There’s a good reason why 18 million visitors flock to Thailand every year. The dynamic country seduces with ancient temples, lush jungles, sublime islands, a world-renowned market scene and remarkable food culture. But deep within its crystal-clear waters, it’s a whole other world where vibrant marine life and underwater attractions are unrivaled in Southeast Asia. Plenty of alluring dive sites sprawl across the Andaman Sea for seasoned divers, and the underwater hot spot is also a big draw for scuba beginners, thanks to expert dive programs and easy access to open waters. There’s no better time to visit than now (until April) while the waters are at their calmest. Here are our favorite places to gear up (and get certified for beginners) in Thailand’s unforgettable subsea paradise.
The beautiful island of Koh Samui may be less traveled than Phuket when it comes to diving, but it packs a big punch with its two main dive destinations in the Gulf of Thailand and, best of all, feels more intimate with fewer crowds. Just fifty minutes by speedboat, Sail Rock is a favorite spot for beginners and experienced divers alike. The rock wall descends 130 feet but even at depths of 20 feet, divers rejoice in the stunning visuals. Sail Rock is famous for whale sharks, a massive species (thankfully vegetarian!) that are can by very elusive. Divers can also explore a community of barracuda, yellow fusiliers, jackfish, grouper and other exotic fish. Closer to shore is Chumporn Pinnacle, a seven-minute boat ride away, which is unanimously considered the throne of Koh Samui dives. The site comprises four commanding, underwater pinnacles with depths of up to 120 feet. The clarity of the water here is unbeatable. For beginners looking to get PADI certified in open waters, the environmentally friendly The Dive Academy reigns as the top dive center on the island.
Where to stay in Koh Samui
Phuket is a one-stop destination for travelers to Thailand. It offers gorgeous, white-sand beaches, cultural sites, historic attractions, buzzing nightlife, excellent fine dining and, thankfully, some killer dive spots close to shore, like the Andaman Islands and Koh Dok Mai. Phuket is a boon for beginners, as many dive spots are newbie-friendly. The vibrant ecosystem at Anemone Reef in the Andaman Islands (visibility up to 80 feet) is packed with sea anenomes, oyster shells, scattered coral and a constant parade of large game fish like tuna and barracuda. It’s also famous for its array of lionfish, one of the most unique looking fish on the planet. Koh Dok Mai offers a sheer rock wall straight down to the sea floor with underwater cliffs and caves graced with plentiful soft coral and even rare sea horses. For beginners, Phuket offers more than 50 dive shops with three and four day courses in getting PADI certified. Aussie Divers Phuket is one of the most touted dive centers in Phuket, offering safe, comprehensive and friendly diver education.
Where to stay in Phuket
There’s no debate that the Similan Islands stand out as one of the ultimate diving spots in Thailand, and some would agree it’s one of the best locations in the world. Gorgeous topography already sets the stage for impressive diving within the intimate collection of 9 islands in the Andaman Sea – just 50 miles north of Phuket – and two distinctive dive spots in this nationally protected marine park are the prized gems. The islands are just 8 degrees north of the equator, so the tropical climate and visibility is unrivaled. Most divers make a beeline to Elephant Head Rock (named after the rock that protrudes from the water resembling a – wait for it – elephant head). A beautiful variety of marine life is on show here, from large grouper and turtles to reef sharks. Another divers’ favorite, West of Six flaunts excellent and colorful landscapes with some shallow coral coverage so beginner divers can be dazzled without going too deep. Typical sightings include barracuda and octopus among more unusual creatures.
There’s never a dull moment at Richelieu Rock, an underwater Disneyland for dive enthusiasts, which makes it the most famous and visited dive spot in Thailand. First discovered by legendary sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, the bright coral here is extremely attractive, macro life (like shrimps and ghost pipefish) is abundant, limestone boulders and the central spire provide scenic backdrops and it’s chock-full of unique marine life (popular sightings include manta rays and whale sharks). Richelieu Rock is about two hours from Phuket (depending on the type of boating transportation) but most visitors opt for a whole-day trip aboard a luxury cruiser for an unforgettable experience.