Stretching in a north-south direction off the coast of the main tourism island of Phuket lies a string of nine small granite masses washed by the azure waters of the Andaman Sea, Similan Islands. Derived from the Yami or Malay word “sembilan” meaning “nine”, these isles are comprised of nine islands and reputed to be one of the best diving sites in the world, as featured in numerous surveys and travel magazine articles. Snorkelling and swimming also figure as the sought after activities in these islands with waters so clear the white sea floor is still visible at a depth of 50 feet.
Teeming with a fantastic variety of marine flora and fauna, it is no wonder that divers and tourists alike troop to Similan Islands to enjoy its beauty. Such diversity prompted the Thai government to protect the islands and in September 1982, the archipelago was designated as a national park. Each island is named but they are usually referred to by numbers only. From south to north and 1 through 9, these are: Hu Yong, Payang, Payan, Miang, Ha, Payu, Hin Pousar, Similan and Ba Ngu. In 1998, the addition of the two adjacent islands to the northeast, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai expanded the area of the park to 144 square kilometers (56 square miles), but Similan remains to be the name of the archipelago.
As a marine national park, the 14-square kilometer (5.4 square miles) Similans are off limits from human habitation. However, two islands, Koh Similan and Koh Miang have residential houses where the support staff and park rangers of the national park live. With the institution of outposts by the Forestry Department of Thailand in these two islands, guarding the marine park was strengthened and aquatic activities such fishing inside the premises was banned. Underneath the surface, ancient coral reefs thrive in what is Thailand’s oldest coral system at 5,000 years old. By 1987, tourists started to discover its treasures and poachers were replaced by holiday-makers. Today, the Mu Koh Similan National Park is a candidate for the United Nations World Heritage Site.
As no one is allowed to live on the island, only temporary stays are permitted. However, spartan accommodation exists on Number 8, Koh Similan such as bungalows, tents and restaurants. For reservations, you may contact Mu Koh Similan National Park headquarters at +66 76 2562 0760 or +66 76 7659 5045. Because of limited tourism facilities on the islands, liveaboard programs abound in the area to augment the service for a burgeoning wave of travelers. Dive boats and leisure yachts from the mainland in Khao Lak the island of Phuket to the southeast, and from as far as Singapore frequently sail the islands that follow strict rules imposed by park officials including utilizing the moorings and using closed waste water systems according to park standards. A national park fee of 400 baht per day is charged per adult visitor, while children pay 100 baht per day. Thai citizens will have to settle a much lower entrance fee of just 40 baht per day.
Behind the veneer of seemingly astounding aesthetics, Similan Islands have not been without any imposing threats. Prior to its designation as a marine national park, pilferage of its resources such as turtles, corals and other smaller animals thrived. In the great Asian tsunami of 2004, the Similans were among the most devastated areas in Southeast Asia, resulting to not only a sweeping destruction of its beaches but also the utter devastation of the inland areas. But like any resilient place in the world, the Similans managed to regain its condition as a prime marine park. The fact that nobody lives on these islands and their distance from the mainland and Phuket is also among the reasons Similan Islands have retained its pristine state.
Image credit: Mathias Krumbholz