Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ang Thong Marine National Park อุทยานแห่งชาติหมู่เกาะอ่างทอง

The 40-some jagged jungle islands of Ang Thong Marine National Park stretch across the cerulean sea like a shattered emerald necklace each piece a virgin realm featuring sheer limestone cliffs, hidden lagoons and perfect peach-coloured sands. These dream-inducing islets inspired Alex Garland’s cult classic The Beach about dope-dabbling backpackers. February, March and April are the best months to visit this ethereal preserve of greens and blues; crashing monsoon waves means that the park is almost always closed during November and December.


Every tour stops at the park’s head office on Ko Wua Talap, the largest island in the archipelago. The island’s viewpoint might just be the most stunning vista in all of Thailand. From the top, visitors will have sweeping views of the jagged islands nearby as they burst through the placid turquoise water in easily anthropomorphised formations. The trek to the lookout is an arduous 450m trail that takes roughly an hour to complete. Hikers should wear sturdy shoes and walk slowly on the sharp outcrops of limestone. A second trail leads to Tham Bua Bok, a cavern with lotus-shaped stalagmites and stalactites.

The Emerald Sea (also called the Inner Sea) on Ko Mae Ko is another popular destination. This large lake in the middle of the island spans an impressive 250m by 350m and has an ethereal minty tint. You can look but you can’t touch; the lagoon is strictly off-limits to the unclean human body. A second dramatic viewpoint can be found at the top of a series of staircases nearby.

The naturally occurring stone arches on Ko Samsao and Ko Tai Plao are visible during seasonal tides and weather conditions. Because the sea is quite shallow around the island chain, reaching a maximum depth of 10m, extensive coral reefs have not developed, except in a few protected pockets on the southwest and northeast sides. There’s a shallow coral reef near Ko Tai Plao and Ko Samsao that has decent but not excellent snorkelling. There are also several novice dives for exploring shallow caves and colourful coral gardens and spotting banded sea snakes and turtles. Soft powder beaches line Ko Tai Plao, Ko Wuakantang and Ko Hintap.


The best way to experience Ang Thong is through one of many guided tours departing from Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan. The tours usually include lunch, snorkelling equipment, hotel transfers and (with fingers crossed) a knowledgeable guide. If you’re staying in luxury accommodation, there’s a good chance that your resort has a private boat for group tours. Some midrange and budget also have their own boats, and if not, they can easily set you up with a general tour operator. Dive centres on Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan offer scuba trips to the park, although Ang Thong doesn’t offer the world-class diving that can be found around Ko Tao.

Getting There & Around

The best way to reach the park is to catch a private day-tour from Ko Samui or Ko Pha- Ngan (located 28km and 32km away, respectively). The islands sit between Samui and the main pier at Don Sak; however, there are no ferries that stop off along the way. The park officially has an admission fee (adult/child 400/200B), although it should be included in the price of every tour. Private boat charters are also another possibility, although high gas prices will make the trip quite expensive.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

KO TAO เกาะเต่า

First there was Ko Samui, then Ko Pha-Ngan; now, the cult of Ko Tao (‘Ko Taoism’ perhaps?) has emerged along Thailand’s crystalline Gulf Coast. Today, thousands of visitors come to worship the turquoise waters offshore, and quite often many of them stay. The secret to Ko Tao’s undeniable appeal? Simple: although the island is only 21 sq km, tiny Tao sure knows how to pack it in – there’s something for everyone, and nothing is in moderation. Diving enthusiasts cavort with sharks and rays in a playground of tangled neon coral. Hikers and hermits can re-enact an episode from ‘Lost’ in the dripping coastal jungles. And when you’re Robinson Crusoeed out, hit the bumpin’ bar scene that rages on until dawn.

Many years have already passed since the first backpacker came to the scrubby island and planted a flag in the name of selfrespecting shoestring travellers everywhere, but fret not, there’s still plenty of time to join the tribe. Ko Tao has many years to go before corporate resort owners bulldoze rustic cottages, and visitors start discussing stockholdings rather than sea creatures spotted on their latest dive.


Ferries pull into Mae Hat, on the western side of the island. This seaside town has all the tourist amenities one would need: travel agencies, hotels, dive shops, restaurants, internet cafes and motorcycle rentals. The biggest village on the island is Sairee Beach (also called Hat Sai Ri), about 2km up the coast. Here, travellers will find similar amenities but in greater quantity. Chalok Ban Kao, on the muddy southern coast, is the island’s third settlement. The island’s eastern and northern coasts are fairly undeveloped compared to the bustling west coast, with only a few bungalow enterprises on each little bay. A paved road connects the west coast to Tanote Bay; a fourwheel vehicle should be used when navigating any of the other rugged roads in the area. About the only thing of historic interest on the island is a large boulder, which has the initials of King Rama V, commemorating his royal visit in 1899.


