Established as Mu Ko Similan National Park in 1982, the Similan Islands are renowned for offering some of the best diving in Thailand. The tropical, lush green islands are scenic above, as well as underwater. In a picturesque setting of stunning rock boulder formations lined with white sandy beaches, the crystal clear waters harbor a wealth of coral and marine biodiversity.
The ‘Most Wanted List’ for divers includes: whale sharks, manta rays, blacktip reef sharks, leopard sharks, barracudas, trigger fish, to the tiniest of critters such as tiger tail seahorse and ghost pipefish.
Similan Islands National Park
Originally, the National Park encompassed the 9 granite Similan islands. All islands are named but the Thai tend to refer to the islands by their numbers (1 to 9) to make it easy. In 2014, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai became the newest additions to the Park. The lush green jungle on the islands is home to multiple varieties of tropical singing birds, reptiles, small critters and amazing sea creatures that migrate onto shore, including turtles.
Being a popular tourism attraction is both a blessing and a challenge for the fragile ecosystems of the Similans. To protect and give these ecosystems a chance to recover, the Park is closed from the middle of May until the middle of October every year.
Dive site highlights
There are many beautiful dive sites around the Similan Islands and there is something for divers of all qualification levels.
Boulder City and Sharkfin Reef
Located near Island 3, Boulder City and Sharkfin Reef form a chain of submerged boulder formations. Usual suspects include giant barracuda, dogtooth tuna and mackerel, as well as lion fish, scorpion fish and different kinds of moray eels. Both dive sites are out in the open sea and as such prone to currents bringing in all kinds of underwater creatures; whale shark or manta for the lucky ones!
Honeymoon Bay is home to the elusive leopard (zebra) shark, blue spotted stingrays, clown trigger fish, rabbit fish, scorpion fish, snappers, emperor fish, giant trevally and angel fish. The coral gardens, bommies, and boulder formations are wonderful to explore.
East of Eden
Hard and soft corals are mixed up nicely on this reef while the current tends to be mild. With ‘aquarium-like’ conditions, it is an ideal spot for a slow, relaxing drift dive where you can find reef sharks, turtles and many more critters.
This reef is sometimes called Barracuda Point and is at Similan Island No. 5. At the surface only a rock-pile is visible, but underwater you will find a great reef from 5 to nearly 30 meters and a lot of marine biodiversity. There is a stunning big coral bommie on the east side and some big granite boulders right on the south of the island at about 30m depth. Explore the small wreck – a fishing boat – on the west side of the island, which lies at 28 – 40m. Enough to see here for several different dives!
Near island 9, this is an attractive combination of boulder clusters, arches, passages and a plethora of soft corals and fan corals. Often named as one of the Similan’s best dive sites, where you may see whitetip reef sharks. Beautiful swim-throughs between the boulders, while the sandy bottom with rubble provides a home to many a marine critter, such as nudibranch and eel.
Elephant Head Rock
The dive site Elephant Head Rock can be spotted from the surface; it is in fact the biggest pinnacle in the Similans and offers some fantastic swim-throughs. If you are lucky you might even see some whitetip reef sharks. Batfish, trevally, and barracuda can often be seen on the perimeter of the boulders and if you look closely in the cracks and in the rubble you may find smashing peacock mantis shrimp, porcelain crab, moray eel and cleaner shrimp.
Beacon Point / Beacon Reef
The most southern point of Similan island No. 8 is pretty wild and rocky. Visible from the boat, this rock looks like a face (the Thai call it: ‘na ling’ which means ‘monkey face’). Jump in the water where you will find huge boulders at a depth of 20-35m before ending in a white sandy bottom. Further north, a nice coral reef continues for several kilometers along the eastern part of the island. Depending on where your guide takes you, your dive can be along boulders or reef or a mixture of both.
A landmark of this site is a shipwreck named “Rareung-Chon”, also known as “Atlantis-X”, which found its last resting place in the middle of the reef. The ship sank in 2002, fortunately without any casualties. The wreck lies on the reef slope at a depth of 30 meters at the stern and 15 meters at the bow.
The corals are home to lots of fish, such as angel fish, butterfly fish, fairy, basslets and puffer fish. Porcupine fish, trigger fish and moray eels are also abundant here. Large schools of pelagic fish are common. Bluefin trevally, snapper, fusilier, goat fish and long-nosed emperor fish can be seen here.
Dive in on the east of Similan Island No. 9 and check out the healthy and beautiful hard corals and amazing fish life. Watch banner fish, damsels, groupers and hunting trevallies diving into clouds of tiny bait fish. The reef drops to 25m, making this a great multilevel dive. Your safety stop can be done swimming in the shallows where you should keep an eye out for turtles. This is a great night dive site.
Leopard sharks are commonly seen and sometimes you may even see two of three on the same dive. Whitetip reef sharks and Napoleon wrasse make an appearance every now and then. Other usual suspects include Kuhl’s sting rays, garden eels, groupers, trigger fish, soldier fish and Bluefin trevally. For the keen eye, camouflage experts like octopus and ghost pipefish are regularly sighted here. An occasional comet fish can be seen in the rock crevices. Generally, large swarms of inquisitive bat fish and yellowtail barracuda hang about on the northern side of the site.
