THE WEST
SIMILAN ISLANDS

Located high on the west coast of Thailand, the Similan Islands are not to be missed. Listening to a briefing on our first trip, I asked the Thai Divemaster what we were likely to see on the dive. Oh, we will see the yellow ornate ghost pipefish, harlequin shrimps, then the red ornate ghost pipefish. Then two seahorses, probably a turtle and, if were lucky, a whale shark.
Yeah right, I thought. Lost in translation. However, we did see all of the above, and much more! I was a Similan convert.
We left from Tublamu Pier near Khao Lak, a small town on the coast 2.5 hours north of Phuket, on the Wicked Witch, a boat owned by the English-run Sea King Diving. The Witch is a purpose-built dive-boat that can take up to 24 divers. Accommodation is basic but good - Arctic air-con if you need it, comfy beds and blasting hot water showers.
Food is fantastic, with a varying menu of Western and Thai food at regular intervals. Toast, soft drinks and biscuits are available 24 hours a day - make yourself popular with the English staff by bringing a pot of the impossible-to-get-in-Thailand Marmite to share on the trip.
Highlights of the trip included East and West of Eden on the southernmost Island 7, where we were treated to turtles, schools of yellowfin snapper, pineapple nudibranchs, giant moray eels being cleaned by shrimps perched precariously near their sharp teeth, coral crabs and spectacular fan and staghorn corals. And that was just before lunch.
Anitas Reef between Islands 5 and 6 is made up of giant boulders, seemingly dropped at random in a pile by a playful giant. Here we discovered leopard sharks, more turtles, beautiful nudibranchs and exciting swims through tunnels between the boulders.
Night dives revealed crustaceans galore - big red crabs, tiny dancing Durban shrimps, coral and hermit crabs. parrotfish snoozing in the reef and turtles dozing on the sand.
My favourite aspect of the night diving (and it has to be good to keep me from drinking beer for those extra hours waiting for it to get dark) is the prolific phosphorescence in Thai waters.
Waving your hands results in clouds of fairy dust appearing from your very fingers, and following your buddys fins treats you to an almost pyrotechnic display of green sparks around the feet.
One of my favourite sites was Elephant Head Rock, named after the part of the site that breaches the surface. Below the water, this mass of huge boulders and smaller rocks piled together is something of a maze.
Our trusty guide carefully showed us through all the swim-throughs, navigating with ease.
We saw some beautiful nudibranchs, rare soft-coral crabs and a few baby whitetip reef sharks snoozing under an overhang. This site also makes a great night dive for advanced divers.
Tied in first place for favourite Similan sites are Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock. On my three trips to the Similans I have failed to see manta rays only once on Koh Bon and on that dive I saw nine leopard sharks, which was fair compensation!
Koh Bon is a pointed headland, and it is at the point and along the walls that the mantas cruise around.
They are very friendly - often two or three will buzz divers, swooping towards and over you like giant birds. One of the best ways to see them is to hang in the blue at around 10m and wait.
Once you have seen one, more seem to come, sometimes closer than you want. My husband Adam was hit in the neck by one that must have miscalculated its wingspan as it glided past. Both parties got quite a shock!
And onto Richelieu Rock. There is only one problem with this dive site - the impossibility for photographers with a digital SLR camera to decide which lens to take. Wide angle for the whale sharks, mantas and amazing soft coral landscape - or macro for the ornate ghost pipefish, harlequin shrimp, seahorses and peacock mantis shrimps
I offer no advice here, because whichever lens I pick, it is always the wrong one.
Richelieu Rock is a horseshoe-shaped rock that just breaches the surface, and is covered in all manner of soft and hard corals, anemones, fan corals - you name it. If you enjoy diversity of marine life, you wont be disappointed.
The divemasters seem to know every nook and cranny of the site, and are keen to show you all it has to offer.
Most trips to the Similans consist of four nights and up to 14 dives. Transfers to the pier are usually included in the cost. Get one that goes all the way north to Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock. If pushed for time you can do shorter trips, but dont miss Richelieu.

