Thailand is popular holiday destination in South-East Asia. The country is also a central hub of business, industry and many types of commerce. Many things make Thailand so popular for tourism, and the ease of visiting & the various activities on offer rank among the most important. Thailand has ridden a rollercoaster of recent events which may have caused the people, confidence & infrastructure of other nations to give up. These include the 2004 tsunami, political changes, and contagious diseases. Even now, under the ruling military junta and recent passing of their beloved king, Thailand prospers in many fields, including international tourism. The year-round climate enables tourists to find something or somewhere to suit their vacation plans. These may be shopping in Bangkok, visiting temples or trekking in the north, or a sea-based holiday in the country’s central and southern provinces. In particular, the beaches and seas of Thailand are considered to be very attractive to those coming to Thailand for any length of time from a short visit to settling down and making Thailand your home.
Southern Thailand has two coastlines, both of which are very popular for visitors, but are distinctly different in many other ways. One coastline is easier to get to from Bangkok and the north, and has plenty of seaside resort towns and islands. The other benefits from cleaner and more beautiful seas, and has more islands.
The West Coast of Thailand joins the Andaman Sea, which soon becomes The Bay of Bengal and The Indian Ocean. For this reason alone, the coastal seas are clearer and cleaner than the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand’s west coast is home to the world-famous islands of Phuket, Phi Phi and Similans. There are hundreds of kilometres of coastline from the border with Myanmar in the north and Malaysia in the south. Pristine beaches, tropical paradise islands, and coral reefs are very much the norm all along this western coast. Because of this, tourists come in their droves from all over the world to enjoy sunsets over the sea’s horizon, and activities in the sea and on beaches. And on Thailand’s west coast is where the scuba diving is best. This is mainly due to the life and habitats underwater being better thanks to The Indian Ocean providing a constant supply of food and more. Unlike in The Gulf of Thailand, where circulating currents keep most of the water & species in the same area, the west coast is fed & cleaned by a vast amount of water. Therefore, not only is the water clearer, it is also common for large pelagic species to visit. Whale Sharks and Manta Rays are the most popular species to hope to see when scuba diving in Thailand, but there are many more exciting fish, reptiles and invertebrates. The west coast of Thailand has several areas to enjoy some fantastic scuba diving, some of which are in tourist hotspots. Visitors need to decide what they want from a scuba diving holiday in Thailand, and there’s always a sacrifice to be made. Choosing the best dive sites may involve having to sleep on a diving liveaboard boat or travelling far out to sea. Although there are many great dive sites near to land which can be visited on day trips, these may be crowded with other divers, or not offer the chances to see something special. Then of course there’s the financial cost to think about. Choosing the right part of Thailand is just the start of planning your diving holiday.
The Similan Islands is the best diving spot in Thailand. Located 40 km. from the nearest part of the mainland, The Similan Islands are far enough away for the reefs and their inhabitants to avoid human development and benefit from lots of nutrient-rich clean water to supply and maintain life. Also, the whole area is protected as part of a national marine park. Other than some government-run simple bungalows and tents on a couple of islands, there are no hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops or pubs. Diving at the Similan Islands can be done on a day trip, but it involves a lot of travelling for just two dives. Also, this is only really possible from Khao Lak*, because Phuket is too far away. To best enjoy Similan Islands diving, join a liveaboard trip. There are plenty of Similan diving liveaboards to choose from, and the trip length ranges from overnight to a week. In general, four days & nights is the most popular.
The Similan National Marine Park includes the mini archipelago of The 8 Similan Islands, plus Koh Bon & Koh Tachai which are to the north. Also, most people include Richelieu Rock when talking or writing about Similan Islands diving, but Richelieu rock is in fact in the Surin National Marine Park. For scuba diving, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock are more challenging, but very rewarding dive sites. Koh Bon is possible for all divers, but experienced divers will enjoy it more than novices. At the 8 Similan Islands there are dive sites to suit every need and level of experience & certification.
- Khao Lak is a seaside resort town in Phang Nga Province. It’s an hour north by road from Phuket Airport. Khao Lak was severely affected by the 2004 tsunami, but is now a great place for families & couples to visit, even if they have no interest in scuba diving. It’s much more laid back than Phuket.
- Phuket is the main island on the west coast, with a recently-rebuilt international airport and a very well-established infrastructure, including hundreds of hotels. In fact, it’s not easy to do anything on the west coast of Thailand without somehow involving Phuket, even if just passing through. Diving around Phuket is extremely popular, and can be done all year round. Although most of the island’s tourist beaches are on the west side of Phuket Island, there are only a few dive sites in that area, and they’re not at all special. Phuket’s best diving locations are 20km. off the southeast of the island. The most famous is King Cruiser Wreck, which is a car ferry that ran into a reef and sank. The reef it ran into is known as Anemone Reef, and these two sites are commonly dived on the same daytrip, along with the neighbouring dive sites of Koh Doc Mai and Shark Point. Every day, several boats sail from Chalong Pier taking divers on scuba day trips from Phuket. Also, 20km. south of Phuket are the Racha Islands, also called Raya Islands by some people. Here there are some good dive sites that are less crowded and offer better chances of pelagic species sightings.