The ubiquitous Koh Tao Info booklet lists loads of businesses on the island and goes into some detail about the island’s history, culture and social issues. The pocket-sized Sabai Jai is a new publication on the island dedicated to ecotravel.


All divers must sign a medical waiver before exploring the sea. If you have any medical condition that might hinder your ability to dive (including mild asthma), you will be asked to get medical clearance from a doctor on Ko Tao. Consider seeing a doctor before your trip as there are no official hospitals on the island, and the number of qualified medical professionals is limited. Also, make sure your travel insurance covers scuba diving.


As a general rule, there are 24-hour ATMs at every 7-Eleven on the island. We also found five ATMs orbiting the ferry docks at Mae Hat. There is a money-exchange window at Mae Hat’s pier and a second location near Choppers in Sairee. There are several banks near the post office in Mae Hat, at the far end of town along the island’s main inland road.


There’s no government-run TAT office on Ko Tao. Transport and accommodation bookings can be made at any of the numerous travel agencies, all of which take a commission on services rendered.

Dangers & Annoyances

There’s nothing more annoying than enrolling in a diving course with your friends and then having to drop out because you scraped your knee in a motorcycle accident. The roads on Ko Tao are horrendous, save the main drag connecting Sairee Beach to Chalok Ban Kao. While hiring a moped is extremely convenient, this is not the place to learn how to drive. The island is rife with abrupt hills and sudden sand pits along gravel trails. Even if you escape unscathed from a riding experience, scamming bike shops may claim that you damaged your rental and will try to extort you for some serious bling.


If you are planning to dive while visiting Ko Tao, your scuba operator will probably offer you discounted accommodation to sweeten the deal. Some schools have on-site lodging, while others have deals with nearby bungalows. It’s important to note that you only receive your scuba-related discount on the days you dive. So, for example, if you buy a 10-dive package, and decide to take a day off in the middle, your room rate will not be discounted on that evening. Also, a restful sleep is important before diving, so scope out these ‘great room deals’ before saying yes – some of them are one roach away from being condemned. There are also many sleeping options that have absolutely nothing to do with the island’s diving culture. Ko Tao’s secluded eastern coves are dotted with stunning retreats that still offer a true getaway experience, but these can be difficult to reach due to the island’s dismal network of roads. You can often call ahead of time and arrange to be picked up from the pier.

KO PHA-NGAN เกาะพงัน

KO PHA-NGAN เกาะพงัน

In the family of southern Gulf islands, Ko Pha-Ngan sits in the crystal sea between Ko Samui, its business-savvy older brother, and little Ko Tao, the spunky younger brother full of dive-centric energy. Ko Pha-Ngan is the slacker middle child: a chilled out beach bum with tattered dreadlocks, a tattoo of a Chinese serenity symbol, and a penchant for white nights and bikini-clad pool parties.

The scenic cape of Hat Rin has long been the darling destination of this laid-back paradise. Sunrise Beach started hosting the world-famous Full Moon parties long before Alex Garland’s The Beach inspired many of us to strap on a rucksack. Today, thousands still flock to the kerosene-soaked sands for an epic trance-a-thon fuelled by adrenaline and a couple of other substances…

But like any textbook teenager, this angstridden island can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Should the party personality persist or will the stunning and secluded northern beaches finally come out from under Hat Rin’s shadow?

While Pha-Ngan’s slacker vibe and reputation will no doubt dominate for years to come, the island is secretly starting to creep upmarket. Every year, tired old shacks are being replaced by crisp modern abodes. In Hat Rin, you will be hard-pressed to find a room on Sunrise Beach for less than 1,000B. Soon, the phrase ‘private infinity pool’ and ‘personal butler’ will find a permanent place in the island’s lexicon, replacing ‘pass the dutch’ and ‘another whiskey bucket please’. But don’t fret just yet – the vast inland jungle continues to feel undiscovered, and there are still plenty of secluded bays in which you can string up a hammock and watch the tide roll in.


Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand’s fifth-largest island, is approximately 20km from Ko Samui and 100km from Surat Thai.

Most of the island’s visitors stay on the thin peninsula known as Hat Rin. This mountainous cape is flanked with beautiful beaches on either side, and is home to the infamous Full Moon parties held every month. For a detailed layout of the area. The rest of the island is noticeably quieter, although gradual development has meant an increase in population on the west and south coasts. The northern coast has a few good beaches that feature modern amenities but feel relaxed and remote. The quiet eastern shore is virtually deserted.

About half of Ko Pha-Ngan’s population live in and around the small port of Thong Sala, where the ferries to and from Ko Tao, Surat Thani and Ko Samui dock.


