Thailand_Similans

 Thailand_Similans

It will be a while before I will get chance to write this up fully. For now, here are a few pics and comments.

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Mu Ko Similan (The Similan Islands) is a collection of 9 islands, 60km West of Phuket in South West Thailand. It is designated as a Marine National Park.

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I visited for a couple of weeks in late April, at the end of the dry season. The weather was mostly fine and the underwater visibility was good (~8 metres).

The Similan Islands are a famous spot for divers. Divers come here on liveaboard boats for the big fish and the deep-water soft-corals. The islands are mostly rocky, with the occasional sandy beach thrown-in. There isn’t much coral in snorkelling-depth waters, so the area isn’t especially suited to snorkellers.
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Most snorkellers who do visit the islands come on a speedboat day-trip tour from Khao-Lak or Phuket. If you don’t mind the crowds or the haste, this isn’t a bad way of doing it. The few areas with snorkel-able corals should be included on the itinerary and they can only be reached by boat anyway. It is also possible to do two/three-day snorkel trips, either sleeping on a liveaboard-boat or onshore.

The islands are numbered from 1 to 9, starting in the South.
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Those wanting to sleep-over can find National Park accommodation on the two large islands – 4 and 8. Island 8 is tents only; Island 4 has tents and also a few concrete bungalows.

If you are thinking of staying on the islands, note that the off the-beach-snorkelling at islands 4 and 8 is limited. There are no roads and (mostly) no tracks on the islands, so you are stuck with snorkelling in the areas next to the National Park accommodation. There is not much coral in these places and what coral there is, is not in good condition.

But the fish in the Similans are great. Numbers of fish are pretty high and there are several species there that you are unlikely to see closer to the mainland.

Currents can be strong, and what-with the islands being so remote – this could be a major safety problem if you don’t have a boat to come-fetch you. If you are snorkelling off-the-beach, it is safer to stay close-to-home, but the snorkelling will be a bit boring. If you have a pair of fins and are a strong swimmer, you might want to venture further from base. In that case, you will see some exciting fish-life that you don’t get to see elsewhere in Thailand.

I often go out on 8 hour swims. I covered the Northern half of Island 8 and the whole of Island 4. Here is some of the ‘best of’’ pictures from my distant wanderings:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_015_P4261829.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_017_Oriental-Sweetlips-Whitecollar-Butterflyfish_P4210459__ Thai_SimilansTEMP_019_Humpback-Unicornfish-and-Blue-Powder-Surgeonfish_P4210512 Thai_SimilansTEMP_021_Emperor-Angelfish_P4251583.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_023_Semicircle-Angelfish_P4231037.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_025_Regal-Angelfish_P4271938.JPG Angelfish_Three-Spot-Angelfish_Apolemichthys-trimaculatus_P4231140_.jpg Thai_SimilansTEMP_026_Skunk-Anemonefish_P4292177.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_028_Bignose-Unicornfish_P4190036.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_030_Blue-Trevally_P4220869.JPG jacks_trevally_giant-trevally_caranx-ignobilis_p4231050 Thai_SimilansTEMP_032_Brown-Sweetlips_P4210475.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_034_Titan-Triggerfish_P4210568.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_036_Yellowmargin-Triggerfish_P4190023.JPG Triggerfish_Picasso-Triggerfish_Rhinecanthus-aculeatus_P4210347_ Thai_SimilansTEMP_037_Flagtail-Triggerfish_P4190064.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_039_Orangelined-and-Flagtail-Triggerfish_P4200284.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_042_P4220705.JPG  Thai_SimilansTEMP_044_Yellow-Boxfish_P4231235.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_046_Sweetlips_P4231144.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_048_SquidP4282095.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_050_Powder-Blue-Surgeonfish_P4210505.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_052_Convict-Tang_P4241439.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_054_Oriental-Sweetlips_P4241354.JPG
See the specieslist for fish identification.