The islands of Koh Tachai and Koh Bon were added later to the Similans National Park to protect their fabulous marine residents. The main attractions of Koh Tachai are its pinnacle dive sites and gorgeous relaxed reef diving. There is also a good chance to encounter bigger species in this area such as manta rays and the majestic whale sharks, especially during the period of late January till April. Frequent visitors include turtles, barracudas, pipe fish, and nudibranchs.
Koh Bon island is famed for its manta ray sightings due to its plankton-rich waters. Manta rays often come up for a good feeding session during which they show off their moves and perform their famous somersaults. Otherwise, you are likely to see Napoleon wrasse, sweetlips, octopus, blue fin trevally, giant moray eels, great barracudas, turtles, fire dart goby, popcorn shrimp, spiny lobster and nudibranchs of many types. Occasionally, you may spot whitetip reef sharks or leopard sharks. The dive sites vary from wall diving to gently sloping reefs and from submerged boulders to coral gardens.
Beyond the Similans National Park, a little further north of Koh Tachai is Richelieu Rock. A visit to this solitary limestone pinnacle is usually included in a liveaboard trip for its amazing biodiversity and stunning seascapes. Jacques Cousteau named it after General Richelieu, an important Danish officer who served in the Thai Navy. Gorgeous purple dendronepthya soft corals are covering most of the pinnacle, while other areas are adorned with magnificent sea anemones. Barely breaking the surface at low tide, this horseshoe-shaped outcropping slopes steeply to a sandy bottom at 18 to 35 meters (60-120 ft). Richelieu Rock offers extraordinary diversity for such a small and isolated spot in the middle of the Andaman Sea. It also offers excellent multi-level diving and, since it is a high-profile reef, there are always sheltered areas to hide from the currents. The marine life is prolific and includes amongst many other things; pharaoh cuttlefish, octopus, all 5 (!) varieties of anemone fish found in the Andaman Sea, many different kinds of moray eels, ornate ghost pipe fish, smashing mantis shrimps, harlequin shrimps, tiger tail sea horses, Spanish mackerel, frog fish, many schooling snappers and occasional sightings of manta rays and whale sharks. There is always a lot of fish action happening around Richelieu Rock!
Khao Lak and beyond
During the Similans’ season, from mid May to mid October, day diving trips as well as longer overnight liveaboard trips depart from Khao Lak or from Phuket. Khao Lak is the nearest, and most convenient spot to reach the Similan Islands. A day’s diving in the Similans is always great, but to get the most out of it, hop on a liveaboard boat for a few days’ diving around the various islands. Liveaboard diving trips generally run between 2 to 7 nights. A variety of hotels in Khao Lak, suitable for every wallet, ensure you will have an enjoyable and relaxed stay before and after your dive trip.
How to get to Khao Lak?
When you arrive at Phuket Airport, a taxi ride to Khao Lak takes approximately 1.5 hours. Several buses run daily between Phuket Town and Khao Lak, which is about a 2 hour ride. Some dive operators include free shared transport from Phuket to Khao Lak so do enquire when you book your dive holiday.
Where to stay in Khao Lak?
Khao Lak hotels are scattered across the town and cater for all budgets. At present, in COVID times, it would be best to check the famous hotel booking sites which hotels are open as it varies greatly per week and month.
While you are in Khao Lak, you really shouldn’t miss out on a visit to Khao Sok National Park. An attractive combination of a lake and dramatic mountains covered in lush green jungle guarantees a scenic setting for wonderful adventures. Khao Sok was established as a National Park in 1980 and consists of a thick native rainforest, waterfalls, majestic limestone cliffs and a lake dotted with islands. The rain forest is believed to be one of the oldest in the world, potentially even older than the Amazon rain forest. Cheow Larn Lake was created in 1982 as part of a damming project to provide hydroelectricity to the southern part of Thailand. The lake encompasses an area of 165 km2, with great peaks of limestone jutting from its surface. Spend a day cruising and swimming in Cheow Larn Lake plus the ancient mangrove swamps and stay overnight in one of the floating hotels on the lake. Enjoy the spectacular limestone cliffs rising up almost vertically out of the water from the comfort of a boat with a cocktail in hand. The next day, go for a trek through the jungle to explore the unique flora and fauna wildlife. Watch majestic elephants go about their business in their natural environment. Canoeing, diving or kayaking are only a few of the many recommended activities you can do in Khao Sok.
Thailand is not short of amazing panoramic view points. Easily one of the best ones in the country is Samet Nangshe, which is not far from Khao Sok National Park and more or less on the way to Phuket. From the mountain tops, you can overlook Phang Nga Bay with its incredible limestone islands. Words will not do it justice, it is a sight to behold. It is definitely worth staying overnight in one of the tents or small bungalows so you can see the breathtaking sunrise over the bay at the crack of dawn. Do not expect any luxurious accommodation here though, it is all very basic. Until now, Samet Nangshe is a little hidden gem. Do go and experience it before it gets crowded.