If you got neon body paint on your clothes during your Full-Moon romp, don’t bother sending them to the cleaners – the paint will never come out. Trust us, we tried. For your other washing needs, there are heaps of places that will gladly wash your clothes. Prices hover around 40B per kilo, and express cleanings shouldn’t be more than 60B per kilo.


Medical services can be a little crooked in Ko Pha-Ngan – expect unstable prices and underqualified doctors. Many clinics charge a 3,000B entrance fee before treatment. Serious medical issues should be dealt with on nearby Ko Samui. All dental problems should be treated on Ko Samui as well.


Thong Sala, Ko Pha-Ngan’s financial ‘capital’, has plenty of banks, currency converters and several Western Union offices. Hat Rin has numerous ATMs and a couple of banks at the pier. There are also ATMs in Hat Yao, Chaloklum and Thong Nai Pan.


Female travellers should be extra careful when partying on the island. We’ve received many reports about drug- and alcohol-related rape (and these situations are not limited to Full Moon parties). Another disturbing problem is the unscrupulous behaviour of some of the local motorcycle taxi drivers. Several complaints have been filed about drivers groping female passengers; there are even reports of severe sexual assaults.


Ko Pha-Ngan has more motorcycle accidents than injuries incurred from Full-Moon tomfoolery. Nowadays there’s a system of paved roads, but much of it is a labyrinth of rutty dirt-and-mud paths. The island is also very hilly, and even if the road is paved, it can be too difficult for most to take on. The very steep road to Hat Rin is a perfect case in point. The island now has a special ambulance that trolls the island helping injured bikers.


There are no tourist police on Ko Pha-Ngan, which means that a greater percentage of tourists fall victim to various gimmicks. A common scam involves booking ‘first class’ bus or boat tickets only to find out that the transport is rickety at best, and the other passengers paid significantly less. Sometimes travellers fall victim to phantom bookings, in which the ticket agent made no reservations whatsoever. Many tourists have reported problems with transport between Bangkok and Ko Pha-Ngan – operators often rifle through bags placed in the luggage compartment of the bus.


For those who have grown weary of beachbumming, this large jungle island has many natural features to explore, including mountains, waterfalls and spectacular beaches.


There are many waterfalls throughout the island’s interior, four of which gush throughout the year. Nam Tok Than Sadet features boulders carved with the royal insignia of Rama V, Rama VII and Rama IX. King Rama V enjoyed this hidden spot so much that he returned over a dozen times between 1888 and 1909. The river waters of Khlong Than Sadet are now considered sacred and used in royal ceremonies. Also near the eastern coast, Nam Tok Than Prawet is a series of chutes that snake inland for approximately 2km.

In the centre of the island, Nam Tok Phaeng is protected by a national park and is a pleasant reward after a short-but-rough hike. Continue the adventure and head up to Khao Ra, the highest mountain on the island at 625m. Those with eagle-eyes will spot wild crocodiles, monkeys, snakes, deer and boar along the way, and the viewpoint from the top is spectacular – on a clear day you can see Ko Tao. Although the trek isn’t arduous, it is very easy to lose one’s way, and we highly recommend hiring an escort in Ban Madeua Wan (near the falls). The local guides have crude signs posted in front of their homes, and, if they’re around, they’ll take you up to the top for 500B. Most of them only speak Thai.

Pha-Ngan’s stunning beaches are definitely worth visiting, however caution should also be exercised for those travelling on foot. The ‘Green Dot’ trail from Hat Rin to Hat Yuan is completely overgrown, as is most of the route between Chalok Lam and Hat Khuat (Bottle Beach). Save yourself the strife and charter a water taxi.

Hat Khuat, also called Bottle Beach, is a classic fave. Visitors flock to this shore for a relaxing day of swimming and snorkelling – some opt to stay the night at one of the several bungalow operations along the beach. For additional seclusion, try the isolated beaches on the east coast, which include: Than Sadet, Hat Yuan, Hat Thian and the teeny Ao Thong Reng. For more enchanting beaches, consider doing a day trip to the stunning Ang Thong Marine National Park.


Surat Thani Province features southern Thailand’s ultimate holiday trifecta, Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao – three idyllic island paradises hidden behind dozens of jagged islets peppered throughout the stunning Ang Thong Marine National Park.


At first glance, Ko Samui could be mistaken for a giant golf course floating in the Gulf of Thailand. The greens are perfectly manicured, sand traps are plentiful, and there’s a water hazard or two thrown in for good measure. Middle-aged men strut about donning white polo shirts that contrast with their cherry-red faces, while hired help carry around their stuff. But Samui is far from being an adults-only country club – a closer look reveals steaming street-side food stalls, 2am jet-setter parties, secreted Buddhist temples, and backpacker shanties plunked down on a quiet stretch of sand.

