Thai islands too enchanting to last
Even if you’ve not been leading a jet-setting lifestyle, you’ve probably heard the news – Thailand has started shutting down some of its paradisaical islands in a bid to halter mass-tourism from irrevocably wreaking total havoc.
Natural phenomena – like El Niño – have alarmingly raised water temperatures to over 30.5 degrees Celsius. Combine that with tourists who keep taking the aesthetic fragility of the underwater world for granted, and you end up with an unprecedented level of coral bleaching.
Let’s find out together how to enjoy some of Thailand’s most dramatic islands in a sustainable way, just before they go under!
1. Mu Ko Similan Marine National Park
Imagine an island so incredibly beautiful, veiled in pure exoticism, brimming with transfixing marine life, and defined by millions of years of geological evolution – or occasional tourist garbage bags. This scuba diving mecca that sits comfortably at the top of the world’s diving destinations list is slowly losing its fragile ecosystem. Ko Tachai, one of the 11 islands in the Ko Similan chain, has already been indefinitely closed down by the government… until further notice.
Illegal fishing has been a constant detriment to wildlife preservation in this area. But reckless behaviour – such as ridiculously standing on corals for a perfect selfie – is causing equal damage. Remember! Corals are not rocks – protect them from getting in contact with any part of your body, including your brain.
Getting there: From Phuket or Krabi you need to take a 1.5hr trip to Khao Lak province. From there, you have the options for a one day speedboat trip or an organized liveaboard trip. It takes about one and a half hours by speedboat to reach the park.
2. Ko Mook and Morakot Cave
Liberally recreated on enchanting postcards, the senses-inebriating Emerald Bay looks like a Jurassic-period collapsed cave covered in mysticism and lush greenery. Occasionally, it also looks as if hundreds of confused tourists did a conga wedding dance, trudging their feet through the water.
Ko Mook could very well snatch a top spot on any magazine’s most beautiful islands list thanks to its majestic topography. Unfortuantely, it has also received several warnings from Thailand’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. As such, the government is currently considering various limitations on the number of tourists.
Getting there: There are many options to get to Ko Mook from Krabi, Ko Lanta, or Ko Lipe – speedboats, organized trips, and private transportation.
3. Infinite seclusion at Ko Lao Liang
This sublime alternative to heaven features all the typical Southeast Asian perfect getaway ingredients – imposing vertical limestone mountains, palm-clad backdrops, and sand so soft it hurts… your heart to step on it. When you factor in some rock climbing routes that would challenge even the intensely acrobatic Lara Croft, you have the perfect recipe for eternal happiness.
Like in every good old story worth to be told, there is a twist, unfortunately! Heavy freighter and tanker traffic is due to occur in the area with plans to build a major seaport nearby, bringing this unspoiled national park closer to extinction. As such, your chances of taking in this island’s beauty in the future might dwindle considerably.
Getting there: The island is rather isolated – most tourists come here with transportation from Trang town, and advance booking is highly advised.
4. Mo Ko Surin Marine National Park
Undoubtedly the utmost exotic jewel of the Andaman Sea, Mo Ko Surin exists timidly near the border with Myanmar with its endangered sea gypsy community. The national park, just like many others, is officially closed May through October so that corals can regenerate and recover.
The main attraction here is Richelieu Rock, a horseshoe-shaped reef discovered by the famous explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, which draws hundreds of experienced divers every year. But this bucolic wildlife sanctuary, which occasionally acts as a migratory route for the gentle giants of the deep, the whale sharks, questions its own aquatic prosperity. Species like the sea turtles are losing their nesting beaches due to heavy development in tourist facilities. Remember – the most sustainable way to visit the park is on a liveaboard boat.
Getting there: From Phuket or Krabi you need to take a 1.5hr trip to Khao Lak province. Further on, you have the options for a one day speedboat trip or an organized liveaboard trip. It takes about one and a half hours by speedboat to reach the park.
5. Ko Maphrao at Chumphon Marine National Park
As a bird nest concession island, you need to get permission in advance to visit this little pearl in the Gulf of Thailand, but fortunately that’s a rather hassle-free process. Normally, the tours are organized by diving centres or privately and might comprise a few islands out of a total of 40. Ko Maphrao was closed several times in the past, and it is now open again to tourists… until further notice.
What amazing activities can someone enjoy in the area? Let’s throw in some fertile coral reefs, whimsical rock formations, with your own cast-away scenario disturbed only by the presence of other humans, some potential encounters with the rarely seen whale sharks, or just some innocent contraband bird nest picking. Okay, maybe you should lop off the last option!
