Koh Ngai, Thailand
IN BRIEF :
Koh Ngai (เกาะไหง) is a tourist island 12km off the South West Coast of Thailand, near to the town of Trang. It has beautiful, soft white sand beaches and a coral reef down most of the East coast. The bulk of the coral isn’t that spectacular, but its craggy moonscape formations are interesting to explore and they host a range of colourful small reef fish. There is also the occasional spot of beautiful, colourful coral.
On the surface, the beaches are the main attraction. There is also extensive, rugged forest and a decent forest-hike. There are quite a few hornbill birds.
Accommodation is more expensive than on nearby islands. For lower-budget people, tents are available.
There is better snorkelling on nearby Koh Kradan.
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All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions.
(Note: I visited in early May, at the start of the wet season. Underwater visibility wasn’t great (3-4 metres). You might want to make a mental correction to the pictures to account for this – I’m sure it all looks much better in the middle of the dry season). Edit: I went back in the middle of the dry season, but underwater visibility was even worse. Edit2: and on a third visit in early April the underwater visibility was also bad. Still looking for that clear water.
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Ngai or Hai?
Some people call the island Koh Ngai, some call it Koh Hai. The thai character ห Haaw Hip, can have two functions – it is either an equivalent to the Roman character H and is pronounced the same as in English; or it is silent and is used to alter the tone of a Thai word. The usual Thai spelling of Ngai is ไหง which ‘should’ be pronounced “Ngai” with a (modified) rising tone.
Take your pick! In this article, I use ไหง/Ngai, except when mentioning the name of a resort which does it differently.
The coral reef:
The main area of interest for snorkelling is the long reef running down the touristed East coast. In the shallows, there is sandy beach/bottom, peppered with small chunks of rocks and dead coral. Access is possible, but not always easy, especially at low tides. Footwear is recommended.
As you get 20-40 metres away from the beach, coral density and quality improves and there is about 40 metres of shallow, craggy reeftop (at 1-2 metres depth). At the end of this strip is the dropoff – a steep slope down to a sandy bottom at about 10 metres.
the ‘average’ coral condition
Generally, the coral off Ngai’s main beach is OK, but not spectacular. Probably about 60% of it is dead. Of the remaining live coral, most of it is the unglamorous, brown hump-coral species. But the formations of (live and dead) coral make a cool moonscape, full of nooks and crannies to look around in.
There is only a small amount of the staghorn and table species of coral, but it is all dead and looks like it has been for about ten years. This also applies to those species in other places throughout the Southern Andaman sea. You often find a totally wrecked pile of dead staghorn coral in the middle of a completely healthy patch of another coral species – I assume that the staghorn and table corals were the most susceptible to some specific traumatic event, maybe the El Nino sea temperature rise in 1998.
In short – Ngai’s reef is about craggy moonscapes, not jaw-dropping coral gardens.
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There is a good selection of coloured reef fish in Ngai. Mouseover the pictures for names, more info in the specieslist.
All images on this site are clickable for bigger versions.
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Here are the details from my wanderings – starting in the North East of the island and going South, then clockwise:
I started as far (North) up the main beach as possible and entered the water at B (on the map), outside Koh Hai Cliff Beach Resort (formerly Chateau Hill Resort).
Much of the beach at the Northern end has been washed away and the Northerly resorts have put up sea-walls against further erosion. If the tide is in, you will have to walk along the balance-beam of the sea wall to be able to reach Koh Hai Cliff Beach Resort.
Entry into the water is easy at Cliff Beach Resort – there are steps down from the resort and a channel through the coral (you can even see it on satellite maps). This makes for an easy wade-out to the reef.
Before we start with the main beach area (B to C), let’s take a quick detour up to the Northern point of the island (point A). Snorkel-boats often visit here. It is possible to swim the 1km from B to A, but it isn’t an easy job and there are no exit points if you want to back-out. Casual snorkelers should probably give this stretch a miss. If you do go up there, be on the lookout for currents flowing North – you don’t want to drift up to the Northern end of the island only to find that you can’t swim back against the current. It is a long way to Ko Lanta!
