Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Similan Islands

Last visited November 2014

Best beach in Thailand? - Donald Duck Bay at Similans island#8 would go close. This is a nice shot to expand by clicking.

Outlook from the viewpoint on Similans National Park Headquarters Island#4

I'd visited the Similans twice before but never stayed on the islands so in April 2012 I decided to spend some time at both camp grounds.

The Similans national park islands are located about 70 km off the northern Phang Nga Province coast, around 90/100km north of Phuket. Khao Lak is the nearest tourist town, Takua Pa the nearest administrative town.

There are 9 islands (# 1 to 9 progressively north) in the main chain although only 6 are of appreciable size. Ko Tachai s also part of the Similans national park although it is some distance to the north (47km from island #9), actually closer to the Surin islands. Ko Bon, a  popular dive location is between the main islands and Ko Tachi.

A closer look at the main islands and the nearby mainland coast. Note that Google Earth's resolution of the Similans is so poor I can't do the usual detailed GE based map. Click map to expand for detail.

ISLAND #4 – Ko Miang Park Headquarters.

This island contains the main camping area, all the bungalows and is the most popular daytrip location.

The main arrivals beach (Front Beach) is at the north of the island. All the National Park buildings, bungalows and the camping area are here. Walking tracks lead to a back beach (Small Beach)  in the north-east which has a steep offshoot to the View Point - and to Sunset Point and Little Beach to the west. This shot should expand by clicking or double clicking with most browsers.


This is the Front Beach at Ko Miang. I’d rate this as one of Thailand’s nicer beaches, particularly early morning or at time of shot – late afternoon after the daytripper crowds have left. I think it is better than Ko Surins best camping beach, Ao Mai Ngam in that it does not suffer the low tide blues – water is deep close to shore at all tides. However Mai Ngam does not get many daytrippers. The best part of this beach for fewest daytrippers is the shaded area near camera which gets plenty of sun earlier in the day but has some nice vegetation for shade. 
The National Park camping area is behind the trees in the near half of the beach. Bungalows are found back from the beach on the far headland and to left of camera. The picnic area is behind those people landing from the boat up the beach - you reach the National Park office, amenities blocks and Restaurant behind there.
This is a nice beach for swimming - the protected fish are curious and tend to follow you in the water.

The azure water off the main beach really impressed me. Those are overnighting dive boats. Some divers sleep on board – others come in to stay in tents or bungalows. Some okay snorkelling around rocks close to camera and near boats for non-fanatics.

 The back beach at HQ island – this is reached from the main beach on an easy jungle track in about 10 minutes. It is also popular with daytripping boats with a similar picnic area in back of the trees. It seemed to me that there was appreciably more sand on this beach when I visited with the Poseidon Bungalows' overnight snorkelling trip several years ago – facing west it woud get the brunt of wet season storm erosion and I think the last few wet seasons have been pretty good ones storm-wise. At the time of my latest visit there was little beach at fullest tide.

Small beach. This is only about 100m north of the main arrivals beach and reached by a short diversion off the Sunset Point track within 5 minutes of leaving the picnic area/northern bungalows.

This was shot at the peak of the daytripping period – few visitors found this beach.


The track takes off near the lower bungalows at the northern end of the main beach picnic area - follow the signs.

This is a real nice rainforest walk – signposted at 420m but seems longer, about 15 minutes. Has some slopes but no heartbreakers – could just be done in flip-flop sandals. Actually many daytrippers do it in bare feet.

Sunset Point but appreciably before sunset  and here looking south to island #3 instead of west. Note the showers – the wet season south-westerlies had already kicked in during this late April visit, although there was plenty of sunshine around.

You don’t need to go to Sunset Point for some great sunsets – this is all reflected sunlight at the main beach, looking NORTH-EAST, not west.

