Thailand has miles of coastline along two oceans and hundreds of islands dotting those coasts, and visiting an island or two or ten should be on everyone’s itinerary for this country. Luckily, you don’t have to be choosy. Although only a handful of the islands have airports, many of them are clustered together and if you take to the water you can easily see several in a single day. One particularly popular route is a day trip to Koh Tao and its tiny sister island Koh Nang Yuan from the major hub of Koh Samui.
Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan reportedly once had some of the best snorkeling in the world, but tourism here has exploded in recent years and the consensus is that the underwater world isn’t what it once was. Before our visit, I’d read a lot about how crowded these islands are and how bleached the coral is and had prepared myself for disappointing wildlife and more human fins than fish fins. Perhaps it was partly because of my low expectations, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the snorkeling on these twin islands. I’m not sure I would put either of them on the short list of the best places I’ve ever snorkeled, but the snorkeling here was very nice and certainly the best I found in Thailand (which is admittedly kind of a low bar). Our first stop was Mango Bay on Koh Tao, a beautiful area with crystal clear water and a pretty wide assortment of brightly-colored tropical fish, including a couple of friendly blue-barred parrotfish. We also got very lucky in that even though we came over from Koh Samui on a ferry that must have held at least 200 people, only a handful of us were on the snorkeling excursion that went to Mango Bay (everyone else had just bought a ticket to spend the day on Koh Nang Yuan), which meant that the snorkeling here was actually some of the least crowded I’ve ever experienced. At one point, my husband and I were the only two people in the water. You can’t beat that.
Mango Bay itself was beautiful as well. I was so busy snapping photos underwater that I didn’t do the surface scenery justice with my camera, but the turquoise water and rock formations made a stunning combination.
I could have stayed here all day, but we had to leave and re-join the masses on Koh Nang Yuan. Nang Yuan is home to two main attractions: the snorkeling, especially in the area known as the Japanese Gardens, and an overlook with a view that is one of the most photographed in Thailand. Since we had already snorkeled at Koh Tao, we opted to climb to the overlook first, although luckily we ended up having more than enough time to do both activities. The climb was short and not as strenuous as I expected, and the view from the top was completely worth it.
When I first caught a glimpse of the Japanese Gardens snorkeling area, I groaned inwardly. The water was filled with bodies and bright orange life jackets, and I thought I had finally found the reason so many people complain about the crowds here. Fortunately, most of the people in water were novice snorkelers and stuck pretty close to the shore, where there isn’t much coral anyway. It was a bit of a swim, but I made it past all the crowds to an area with some really nice fish. If anything, I think the variety and quantity of the fish were even better here than on Koh Tao, but the water was a tad murkier.
Even though Koh Samui was our home base in the Gulf of Thailand, we didn’t see the island in as much depth as I would have liked. Partly this is because we spent a good portion of our time visiting other islands – the aforementioned Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan, as well as the islands in Ang Thong National Park – but it was also because our hotel was up a steep hill and nowhere near a town. The view from our villa was awesome, as was the private infinity pool, but if I had it to do over again I would probably choose to stay somewhere less remote, if only so we could leave the hotel for meals (the limited food at the hotel restaurant got very old very quickly).
Our exploration of Koh Samui basically consisted of going to Coral Cove, the beach right at the base of our hotel (which we could actually see from our room). In general, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the beaches in the Gulf of Thailand. They tend to be pebbly underfoot, and Coral Cove is no exception. But this beach was pretty much deserted every time we went there, which was a welcome change from the crowds we had encountered in many other parts of Thailand, and we enjoyed swimming in the shallow, warm water.
Up next: our final destination in Thailand, the beautiful islands of the Andaman Sea!