Notables I have seen up there include a black-tip reef shark, living in the rocks 300m from the North point. I found it in the same place every time I came up here.
Scared about sharks? Read this.
Right at the Northermost rock, there are a lot of smaller Gorgonians. Note that the currents get quite strong right at the tip of the island.
On one visit, swimming around the Northern cape, this exciting beastie came up from the dark depths to check me out. It was about 1.4m long and very fast moving.
It’s a Corbia. Apparently they hang around in schools with Whale Sharks. One dive shop owner said that they can be seen off the main beach in dry season.
This one circled me a few times, then disappeared back into the deep. Cool.
About five minutes later, round to the Western side of the cape, this happened again, but with this Talang Queenfish, from the Jack family. It was a little over a metre long.
It’s a good day when your fish is so big/close that you can’t fit it all into one picture!
So the Northern point was rather exciting, especially the time I went there in stormy weather. It is not something for all tastes, though – casual snorkelers should probably skip this part because of the risks with the currents.
OK, let’s jump back to the relative safety of point B and start heading South towards the main length of the beach. The corals up around point B at this end weren’t all that special. The best of it was some patches of colourful hump-coral in the shallows near the beach:
And things started improving about level with Coco Cottages / Thapwarin. The ‘best of’ picture, above was taken here. Satellite pictures show a boat channel cut/trawled through the coral outside Thapwarin resort, which should give easy access to the water from here.
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The reef stops at Ngai Fantasy Resort. Outside Fantasy and Thanya resorts there is a sloping sandy bottom from the beach down to 15+ metres. The lack of coral here might be a bit boring, but it makes it easy for the bigger resorts’ boats to land and it’s a great place for a starfish party…
After Thanya Resort, at Area C, there is a rocky headland and a 400 metre swim round to Koh Ngai Resort’s big jetty.
(or you can walk along the headland on the narrow wooden bridge. Edit @ 2014 – the wooden bridge has rotted away, but, with a bit of rock-hopping, you can still get through at low-mid tides).
The underwater stretch from C to the jetty has some patchy, mostly dead, reeftop and a drop-off to about 5 metres.
Generally, this area isn’t as good as those that border it, so it is probably not worth a special visit. I did once see these Coral-Rabbitfish doing a (?) mating dance there:
The jetty only serves Ko Ngai Resort. If you happen to be staying there, it is easy enough to enter the water by jumping off the jetty’s sea-level platforms/steps. But don’t count on exiting the water this way – there are sharp barnacles on the edge of it. There are easy exits at the beaches 200m to the South and North.
As you continue South, you draw level with the end of Ko Ngai Resort’s sea-wall and the start of its beach.
Koh Ngai Resort itself is a large-scale affair that is popular with Thai families. It has a zillion rooms, a pool and a sandy beach.
The beach should give you easy access to the water if you are going-in here. I met this little fella there, chilling out on the massage platform.
If you are entering the water from the beach, you will have to swim across about 50m of patchy reef-top before you get to the drop-off.
If you are lucky enough to have a day with good underwater visibility, this can be one of the most attractive spots on Ngai.
Immediately South of Ngai Resort’s beach is a little track leading to a couple of ‘secret’ beachlets. Access to the water from these is rocky and difficult. If you want to look at the Southern end of Area D, you should enter the water at Ngai Resort’s main beach, and swim down. There is often a mild current heading Southwards here, but in the worst case, you can always swim round to Muang bay (F) and walk home along the island track.
There is an impressive rock pinnacle (Kaun aim/im rock) on the corner, at E. This kind of formation is considered sacred by Thai people and they celebrate it by tying long ribbons around it.
As this rocky pinnacle comes into sight, you will also see two small rocky islands off to the left.
