Found 70 km off the coast of Phang Nga province, the Similan islands are one of Thailand’s most spectacular destinations, with rich marine life and colourful seascapes ideal for diving and snorkelling. 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 sights, 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, an area of 140 square kilometres that also includes Ko Bon and Ko Tachai, the Similans have remained free of private development. 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 have avoided the fate of other islands in the Andaman like Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lipe, their natural beauty being buried under extensive hotel development, certainly the pressures of mass tourism are starting to be felt here. The Similans have become extremely popular and both the waters and beaches can at times feel like something of a theme park.
Though tour operators are subject to licensing and controls, alarms have been raised that the number of visitors arriving daily to the islands far exceed their capacity. In early 2015, park officials were quoted as saying they would limit visitor numbers to 200 a day on Tachai and 250 a day on Similan (# 8) island, but it’s estimated that some 1,000 people arrive to each daily. Inevitably, coral degradation and beach trash are starting to appear.
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.
Ko Miang’s main beach is on the north side, where most of the day trip boats come in and where the restaurants, tents, bungalows and visitor services are found. The central part of the beach has white powder sand while each end is rocky with good snorkelling. A dirt path leads to “Small” beach, a gorgeous stretch of sand with decent snorkelling and a small Royal Thai Navy station. Two more walking paths lead to a viewpoint and a sunset viewpoint, the latter with a tiny beach to stop at along the way.
Ko Similan has a scattering of tents set just back from its main beach, as well as a visitor centre and restaurant. The trail up to the Donald Duck rock offers fantastic views across the bay, while another trail leads to two more beaches. All the beaches are good for snorkelling, and 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. On our visit in October 2015 the facilities here were looking a bit run down, and we reckon island # 4 is the cleaner and better maintained of the two islands and a more inviting place to stay over.
The park runs daily boats to some of the more popular snorkelling sites, though these are geared towards Thai visitors and information in English is difficult to find. Perhaps this is one reason why the vast majority of visitors come on day-long tours from Khao Lak or Phuket, or as part of a diving tour.
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.
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. For an internet connection you’ll have to rely on your mobile data or an air card, since there’s no WiFi service available.
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, and the visitor centre on Ko Miang has lifejackets and storage lockers for rent at 50 baht a day for each. 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.
The restaurants, which do also serve beer, are open at meal times 07:30-09:00, 11:30-14:00 and 18:30-20:00. Coffee stands stay open throughout the day until around 17:00. If you’re staying in a tent, the restaurants, which have electricity day and night, will be the only place you’ll be able to cool down with a fan and charge up your phones.
In terms of accommodation, it’s wise to book ahead for the bungalows via a local travel agent or the park's official website, if you can manage it. Ko Similan is one destination that requires you to rely on a tour company at some point, and if you want to stay overnight just 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 from about October 15 to May 15 each year and it’s not possible to stay during off season.
As a national park, there is a 500 baht entry fee for foreign adults and 300 baht for foreign children. Be sure to check this is included in the cost of a tour — it should be.
By Lana Willocks.
Last updated on 19th December, 2016.