The Islands & Dive Sites of Thailand, Mergui Archipelago (Myanmar) & the Andaman Islands (India)
Thailand is blessed with two bountiful southern seas, the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand sits between Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Malaysia and is the one and only country in Southeast Asia to have never been colonized. The Kingdom is blessed with a remarkable history and culture, friendly natives who offer friendly service, beautiful national parks, a wide range of accommodation possibilities at every price level and some of the most delicious and extraordinary cuisine and exotic tropical fruits in the world. The riches that Thailand's oceans behold are a delight to those of us that have had the pleasure to dive here.
The Land of Smiles
Often referred to as the "Land of a Thousand Smiles," Thailand offers joyous travel. One of the first Thai phrases travelers learn is mai pen rai which literally translates to "it is nothing." The phrase is used in the same ways that "never mind" or "that's OK" are used in English. However, mai pen rai means more than that; it is almost a philosophy that teaches one to hide problems and keep one's "public face" smiling and happy. It's a phrase used for respect and politeness. For the visitor this attitude creates of feeling of burdens lifted. It makes you feel happy, content and cheerful. While visiting, no one is going to burden you with their problems. While exploring the country you'll feel carefree, lighthearted and safe; you'll feel mai pen rai. No wonder so many of us expatriates have decided to stay, or that Thailand welcomes well over six million visitors every year. For most, your first trip is not your last.
The Land of Isles
Thailand offers the visiting diver diverse undersea experiences along with an unbelievable amount of topside recreation. It's the perfect place for a diving holiday. World-class diving, heavenly tropical islands and immaculate white sand beaches await. With water visibility often exceeding 30m (100ft), an average ocean temperature of 28 to 32ºC (82 to 90ºF), and uncommonly calm sea conditions, Thailand has some of the most comfortable and safe diving, cruising and sailing environments found anywhere in the world.
Thailand is a nation of islands, though most of them are quite small when you compare with other island nations such as Indonesia or the Philippines. Many, like the Similan Islands, are not inhabitable due to lack of fresh water. Others are protected by the government and still others offer accommodation. Some, like Phuket and Koh Samui in some ways feel like a small city they are so modern. Thailand's islands are a bit of a mix; some make you feel as you've stepped back in time so little have they changed, others feel busy and bustling. We have a little bit of everything.
The islands north of Ranong in Myanmar (Burma), or what we call the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago are for the most part only inhabited by small groups of people called Moken or sometimes "Sea Gypsy" or "Chao Lay" in Thai (both terms are considered derogatory by the Moken). The Mergui Archipelago has been effectively closed since WW2 due to the political situation which developed in Burma after the British returned control. But, since 1997, limited marine tourism has been offered there and many of our boats do visit this vast and unpopulated area. Some areas are being fished more as the country modernizes, but this is happening slowly and it's still very easy to get away from people (or boats) in Mergui.
Likewise, the Andaman Islands of India have remained almost untouched since, well, forever. There are still indigenous tribes living in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands who have no contact with the outside world. In fact, contact with most of the tribes is forbidden by the government. There is a population in the Andamans in the capital Port Blair and on some of the islands close to that port, but most of the archipelago is jungle and beach. Much of it is still covered by primary rainforest, a rarity in Asia. We are allowed to visit the Andaman Islands, but the Nicobar Islands are indeed off-limits to almost everyone.
Diving for Miles and Miles
Since Thailand's southern isthmus divides two oceans, you'll be heading south for diving. The best diving takes place along the southwestern shores near the resort areas of Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, Koh Lanta and Phang-nga. The Similan Islands, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands are the top destinations because they offer the best diving. Burma's Mergui Archipelago is included as part of Thailand as the diving is only accessible via Thailand (at Ranong). And, the Andaman Islands, a part of India are included here as well, since several liveaboards depart from Phuket every high season to visit this archipelago. Indeed, there are dive shops in the Andaman Islands at Havelock Island, but there are currently no liveaboards, and the best dive sites are only reached by liveaboard as the distances are great.
The number two spot for the best diving in Thailand is around Koh Phuket or the Phi Phi Islands and to a certain extent Koh Lanta (Trang) and Koh Lipe (near the Malaysian border).
The third best will be the southeastern part of Thailand, including Koh Samui and Koh Tao. (Koh is the word for island in Thai.) These places are fun and there are some good dive sites, but the serious diver will be bored quickly. Technical diving has taken hold in the Gulf with some deep shipwrecks to be found. So far, the best deep wrecks have been found in the Gulf and this makes sense due to historical shipping routes to Bangkok.The Andaman Sea has a few artificial reefs few serious true wreck dives.
The number four spot lies towards the Cambodian border east of Bangkok including Pattaya and Koh Chang. Pattaya is Pattaya and is what it is, but there are some nice wrecks there. Further along the coast toward's Cambodia, Koh Chang has grabbed a few diver's interest.
All three parts of the country offer something interesting, but if you're getting on a plane to come half-way around the world to go scuba diving, then Phuket International Airport should be your destination.
The best diving in Thailand is in the Similan Islands and north of there to the Burmese border. There is no other place in Thailand which offers the diversity of marine life or sheer amount of dive sites. This is a known fact and is not in dispute. Have no illusions: Thailand's industry is well established and prolific.
The area we call the Mergui Archipelago is so huge that there are areas there which are rarely visited. We can't say they are unexplored, but they are not well traveled. The same can be said of India's Andaman Islands. Regular charter boats dive there during the winter months, but to find another dive boat with you at a dive site would be a little bit of a surprise.
Liveaboard Diving: Here Today and Here to Stay
To get the the best dive sites in the Andaman Sea, it is almost always necessary to get there by overnight liveaboard vessel. Although there are plenty of resorts in Thailand at her many islands and beach areas, the best diving is located far offshore and these are best reached by a type of vessel you can sleep on. Yes, some operators have speed boats to get you to some of these places, but the rides are long and bumpy and generally not safe (see the map get an idea of distances) and definitely not recommended. No, liveaboards are the way to dive the best sites, but if you're happy with not getting to the best sites, resort possibilities including Koh Phi Phi and Koh Tao make for a nice compromise between pretty good diving, comfortable accommodation, and fun shore life.
Most liveaboards depart from Phuket or Khao Lak or the harbor of Thap Lamu. These areas are all serviced by Phuket International Airport. All good liveaboards travel at night to get to the destinations; You sleep while we steer.
About the Author
John Williams has written, co-authored, or contributed to four diving guides on Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands. These are the award-winning Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling series, Periplus Editions Diving Southeast Asia, Asian Diver Scuba Guides and Singapore's Times Edition Diving Thailand. He has lived in Phuket and dived in Thailand's waters since 1987.