Each one is about 15 metres wide. The first one is about 30metres from the main island and the second one is 15m further out from that. These have come to be one of my favourite spots for snorkelling on Ngai. But they are not for the casual snorkeller. Be careful about long-tail boats here – they often cut through the channel between the island and the rocks. It’s a great place to get your head cut off. Also, the sea-fans are there because they like strong current, and there is often plenty of strong current here. Combine current, boats, waves breaking over sharp rocks and all those pretty-sights to distract you and it’s kinda tough being here.
Other than that one spot, the first rock is the poor-cousin of the pair. The better sights are at the second one.
I found a few small (10cm square) individual patches of Scleronephthya species softcoral dotted around on both sides the second rock. But the only place with more than an individual sprig was on some flat rocks 7 metres deep at point E3:
If you want to find it, here’s a transit – keep the second rock positioned in the middle of the distant jetty, like in this picture:
Then swim about 30m SSE away from the rock (keeping it in line with the jetty, as-per the picture). Underwater, you will find a tall rock that almost reaches the surface. Go to the South side of that rock and dive down to about 6 or 7 metres. You should see the purple Scleronephthya on a horizontal rock-shelf there.
Actually, past the two exposed rocks, stretching East, there is a whole line of underwater rocks (E4 to E5). If you are up to fighting the currents, there are a few interesting things to see around here. Including:
On one unusual day, a particular combination of weather conditions gave some of the clearest waters I have ever seen in Thailand:
The South Side (Area F to L)
Satellite pictures of Koh Ngai, show the South side as having two bays; as-if a giant had taken two bites out the triangular island. But a little further out to sea, you can see an almost straight line between the South East and South West corners. This is the edge of a shallow sandy shelf that extends a looong way off the beaches in the two bays.
On this South side of the island, the sandy shelf contains patches of rock and mostly-dead bulk corals. The ‘straight-line’ indicates the drop-off, where the bottom plunges down to about 7 metres. Generally, the better snorkelling on the South side is near to the drop-off.
Rounding the corner from Area E, into Muang Bay, there are two orange mooring buoys. On some maps, this area (F) is marked as a snorkelling spot.
At the first buoy (the one furthest from the beach) there is no interesting coral and the bottom is quite deep at 6+ metres, so I couldn’t see any reason why it should be considered a snorkelling destination. As I swam past the second buoy, I was suddenly swarmed by a thousand Sergeant Major Damselfish. This species is popular with fish-feeders, so I’m guessing that organised snorkel-tours moor-up here and put everyone into the water armed with bread for the fishies to go nuts over.
Personally, I’m against feeding fish for human entertainment. Here’s some reasons not to do it.
You got him, right? No? Here he is up close.
There is a track that runs from the back of Thanya Resort to Muang Bay and also to Paradise Bay, next door. There is also a spur to it from Ngai Resort. Here’s the SPs on the track:
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Starting from the main beach area, you can find the island track at the back of Thanya Resort. (There is a row of paving stones going up a hill between two rows of Thanya’s cabanas, (Tezza has a picture of it). There is also a spur to it from Ngai Resort. The track itself is a fun little forest trek. You could do it in flip-flops, but there are a couple of steep, rootsy spots, so stronger footwear would be better. Wear some bugspray, especially if it has rained lately.
From Thanya Resort, it is about 20 minutes walk to a signposted t-junction at the bottom of a hill. Turn-left here for a short track to Mueang bay, or follow the signs right to go another 15 minutes to Paradise Bay. On the Paradise Bay branch, take a sharp left turn 30 metres after this bridge/well. After taking that left, you should be on a flat track, with a tall palm plantation to your right – this will lead you to Paradise Beach. If you are heading up a long hill on a wide road, then you are going the wrong way.
In the evenings, Hornbills like to have a dustbath in the track that leads past the palm plantation. And they like the tall palm trees.
