Samui Wining & Dining
The Angthong National Marine Park, one of the treasures of Thailand.

The Angthong National Marine Park, one of the treasures of Thailand.One of Samui’s biggest attractions turns out not to be on Samui at all. It’s a group of off-shore islands which attract thousands of visitors every year. The Angthong National Marine Park is visible from the west coast of Samui, and is an incredibly beautiful archipelago of some 40 islands. They’re easily accessible – under an hour’s speedboat ride – and if you don’t have time to see anything else at all while you’re on holiday, a visit here should be top priority. Even if you’re a seasoned traveller, this is a day out that’s bound to impress.


When you think of desert islands, you may well be thinking of a classical atoll. You know the type from computer screensavers: a minuscule strip of beach with precisely three palm trees sprouting improbably from the sand. Well, these islands aren’t like that at all. They’re better. They’ve got more substance and a quirkiness about them that’s hard to define. For a start, there are the islands’ strange shapes to consider. On a map they don’t look remarkable – just an archipelago like any other, really – but see them up close, at sea-level, and they appear very strange. Some have quite smooth shapes, while others are so jagged that they appear at times to be barely natural. Their contorted features are due to the geology here being karst; limestone that’s been eaten away by rain and the sea, leaving them with fantastic shapes, and at times outlines that seem to have been cut by a mad person with a razor. For all this, they remain extraordinarily beautiful.


If you’re used to the palm-dominated vegetation of Samui, then the park is very different. Limestone is always thirsty for water and laps it up like a sponge, making the ground very dry. For plants it’s a hard-scrabble existence, and though they’re very green, the island’s composition means that only quite sturdy vegetation thrives here on the thin soils. This in turn makes it difficult for animals, and the ones you see here are small. There are lots of frogs here, as well as lizards, snakes and iguanas. You’ll find otters, langurs, crab-eating monkeys, hogs and bats on the islands, while in the seas surrounding them,The Angthong National Marine Park, one of the treasures of Thailand. there are larger creatures to be seen: you may be lucky enough to spot a whale, and it’s quite common to see dolphins sporting here.


The islands are conveniently close together, so that once you’re there, you can easily hop between them, they’re very diverse and hold many surprises. The only people who really know them well are the park rangers, who are tasked to look after them, and the sea gypsies who have built a small community on one of them. Even people who have been born and bred on Samui can’t say they know them well. Although tantalizingly close, these islands know how to guard their many secrets.


On Koh Mae Koh, you’ll find not only a beautiful beach but the unexpected: an inland lake, usually known as the Emerald Lake. Use the wooden steps to climb to the top of the island and then it’s a short walk to the edge of the cliffs, where you can gaze down on the chartreuse-green of the waters below you. It’s connected by a subterranean passage to the sea beyond, so it’s a salt-water lake. There are also great views of the other islands from the vantage point.


If you want to stay overnight in the islands, it’s certainly no problem and you’ll be very welcome at the park headquarters, located on Koh Wua Talap. You’ll find good standard bungalows and if these are full you can rent a tent, or bring your own. You can reserve accommodation at the park website. Be aware though that it’s definitely not 5-star; there’s only cold running water and an electricity generator that shuts down at 11:00 pm.


Whether you’re lodging in a tent or in one of the bungalows, costs works out incredibly cheap, especially given the exotic nature of the surroundings. You can also, by the way, obtain a lot more information about the park at the headquarters, The Angthong National Marine Park, one of the treasures of well as have a snack or meal in the restaurant here.


You’ll also find a short walk on the island that takes you up to a viewpoint, where most of the panoramic photos of the park are taken. It’s a very rewarding hike, although is quite difficult, with steep slopes and jungle on the way. You’ll need to be reasonably fit to walk it as well as have reliable footwear. The summit is almost a half kilometre above sea-level.


Getting to the islands is a cinch as there are so many boats going there. Simply enquire at any travel agency. Usually days out are organized around swimming at several spots, and there’s usually a visit to the Emerald Lake and the park’s headquarters. There’s a choice between slow boats that take up to 50 people, or speed boats. Avoid going by speed boat if you have a bad back, but in any case, be careful; the drop from the crests of the waves back to the sea can be literally spine-jarring. Sit at the rear of the boat for the most stability. If you’re visiting with a group of people, then the best alternative is to charter your own vessel.


Blue Stars offers some very comprehensive packages at good prices, and are tried-and-trusted operators, who have been taking people to the islands for years.


It might sound as if the sheer popularity of the park means that it’s as crowded as Disneyworld, but this isn’t the case; because there are so many islands, there’s never really that over-busy feel to a day out here. It’s only the park headquarters and the Emerald Lake that get crowded at peak times.


A visit to the park is very high up on the list of things to do if you’re visiting not just Samui, but Thailand itself. For an unbeatable day out, this one scores points across the board, and many holidaymakers make a point of returning to the park each time they visit.


 Dimitri Waring


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