THAILAND’S IDENTITY IS an intoxicating blend of warmth, originality, colour and variety. These attributes permeate the friendly Thai people, their storied culture, their tasty cuisine and their abundant natural resources. From thrilling safaris under the jungle canopy to potentially nerve-racking tuk-tuk rides along Bangkok’s bustling streets, Thailand offers unique adventures for even the most jaded travellers.
Beach lovers, snorkellers and divers can choose between the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west. While there are good spots for divers to hit in the Gulf, those seeking world-class sites eventually ﬁnd their way to the island of Phuket and the treasures that lie within the Andaman Sea.
Crème de la Crème
Phuket, the nation’s largest island, is rife with dive shops that cater to tourists who simply want to try scuba diving and those determined to get certiﬁed. The plentiful day boats often mean the sites closest to Phuket can be a bit claustrophobic. Liveaboards allow you to avoid the crowds, minimise your in-transit time and focus on the very best areas.
The healthiest and most productive reefs are located in Thailand’s 22 national marine parks. Approximately 500 ﬁsh and 200 coral species have been identiﬁed in these protected sanctuaries. Of these parks, Mu Koh Similan National Park (mu koh means “group of islands”), Mu Koh Surin National Park and Mu Koh Lanta National Park are the crème de la crème. Likewise, the Thailand Aggressor is the luxury liveaboard of choice for exploring these Andaman jewels.
Diving in Style
The Thailand Aggressor is a 35 metre (115 feet) long luxury dive yacht designed specifically for divers who prefer individualised service, superior amenities and room to breathe. Nine staterooms accommodate 18 guests and feature an en-suite bathroom, climate control and a wardrobe. The salon/lounge is often the hub for big fish tales between dives as it offers a computer workstation, an entertainment centre and charging stations, in addition to being where the gourmet meals and snacks are served.
Four to five dives per day are made either directly from the mother ship or a tender. You can dive with a buddy or with one of the knowledgeable guides. The attentive crew especially pampers to underwater photographers and videographers by making sure each camera system is thoroughly rinsed and then safely stored on the convenient dive deck camera table after each dive.
Mu Koh Similan National Park
The Similan Islands National Park is 90 kilometres (56 miles) northwest of Phuket and includes the nine islands of the Similan group [from north to south: Ba-ngu (No. 9), Similan (the largest, No. 8), Payu (No. 7), Miang Sam or Hin Pusar (No. 6), Miang Song (No. 5), Miang (No. 4), Payan (No. 3), Payang (No. 2), and Huyong (No. 1)] and two nearby islands, Koh Bon and Koh Tachai. Most dive operators refer to the Similan (the Malay word for “nine”) Islands by a number, rather than a name, but they do not necessarily agree on which number goes with which island! You are also very likely to see a variety of spellings for the same island. The key is to enjoy the diving regardless of the location’s ﬂuctuating designation.
These impressive granite islands are covered in lush vegetation and adorned with lonely white sand beaches and massive boulders. The annual southwest monsoon that usually impacts this region from May through October has sculpted two distinct undersea topographies around the islands with sloping coral reefs on their eastern ﬂanks and rocky seascapes to the west. Thus, divers are treated to two unique environments though they surface to the panoramic beauty of a single island.
Mu Koh Surin National Park
The Surin Islands National Park is situated 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the Similans and less than 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) southof the Myanmar border. The park encompasses the two namesake islands of Koh Surin Nua (North Surin) and Koh Surin Tai (South Surin), as well as the smaller satellite islands of Koh Ri, Koh Kai and Koh Klang. The main attraction for divers – and one of the most impressive sites on the planet – lies just 18 kilometres (11 miles) to the east.
Richelieu Rock (Hin Plo Naam in Thai, which means “rock protruding from the water”) is an isolated seamount with a series of pinnacles that appear to form the upper half of a padded armchair. The tall central pinnacle barely clears the surface at low tide. Currents continually bathe the reef with nutrients and serve as conduits that carry pelagics, such as manta rays and the occasional whale shark, and free-ﬂoating larvae to the seamount. Richelieu Rock’s remote location limits the number of visitors and the impact of human-related contamination.