Tipping out of the track on the East end of Paradise Bay, near the little headland that divides Muang Bay from Paradise Bay, it is easy to enter the water from the long flat sandy beach.
But my interesting, dramatic pictures looking at the island from the mid-south weren’t really very interesting or dramatic.
Looking East back towards the sacred pinnacle at E
Looking straight at the dividing headland – Paradise Bay on the Left, Mueang Bay on the right.
Looking left into Paradise bay.
Unfortunately, the underwater scenes weren’t very interesting or dramatic either.
Well, two actually. Just at the bottom of the ‘drop-off’, about 5 metres down.
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Up at surface level, at the West-end of Paradise Bay is a lovely little isolated resort set among the palm trees – Paradise Resort . This would be an excellent spot for someone looking to get away from the busier resorts on the main beach. Edit: in 2013/14 Paradise Resort was closed down – apparently in a dispute about them having built on National Park land. We’ll have to see whether the problem can be resolved in future years.
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Near the Ranger Station, but further out to sea, at the drop-off there are some mooring buoys and I have seen day-trip snorkelling boats stopping here. The coral here is similar to the rest of the Paradise West drop-off.
From the National Park Ranger Station there is another surface-level track leading to the South West point of the island.
It bottoms-out at a small, sheltered cove on the South side of the island at L.
The pile of rocks sticking out the sea at the very South West corner of the island is marked on some maps as ‘Shark Point’.
I have been out here twelve times now and still not seen a shark here. But I have spoken to people who say they have, so maybe it is worth a look. It is a pretty-easy swim from beach L. It is also possible to swim round to beach M.
The West side of the island is totally undeveloped. It takes the annual lashings of the South West Monsoon and is garbage-tip for anything washed over from India or where-ever.
The beach on the South West corner is the only Western beach accessible from the land. Getting in and out of the water here is a little difficult (especially in choppy conditions) as there are lots of sharp rocks off the beach.
The first time I came here, the sea was choppy. Mostly it wasn’t worth the effort of struggling into the water. Visibility around Area M was appalling and the sea-scape was disappointing – mostly rocks and long-dead hump coral at around 5 metres depth.
Talking of perspective – from the back of the beach at M, there is a steep climb up to a viewpoint (top right of that last picture). From this viewpoint, you can look back South-East towards area N ; North West across the Andaman Sea to distant Koh Lanta or to the right up the length of Ngai’s West coast.
The hilltop viewpoint is a nice sunset spot. As long as you’ve packed a flashlight and enough bug spray to get you back through the forest, that is. (edit @ 2014 – with the closure of Paradise Resort, no-one uses the cross-island path anymore and it has started to get obstructed with fallen palm-fronds. I’d give it two years before it becomes impassable).
The West Coast
There are no tracks leading to the West coast, so only tackle it if you are up to a 5 km swim back round to Area B
I have done it three times now and to be honest, the coral all down the West Coast was is disappointing (similar to that at M).
One day there was a longtail boat parked there. I guess he must have scared them off, as they never came back after that.
Eventually, I will be doing a separate page on Ma and it’s two small Southerly neighbours Cheauk and Waen, but until I do – here’s the highlights on Ma:
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Note that there are no ATMs on Ngai. There are several high-end resorts there, I would guess they could give you cashback on a credit card for an extortionate fee, but I haven’t checked.
There are two locally-run diveshops on the beach at either end of Mayalay Resort. They dive at Ko Ma, Cheuak and Wairn, rather than on Ngai itself. Prices are around 2400B for two dives, which is pretty cheap for the Andaman. The German run ‘Rainbow Dive’ shop in Fantasea Resort was boarded-up in 2013/14.
You can rent masks/snorkels and kayaks at several resorts. Kayaks are around 100B per hour, or 500B per day. All resorts can sell you long-tail boat snorkelling trips around Ngai or to neighbouring islands.
