Despite its ever-increasing popularity, there are still less obvious sources of paradise in Thailand. Here, I reflect on a trip to Ang Thong National Park…

Searching for Paradise

A day in Ang Thong National Park

Situated in the Gulf of Thailand, to the east of the ever popular islands of Ko Pha Nagn and Koh Samui, lies a small slice of paradise. Established as a marine national park in 1980, Ang Thong National Park is a pristine archipelago of 42 islands covering 102 km² of land and sea.
I was staying on Koh Samui, where I’d spent 3 days scuba diving. Diving completed, I had a spare day before I flew back to Singapore.
 
If you’ve read Alex Garland’s excellent novel, The Beach, you’ll know that it is set in Ang Thong National Park. Anyway, I’d read the book a couple of years earlier and enjoyed it. Given that Ang Thong was only an hour away by boat, I figured it would be quite rude for me not to go and see it for myself. 

A slice of sand amongst the blue and green

There are a whole host of companies who run day tours out to Ang Thong. Due to their positive TripAdvisor reviews, I opted for 100 Degrees East Diving Company. It was an inspired decision: not only was the group small, but the itinerary was such that we missed all the crowds.
 
That morning I strolled on down to 100 Degrees East. After coffee and introductions we hopped onto the speedboat. We were soon on our way, racing across the azure Gulf of Thailand.

A colourful boat glides across the calm waters in the Gulf of Thailand

An hour later we arrived at the northern boundary of the park. The first activity was snorkelling and making acquaintance with the abundant marine life. Mask and snorkel in place, I plunged into the water. Below the surface the visibility was supreme. Schools of multicoloured fish darted about; their numbers matching anything I had seen when scuba diving off Ko Tao.
 
The sun warming our backs, we swam leisurely. Exploring the gaps between limestone outcroppings. Swimming through a submerged archway. Diving down to see the coral and fish close up. A great start to the day!

Below, King Kong and Killer Whale Islands

We clambered back aboard the boat and continued into the heart of the park, slaloming through the islands and rock outcroppings. Over the millennia, the elements have shaped some of the islands to resemble animals and human faces.

Our boat dropped anchor in the bay on the north shore of Sam Sao, one of the larger islands in the archipelago. The impeccable timings of the tour gave us the island to ourselves, which is impressive in such a popular tourist destination. I took a stroll to the far end of the beach to take a couple of photos. It was serene; the soft lapping of the waves at my feet and the gentle, accompanying breeze. For a second it felt like I had the place to myself. Everything else ceased to exist.

Various views on the island of Sam Sao

If you do visit Angthong, be sure to hike up to the viewing platform on Sam Sao. It’s a 15-20 minute hike through forest; Indiana Jones for beginners. Away from the beach’s cooling breeze it was hot and sticky. Despite it being a short (although relatively steep) hike, my clothes were stuck to me by the time we reached the top. It was the kind of heat that gets to the backs of your knees, the small of your back. But enough about the state of my sweaty self. The panorama afforded from the viewing point was breathtaking: the pristine archipelago surrounded by vivid blue for as far as the eye can see.

Instagrammable (the view that is)

A few of us hopped into kayaks and went off in search of a secret breach, unaccessible from the land. A rope swing hung from the trees above: the stereotypical photo opportunity to sit on a swing and stare witsfully into the distance. I am definitely more comfortable behind the camera, but at least this kind of photo shows off my good side!

I won the race back to the north shore*. Once back, we sat on the beach and tucked into a delicious Thai curry for lunch. *disclaimer, I’m not sure anybody else realised that it was a race, but you gotta take those small victories. Am I right?

The final stop of a very enjoyable day was Mae Koh Island, home of the emerald lake. Again, the itinerary was such that we had the place to ourselves. As we arrived, a much larger tour group was leaving. Talk about timing!

The Emerald Lake

For the best views of the lake, it was time for another uphill hike.  Depending on your fitness levels, the steep ascent takes in the region of 20-30 minutes. My competitive edge was back and I jogged up to the view point to be the first one to see the lake. 
 
The lake is actually a lagoon, connected to the sea by an underground passageway. Its emerald waters were dead still and surrounded by steep limestone karst walls. A view of tranquility.
And Thong’s paradise is not a secret, only discoverable through word of mouth and a hand drawn map, like the Beach. What it did provide was an escape. It was a little piece of paradise for the day.
 
If you are visiting Koh Samui or its neighbouring islands, then I would definitely suggest a jaunt over to Ang Thong. It’s one of the memories I ave from Thailand which has stayed with me the most.

By CHRIS BURCHILL

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