You’ve been planning a snorkeling tour (or any other adventure) for you and your family for the past several months. Upon arrival at the destination, you realize what you had envisioned and had built up is completely different or isn’t the experience you want. What do you do? This is what we discovered when we arrived in Thailand after planning a snorkeling day trip to the Similan Islands. Thanks to great local advice, we learned more about the actual experience and how it wouldn’t have met our expectations. Fortunately, with a little more local research, we discovered something even more incredible!
First, where and what are the Similan Islands?
The Similan Islands is a group of islands in the Andaman Sea of the west coast of Thailand (just north of Phuket). The islands consist of 11 different islands covering about 140 km. Travelers come from around the world to visit to these picturesque islands for many reasons; the incredible scuba diving, snorkeling, reefs, beaches, and just relaxing on the island.
What was the problem, and why did we change our minds?
People, people, and more people! Over the years these islands have become extremely popular. In 2017/18 the islands received about 7,000 visitors a day! However, it’s not just visitors, is also the boats that bring them. Each boat may hold anywhere from 35-45 people thus resulting in a huge boat parking.
The Similan Islands Park is the most overcrowded Thai national park. Six to seven thousand persons per day visit the islands during its open season from mid–October to mid–May. The sheer numbers have resulted in environmental degradation, and thus have forced stricter rules and closure of islands for recovery purposes.
One of our goals as a traveling family was to truly experience the destination, and show our kids different cultures, sites, and experiences. For us, being on an overcrowded tour going to an overcrowded park, didn’t align with what we wanted to do. After doing a bit more research, and talking with local hotels, we learned about another alternative! The amazing Surin Islands.
Where and what are the Surin Islands?
The Surin Islands are substantially less crowded and offer all the same features as the Similan, and in our opinion were more family friendly. These beautiful islands are about 60km away from the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea north of the Similan Islands. The boundary of the Surin marine park lies just south of the Burmese (Myanmar) border.
One thing that is unique about the Surin Islands is the local tribe that live on the islands. These two small communities of the small ethnic Moken minority, are known as “chao lay” or “sea gypsies“
Booking our Surin Island snorkeling Experience
There were a few different companies that provided tours to the Surin Islands. One thing we learned when booking the tour from Khao Lak, was that the boat ride was 1 hr 45 minutes away (verses the 60 minutes to the Similan). If you were further up north at another port it would have been shorter.
The company we decided on was LOVE Andaman, they received great reviews for families and they also offered discount prices for kids! Additionally, Infants (3 and under) were free. Booking it was pretty straight forward, we went to their website and used their booking link which redirects you to the booking page with all the options – where we selected the Surin Islands.
When making the booking you have the option to be picked up at your hotel either in Phuket or Khao Lak, which is nice for those that might not have a car. For us, we opted to drive ourselves since we had to check-out of our hotel that day and planed to drive to our next destination after the tour. There are maybe around 12 – 14 parking spots in front of the entrance.
Pre-Departure & Information Session
When you arrive at their offices, you check in at a desk and they provide you a wristband which is associated to your tour (since they have more than one tour leaving from that location). After receiving our wristbands, we were told to go wait in their lobby until our wristband color was called. The lobby was stocked with snacks, desserts, and drinks that the guests could help themselves to. Next to the lobby was a little shop where you could pick up sun screen, hats, and other small things relevant to being out on the water all day.
After waiting about 15-20 minutes, our wristband color was called and we followed our guide to an area right outside the lobby. When we got to the meeting area, we noticed there was about 20-25 people in our group and we had the only kids! For 15 minutes our guide explained the plan for the day, and provided us some history of the Surin Islands. When complete, they guided us to our boat and provided us all with both adult and child life jackets.
The boat ride to the Surin Islands
To be honest we were a bit worried about the 1 hr 45 min boat ride. We didn’t know how big the boat was, what the weather was going to be like, and if anyone would get motion sick (note, the tour company provides Dramamine for free in the lobby). To our surprise, the boat ride was great! It was a smooth ride, and it was cool to see the coastline of Thailand for a while. The crew were constantly checking on our kids, giving them drinks, candy, trying to make them laugh, and befriend them – it was pretty cute. The only thing to be aware of is the noise, we sat in the very back of the boat where the engines were. By the time we got to the islands, are ears were ringing a bit.
Arrival & First Snorkeling Stop
After about 1 hr and 20 min, we could see the Surin Islands start to appear as the crew handed out our snorkeling gear. As we approached you could see the lush green islands, large granite boulders, and crystal clear waters. When we stoped, we looked around and noticed there was only one other tour boat there!
After getting the kids situated, we jumped into the water. The water temperature was perfect! After we checked to make sure all the gear was good on everyone, we had our first look under. Have you ever seen “Finding Nemo”? Do you remember the scene at the reef with all the fish? Well this felt and looked the same! The water was crystal clear, with hundreds of fish swimming around of different size and color. The coral was bright and there were all different types.
For the next hour we stayed at this snorkeling spot and then we headed to another equally as good location. The kids absolutely loved it! While at the second location we saw a large blue starfish and an octopus, which of course was a highlight for the kids.
Lunch, Beach, and the Surin National Park
After about 2 1/2 hours of snorkeling it was time for lunch and a beach break! The tour took us to the Surin National Park building / beach area where we had lunch. There was one other tour group there, but it didn’t feel crowded at all. The food was good, it was a buffet of a few Thai dishes, rice, and a separate table with desserts and drinks.
After lunch we ventured off and explored the beach. When we were walking to the beach we saw a few little cabins that people can actually rent, and stay on the island – which would be pretty cool. The beach on the island was perfect for kids, very shallow entry, no waves, clear water, and warm.
“Nemo City” & Moken Village
After about 2 hours it was time to head out and go to our last snorkeling stop. This location was special they said, they called it “Nemo City” due to all the clown fish we would see. It didn’t take long after jumping in before we started to see the different families of clown fish.
Our last stop after snorkeling was visiting the local village of the indigenous Moken, the nomadic sea folks of the Andaman Sea. About 300 residents from 80 families lead a more or less authentic traditional sea nomadic life under the protection of the National Park authority. Unlike in neighboring Myanmar, where the Moken neither possess nationality nor have the right to designated settlement areas, the last descendants of this fascinating people in Thailand are granted at least the status of a recognized ethnic minority with the right of settlement in their ancestral habitat.
When we arrived at the village, there were kids selling different things they had made. We spent some time walking around looking at the different items from the different children. After we had the opportunity to walk through the village, and see how this local tribe lived on the island. All the bamboo buildings were on stilts; which included houses, a school, and a small clinic. It was a very eye opening experience for the entire family, as each of the kids learned something new from that experience.
Journey home & overall experience
After visiting the Moken village, we boarded our boat and headed back home. Upon arrival at the pier, we were provided with our shoes and and some really good ice cream.
Overall this was one of our favorite tours we did as a family. We are so glad we decided to switch from the Similan islands to the Surin islands to avoid the crowds for a more authentic experience. Below are some highlights from our day, enjoy!