The Truth about Snorkeling in the Similan & Surin Islands of the Andaman Sea, Thailand

We recently returned from an exciting 4d/3n liveaboard snorkel cruise to the Similan and Surin islands in the Andaman Sea.  Snorkeling around these islands can be excellent or poor depending on the choices you make.  Here are some tips to help you plan a great snorkel trip, based on our experiences and observations.

Much of the coral is still in good shape among the Similan and Surin Islands.  We found the snorkeling to be excellent in the protected waters of the National Parks. Let us explain why we highly recommend a live aboard snorkel tour but try to avoid the one-day speed boat trips.

In many ways, I’m reluctant to post this article because these islands are already loved to death and suffering from too many tourists.  What I hope to accomplish is to provide some guidance to help you make the best choices in terms of your own experience, if you are planning a trip, and to help protect the health of the reefs and marine life.

Some of the best living coral we’ve seen in the past 20 years of snorkeling. Photo by Jan Cadieux

Magical experience or pure disappointment…it’s your choice!

I would hesitate to recommend one of the speed boat trips from the mainland. The boats are usually crowded and you don’t get to experience the amazing beauty of these islands with all the hustle and bustle. If you really want to enjoy snorkeling in these magical places, our preferred choice is to go on a live aboard snorkel tour. See below for more details.

A few years ago, there were up to 7,000 visitors per day.  The problem of overuse has prompted park authorities to limit the number of tourists in the Similan Islands to 3,325 people a day.

The islands have outstanding marine life

Popular for its coral gardens and white beaches, the Similan and Surin Islands of the Andaman Sea are among the most famous diving and snorkeling sites in the world, and probably the best in Thailand.

Established as a national park in 1982, the Similan Islands form an archipelago of 11 islands in the Andaman Sea, 70 km from the mainland. Similan Island National Park covers 140 km² of which 26 km² is on land and 114 km² is protected marine habitat.

The Surin Islands form an archipelago of five islands within Mu Ko Surin National Park, 55 km off the coast. The national park covers 135 km² of which 76% is marine protected area.

Here’s a short 6 min video showing some of the highlights of our snorkel trip.

There are three ways to enjoy snorkeling in these amazing waters full of abundant marine life.

  1. Live-aboard snorkel tour
  2. Day trips from Phuket or Khao Lak
  3. Staying on one of the islands in National Park Accommodation

Why we prefer an overnight live-aboard snorkel tour

If you stay out among the islands on a liveaboard boat, you will spend the entire day close to some of the best coral reefs we’ve seen in the past 20 years of snorkeling throughout the world.  The guides do a great job of finding the best snorkel spots with plenty of colourful coral and fish but without masses of people.  The focus is on snorkeling rather than diving, so the locations they select will offer shallow accessible reefs.  The knowledgeable crew keep track of the tides and currents and in some spots we could drift along with the current watching the beautiful reefs unfold effortlessly beneath us.

We could only find one operator offering this experience, Andaman Snorkel Discovery Tours.  Our 3 night/4-day tour included pickup, overnight accommodation in tiny cabins, snorkel equipment, delicious meals, and return to the hotel.  Each morning we began the day with a snorkel tour at 7:30 am, followed by a hearty breakfast.  We went snorkeling at three different spots each day with a fourth evening snorkel on one of the days.  That is a lot of wonderful snorkeling!

A liveaboard trip is our choice for the best way to have an excellent experience snorkeling in the Similan and Surin islands.  This trip is highly recommended – but not for softies.  As their website explains, this is not a five-star tour.  The snorkeling was outstanding and we found the food to be excellent (not too hot for our Western tastebuds).  One of the biggest downsides for us was the fact that they use hard exercise mats for mattresses on the bunk beds.  The second factor, which may be a deal breaker for some people, is that the captain and crew smoked like chimneys.  To be fair, the captain stopped smoking in the dining area when asked to do so – with a bit of grumbling.

Those are relatively minor details, however, considering that this could easily be one of those experiences you will never forget!  It is in our case.