  This is a 10-15 minute climb, not for the unfit because it has several really steep sections although National Parks has put up helper ropes. Note the focal-length of my elcheapo point and shoot camera makes slopes appear less steep than actual. At one stage you have to go under a big overhanging boulder.

View is worth the climb. I already show the outlook in the opening shot up-page so I borrowed this pic cocodrilo sent to me from her trip report of her Similans snorkelling trip. That’s the back beach below. On my earlier Poseidon trip I snorkeled the far islet from the boat – not bad but pretty deep for surface snorkelers to see much and too far offshore for most non-boat based people.


Main entrance from the beach.  Administrative office ahead, restaurant out of shot background centre-left. Main picnic area immediately right, camping area immediately left. Bungalows far left and right on/near headlands. 2 toilet blocks inland from camping area.

Administrative office – typical rude, unco-operative National Park staff.

National Park shop adjacent office – very rudimentary range of things to purchase. Try to bring necessities from mainland.

Restaurant – got very crowded at lunch time with set menu for some of the daytrip operations. Purchasable food for campers and bungalow people similar to Surins – mainly overpriced greasy rubbish. Staff were at least pleasant. Bring a good supply of munchies from the mainland.
There is also a nearby cafeteria with cheaper noodles, some other snacks, coffee, tea and soft drinks.

Note all National Parks have been booze free for the past couple of years – bring plenty of Sang Som like this happy camper. Accounts for camera shake in sunset shot up page.
The cafeteria and the restaurant were the only areas with good lighting after dark but the mosquitos were feral and despite long trousers and plenty of repellent I was forced to retreat to my tent – 7pm to 6am makes for a looong night. Bring mozzie spray to clear entrance to tent before unzipping.
Mozzies in the toilet/shower blocks were pretty feral early evening and around morning shower time. Daytrippers tended to make a bit of a mess there too.

National Park bungalows. These particular ones are on the far southern  headland and at 2000+ baht for a fan bungalow are poor value. Despite position virtually all had beach/ocean views blocked by vegetation.
There are also longhouse fan rooms with outside toilets at 1000 – poor value for one or two people but I think they can sleep 4 to 6 so popular with weekending Thai groups.

Part of the camping area – in total about 3 times the size in shot. Located under trees just behind the beach but unlike the Surins, no beachfront positions. Pretty close together but way less crammed in than Surins #1 camping area. I thought the general layout superior to Surins #1 camping area but less attractive than Surins #2 at Ao Mai Ngam.

Tezza’s tent. At 570 baht a day including a thin camping mat, sleeping bag and tiny pillow (the rip-off NP entry fee is included in your expensive boat ticket), extremely poor value.
There is just enough room for 2 people and their gear.
Dumb design – not high enouth to stand up in and side/back windows could only be zipped up from outside which means if a night strom hits you have to get wet to prevent wind-blown rain coming in. Not that that stopped my tent from leaking.

Looks like other tents leaked too.

Some central trees had a colony of bats(dark blobs in pic) who liked to have a screaming contest around 0530. Surprisingly bat droppings didn’t seem a big problem although NP had no tents directly under the most highly inhabited trees. Maybe the little darling save their ablutions to when they are on their dracular flights at night.


Around 1030 every day over a dozen big speedboats and a few bigger slow boats would arrive packed with daytrippers. Even from Khao Lak this is a hell of a trip – at least 30 minutes to the pier at Thap Lamu and over an hour in the faster boats. But a lot of these people were Phuket based. Phuket to Thap Lamu in a van is at least 90 minutes. Note that the majority of the daytrippers were Russian although Thais increased in numbers on the weekend  - Thais also like camping and bungalowing on weekends.

I did a daytrip from Khao Lak back in 1997 – I judged the time taken to reach the islands not worth the effort (and the coral was way better then), hence my later Poseidon live-aboard snorkelling cruise and this latest 3 night camping trip.