I have yet to figure-out the currents on Ngai. On the East side there usually seems to be a mild current from North to South when the tide is falling. When the tide is rising, there seems not to be any current at all on the East side. Everytime I have been around the West side, there has been a mild current running from North to South. I don’t recommend swimming the 5km stretch of the West coast, but if you are going to, it is probably best to start at the Northern end.
There is no population on Ngai other than resort staff. This means that food can only be bought at the resorts, and is rather expensive. The cheapest single-plate dish is 100B.
There are no roads and just the one hiking track.
The dry season is ostensibly from November to April, but with our messed-up weather patterns, this is unpredictable and has recently been plus or minus a month at each end.
The monsoon (June to October) comes from the West. The resorts are on the East side and are sheltered from the worst of the winds, so Ngai is an option in the off-season if you can get there safely. A few resorts stay open all year-round. Don’t expect any kind of underwater visibility during the wet season.
Boats to Ngai depart from Pak Meng pier, about 45 minutes North of Trang town. You can get minibuses from Trang to Pak Meng for 60-70B. If you use the public minibus, make sure you specify that you want to go to the pier (taa reua) in Pak Meng, as it is 2km further North from central Pak Meng. It is easier (and just as cheap) to book a minibus from one of the travel agents opposite the train station in Trang.
Apparently, the public ferry boat from Pak Meng to Ngai costs 150B, but , but I have never found evidence of it actually existing. Fantasy and Villa resorts have daily boats that non-guests can take for 350B each way – these run most of the year. A private-charter longtail boat is 1000B.
You will probably have to pay the 200B National Park entrance fee when you set-foot on the jetty in Pak Meng. It is valid for five days. If you take snorkel daytrip boats around Ko Ngai or Ko Ma, the Park Rangers will probably come to collect the fees, so take your ticket with you.
The Petapalin ferry (Muk-Kradan-Ngai-Lanta and reverse) stops at Ngai. The Tigerline seems to steam straight past.
There are also “4 island tour” day-trip boats from Koh Lanta and Pak Meng that call in “at” Ngai. These are around 1200B/800B respectively. They don’t actually land on Ngai – you would need (a resort) to arrange a long-tail boat to transfer you onto the island.
Accommodation on Ngai is generally more expensive than on neighbouring islands. There are several mid to high-end resorts. My map lists all the resorts on the island, they all have websites.
Cheapskates can try camping.
- Since 2012 there has been a cute, ‘hippy’ campsite operation just South of Cliff Top Resort (near area B). It has a friendly, chilled out vibe – the owner cooks the evening meal on the campfire and everybody eats it together and contributes toward the cost. Their tents are 200B. They are open all year round. It is called Freedom Campsite and/or lightmyfiresociety.
- Campers could also head towards the long-established Ko Ngai Camping resort, between Mayalay Resort and Fantasy Resort. Personally, I’m not so keen on this one. 1- They are keeping in with the Ko Ngai philosophy of overcharging for everything– their tents are 500/600B, (or 200B if you bring your own tent). 2- They are going for a ‘Pha Ngan vibe – with blaring hip-hop music and fire-twirlers on the beach. 3 – They have appealing looking BBQs on the beach, but they get their fish by spearfishing on the reef outside the resorts. If you’re wondering why there aren’t many fish on the reef, it is because they are on your plate.
- If you have your own tent, some resorts (sometimes) let you park-up for 100B per night.
- Technically, the National Park site is a Ranger Station only (i.e. there are no tourist facilities there), but if you speak some Thai, have your own tent and don’t need them to provide you with food, you can probably negotiate a cheap-deal with the Rangers there. Edit: The closure of Paradise Resort makes this a bit of a non-starter as it is a 40 minute walk to the nearest food.
The venerable Tezza has done full and extensive coverage of resorts and logistics on his excellent blog Tezzas Beaches and Islands.
Written: May 2012 . . . . . Last updated: Apr 2014