Overview – Diving in Thailand
Thailand has long been a favourite destination for travellers and divers from around the world. The diving areas can basically be divided into two distinct zones, the west and east coasts. While both sides share many of the same marine species, each remains unique. Perhaps the best thing about Thai waters, from a diver’s perspective, is the diversity of marine life and submarine scenery. Also, when one coast is in the grips of monsoon season, the other side is calm. So there is always diving to be done.
When to visit?
Ask the locals what the seasons are like in Thailand, and you’ll often hear the same answer. There is hot and wet. And then there is hot and dry.
Monsoons are a seasonal phenomenon that must be taken into consideration when planning your Thai dive holiday. Generally speaking, when one coast of the country is wet with monsoons, the other is dry and awaiting divers. This means there are always excellent sites to visit. With proper planning, you are sure to get to the spots you have heard about, and dreamt about visiting.
The best season for the west coast (Phuket, Andaman, Mergui, etc.) is between October and May. Diving in the Gulf (somewhere) is possible pretty much any time. But the best dives go down from May to October. This is when the west coast is taking a beating from the southwest monsoon. Avoid trips to the gulf from November to April when the northeast monsoon comes marching through, making most sites inaccessible. Many operations shut down all together on the smaller islands.
Where to go?
Seasoned divers usually agree the best diving in Thailand can be found off the west coast. The Andaman Sea is technically a part of the Indian Ocean, and includes more than 150 islands. Many of these are uninhabited. “Chao Ley” translates roughly as “sea gypsies”. These are the original inhabitants in the area, and any communities that you come across in the Andaman will likely be Chao Ley settlements.
Whale Sharks, Mantas, and other large pelagics roam these waters. Liveaboards are the best way to explore the remarkable and remote dive sites in the Andaman. The majority of these leave from Phuket. To the far northwest, you’ll find the Burma Banks, and the Mergui Archipeligo, which crosses into Myanmar territory. There are the Surin and Similan Islands as well. Most liveaboards from Phuket will visit sites here, as well as those further north.
In this area you can expect open ocean seamounts, strong currents, and big shark encounters. If you’re lucky, a gentle giant (Whale Shark) may be passing through. Or a less benign, but equally impressive Tiger Shark or Hammerhead. The unique underwater rock formations and terrain are fascinating. Be aware that many of these sites are not suitable for beginners.
The local sites surrounding Phuket however, are often suitable for divers of all experience levels. Most spots that are visited by day boats lie to the south. The Phi Phi Islands are very popular with snorkelers and day trippers as well as divers. The visibility is usually quite good, however the sites can be crowded, especially during high season. Shark Point and Anemone Reef are an hour or so from Phuket, but well worth the trip.
The islands further south are becoming increasingly popular destinations with visiting divers. These include Koh Lanta and Tarutao, just north of the border with Malaysia. Krabi has many dive shops, smaller resorts, and remains less commercialized when compared to Phuket or Phi Phi.
Dive highlights off the east coast lie in the Gulf of Thailand. You’ll hear “Koh” a lot in Thailand. It simply means island. Koh Tao has several sites that remain spectacular despite their popularity with divers from abroad. Koh Samui has many dive spots and just as much tourist traffic! Whale Sharks are seasonally present in certain parts of the gulf. Impressive coral gardens can be found in many coastal areas off the islands.
There are diving sites that can be visited on day trips from Bangkok. Pattaya is particularly popular. However, it could easily be argued that the bars and nightlife are significantly more interesting then the marine life in the area! If you find yourself in town, it may be worth a day trip or two. If you have come to Thailand primarily for diving, understand Pattaya is primarily about parties. Do not invest any time or money diverting to this corner of the country. There are far superior locations off both coasts.