ome travelers to Thailand avoid Phuket
like the plague. It's too touristy, too overdeveloped, they say.
While Phuket is certainly one of the busiest destinations in
Thailand, it's also a gateway to incredible natural playgrounds in
the Andaman Sea and Phang Nga Bay.
Diving is, in fact, the most popular activity on Phuket, as
evidenced by the multitude of dive shops on the island.
There are good places to dive just offshore, but the world-class
sites are about 60 miles northwest of Phuket, in the Similan
A group of nine uninhabited islands in the Andaman Sea, the
Similans are protected as a national marine park.
Jacques Cousteau ranked them among the world's top 10 dive
destinations. Because of the Similans' distance from land, divers
visit these islands most often on multiday dive cruises.
Most of these "live-aboard" trips depart from Patong, on the
western side of Phuket.
My four-day/four-night trip aboard the Atlantis 2000 was
spectacular. The fish are so vibrant in the Similans that I spent
nearly all of my time between dives poring over picture books,
trying to determine which species I'd just encountered.
However, I needed no help identifying the manta ray I saw on our
third day. About 12 feet from wingtip to wingtip, the manta circled
slowly above me, enjoying the tickle of my air bubbles on his white
Onboard Atlantis 2000
Although it felt as though I'd spent most of my trip under
water, I actually spent 20 hours a day on the boat. When you spend
so much time in such a small space, it's important that the space
The Atlantis 2000 is just that. It's a modern boat capable of
taking 14 divers who share two-person, air-conditioned cabins.
There are sun and shade decks, although the stern area where divers
gear up often felt crowded.
For meals, we chose from a menu that included both Thai and
Western food, although the only dish that was tasty enough to order
twice was the green curry with vegetables.
As with every destination, there is a downside. Here, it's the
islands' popularity. We made only two dives (out of 14) in which we
were the only boat at the dive site; otherwise, the sites were
overcrowded, a problem made worse by the truncated diving season.
From June to October, the seas are too rough to dive.
The Atlantis 2000 is one of several boats operated by Calypso
Divers, which will pay U.S. agents 20% commission on bookings.
(Contact: phone/fax at  66-76-330-869; e-mail, [email protected]., or www.calypsophuket.com on the Web.)
Hanging out at the hongs
The adventure doesn't have to end when the dive boat returns to
Phang Nga Bay, just northeast of Phuket, is a stunning sight
above the water. Here, thousands of limestone pinnacles pierce the
ocean surface. Some are large enough to be small islands. Rain and
ocean waves have eroded the rock into fantastic shapes. In some
places, the erosion process has created caves, called hongs
("rooms" in Thai) that are accessible only at low tide.
Visiting the hongs was the highlight of my trip to Phang Nga
Bay. It was thrilling to lie flat in my inflatable canoe as the
guide paddled us beneath stalactites that hung within inches of my
One of the hongs I entered was filled with bats, while another
served as a secret passage to a saltwater lagoon in the center of
the island. Open to the sky but surrounded by high limestone walls,
the lagoon was a tropical paradise, with birds, monkeys and small
fish darting among the mangrove trees.
I toured Phang Nga with Sea Canoe Thailand, one of the oldest
operators at Phang Nga. Because the bay is mostly uninhabited by
humans, the wildlife is thriving. All of Sea Canoe Thailand's
guides have some naturalist training, and they are experts at
spotting animals I would have otherwise overlooked (like the
poisonous snake that slipped into the water just a few feet from
Besides their wildlife expertise, Sea Canoe Thailand offers a
culinary plus: great coffee, made from locally grown beans and
brewed fresh throughout the tour. (After weeks of drinking instant
Nescafe -- the most common "coffee" in Thailand -- it was wonderful
to find real coffee again.)
After my day at Phang Nga, I returned to the Tropical Garden
Resort, in Phuket's Kata Beach area. Patong, where the dive boats
depart, is the center of tourist activity in Phuket, especially for
those looking to party. Kata, on the other hand, is home to quiet
resorts and a lovely beach. It's a good place to unwind and rest
between Phuket adventures.
Room Key: Tropical Garden Resort
Address: 247 Koktanode Road, Kata Beach, Phuket 83100,
Phone: (011) 66-76 285-211
Fax: (011) 66-76 285-210
Rates: $59 to $95, depending on the number of
occupants and the season. High season runs November to April.
Commission: Ranges from 5% to 10%
Amenities: Air conditioning, private terraces,
satellite TV, minibars, safes.
Services: Internet connection, room service, tour
counter, baby-sitting, laundry, massage, restaurants, bars,
Noteworthy: Location. The hotel is set on the side
of a hill, which provides a great view, still close to the
Not worthy: Location. The other side of the coin:
being on the hill means a long climb and elevator ride to guest
• Check your records for clients who list diving among their
favorite vacation activities. If they've never been to the
Similans, tell them manta rays and whale sharks, rare sights in
most of the rest of the world, make regular visits to dive sites
here. (I spent two years as a dive instructor in the Caribbean and
never saw a manta ray.)
• Let them know they'll get more dives for their money here. The
ocean temperature, about 86 degrees, makes four dives a day