast of Thailand's northern Phang Nga province, due west from the town of Khuraburi. One really does have a sense of being cast far off to a wild and isolated place while on Ko Surin. Unless visiting with a diving operation, each of which have their own boats and schedules, visitors to Ko Surin first arrive by speedboat to Ao Kong Khad, which is located on a southwestern peninsula off the northern island. Here you'll find a visitor centre, restaurant, shop, most of the cottages, and one of the camping sites.
The visitor centre does not provide much in the way of information, but they do hand out basic black and white maps of the islands, offer snorkelling equipment for rent, and arrange half day trips around the islands. A small display of some of the marine life found in the area may also be found here. While the cottages are located inland a short walk from the beaches, Kong Khad's camping area features tents set up on a small white sand beach facing west.
By far the better camping area, however, is located a short longtail boat ride to Ao Mai Ngam at Ko Surin Nuea's northwest (be sure to tell your speedboat crew which place you prefer to stay or they may assume to drop you at Kong Khad). Nestled in a tranquil, quiet bay with a small but idyllic powdery coral sand beach, the camping area at Mai Ngam is one of those places that's so beautiful it leaves you breathless. There is also a small visitor centre, shop, restaurant, and a couple secluded fan cottages for larger groups at Mai Ngam.
Some of Ko Surin's better known snorkelling sites include the nearby islet of Ko Satok, which is a particularly good place to glimpse tropical fish; Ko Torinla and Ao Pak Khad, known for their numerous shark sightings; and Ao Mai Yai, Ko Pachumba, and Ao Sab Pa Rod, all of which are noted for their coral. Ao Mai Ngam is also considered an excellent snorkelling site in its own right, and small, harmless reef sharks may be found daily in shallow water near the Mai Ngam beach at low tide.
While the national park is able to provide limited first aid, Ko Surin is a remote destination so anything major requires being transported by speedboat to the mainland, and the national park are able to provide this service (in cooperation with a small Thai Navy encampment) quickly in the case of emergency.
Not surprisingly there are no banks or ATMs so be sure to bring enough cash for your stay.
There is, however, a very out of place looking post box at Mai Ngam if you can't wait to get back to the mainland to send that postcard to Mum back home. Electricity runs only from 18:00 to 22:00 each evening, and Ko Surin closes down each year from May 1 to November 1.
By David Luekens.