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Here are some specifics for the more accessible areas:

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Island 8
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Link to main islands map

Your main area for snorkelling is off the main beach at Area 8c.
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It is mainly plain sandy bottom, with some rocky striations on the seabed, but you can find a surprisingly good range of fish in this apparently barren area:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_122_P4190072.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_124_Blackpatch-Triggerfish_P4231023_.jpg

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The area to the left of the bay (8b) is almost all rocks. You can find lots of surgeonfish and other interesting species pecking away at the algae:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_127_P4231183.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_129_P4210613.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_130_P4282145.JPG

Surgeonfish_Unicornfish_Bluespine-Unicornfish_Naso-unicornis_P4241367_.jpg

 

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The area to the right of the bay (8d) has some shabby coral – mostly at 4+ metres deep. It is worth having a look over here, though. I saw a turtle or two here most evenings. I also had unexpected sightings of a Tuna and a White Spotted Eagle Ray.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_133_P4190059.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_135_P4210553.JPG

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Thai_SimilansTEMP_138_Tuna_P4210554.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_140_Eagle-Ray_P4231276_.jpg

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That’s all there is for casual, off-the-beach snorkelling at Island 8. There is no more.

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There is often a nasty current around the point at 8e. Don’t come near here unless you have fins and are a strong and confident swimmer – you don’t want to get washed away to India.

If you decide that you are comfortable with the currents at 8e – this opens up another option to you: the j-i-h-g-f-e-d-c route.

There is a short walking track at the back of the camp which leads to some sloping, jagged rocks at 8j. You can jump in the water here (but you can’t get back out again – so make sure you are able to swim all the way round to 8c before you start something you can’t finish).

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Once you are in the water, if you listen hard (underwater) at 8j, you might hear some East coast dolphins chatting away.

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I found these baby Oriental Sweetlips and Rockmover Wrasse in the shallows at 8j:

Species_Fish_Sweetlips_Oriental-Sweetlips-young-juvenile_Plectorbyncbus-vittatus_P4210530_ Wrasse_Rockmover-juvenile_Novaculichthys-taeniourus_P4220846_.jpg

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There is a big-bad looking Great Barracuda that lives under a rock at 8i.
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There were often small schools of Milkfish on the North side at 8i:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_145_Milkfish_P4220770.JPG

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At 8h, you can sometimes find schooling Red-Toothed Triggerfish. Early evening is the best time and they seem to operate a one-day-on-two-days-off system, so you won’t see them every day.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_147_Redtooth-Triggerfish_P4190030.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_148_Redtooth-Triggerfish_P4231275.JPG

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In the cove at 8g, there is a little pocket of decent coral. I saw this Clown Triggerfish hanging around there one day:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_150_P4251554.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_151_Clown-Triggerfish_P4220952_.jpg

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I only saw one shark in the Similans. It was a white-tip reef shark and was near 8g:
shark_whitetip-reef-shark_triaenodon-obesus

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8f is all big, rugged rocks underwater. Scalefin Anthias live in the gaps there.
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8e is your near-death, currenty section. As well as the surface currents, deepwater currents upwell here and, from the surface, it looks like the sea is boiling. It’s probably best to check the currents out by gingerly approaching this area from 8d; before you go leaping in the water at 8j on a one-way ticket.

Yellowback fusiliers like the currents:
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When you are back in the bay at 8d, it all gets easy again.

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If you are up for a marathon swim, there is some reasonable coral at 8a, but it’s about a 1km slog from the beach and it is about 5 metres deep. I saw another Clown Triggerfish there. There weren’t any nasty currents on this side.

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There is an easy walk up to the famous Sail Rock (aka Donald Duck) viewpoint near the main camp. Here’s the view of the main beach before the day-trippers arrive. .
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There is also a forest walk heading South along the ridge of the island to another viewpoint.
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The track is pretty overgrown in places and you will have to ask a park ranger to tell you where to find the start of it. He might be circumspect about letting you go. Normally, I would be against this kind of meddling bureaucracy, but to be fair, it is easy to get lost on this track and with only about five people on the whole island, you probably won’t be found until the next day. I was given instructions to be back by 4pm, otherwise a search party would be sent out.

The track often seems to disappear entirely – look out for empty water bottles tied to trees ‘pointing’ the way. The track leads to a good viewpoint looking South past the end of the island and on to islands 7, 6 5 4.
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The track fades-out soon after the viewpoint. The National Park map shows it continuing left, down to a (now abandoned) Ranger Station on the East coast, but the track is now overgrown and unidentifiable.

The highlight of the hike was finding these uncommon Lanternflies (Pyrops candelaria).
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Islands 1 2 and 3 are off-limits to all visitors – they are used as a turtle sanctuary. One day, the park rangers showed-up with this bucket of babies who had just hatched out somewhere locally.
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The rangers put an aluminium cordon around spots on the beach where they know eggs have been laid. This protects the eggs against lizards; and also contains the turtles when they eventually hatch-out and burrow up to the surface. This bucketload was due to be kept safe at the ranger station for a week until they got a bigger, then they would be taken down to islands 1,2,3 to be released into the wild.