Getting there: From Chumphon town, a 50-minute direct flight from Bangkok, the island is only 1km boat ride from Sai Ri beach.
6. Love is in the air at Maiton Island
Located just 9km away from the everyone-goes-mental island of Phuket, Maiton is a mini-Seychelles for honeymooners or love birds, which boasts spectacular kaleidoscopic azure waters. If you really want to impress your special one you can simply buy a boat and waltz to the island in style. Otherwise, do what we all mortals do and rent a private boat, or even worse… take a shared speedboat.
You might want to hurry in order to live this romantic fantasy though! With almost 50% of the corals being severely affected and repeated warnings from the Marine Department, Maiton is on the government’s list of 10 islands to be closed down with immediate effect… or at least until further notice.
Getting there: Boats leave in the morning from Phuket at around 9 am, and it takes 20-30 minutes to get to Maiton.
7. Leonardo Di Caprio-themed islands of Phi Phi
Near. Far. Wherever you are… Wait! That’s the wrong reference. Here, Leo actually filmed “the Beach” long time ago in his days of handsomeness and Oscar frustrations. Since then, these islands have been the premier tropical paradise of Thailand for the rich and famous… and backpackers.
Despite having received multiple warnings for the past 2 years from Thai marine biologists, the lucrative side of this island worked against its much-needed closure. However, the government did shut down the gorgeous little Ko Yung several weeks ago. The awe-inspiring Maya Bay, where Leo’s character ludicrously killed a baby shark and where now so many boats anchor that you risk snorkelling under an engine, is thought to be the next one on the list.
Update as of 3rd May 2018: Maya Bay will shut for four months every year, starting this June, to give the battered coral reefs and wildlife a chance to recover from the destruction caused by hordes of visitors.
Getting there: From Phuket or Krabi there are various speedboats or ferries leaving in the morning between 8:30 and 10:00, taking about 45 to 90 minutes to reach Phi Phi.
8. Experience Thale Waek (Separated Sea) at Ko Dam
These gems are other formerly virgin paradises suffering from the curse of being in close proximity to major resorts/tourist centres organizing overwhelmingly crowded snorkelling tours.
The unique enticing phenomenon, that even Moses would admire, creates an illusory effect at low tide, when the sand dune connecting the islets of Dam Hok and Dam Khwan reveals itself. The best time to witness the separated sea phenomenon is 5 days before or after the full moon during the dry season. Remember! As much as you’d like to collect dead corals as part of your bucket-list plan of becoming a total hoarder, do not do it. You’ll risk being stopped or fined at the customs, and even getting a jail term.
Getting there: The islands are easily accessible from Ao Nang, Krabi, through organized trips or by private transportation.
9. Hone in on your eco skills at Ko Talu
As a privately-owned island with pampering luxury establishments, Ko Talu is destined to leave its spellbinding mark on tourists for a long time to come. But its warm shallow waters might be out of reach for avid divers allured by the abundant marine life thriving in the area, in light of the marine department’s statistics on coral bleaching.
There are plenty of options for you to explore here – from the overused generic descriptions of palm-fringed beaches and crystal clear waters perfect for snorkelling, to meaningful sustainable activities such as seeding new corals on the bottom of the sea and on special occasions even helping the resort to release a turtle in the sea. What a wonderful little way to leave your own mark on a nanoscopic part of this vast world!
Getting there: You can reach the island directly via a 3hr boat journey from Hua Hin.
10. Get your dose of freedom at Ko Racha Yai
Ko Racha Yai isn’t exactly a backpack destination due to its luxury accommodation options. However, Racha Yai’s close proximity to Phuket results in many organized trips that bring in a considerable amount of people to its blindingly turquoise waters and soft-sand beaches.
Numerous resorts and tourist offices advertise the island as the closest premier spot to Phuket for superb diving. However, under the ultramarine and sapphire-coloured duvets of water, lie the worrisome remnants of what once used to be a thriving coral reef. Hope may not be lost as the government is currently developing various projects aimed at injecting vitality into this enigmatic maritime universe. If that doesn’t pan out, just keep calm and chill out on this awesome underwater bike!
Getting there: From Ao Chalong or Rawai in Phuket, you can either opt for a 20-30 minute speedboat journey or for a 2-3hr journey on a dive boat or longtail boat.
