World-class diving in an unspoiled paradise

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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 Islands.

A group of nine uninhabited islands in the Andaman Sea, the Similans are protected as a national marine park.

World-class diving can be found in the unspoiled waters of the Similan Islands. 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 underside.

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 be comfortable.

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 [011] 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 Phuket.

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 face.

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 our canoe).

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, Thailand
Phone: (011) 66-76 285-211
Fax: (011) 66-76 285-210
Web:www.tropicalphuketresort.com
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%
Rooms: 200
Amenities: Air conditioning, private terraces, satellite TV, minibars, safes.
Services: Internet connection, room service, tour counter, baby-sitting, laundry, massage, restaurants, bars, pools.
Noteworthy: Location. The hotel is set on the side of a hill, which provides a great view, still close to the beach.
Not worthy: Location. The other side of the coin: being on the hill means a long climb and elevator ride to guest rooms.

Sales pitch

• 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 possible.

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