The main beach at island #4 tended to get pretty crowded until around 1500. At times there were 3 or 4 boats backed in. Once unloaded they moored offshore. Note that boats were arriving throughout the day - some daytrippers do the more northern Similan areas before coming down here.


Russian daytrippers are  good value. Many of the men are big beefy blokes with tiny speedos or those silly things which look like racing cyclists ‘skin’ shorts. The girls tend to be pretty hot and wear outrageous swim-wear, although I maintain only an outstanding bum can get away with a thong-bikini (see babe foot of this page – forget the tramp-stamps, she has the fundamental down pat).

 Russian girs must wanna-be Playboy models because they all do the glamour poses as above. I guess that beats the star jump or the v-sign so popular with western tourists, although the old fashioned stand and smile as seen at the foot of the page here seems okay to me.

ISLAND #8 Ko Similan
My original intention was to camp for a couple of nights on  Ko Similan after my stay at the National Park HQ at island #4 but my visit was so late in the season that the camping area at #8 had already been closed down. Nevertheless my transport back to the mainland put in here for a few hours as part of its daytrip itinerary so I was able to refresh my impression from two previous visits.

  As we cruised into Donald Duck Bay what struck me was the large number of viewers high on the viewpoint - click (double?) to expand shot, there's gotta be a hundred people up there.

Fortunately by the time I got there the masses had thinned a bit. Viewpoint path takes off in the picnic area just behind the beach and is well sign-posted. It is not a particularly difficult climb although the sharply dimpled granite is a bit tough on soft bare feet. Try to bring some sandals or joggers onto the beach from the boat.

The view is not shabby once you get up there. I regard the beach at Donald Duck Bay one of Thailand’s best. Sure gets crowded when the daytrippers hit  it (and this is at the end of the season) – for a shot of it after the daytrippers leave, check the one immediately below taken on my Similans live-aboard snorkelling trip (although being  just post-tsunami, there were no campers either – unlike the main camping beach at #4 this one has a westerly aspect and was devastated by the wave).
Water tends to be crystal clear and all those rocks off the beach attract a good array of fishies. Note that when the tide drops the boats can’t get all the way into the beach. On exit my group had to wade out over those rocks – predictably I went head over turkey – but as I had predicted that I had my camera in a sealed double plastic bag so there was no damage apart from a banged big toe.

This is the camping area at #8. Considerably smaller than at Park HQ. Apart from the one far background National Parks has packed up all the tents which is a good idea how wet and windy the coming months can be.

Similarly the National Park restaurant had already shut down. A lot of the daytrip boats actually come to #8 before they visit Park HQ but it seems none have set meals arranged with this restaurant – there is a fair sized picnic area to left of shot. I remember having a pretty nice luncheon there on my first visit – a daytrip in 1997.

The Similans are known for some of the best snorkeling in Thailand. I was fairly impressed when I did my liveaboard snorkelling trip on Poseidon Bungalow’s boat a few years ago. However global warming has really knocked the coral about and on my latest trip the 3 areas I snorkeled from the daytrip boat I used for transport were very ordinary with lots of dead or bleached coral and not a big array of fish. Very similar to the Surins maybe 60km further north when I visited the same time last year.
One thing about the Similans is that the “best” stuff is not accessible from the beach – a boat is needed. National Parks puts on a 150baht snorkeling trip from Headquarters but seeing I had already snorkelled 3 of the locations this latest visit, I didn’t bother. I’m sure the underwhelming experience of a similar NP snorkelling excursion in the Surins last year contributed to my lack of interest.
But novice snorkelers will probably enjoy the Similans even in current conditions. The turtles at island #7 (see pic below) produced appropriate excitement within my group and even I was impressed with the numbers, size and curiosity of the fish just off the main Headquarters beach. That clear water was gorgeous too.
To see some nice underwater pix of Similans coral and fish in good times check out the TRIP REPORT cocodrilo did for me here. Below is one of her shots:

Snorkellers prepare to check the scene off island #7

Even though the coral is currently crap at this former good section of fringing reef, island #7 is known for turtles. I think they hang around for handouts because several appeared soon after our boat arrived. One at bottom left is not real clear - below is a much better shot from the same location taken on my Poseidon tour.

