Overlooked but magnificent
Published/Last edited or updated: 4th July, 2021
Founded in 1984 with sites sprinkled over an 80-km-long expanse of Thailand’s Andaman Sea, Mu Ko Phetra Marine National Park is often ignored by travellers who are more widely drawn to bigger-name parks like Mu Ko Tarutao, Mu Ko Phi Phi and Mu Ko Lanta. Few know that Mu Ko Phetra has some of the most majestic Andaman scenery in the kingdom.
We reckon that Mu Ko Phetra’s “under the radar” status has something to do with its remoteness and its lack of cohesiveness. Covering parts of both Trang and Satun provinces, most of the park’s islands and mainland areas are located quite far from one another, requiring considerable planning. Some travellers pick off the various sites, one by one, over the course of several trips.
Another unusual aspect is how the namesake island, Ko Phetra, does not even rank among the eight most popular attractions in the park. This gnarly fortress-shaped island has no visitor centre, campground, restaurant or even a ranger outpost. The only development consists of houses and shacks used by locals who climb into the crags to harvest edible swiftlet nests, considered a “super-food” delicacy in dishes like bird’s nest soup. If you visit Ko Phetra, be careful not to enter the bird’s nest hunters’ compound. The nests are extremely valuable, and armed guards are often employed at the harvest sites.
That does not mean that you should shy away from Ko Phetra entirely. If you can afford a roughly 4,000-baht longtail boat trip from nearby Ko Sukorn, the white sand beaches backed by towering karst massifs will leave you breathless. Ask to cruise around to the backside of the island to check out the huge, finger-like overhangs of rock where fishers seek shelter during the violent storms that blow through the Andaman.
Eight kilometres north of Ko Phetra you’ll find the similarly jaw-dropping twin islands of Ko Lao Liang, which we’ve covered in a dedicated guide. Camping was possible here thanks to a privately run “glamping” resort until 2019, when national park authorities permanently shut the operation down. Locals on Ko Sukorn told us in mid-2021 that camping might again be possible in the future, but it will almost certainly be provided by park officials, just like on virtually all other Thai national park islands. It did not sound like rock climbing would be permitted again, which we reckon is a shame considering that several bolted routes that stud Lao Liang’s fabulous limestone faces had made the islands a worthy alternative to Railay.
The marine park also covers all of the uninhabited parts of the Ko Bulon group of islands, including the reefs and jungles of Ko Bulon Lae and Ko Bulon Don, as well as uninhabited karst islets like Ko Lama and Ko Sam. Park officials seem to have reached a mutually acceptable arrangement with the native Urak Lawoi (literally: “Sea People”) of Ko Bulon, who are able to maintain a lifestyle based on low-level fishing while park officials keep the big-money developers away.
The park also covers nine petite islets scattered within a 10-km radius of Ko Phetra. Most are visited only by fishers seeking a nap, but Ko Takieng in the northwest has a 500-square metre patch of staghorn coral that we’ve heard is worth a round of snorkeling. It’s included in some of the boat tours that stop at Ko Lao Liang and are fairly popular among Thai tourists.
Accessible via boat and kayaking tours that can be arranged in Pakbara, the rest of the park lies much further south in Satun province. The park’s largest island is Ko Khao Yai, whose jagged karst composition conceals a magnificent lagoon known as Prasat Hin Pan Yod, which roughly translates as “1,000-Peak Stone Castle” thanks to its sharp natural spires of limestone. The site is popular among Thai kayaking enthusiasts, but few foreigners ever see it.
The park’s far southern reaches include the twin isles of Ko Lidi, where kayaking and camping are options for travellers with their own tents and food.
Ko Lidi can be reached by longtail boat from Ao Noon, a sandy mainland bay where park headquarters joins a walkway alongside 500-million-year-old sandstone and limestone cliffs at Khao To Ngai. It’s part of Satun Geopark, which includes many sites in both Mu Ko Phetra and Mu Ko Tarutao national parks that were collectively granted UNESCO geological status in 2018.
Another Satun Geopark site that falls under Mu Ko Phetra is Tham Le Stegodun, a watery cave where fossils from ancient elephant and rhinoceros were unearthed. These can be viewed at the Satun Geopark Museum in Thung Wa, the northernmost district in Satun province.
Mu Ko Phetra is best approached by breaking the whole park down into the individual sites. We suggest picking islands and other sites that interest you and factoring them into a broad travel plan that might also include areas which are part of other national parks, such as Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang, or are not part of any national parks, such as Ko Sukorn and Ko Libong.
If you want to go to Ko Lao Liang, Ko Phetra and/or Ko Takieng, make your way to Ko Sukorn or Haad Tasae on the mainland and book a private longtail boat trip in the 4,000 to 5,000 baht range. Otherwise, look into group tours that can be booked in Trang and utilise larger boats, though don’t expect much English to be spoken if going for one of those tours.
If you want to go to Ko Bulon Lae, catch a speedboat ferry from Pakbara, Ko Lipe or one of several islands further north, like Ko Kradan and Ko Muk. Keep in mind though that ferries stop running and most resorts close on Ko Bulon during low season.
To visit mainland attractions like Khao To Ngai and Tham Le Stegodun, consider renting a vehicle (in Trang or Hat Yai for example) and including these sites on a broader road trip around Thailand’s lower-Andaman coast. You could also hit the waterfalls and caves of Trang along with the impressive Ton Nga Chang Waterfall near Hat Yai and perhaps some of the areas near Malaysia in Satun. Alternately, get yourself to Pakbara and arrange a trip to Ao Noon from there.
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.