Ko Samui is a choose-your-own-adventure kinda place that strives, like a genie, to grant every tourist their ultimate holiday wish. You want ocean views, daily massages and personal butlers? Poof – here are the keys to your private poolside villa. It’s a holistic auracleansing vacation you’re after? Shazam – take a seat on your yoga mat before your afternoon colonic. Wanna party like a rock star? Pow – trance your way down the beach with the throngs of whisky bucket– toting tourists.

Beyond the merry-making machine, the island will also offer interested visitors a glimpse into local life. Chinese merchants from Hainan Island initially settled Samui and today these unique roots have blossomed into a small community that remains hidden beneath the glossy holiday veneer.


Ko Samui is quite large – the ring road around the island is almost 100km long. The island has been blessed with picturesque beaches on all four sides. The most crowded are Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai, both on the eastern side of the island. The beaches on the island’s north coast including Choeng Mon, Mae Nam, Bo Phut, Bang Po and Big Buddha Beach (Bang Rak) are starting to become busy as well, but the prices are still decent, and secluded nooks can still be found. For a quieter experience, try the secluded beaches along the southern coast, and western shore south of Na Thon.


Ko Samui has four private hospitals, all near the Tesco-Lotus supermarket on the east coast, where most of the tourists tend to gather. The government hospital in Na Thon has seen significant improvements in the last couple of years but the service is still a bit grim since funding is based on the number of Samui’s legal residents (which doesn’t take into account the heap of illegal Burmese workers).


Changing money isn’t a problem on the east and north coasts, and in Na Thon. Multiple banks and foreign-exchange booths offer daily exchange services and there’s an ATM every couple of hundred metres.


In several parts of the island there are privately run post office branches charging a small commission. You can almost always leave your stamped mail with your accommodation. Main post office (Na Thon) Near the TAT office; not always reliable.

Lower Southern Gulf

It really isn’t fair – there are over 200 countries around the globe and Thailand has managed to snag a disproportionate amount of the world’s top beaches. These creamy stretches of sand undulate along the paper-thin coast, and scallop tonnes of jungly bumps out at sea. They’re everywhere. So how are we ever supposed to choose from these honey-tinged paradises when every acre boasts enough beach options to give Goldilocks a complex?

It’s simple. If you’re plagued by indecision, head here – to Thailand’s lower southern gulf, and follow three simple steps to reach your ultimate beach-holiday nirvana.

Step 1. Before hitting the waves, start below the surface. Ko Tao is the ultimate playground for scuba neophytes, sporting shallow reefs teeming with slippery reef sharks, skulking stingrays and radiant blooms of waving coral.

Step 2. Now that you’ve swum with the fishes, it’s time to drink like one. Ko Pha-Ngan has long been synonymous with white nights, and on the eve of every full moon, pilgrims pray to party gods with trance-like dancing, glittery body paint and bucket-sized beverages.

Step 3. An intensive detox session is a must after your lunar romp. Ko Samui is the ultimate place to pamper yourself silly, and five-star luxury is the name of the game.

If the triple threat of gulf island paradises didn’t quite do the trick, then add on one of
Ang Thong Marine National Park’s 40-odd islets. Each craggy fleck peppering the azure ocean boasts sandy bays that gingerly await your footprint. This ethereal realm, forever immortalised in backpacker lore, is the last frontier for unbridled castaway fantasies.


The best time to visit the Samui islands is during the hot, dry season from February to April. From May to October, during the southwest monsoon, it can rain intermittently, and from October to January, during the northeast monsoon, there can be strong winds. However, many travellers have reported sunny weather (and fewer crowds) in September and October. November tends to get some of the rain that affects the east coast of Malaysia at this time. The overall lack of tourism south of the Samui archipelago can be explained by the fact that the southwestern Gulf’s best season (climatically) runs from April to October – the exact opposite of Thailand’s typical tourist season (which coincides with the European and North American winter).

National Parks

There are a couple of notable parks in this region. Ang Thong Marine National Park, the setting for the perfect beach in the movie The Beach, is a stunning archipelago of 40 small jagged limestone islands. Khao Luang National Park is known for its beautiful mountain and forest walks, waterfalls and fruit orchards. It is also home to a variety of elusive animals, from clouded leopards to tigers.

Getting There & Away

Travelling to the lower southern Gulf is fairly straightforward. It’s extremely easy to hop on a bus or a train in Bangkok and then catch a ferry to the Gulf islands. Several daily flights connect Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya to Ko Samui. Bus and train travel from Bangkok is generally cheap, relatively efficient and mostly takes place overnight

Getting Around

Numerous boats shuttle back and forth between Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan, Ko Tao and Surat Thani, while buses and trains link Surat Thani with destinations further south. Consider using the port in Chumphon to access the Gulf islands from
the mainland.