It is not inexpensive accessing the Similans. National Park supposedly has a slow boat which runs from Thap Lamu south of Khao Lak (3 hours one way, 1500baht return in 2012) but in reality this stays tied up in less busy times. This means you have to arrange transfers with one of the daytrip companies. Actually they can arrange the whole lot -  very popular are one night visits where you basically do the daytrip and are left overnight on the island with a choice between tents or more expensive bungalows.

I didn’t arrange the whole package with my transfer speedboat outfit because I originally wanted to spend 2 nights at HQ and 2 nights at island #8, using the National Park’s longtail transfer between the two islands.  So I simply arranged transfers out and back – but being a daytrip boat I got to visit the same places as the daytrippers although spread over two days.
Costing is interesting – my outfit late in the season was charging daytrippers 1750 (I think some big time discounting was going on, another company was charging 2200 so shop around particularly late or early in the season) but they quoted me 2400. The reasoning here is that I take a seat away from a potential customer on 2 days (out and then when I’m coming back) and should pay more.
Fair enough, but I’m a big one for the deal so I flashed 2000 (I believe in that old adage: SHOW ‘EM THE MONEY!) which was accepted. That 2000 was not supposed to get me any of the tasty luncheon on either day but the National Park canteen food was so bad that on my exit day I hung around my outfit’s picnic tables like a hungry puppy after everyone else had been fed and they invited me to raid the buffet. Medsye has really tasty grub.

Note that this late in the season (the park closed a week after I left) the first speedboat operator I approached was reluctant to take me on – the argument being that with fewer customers they might not come out the day I wanted to return. They suggested I go look for one of the bigger multi-boat operators.  So it was simply a matter of finding a travel agent who dealt with a multi-boat company.  Medseye were running 3 boats each day I so used them.
Note that a surprisingly large amount of the daytrippers actually originated in Phuket so it is quite possible for island stayers to arrange the whole thing from there.  One German guy I talked to said he got a one night camping package for himself and his girl for around 6000 baht. I suppose that is not bad value seeing the popular Phuket beaches are such a haul from Thap Lamu. But what time in the morning does the shuttle to Thap Lamu leave?

One place which books Medseye is Khao Lak William tour service in central Khao Lak township (ocean side of main road just near the bus stop).

All the speedboats used these days are big fast multi-engine jobs. These can seat around 40 passengers. Note the bow seating area is not a comfortable place on rough, choppy days. Plus the sun can crisp you up pretty nicely.

Operators will pick you up from your Khao Lak area hotel around 0730-0800 and transfer you to the pier area at Thap Lamu about 15km south of Khao Lak township. There they have a basic breakfast of toast and coffee at their office and issue snorkelling gear. The trip each way takes about 90 minutes.
Some boats take in Island #7 and HQ at #4 first and then snorkel island 9 and visit Donald Duck Bay at island #8 – others do the reverse itinerary. Just as well – if they all arrived at the same place at the same time, chaos would reign.
Water, soft drink, fruit and sweets tend to be offered after each snorkelling session and on the long trip from/back to the mainland.
Seasick tablets are available for the queasy and there is a reasonable first aid kit on board. There is an on-board toilet and plenty of life jackets. Poor swimmers take them when snorkeling.

Staying on the Similans didn’t overwhelm me – transfers are long and expensive, the National Park staff are offensive, the tents, bungalows and the food outrageously overpriced and a lot of the latter was rubbish. Currently the snorkelling is disappointing. There is not a big variety of walks or activities. But I am an island freak whose ambition is to stay on every Thai island within my budget and I was aware before I went that the coral was still in bad condition.

