The Best SCUBA Diving in Thailand
Thailand is world renowned for being a budget divers paradise and the mecca of obtaining dive certifications without going completely broke.
While thousands of dive enthusiasts and novices flock to Thailand each year, not all SCUBA diving in this tropical paradise is created equal.
Do a quick Google search for Scuba diving in Thailand and you will see heaps of articles about diving Koh Tao. Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tao is a hugely popular area for
drunk 21-year-olds new divers.
All the dive sites are just a short boat ride from shore and there are dozens of dive shops all over the island to choose from (and twice as many bars and clubs). Because of the competition, getting dive certifications on Koh Tao is ridiculously cheap.
But if you've been diving for more than a few years you will likely notice that the dive sites off Koh Tao leave you wanting more.
Lots of shallow, sandy bottoms make it a perfect area for beginners though. And because there are so many beginners still learning the fine art of buoyancy control, there's quite a bit of damage to the coral. But hey, sometimes there are whale shark sightings, and Koh Tao is a seriously fun place to spend your surface time (proof: video of us celebrating the Thai New Year there!)
If you dig a little deeper in your Google search though, you will see information about diving the Similan and Surin National Parks of the Andaman Sea off the western coast of Thailand.
These remote dive sites can be accessed from a town called Khao Lak (pronounced Cow Lack). In this area, there are also dozens of dive operators offering local day trips. But this is where you will find the live aboard SCUBA trip options, where dive shops take adventure seekers further out to sea to dive and explore the islands for days on end.
The Similans are a group of eleven islands located about 40 miles off the coast of Khao Lak. Go another 60 miles north from there and you'll find the five Surin Islands.
It's at these special islands where most of the SCUBA magic happens in Thailand (but only from October through May, as the government closes them down during monsoon season to protect the fragile nature reserve.)
SCUBA Diving the Similan & Surin Islands
There's something special about the Surin Islands. On our first dive of the seven-day trip we did on our honeymoon, we were approached by a whale shark and some manta rays. It's rare to see two of the ocean's most peaceful giants in one dive, but we got lucky.
By dives two and three that day, I didn't even notice the coral or small fish because we were surrounded by manta rays and several schools of large fish swimming in circles around us. These huge, colorful fish were so abundant it gave me the sensation that I was
on drugs in another world altogether.
READ MORE: Weird Sh#t You See in Thailand
The world famous Richelieu Rock, discovered by Jacques-Cousteau, is part of this protected tropical archipelago. We did two dives in the clear water here, exploring the purple coral reefs where triggerfish and eel like to play.
Our first two days at the Similan Islands brought us turtle sightings, eagle rays, and several octopuses wandering about. But once we got to Koh Techai (Batfish Rock) we were back in manta heaven.
I don't know about you, but swimming with manta rays is the most soul-soothing, yet exhilarating experience I've ever had, and I've only seen them one other time when we were diving in Bali.
These two dives at Koh Techai were the kind of diving where you just sit still for 45 minutes and allow the mantas to circle all around you. What a magical experience to watch them gliding through the water, curiously approaching the divers, swooping down to graze the bubbles and quickly turning to swim back up and around again, pass after pass.
This trip was right in the middle of March, which I'm told is the best time of year to see the large animals in the Andaman Sea. But even if you don't get as lucky as we did with the mantas, the excellent visibility, plethora of colorful life, and abundance of other sea creatures, makes the Similans and Surins a world class dive area, and hands-down the best place to dive in Thailand.
What it's like on a SCUBA Live Aboard boat
Last year, we did our second SCUBA live aboard excursion with our favorite dive company Sea Dragon Dive Center (more about them in the next section.) We chose a 7 day itinerary that was broken down into a three day trip to the Surins, followed by a four-day trip to the Similans. We got to see it all!
Only a handful of other people did both trips in this time frame, so we were joined by a new group of people on the boat half way through, which was super fun!
Nick and I opted for the private double room, in which I usually slept alone at night because he couldn't get enough of rocking peacefully to sleep in the hammocks on the top deck (can you blame him?)