- Koh Phi Phi is 40km. southeast from Phuket, and world famous for its beaches, scenery, vehicle-free roads, the Di Caprio movie, and of course scuba diving. Some diving centres on Phi Phi take customers all the way out to King Cruiser Wreck and its neighbouring dive spots, but most don’t leave the Phi Phi area. The best known of these are Bida Nok & Bida Nai, but Phi Phi has several other good diving spots. Koh Phi Phi is officially in the province of Krabi, but its location is almost exactly half way between Phuket and Krabi. The only way to get to Koh Phi Phi is by public ferry or private speedboat. Everything on the island is a little more expensive than on the mainland, and travellers need to be aware of this, and the reasons why.
- Ranong Province is at the other end of Thailand’s western boarder when compared to Koh Lipe. Ranong Town is the northernmost Thai town on this coast, and is mainly known as a border town with Myanmar/Burma. There’s not a great deal of special diving from Ranong, although the province does have several pristine islands, such as Koh Chang & Koh Phayam. These islands’ reefs are in shallow water and slope away gently, meaning that they’re perfect for snorkelling or learning to dive, but there’s not much of a diving industry on them. However, based in Ranong Town are several dive centres which run liveaboard diving boats that sail into Burma’s Mergui Archipelago. Liveaboard diving in Burma involves more preparation than in Thailand due to each diver having to pay for a permit. For that reason, and the distance to many dive sites around hundreds of islands, diving safaris in Burma tend to be at least 5 days in length, and often longer.
- Krabi Town doesn’t really have many diving spots, but in Krabi Province in addition to Koh Phi Phi, there are Koh Lanta, Koh Haa and some smaller islands. Koh Lanta is quite large and has plenty of hotels and a road around its coastline. Koh Haa is uninhabited, but a popular diving destination in the south of Thailand. Most dive trips from Koh Lanta will either sail west to Koh Phi Phi or south to Koh Haa, because the dive sites close to Koh Lanta aren’t very special. Koh Haa is a wonderful mini archipelago, but only open from October to May. It’s ideal for divers of all levels of certification and experience, as well as snorkellers. Another dive spot in the area is known as Hin Daeng, although in fact it’s two undersea pinnacles called Hin Daeng & Hin Muang. There’s nothing to do here except dive because there’s nothing above the surface, and it’s exposed in deep sea far away from anything. The two dive sites are not for beginners, and like the best dive spots in Thailand, only open from October to May.
- Koh Lipe is fast becoming a very popular destination, and for good reason. This small island is in the deep south of Thailand’s west coast, less than 40km. from Langkawi in Malaysia. Koh Lipe sits next to two much larger but uninhabited islands, which offer it a nice view and some protection from wind and waves coming from the north and northwest. Koh Lipe is very similar to Koh Phi Phi with regards to accommodation & other living costs, getting there, and scuba diving.
The East Coast of Thailand is the border between the mainland and the sea of The Gulf of Thailand. Here is home to some world-famous places including Pattaya, and Koh Pha Ngan. Pattaya is extremely popular for being so near to Bangkok, and is thus easy to visit for the weekend, or even a day trips. However, Pattaya has a sordid reputation for its nightlife, and the sea and beaches aren’t very clean. Koh Pha Ngan is famous for its Full Moon Parties, which again have less than desirable reputations. In addition to these two party beach hotspots, The Gulf of Thailand has some wonderful places, both on the mainland and dozens of islands. These include Hua Hin & Cha Am, which are mainland seaside towns a similar distance from Bangkok as Pattaya is, but are much more family friendly. Koh Chang is the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand, closely followed by Koh Samui. Both are fantastic holiday destinations, and Koh Samui has an international airport, while Koh Chang is nearer to Bangkok and not far from the border with Cambodia. For scuba diving, islands like Koh Chang and Samui have some diving industry, but the vast majority of diving in The Gulf of Thailand is done at Koh Tao. Everybody knows this small island, which is a short ferry ride from Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, and mainland Thailand at Chumpon. It is claimed that more new divers are certified on Koh Tao than at any other location in the world. Koh Tao is popular for learning to scuba dive mainly due to the great sea & weather conditions almost all year round and the fiercely-competitive market there, which has driven the price of courses down. Much of the rest of Thailand’s coastline in the Gulf is not developed for tourism at the moment.