The day-trip snorkeling boat tours are overcrowded

Once out in the islands, we saw large speedboats arrive full of tourists.  To tell you the truth, we would advise against taking one the speedboat tours offered out of Phuket or Khao Lak unless you are extremely short for time.

Because of the distance to the islands, it takes about an hour and a half each way and there’s not much time for high-quality snorkeling.  Tourists are herded very quickly into the water at busy snorkel spots and have about 30-45 minutes to explore and swim with the fish.  The water at these spots quickly becomes overcrowded and you tend to see more people than fish.

Check out this video with one couple’s review of a speedboat day trip. They weren’t impressed! I think they might have had an entirely different opinion if they had taken a live aboard tour.

The downside of snorkeling from the islands

I might as well get right to it; there’s one thing I really, really dislike about exploring the beautiful reefs and islands of Thailand.  Long-tailed boats.  I hate them.  They never have mufflers and the noise is ear-piercingly loud.  It’s like sitting beside a jet engine.  I’ve had to sit with my fingers in my ears for nearly an hour so now I take foam hearing protectors with me.

You can stay in the national park and visit the reefs – but the only way to get out to the best reefs is by long-tail boat with one of the locals.  If you aren’t as sensitive to the noise as I am, this might be a reasonable option.  I don’t know enough about the snorkel spots you could visit by long-tail, so this would be worth clarifying before you pay for a day trip with a local guide.

How to Stay in Surin National Park

See the National Park website

Camping

There are two campsites on Surin Nuea Island, open at different times of year. Ao Chong Khard Campsite is open from 15th October to 30th November, Ao Mai Ngam Campsite is open from 1st December to 15 May.

There are 70 tents available for rent; the 2 person tents are 300 Baht per night and the 3 person tents are 450 Baht per night. You can rent sleeping bag, pillow, and mat for 60 Baht per person. You can also set up your own tent for 80 Baht per person/night.

Tents can be booked online via the National Park website or on arrival.  I would check availability before arriving at the campsite.

Bungalows

There are three bungalows for rent on Surin Nuea Island. The bungalows are for 4 people, cost 3,000 Baht per night, with a 900 Baht discount for Monday to Thursday.

Bungalows can be booked online or, depending on availability, on arrival to the main visitor center in Khura Buri or at Surin Nuea Island.  It would be worth checking on availability ahead of time.

Booking a tent or bungalow

Bungalows or tents can be booked via the National Park website in advance.  The official website indicates that it is only possible to book from within Thailand, since the money transfer must be done within 2 days and it takes longer than that to transfer money from abroad. Payments can be done at 7-Eleven convenience stores or at banks.

Have a wonderful time if you decide to go

The Similan and Surin islands are treasures that need to be protected for all time!  We were gratified to see that Thailand has protected these islands and amazing reefs in National Parks. 

If you are using the Chrome browser, you can check out this Google Earth link for a splendid 3D view of the Surin islands from above.

Practical info

Best time to visit

The ideal time to visit these Islands is December to April when the weather is dryer and the ocean is clear, making it best time for snorkeling.

Where to stay

We recommend staying in Khao Lak if you have a chance.  It is less crowded than Phuket and there are plenty of accommodation options, from beach-side resorts to quiet BnBs.  The beach is family friendly and a sunset walk along the beach is a beautiful way to wind down.

Nearby Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park

The nearby national park is well worth a visit, including the easy to access tropical paradise at Little White Sandy Beach.  This is a perfect spot to spend some family time, with a short 20-minute access trail.

View my 360 photo of Little White Sandy Beach on Google Maps. This is a 360 photo, so don’t forget to spin it around with your mouse for a 360 view!

George Sranko

George Sranko, B.Sc., MA (Hons), is a biologist, photographer, author and speaker. He has explored fascinating nature topics and epic destinations for over 40 years, beginning with his first job as a National Park naturalist. George is a popular destination and science lecturer on cruise ships throughout the world, with hundreds of presentations under his belt. He has visited over 90 countries and happily shares his personal experiences and insights in a dynamic and entertaining style.

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