I'm usually all about saving money while traveling, but since it was only a small fee to upgrade to a private room for the seven days, we splurged in order to have some privacy. #worthit
Some days we did three dives, some we did two, and some days we had the opportunity to make a fourth dive at night. Every day we were always with the same awesome dive guide. This was nice because it gave us the opportunity to get to know each other's diving styles and personalities.
READ MORE: How to NOT Ruin Your Trip to Thailand
Each morning we got up for the dive briefing and hit the water first thing. I can't think of a better way to wake up than
a strong cup of coffee swimming around with massive manta rays early in the morning.
After the morning dives each day, the community-style breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, fruit, bacon, toast, and an assortment of other fresh food was always delicious (and nap-inducing).
Lunch and dinner gave us new foods each day, and there was always plenty to go around. On the final day of each individual trip, we had a barbecue of fresh fish on the top-deck complete with Sea Dragon's signature rum punch.
Between dives, we either rested, snacked (or both!) or got the opportunity to explore the nearest island.
One afternoon we were taken to one of the Surin islands and snorkeled in the bright turquoise water all the way around the perimeter of the white sand beach, finding secret spots with rope swings and little shady hideaways.
Another day we were taken to the largest of the Similan Islands where we got to hike up a massive rock formation to a lookout point with the view of a lifetime.
How to get to the Similan & Surin Islands
The best place to begin your Similan or Surin SCUBA adventure is from Khao Lak, conveniently located only 46 miles north of the Phuket International Airport.
Khao Lak is actually a series of towns sprawled along a major transit highway, nestled beside a gorgeous stretch of coastline. There are plenty of upscale beach resorts as well as budget-friendly accommodations to choose from, depending on how much Thai Baht you are willing to spend.
We've been to Khao Lak on two different trips now, and don't recommend extending your stay there. It's become rather touristy and we feel there are much better places to spend your on-shore time in Thailand.
You're better off planning for as little time as possible in the town before and after your live aboard dive trip. In other words, get in, go diving, and get out. If you want to book your brief stay ahead of time, Hotels Combined has incredible deals on nearly 200 hotels in Khao Lak.
If you absolutely must be in Khao Lak an extra day, please make it a point to visit the International Tsunami Museum. Khao Lak was one of the worst hit areas in the devastating 2004 Tsunami that was triggered by a 9.1 earthquake in Indonesia.
The measly 100THB ($3.00) entrance fee goes to help victims of the tragedy, and you will leave with a newfound respect for the resiliency of this beautiful culture.
The Best SCUBA Live Aboard Company in Thailand
Simply put, we can only recommend diving with Sea Dragon Dive Center. Both times we dove in Thailand, there was no question about which dive shop we would choose.
Sea Dragon has been running dive trips from Khao Lak for 23 years and is the most reputable company in town. (Disclaimer: this is not a sponsored post. We paid full price to dive with Sea Dragon.)
One thing we love about Sea Dragon is they own two live aboard boats, which means you will never be brokered out to some other companies boat by surprise.
Their two vessels, the M/V Andaman and the M/V Nangnuan (I have no idea what M/V means!) offer two completely different experiences, the latter being extremely budget-friendly. Sea Dragon makes having a live aboard experience accessible to just about everyone.
In order to join one of the live aboard dive safaris, you need to be certified at the Advanced diver level. But not to worry, they have courses for every single dive certification available. We did our Advanced Open Water Diver course with them in order to do the live aboard and it was very affordable.
Sea Dragon offers a variety of dive itineraries. Because there are so many sites to dive and islands to sunbathe on, they have three day, four day, and seven day trips available, with the option to seamlessly combine them as you wish. Here's their schedule page.
Being a double amputee means Nick needs a little more assistance getting in and out of the water than the average diver. The Sea Dragon boat crew went above and beyond to ensure Nicks comfort and safety before, during, and after each dive.
The thing is, the Sea Dragon staff does this for everyone. There's no skimping on service, despite being incredibly affordable.
We also felt safe diving with them which is always my number one concern overseas. Their attention to detail during the dive briefings was greater than any company I've ever dove with. They do fun little drawings of each dive site, explain all the rules and expectations very clearly without rushing, and treat each diver with respect no matter their experience level.
Become a better traveler: Subscribe to our Monthly Newsletter!