11. Became a little Charles Darwin at Ko Samae San
This stunning bijou island, known only to a few locals, conceals treasures beyond any adventurer’s imagination. Or, from a more modern and realistic perspective, this island is well protected. That’s mainly because visitors are not allowed full access, with the exception of swimming, biking and hiking. Although rather close to Pattaya – the world’s most wicked destination where good guys go bad… or missing – Ko Samae San is on a completely different tangent.
As a Navy military base and under royal auspices, the island grew into a preservation paradise where rare fauna and flora flourish tremendously, undisturbed by mundane goings-on… or the Kardashians. Devoid of major tourist facilities and attracting marine specialists, you could go as far as to say this is Thailand’s miniature Galapagos.
Getting there: The island is located 40-50 minutes away from Pattaya by car and you normally need to book in advance with a dive centre or institute to access Samae San.
12. Play with panda bears at Bamboo Island
Well, not really. This sui generis Bamboo Island, whose strange moniker is just the result of a mistranslation, does not actually feature any bamboo vegetation.
Located in Krabi’s offshore triangle of tourist dropping off points, Ko Mai Pai is dolled up with an imposing casuarina grove that will act as a much-needed shade while you stroll or frolic along the sandy beach. The most precious time here is at dusk and as clichéd as it sounds, the crimson sunset will linger in your mind for a lifetime… or at least until the next hangover.
Getting there: There are options for private transfer but since there is not much to do on the island, most tourists arrive on organized trips from Krabi, Phi Phi and Phuket.
13. Let time cease to exist at Ko Rawi
This undisputed jewel of the Adang Archipelago, close to Malaysia’s magnetic Langkawi, is as unspoilt and uninhabited as it gets… apart from the small sea gypsy community that illegally built their huts on the island. But as true cosmopolitan citizens of the world, the sea gypsies are not intimidated by the term “illegal habitat”.
Ko Lipe, famously known as the Maldives of Thailand – maybe 30 years ago – is the main point through which the timid Rawi can be easily accessed. If you fervently desire to get out of your comfort zone just venture off into the unknown, and pitch a tent into the wild. You’ll feel reinvigorated sleeping under the star-studded canopy and waking up to a sea bursting at the seams with a plethora of varicoloured fish. Just remember – never, ever feed the fish as this disturbs the natural processes of the aquatic ecosystems!
Getting there: From Ko Lipe there are options such as private longtail boats, organized tours and camping travel agencies.
14. Ang Thong Marine National Park
Thailand’s version of Indonesia’s Raja Ampat is also one of the most protected areas by the government. Ang Thong offers a genuine dose of nature escapism with its soul-piercing vistas, hidden coves, and dramatic lagoon-like lakes that will immerse you in a long forgotten time of pureness. With such an over-the-top description, it’s no wonder that tourism contributed to the archipelago’s 50% coral bleaching and considerable marine life diminution.
The fact that the park is only an organised trip away from the ultra famous island conglomeration of Samui, Tao, and Phangan does not help much either. Kayaking is highly popular in the area – remember to always be extremely careful not to hit or damage corals. Currently, the park is juggling a few renewable energy projects that will contribute to better marine preservation.
Getting there: There is a myriad of transfer options from Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao.
15. Ko Wai at Ko Chang Marine National Park
While Ko Chang is on course of becoming the next Phuket or Ko Samui, many of the virgin islands from this cluster of pure exoticism are as yet untouched by the ultimate destructive force of nature – the humans. This little gem enamours visitors with its bare-bones establishments, waters teeming with interminable marine life, and truly colourful corals. There is not much to do here – just be and let it be!
Ko Wai is closed during the monsoon season so that the corals have enough time to regenerate. However, in recent years snorkelling boats packed to the rafters with inconspicuous tourists have been threatening this unspoilt paradise and the government is directing its attention to this cluster of tiny islands.
Getting there: Relatively easy – Fly to Trat Airport from Bangkok, take a private taxi/transport to Laem Ngop Pier and then hop on a speedboat to Ko Wai.
Thai islands on the brink of closure
With north of 30 million visitors expected to arrive in Thailand in 2016, stopping tourism is not the solution to any problem, but raising awareness of appropriate and sensible behaviour could make an immense difference to our fragile ecosystems.
Live. Laugh. And share! Spread your Samaritan intentions to your friends… and enemies and promote unity for consequential actions. Also, next time you see life jacket-clad tourists flapping around like drunken monkeys trying to swim while feeding bread to the fish, take action! In the long-run everyone will unknowingly thank you for it.