Ranked as one of the top dive sites in the world, the Similan Island archipelago in southwestern Thailand is an oasis of powdery white sand beaches and lush jungle vegetation, its surrounding turquoise water so clear that it’s easy to spot the hawksbill turtles swimming beneath the surface.
A designated National Marine Park, the islands are only open for a short season between November and May each year, but it’s well worth the wait as magnificent manta rays and elusive whale sharks migrate through the area. While these underwater creatures are rare sightings, visitors can’t fail to be enamored by the incredible variety of vividly colored tropical fish, blue-spotted rays, leopard sharks and turtles that have made their permanent home among the coral gardens below.
Although day trips out to the islands are possible (if not strenuous), the best way to experience all that the Similans has to offer is through a live-aboard boat stay. Both snorkeling and diving tours are available and range from a few nights to a week, extending from simple bunks to air-conditioned cabins, hot showers and plasma TVs.
[Also see our travel article “The Ten Best Places to See Wildlife in Asia“]
Stemming from the Malay word meaning ‘nine’, the Similan islands run in a direct line from north to south and are usually identified by their numbers. Islands number 1,2 and 3 in the south are now completely closed to the public and serve as turtle hatching sites in hopes of boosting conservation efforts in the area. Rules are quite strict as to which islands and beaches can be visited, but if you can’t stomach the idea of living on a boat (quite literally) it is possible to rent out rustic bungalows or tents on islands number 4 and 8. Healthy looking monitor lizards and iridescent Nicobar pigeons also call these islands home, and white-bellied sea eagles will often make an appearance in the evenings.
Wake up with the sunrise to appreciate the tranquility of being alone in one of the most beautiful places on earth, an idea almost inconceivable considering the proximity to tourist heavy Phuket, just a few hours to the south. After breakfast, dive into the pristine waters of Donald Duck Bay or East of Eden and adjust yourself to the slight feeling of vertigo as you look straight down to the sandy bottom far below. Tired from a long day of sun and sea, embrace the satisfaction of seeing the day-trippers head back to the mainland as you sit out on deck and watch the stars fill up the night sky.