With its fine white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and magical diving and snorkelling sites, the Similan island archipelago is one of the must-see destinations for travellers to Thailand.
As a protected national marine park, there are limited options for getting there, and the islands are open for only half the year, from mid-October to mid-May.
Though the Similans are nowhere near as busy as Koh Phi Phi, Similan island day trips can feel a bit like a cattle herd run, with speedboats packed to maximum capacity and boats full of people all arriving to the same beaches and snorkelling sites at the same time. But if you do a bit of planning in advance, you can enjoy a more peaceful, hassle-free visit to the Similans.
Here are four ways to help avoid the tourist crowds:
Stay near the pier to the Similans
Sitting in a minivan for hours on end in transit is not an ideal way to spend your precious holiday time. A typical speedboat day trip to the Similan islands includes an early morning pick up by minivan from your hotel to Tab Lamu pier, then a return trip at the end of the day.
The pier is found on the mainland in Phang Nga province, about 50km north of the Sarasin Bridge linking to Phuket, and more than 100km away from the main Phuket resort areas of Patong Beach, Karon Beach and Kata Beach. So if you’re staying at one of these beaches, then expect to be sitting in a minivan for a good 2 hours before you even reach the pier!
With the speedboat trip from the pier to the Similans taking an hour and 15 minutes, that’s more than 3 hours of travel time before you can finally put your snorkel mask on and jump into the sea to start your Similans exploration.
Khao Lak is just 16km north of Tab Lamu pier, so staying in Khao Lak instead of Phuket will cut your total travel time by 3-4 hours. If you do stay in Phuket, then it’s best to find a hotel on the northern part of the island. Mai Khao Beach and Nai Yang Beach are Phuket’s two most northern beaches, and staying in a hotel at these areas will cut your travel time to and from the Similans by 2 hours.
Avoid going during peak visitor periods
Trips to the Similans are popular during the entire six months the islands are open, but if you plan your visit for mid-October to late November, it will be a little less crowded. December through February are the busiest months, especially during the New Year and Chinese New Year holidays. There is a greater risk of rain or boat trips being cancelled due to poor sea conditions in October and November, however.
Book a Similan island liveaboard
For scuba diving in the Similan islands, a liveaboard trip is really the only way to go. Phuket and Khao Lak have several liveaboard operators who run trips of 3-5 days to the Similan islands, with packages including cabin accommodation aboard the boat, meals and stops at several dive sites including Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock.
It’s also possible to book a longer trip to include a visit to the more remote Surin islands. Some trips include Nitrox courses (EANx) and PADI courses such as the PADI Open Water Course. If you don’t dive, then look for a liveaboard trip that welcomes snorkelers aboard.
Charter a private boat to the Similans
If you’re travelling with a group, booking a private boat charter is a good way to explore the Similan islands away from the crowds. Aboard a private yacht or speedboat, you’ll be travelling with only your friends and family, and the better operators will try to make their stops at the different snorkelling sites and beaches during less busy times of the day.
It’s not a cheap option, especially if booking a luxury motor yacht, but the added cost will be worth it if you’re keen to enjoy a horde-free visit. Boat charters are available for both day trips and liveaboard trips to the Similans. Check with any Phuket or Khao Lak based dive companies or yacht charter operations for details and bookings.
Similan Islands Marine National Park
50km west of Tap Lamu pier, Phang Nga province
*Note: I’ve updated this article in October 2018 to remove bungalow and tent booking as an option since the Thai parks department no longer allows overnight stays on the islands.