So YES, they are worth visiting if you are an island freak like me, a novice snorkeler and/ or like gorgeous beaches and clear water.
NO if you are a snorkelling enthusiast who is used to very good locations – wait a few years until the present warming/bleaching session passes. And I think snorkelers get much better value from Poseidon's live aboard trip.
And NO  if poor value for money, rude staff, poorly designed tents etc  upsets you.
I really think the best way to visit with on-island accommodation would be to organise an overnight stay on the island with one of the daytrip operators. Or maybe one night on Headquarters island and another at #8.

Coral and fish conditions seemed about the same although I don’t remember lots of medium sized fish near the beach at the Surins’ Ao Mai Ngam. I did see a nice baby shark.
When the coral recovers it will be possible to snorkel a pretty good reef drop-off at Ao Mai Ngam. You need a boat trip for the same type of stuff in the Similans.

Ao Mai Ngam is a sweet beach, one of Thailand’s better ones, but the main beach at the Similans HQ island is another step up – no low tide blues for a start and the water seemed clearer and bluer. Donald Duck Bay at Similans island #8 is better again.
EXCEPT – both Similans beaches get heaps more daytrippers. For people-watchers like me this is a plus, but maybe not for you.

The Surin's Ao Mai Ngam is a class beach but can't match either Front Beach at Similan's#4 or Donald Duck Bay at Similan's#8

Landscape/seascape at both Surins and Similans are equally attractive.

I think the Surins’ camping area at  Ao Mai Ngam is better than at HQ Beach in the Similans (although the alternative Surins’ arrivals beach camping area at Ao Chong Kaad is really cramped and crammed).  Ao Mai Ngam is divided into neat little sections, has a greater number of toilet blocks which always seemed clean and has the possibility of beachfront camping sites although only for a limited %. Then again it had more pains in the bum long-term campers who thought they owned the place when I visited.
I didn’t think the bungalows were superior at either site but the Similans has more. I think camping enthusiasts will enjoy the Surins' Ao Mai Ngam more.

Restaurants  were dire at both locations but the Similans’ HQ beach one was slightly better.

National Park staff  were equally rude.

The Similans has considerably better walks and viewpoints..

Overall I’d give it to the Similans.

I got this from Wicked Divers' website. I lost the url - Google will find it:
" The "official" dates were November 15th until May 15th of each year. During the period when the park was closed, dive operators and fisherman were able to pay a "fine" equivalent to the park fee, but only in cash and only to the park rangers. This year things have changed. With a new director of the park and staff who seem to care, it looks like the park will be closed until November 1st."

I'd suggest you check the Thai National Parks website to see when it is opening/closing at the time of your visit.
If you are interested in the Similans you might also consider:

Nearby Phang Nga islands from where you can do a Similans boat daytrip such as:

And Similan Trip Reports such as:

There is also:

PEOPLE CONSIDERING DAY TRIPS TO THE SIMILANS - I did a day trip out of Phuket in November 2014 - there is a report HERE




Khao Lak Explorer said...

Elyse said...

If we have one island to go to and one day/night, is Ko Similan the one?

Sbipk said...

Woww!!! nice trip. If you can’t decide for your next trip…Phuket is the best choice for you!!
I love here Surin Beach Hotel This hotel is very nice clean and the people are friendly. VERY nice hotel with helpful staff.
And I really love white sand, crystal clear waters at Surin Beach too.
Thank again.

Lenka said...

Wow! great pictures and great hotel.!
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Jimmy Smith said...

That's really a nice post the place is looking beautiful even the picture is wonderful. nice beach island.

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kuswandi kwan said...

i plan to visit khao lak.. so that i can join
one day trip similan island
one day kho tachai

i wanna ask, how many view point in similand islands ( no 1 to 9)

i saw your pictures, there are more than 3.
is it hard to climb? or need shoes.

because when i climb angthong national park, it was very hard.

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sssphuket said...

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