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Island 4

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Link to main islands map

There are two main spots accessible for off-the-beach snorkelling on Island 4. One is straight off the main beach (where the camp is, 4b) and the other is off the smaller beach (Haat Lek) on the East side of the island (4c).

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The area straight-off the main beach (where the day-trip boats land) (4b) has a roped-off swim zone and seems the obvious place to snorkel.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_201_Island-4b-Mainbeach_P4292242.JPG

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Underwater, it is mostly plain sandy bottom and uninteresting. There are often Small Spotted Dartfish in the shallows
Thai_SimilansTEMP_203_Island-4b-Small-Spotted-Dartfish__P4282121.JPG
..and there are some scraggy patches of near-dead coral off the beach. These are enough to attract some common reef-fish. Occasionally, you may get a more interesting species pass-by, but generally Area 4b is unspectacular.

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Slightly better is 4a, past the left end of the main beach and stretching out to the distant headland on the very West coast of the island.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_206_Island-4a-Mainbeach_P4290008.JPG

There aren’t so many boats in this are and there is quite a bit of reasonable-condition coral here. But it is typically 4-6 metres deep, so it probably won’t yield super-interesting surface-snorkelling.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_208_Island-4_P4261909 4a.JPG

My main highlight around here was this Porcelain Crab, a couple of metres down:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_210_Island-4_P4261899.JPG
If you look closely you can see the filters it uses to collect food from passing currents.

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Over at 4c there is another beach (Hat Lek/ Little Beach).

There is a short, easy forest-walk that leads to it. There is also a spur that leads up to an Eastern viewpoint. The track to the viewpoint is a little tricky, especially without shoes (and the daytrips make you leave your shoes back at your port of origin). There are a few sections where you have to use the climb-ropes. When you think you’ve got to the top, go through the narrow crack between the two big rocks and there is another climb-rope and another tier to reach. It is worth the extra effort for the view:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_215_Island-4-NE-Point-and-Island-5_P4261725.JPG
Here you are looking out over the bay at Hat Lek (4c). Islands 5 and 6 are in the middle distance.
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Straight off the beach at 4c is mostly parked-up daytrip speedboats during the day. There are some more unglamorous corals straight off the beach.

But this is the Similans. The occasional fish passing-by might be more interesting than anything you would find closer to the mainland. There are not many places where you can step off the beach and bump into an Oriental Sweetlips:
Thai_SimilansTEMP_213_Island4-Oriental-Sweetlips_P4292180.JPG

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If you break out of the designated swimzone and head ~200m right (4d),
Thai_SimilansTEMP_218_Island-4-Haat-Lek_P4251510.JPG
..there are one or two patches of more interesting coral.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_219_Island-4_P4241476.JPG

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I paid to do a dive along this stretch of coast. Down at 16-20m deep, there are some very sweet patches of soft coral. At snorkel-able depths (~5 metres), there are one or two individual bommies which come close. If you have time and can dive down to 4/5 metres – this is your best place to come exploring.
Thai_SimilansTEMP_221_Island-4_P4292210_.jpg Thai_SimilansTEMP_223_Island-4_P4251577.JPG

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Right at the Southern tip of the island is a nice little bay with some patches of good foliose corals. It is fair distance to swim, though – about 1km each-way from your nearest exit point at Haat Lek (4c).
Thai_SimilansTEMP_226_Island-4_P4292234.JPG Thai_SimilansTEMP_228_Island-4_P4292236.JPG
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It is probably not wise to go round the Southern point onto the West coast, as the next stop is India. You might well run into overwhelming currents around there. Actually, the seascape is fairly boring there – all big rocks, deep down.

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There is a track from the main beach to two ‘Sunset Viewpoints” on the West side. The National Park map makes it look like the track goes right down to the sea, but it doesn’t. You can’t get in or out of the water here.

