As we lay in bed listening to the torrential rain turning Khao Lak into Khao Lake we wondered if our gamble with the changeable weather wasn’t going to pay off.
Thankfully, we woke to clear blue skies and felt much better about the one hour speed boat ride, 60km out to the Similan Islands for our snorkelling trip.
Similan comes from the word ‘nine’ in Malay. Six of the nine islands in the marine national park are open for snorkelling, diving, camping and inland exploring. The other three are protected areas for sea turtle nesting and breeding. There are no public boats out to the islands, so you have to book with one of Khao Lak’s many tour agencies. Agencies in Phuket offer tours as well, but the 5am starts for the three hour drive to Khao Lak sounded like a terrible idea and the bleary-eyed people getting off the Phuket buses looked like they agreed.
Whilst most Similan sightseeing happens underwater, we spent breathers between snorkelling sessions on some of the most breathtaking beaches we’ve seen. The powdery sand was so bright and white, our snorkels had to be quickly swapped for sunglasses. The water was clear enough to spot some fish without snorkels, and had the perfect travel brochure gradient from crystal turquoise to a deep dark blue on the horizon.
We were, of course, not the first people to discover this paradise. Apparently it’s a popular short break place for Chinese tourists, so, it being the week leading up to Chinese New Year, it was especially busy when we were there. The main beaches on islands 4 and 8 had a steady stream of speed boats offloading day-trippers from all over the world. The human beach life was almost as varied as the marine life below the waves; sun-worshippers were vying for the best towel position in the middle of the beach, others were huddled in islands of shade under palm trees. Some arrived head-to-toe in neoprene with their own snorkelling gear, some arrived in itsy-bitsy bikinis, big jewellery and full make up. But, whether people wanted to cover themselves in factor 50, glittery transfer tattoos, or just the powdery sand, taking the perfect shoreline selfie seemed to be universal.
Back under the water we saw all different kinds of colourful fish: including two kinds of kaleidoscopically-shiny, coral crunching, parrot fish; the weird horned-nosed unicorn fish; bright yellow butterfly fish; and bright powder blue tang.
This part of the Andaman coast was very badly damaged by the 2004 tsunami. Outside the tsunami museum in Khao Lak town is a police boat that was swept 2km inland from over a mile out to sea. The Similan islands suffered a lot of coral bleaching after the tsunami, but there are now signs of it starting to grow back.
We had hoped to see turtles but didn’t get lucky this time. Even though chances were high as we were so close to their conservation area, it’s never guaranteed; “That’s the aquarium, honey.” said our snorkel instructor, and she makes a good point. We didn’t see every animal that lives in the Similan waters, but it was incredible to see so many different fish in their natural habitat.