As soon as I saw photos of Ang Thong National Marine Park, I knew I had to see this archipelago of more than 40 islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Most people who visit Ang Thong do so on day trips from one of the larger islands nearby, and I was no exception, taking an organized excursion from Koh Samui, our home base in Thailand’s Gulf.
Even with a high-speed boat to take us there, the journey to the park from Koh Samui took about an hour, with the scenery growing progressively nicer as we approached the island chain. Our first stop of the day was snorkeling at Koh Wao, a tiny island just outside of the National Park, where the water is supposed to be clearer than it is at the more popular snorkeling locations inside the park.
I have to admit that when I initially jumped in the water, my first thought was that if this was the clear water, I sure wouldn’t want to see the murky water. Still, our time here was far from a waste. Koh Wao has some sea caves, and snorkeling into these – my first time doing that, for all my years of snorkeling – was incredibly cool. The interior of the cave had some interesting marine life, including these giant purple sea sponges.
After our cave tour, our guide led us to a nice coral garden. The water here was clearer than where we’d first jumped in, and although the fish count wasn’t particularly high, I enjoyed floating above the coral arrays and the clusters of anemones, and did spy a few nice fish, including a pair of butterfly fish.
After snorkeling, we loaded back onto the boat and made our way past some beautiful islands into the park itself.
We soon pulled up to a picture perfect beach that was absolutely deserted except for our group.
From here, we launched our kayaks and paddled to an even more deserted beach across the bay. It wasn’t a long kayak excursion – probably no more than half an hour round trip – but it was fun to get an arm workout and see the islands from a slightly different perspective.
We had obviously worked up an appetite after kayaking and when we returned to the beach where we’d launched our kayaks from, the crew prepared us an amazing meal. It might seem surprising that the food was a major highlight of the trip for me, since this kind of boat excursion usually involves pre-packaged snacks that are mediocre at best, but this may actually have been the very best meal I had in Thailand. The food – eggrolls and vegetarian and chicken curries and fried rice dishes, plus fried chicken drumsticks for a taste of home – was delicious, flavorful and served piping hot. Best of all, it was all you could eat, and you better believe this was not the only plate I had.
After some free time on the beach (I was glad I’d brought reading material!), we headed off to Koh Sam Sao, which has a gorgeous beach with a natural rock arch formation.
As lovely as these secluded beaches were, I think my very favorite part of the day was sitting on the bow of the boat after we left Koh Sam Sao, taking in the scenery as we cruised among the islands. I’m always supremely happy on the water, and I really could have stayed there forever (at least if my pale skin hadn’t made me seek out a more shaded spot).
Our final stop of the day was the island with the famous Emerald Lagoon, which we’d bypassed earlier in the day because it was crowded. By this point, the other groups were all gone and we basically had the whole place to ourselves. We climbed up a “staircase” (a bit of a misnomer; it was really more of a ladder and was not fun for my scared-of-heights self), but the panoramic view of the islands from the viewpoint was definitely worth the treacherous climb.
Climbing a bit further, we spied the Emerald Lagoon that inspired Alex Garland’s iconic backpacker novel The Beach. The Leonardo DiCaprio movie based on the book was filmed in Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands (which we visited during the final leg of our trip) but Ang Thong was the setting in the book.
I used 100 Degrees East (the name is a reference to Koh Samui’s longitude) as my operator for this trip, and would recommend them. My only real complaint about the tour is that an advertised stop at an island with wild monkeys was omitted. To be fair, the trip description does make clear that changes to the itinerary may occur based on weather, but when I asked about visiting the monkeys, our guide indicated that they almost never actually make it there (due more to time than weather, it sounded like), and if that’s the case they should really remove it from the description and simply include it as a fun bonus when they do go. Fortunately, I saw wild monkeys several times later on in the Phi Phi Islands, so it was not a huge loss for me personally, but I can imagine being quite disappointed if that had been a major reason for taking the tour. Other than this, though, I was very happy with the trip, and in particular with the professionalism and expertise of the guides. There are cheaper operators on Koh Samui that offer kayaking trips in Ang Thong, but I felt like the small group size (no more than 12 people) and the related tailoring of our itinerary to avoid crowds (as well as the terrific food) were worth the added cost.