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Other naturey stuff of note are the hundreds of fruitbats that live around the camp on Island 4
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The Similans are somewhat famous for being the only place in Thailand where you can find the Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) . You can often find them wandering around outside the toilet blocks at both islands 4 and 8.
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Admin:

A one-day snorkel trip from the port-town of Khao Lak costs 2600Baht (price @ 2013). A couple of companies will let you split this ‘daytrip’ across a few days, stopping over at Island 8 and/or Island 4 for a couple of days each. They visit the same islands every day, so you just give them one day’s notice when you want to move-on. I used Thaplamu Andaman Tours who seemed the most flexible. Here is their brochure: 1 2. The general bottom-end market price was 2600B Other day-tours were available for 3500+B. I assume that they were somehow better. Certainly, while staying on the islands I found boats at better snorkelling sites than the ones that my cheapo tour visited.

It is also possible to get transport to and from the mainland on a dive boat for about 1000B one-way. Dive boats will not schedule round-trips – you have to arrange your second/third hop through a ‘Mr-fix-it’ on each island.

National Park tents cost 570B per night. Strewth! I took my own tent, but wasn’t allowed to use it. Fortunately there was enough room in their tent to keep my tent.

At Island 4 the tents were a bit shabby. Make sure you pick one with decent zips and mozzie screens otherwise you will be eaten alive. Prices for places with walls on Island 4 were: Aircon Bungalow 2000B; Fan room (in a terraced block, not a detached bungalow) 1000B.

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Food:
Island 8: The National Park kitchen prepares a-la carte meals for some tourboats that don’t bring their own food. This is the only option for food if you are staying on Island 8. The posted prices are: Brekky 120B; Lunch/Dinner 250B. Strewth!

Island 4 has a small ‘cooked-to-order’ restaurant. Prices start at 80B for a basic one-dish meal. There is also a fancy restaurant at the back of the camp, with tiled floors and a TV. The tour groups use this one, but I got shoo-d away like a poor-cousin whenever I approached it!

I took my own drinking water. You can buy bottled drinking water on both islands, but I think it’s pricey. There don’t seem to be any natural sources of drinkable water.

Mozzies were vicious at Island 4 and not a problem at Island 8.

At Island 4, don’t leave your mask and snorkel on the ground outside your tent or rats will eat them in the night.

Most people who stay on the islands stay on Island 4. Island 8 is more undeveloped, facilities-wise. I was the only one staying there. After a couple of days, the head ranger came up and told me that I had to leave on that day’s tourboat. I’m not sure what was behind this. It was the end of the season (20 April) and the English-speaking ranger had just gone home to the mainland, so maybe the head ranger thought that they couldn’t cope with a farang (there wasn’t much English spoken there). I can speak enough Thai to get by and was hanging out with the kitchen staff at mealtimes. They were lovely and got me an extra few days’ stay, but I was still required to leave (without explanation) after that. Expect, err, ‘unpredictability’ if wanting to stay for a while! Island 4 is much more ‘commercialised’ – there were far more guests there and I doubt you would have such problems.

There was a sign at Island 4 advertising National Park run snorkel boat-trips to the other islands, but the trips were not running. This might have been because it was the end of the season.

There are a couple of ‘Mr. Fix It’s on Island 4. They can telephone a passing dive boat to get you a ride home or a dive. For a fee, of course. They will be cruising around the restaurant in the evenings, so just tell them if you want something . Some of the tour companies have full time staff staying in tents on Island 4. They are also useful for helping-out with transport/logistics stuff. English is widely spoken on Island 4.

A dive on a passing liveaboard is ~1800B. I think Mr-Fix-it gets 300 of that.

There is a compressor and dive gear at the Navy station at Haat Lek on Island 4, but they do not provide diving services for tourists.
You can charge electronics in the restaurants on both islands, but only while the generators are on in the evenings. There is wifi internet and decent phone reception at both Islands 4 and 8.
Underwater currents usually occur near headlands. It is better to withdraw from these places as soon as you detect a current, but if you do find yourself needing to swim against a current, it often helps to take a wider berth around the headland. Where the water is deeper, the current will probably be weaker.

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The islands have names, as well as numbers. Here are the names of islands, starting in the South:
1 – Huyong
2 – Payang
3 – Payan
4 – Miang
5 – Haa
6 – Hok
7 – Payu
8 – Similan
9 – Bangu

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Other linkies:

National Park 1
(click on the button top right to change the language settings)

Tezza 1 2

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ooOoo

That’s all for now.

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I actually covered all the red-shaded area here.  I will write the full inch-by-inch coverage of all those areas when I get the chance – but, for now, the above should tell you what you need to know about the easy-to-reach bits.
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Written: June 2013     . . .  . . Last updated: June 2013

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