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Escaping Phuket to discover dreamlike diving in the Similan Islands

Diving Similan Islands, in the Andaman Sea, some of Thailand’s best and most popular scuba diving, but Kara Murphy discovers that the trick is in finding the lesser-known spots, and shares her discoveries with Boat International.

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Having been graciously invited aboard Dunia Baru by owner Mark Robba, alongside my husband and several other guests, we embarked on a voyage spanning two countries. We boarded the yacht in Langkawi, Malaysia, then cruised northwest through the Andaman Sea, pausing for a day alongside Thailand’s Ko Phi-Phi Don and Ko Phi-Phi Leh, two dramatic limestone islands with a particularly lovely bay, which starred in the 2000 adventure film The Beach.

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The Similan Islands (Mu Ko Similan National Park), are a mere 60 nautical miles to the northwest. Their name comes from sembilan, the Yawi or Malay word for nine; when the park was established in 1982, it included nine granite boulder islands, which are often referred to by number: Ko Hu Yong (#1), Ko Pa Yang (#2), Ko Pa Yan (#3), Ko Miang (#4), Ko Ha (#5), Ko Hok (#6), Ko Pa Yu (#7), Ko Similan (#8), and Ko Ba Ngu (#9). Today, the 140-square-kilometer park also includes Ko Bon (#10) and Ko Tachai (#11) to the north. As you’d imagine, their appeal is in the otherworldly scuba diving sites, which are typically blessed with good visibility.

The absolute highlight, Richelieu Rock, is 40 nautical miles to the north. The isolated site isn’t actually part of the Similan Islands (it’s within Mu Ko Surin National Park), but, thanks to its diversity of marine life, it’s considered Thailand’s best dive site, and we wouldn’t dream of missing it.

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We approach at low tide, when the flat, horseshoe-shaped, sedimentary limestone rock’s pinnacle breaks the surface by about a yard. Dreamlike corals in hot pink, steamy red, and royal violet pop out beneath the beam of my dive lights, providing a soft haven for butterfly fish, a rising hawksbill turtle, puffer fish with eyes the size of ping pong balls, anemone fish, cuttlefish and two groupers, while sneaky scorpion fish – a constant reminder to look but not touch – hide within the hues.

When to go: The Similan Islands are open to visitors from November through mid-May each year; they’re closed at other times due to frequent storms, harsh winds, and high waves. December through March offers the best visibility.

Charter: Richeliu Rock Dunia Baru can include the Similan Islands on charters travelling to or from Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago. She sleeps 14 in one master and six guest cabins.

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