42 islands to explore
The 42 islands of Ang Thong National Marine Park stretch like a jewelled necklace of limestone cliffs, coral reefs and white-sand beaches to the west of Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. Stunning natural scenery, both above water and below, draws large numbers of daytrippers along with a handful of travellers willing to rough it for a chance to get to know the chain of islands better.
Declared a national park and officially protected against development in 1980, the Ang Thong (“Golden Bowl”) Islands remained largely pristine as hundreds of resorts and an airport were built on nearby Ko Samui. It’s permissible to set foot on only the larger islands, with hefty fines threatening anyone who tramples the delicate flora that grows on limestone surfaces of smaller islets. You can however snorkel off many of these – we found modest marine life and moderate visibility off the coast of Ko Wao Yai, at the far north of the chain.
Towering limestone cliffs ring a large emerald lagoon, or Thale Nai (“Inner Sea”), at the centre of Ko Mae Ko. Steep steps – more like ladders in places – begin behind a beach and lead to a viewing platform placed high above the lagoon. From here you can descend close to the surface and watch fish explore the crystalline water, but swimming is not allowed. Bring your patience, as crowds of daytrippers often plug up the stairs. The lagoon helped to inspire the book-turned-movie, The Beach, though it was mostly filmed on Ko Phi Phi Don.
The rule against setting foot on most islands makes more sense when you see the many islets that stand like oversized buoys with vertical limestone walls towering over the sea. Some of these are among the most interesting-looking of any karst islets that we’ve seen in Thailand. One supposedly looks like two monkeys, while another, Ko Hin Lak, resembles “James Bond Island” in Phang Nga Bay.
Located around 30 kilometres west of Ko Samui, park headquarters are found at Ao Kha on Ko Wua Talap (“Sleeping Cow Island”), an island of roughly six square kilometres situated at the heart of the chain. Here you’ll find a park-run restaurant and convenience store, bungalows, tents and kayaks that can be rented for 500 baht per day. A white-sand beach stretches near these facilities, with one section transforming into a soccer pitch at dusk. Many boat tours unload here from around 11:00 to 16:00.
A steep rope trail begins near the headquarters and leads up to a 260-metre-high viewpoint, where you can gaze north over a clutch of smaller islands dotting the azure-blue sea. A less strenuous trail ends at Tham Bua Bok, a large cave featuring teal-tinted limestone among the stalactites and stalagmites. With more time you could kayak to a quieter beach on Wua Talap’s northwest coast; a local guide told us that a “secret trail” runs from here back to headquarters.
Ao Kha faces north and is within paddling distance of many small islets with overhanging ledges, making it a kayaker’s paradise. Strong kayakers can paddle from here up to Ko Mae Ko along with a natural rock bridge and empty beaches on Ko Sam Sao – both are around three kilometres north of headquarters, where maps are available. The park’s longest beach stretches on Ko Hin Dap, a less-visited island located around six kilometres north of Ao Kha.
Dusky langurs are commonly seen on Ko Wua Talap, their shaggy white faces swinging through the treetops. You also might spot Asian long-tailed monkeys, sea turtles, tortoises, monitor lizards, pythons and wild boars. Some 50 species of birds twirl through the unspoilt jungle as well.
The chain’s largest island is Ko Phaluai, located eight kilometres south of Wua Talap and drawing far fewer tours. Only parts of it are overseen by the national park, with a couple of fishing villages stocking at least one terrific seafood restaurant. In Sea (T: (077) 447 739) offers a speedboat tour that skips Wua Talap in favour of kayaking and lounging at Haad Song Phi Nong (“Two Brothers Beach”), a wide and magnificent coral-sand beach on Phaluai’s north coast.
At headquarters on Ko Wua Talap, tents can be arranged on the spot for 250 baht a night (30 baht if you bring your own tent), but we were told that bungalows need to be reserved in advance through the official Department of National Parks website. Bungalows go for 600 baht and come with fans, hard beds and cold-water showers. Basic shared bathrooms are provided for campers. All power is shut off from 23:00 until morning, but there is a cell tower. At Haad Song Phi Nong on Ko Phaluai, which also has bathrooms and a food counter, rangers told us that tents are available but seemed surprised by the request.
Those wanting to stay on Ko Wua Talap need to book a tour and ask to be dropped there and picked up at a pre-determined time, usually around 15:00 on the whichever day you decide to leave. Lomprayah, Blue Stars and Samui Island Tour are some of the options if coming from Ko Samui, while the Safari Boat comes recommended to us from Ko Pha Ngan. All of these companies use fairly large boats; most speedboat tours do not allow campers to tag along.
Many other companies offer tours of Ang Thong from Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. From Samui, prices start at around 800 baht for slow boats and go up to 1,500 baht for speedboat tours, topping out at 4,200 baht for a seat on Boutique Yachting’s 30-metre Turkish Gulet. Tours can be booked online or at any travel office, and they all include pick-up and drop off at your hotel, lunch, drinking water and snorkel. Some do not include tickets to the park, which have to be paid for separately. While it seems backwards, we’ve found that prices are often a little cheaper when booking in-person through a travel agent, rather than online through tour company websites.
For private boat charters, Sailing in Samui was recommended to us as a good option for sailboats and catamarans, while In Sea also offers private speedboats. If you can handle the cost, exploring the Ang Thong Islands over several days by private boat would be wonderful. Rangers at Haad Song Phi Nong also told us about a Mr Chaeng (T: (086) 271 5162), who leads private boat trips to Ko Phaluai from Don Sak on the mainland. There’s also Mr Lek if you’re coming from Surat Thani town.
Note that we did not stop at Ko Wua Talap on our latest swing through the Ang Thong Islands. If you want to stay overnight, check out articles from bloggers covering what the camping was like, and details on marine life and logistics.
Entrance to Ang Thong National Marine Park costs 300 baht for foreign adults and 150 baht for children. The park closes for the month of November.
Blue Stars http://bluestars.info/
Boutique Yachting http://boutiqueyachting.com/
Mr Chaeng T: (086) 271 5162
In Sea T: (077) 447 739
National Park Office: T: (077) 280 222 http://nps.dnp.go.th/parksdetail.php?id=31&name=MuKoAngThongNationalPark
Safari Boat https://www.facebook.com/SafariBoat.info/
Sailing in Samui http://www.sailing-in-samui.com/
Samui Island Tour http://www.samui-islandtour.com/home.htm
Teacher Brittany Says https://teacherbrittanysays.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/ang-thong-marine-mark/
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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