SOUTH-WEST ISLANDS
Head south-west to the islands of Koh Lanta and Phi Phi to find some of the best diving in Thailand. The sites reached from these islands rival those
of the Similans, and the scenery of the limestone karst desert islands jutting from the Andaman Sea is stunning.
Top of the list are Hin Daeng (Red Rock) and Hin Muang (Purple Rock). Youll see the reason for these names as soon as you see the soft corals adorning these two huge pinnacles.
Rising from 60m, Hin Daeng just breaches the surface while Hin Muang, 150m north, is submerged. This site is best known for mantas and whale sharks, but dont let that blind you to its terrific corals and other marine life.
You can see ribbon eels, peacock mantis shrimp, many species of anemonefish, huge schools of barracuda and snapper, scorpionfish galore, and lots of weird and wonderful crustaceans, such as ornate spiny lobsters and cleaner shrimp. Both pinnacles are in the open ocean with no land in sight and are subject to strong currents, hence the mantas, so are for advanced divers only.
A big boat takes nearly four hours to get there but a speedboat will have you in the water in an hour. Cost is similar, so its up to your personal preference.
Big boats give you room to walk around and enjoy the sunshine or a snooze, while speedboats tend to be a little cramped and noisy but get you there and back hours before the big boats do!
My favourite diving from Koh Lanta is Koh Haa. Twelve miles west of Lanta, the name translates as Five Islands - which is odd, as there are six!
Koh Haa is a shallow lagoon surrounded by these islands, with a small beach on the largest. The lagoon is small enough to swim across, and great for snorkelling or diving, as it is covered with small pinnacles, huge porite corals and table corals, and white sandy patches populated by blue-spotted rays, and sometimes even sea-moths.
My preferences here are Koh Haa Yai, where you can swim into a huge cavern for your safety stop and surface in the darkened cave to hear your voice echoing around, and shine your torch to see bats nesting in the high roof.
The walls of the cavern are also good for spotting multi-coloured spiny lobsters and small cleaner shrimp. Outside the cave is a gently sloping wall with large pinnacles where you can find lots of good macro life such as shrimps, nudibranchs, lionfish and scorpionfish.
You can also see large schools of glassfish around the pinnacles, undulating in the current as they are occasionally picked off by hungry cornetfish. I saw my first whale shark here, so its hard not to like this site.
Koh Haa 6 is a large pinnacle, joined to Koh Haa 5 by a shoulder at around 14m. It is essentially a wall dive, as you gradually make your way around the pinnacle and over the shoulder. The pinnacle walls are covered in a huge variety of corals; huge gorgonian fans, soft corals, fire corals and acropora are all present in rainbow hues.
Look out for ghost pipefish, harlequin shrimp, bubble coral shrimp and peacock mantis shrimp among others in the crevices. On the shoulder are whip and fan corals, as well as schools of baby barracuda or yellow snapper.

KOH PHI PHI, KOH BIDA
Koh Phi Phi sky-rocketed to fame after the release of Hollywood blockbuster The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Its Maya Bay was the set for the paradise beach, and it is impressive - if you can see past the dozens of speedboats haemorrhaging Speedo-clad tourists onto the white sand.
We headed to Phalong Wall and were rewarded with a school of cuttlefish and several blacktip reef sharks. Viking Cave is also worth a look.
Koh Bida consists of two small rocky islands, Bida Nok and Bida Nai, both home to leopard sharks, octopus, cuttlefish, ghostpipefish, seahorses and much more. You will be led through exciting swim-throughs, see banded sea snakes, and it is not uncommon to spot schools of baby blacktip sharks.
Koh Bida is known locally as the place to see leopard sharks. These are among the most docile (or lazy) sharks youll see, allowing you to get incredibly close to them.

KING CRUISER WRECK
One of those sites that is either fantastic or just OK, depending on conditions, this one is well worth a trip if you are into your wrecks, and is often combined with a reef dive. The King Cruiser car ferry operated between Phuket and Phi Phi until it ran onto Anemone Reef in 1997, the huge hole in the hull causing her to sink in only 17 minutes. All 561 passengers were rescued.
The King Cruiser lies upright in 30m, is home to many fish and is rapidly becoming a fully fledged coral reef. Enjoy glassfish, schools of snapper and colourful sponges as you make your way around the wreck, though visibility can sometimes be poor.
All these sites can be explored from Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang or Koh Lanta, but which to choose as a base Diving on Phi Phi is a little cheaper than Lanta, but accommodation is far more expensive, and the island does feel very touristy. Ao Nang is a picturesque beach with a lively beachfront of shops, unfortunately complete with Burger King and McDonalds.
Phuket is the largest island, but travel and accommodation can be expensive, and there is a certain amount of sleaze factor in areas. Koh Lanta is more laid-back and has great beaches and a good selection of dive centres and range of accommodation, but less late-night life than Phuket and Phi Phi.
If pushed for time, a liveaboard may be ideal for you. These are available from Phuket, Phi Phi and Lanta.

THE EAST
To the east, the Gulf of Thailand offers very different diving to the Andaman Sea and, if its less spectacular, there are still a lot of interesting sites. Head to Koh Tao and Koh Phangan for beautiful pinnacle sites adorned with interesting macro life and frequented by sharks.

KOH TAO, KOH PHANGAN
The three premier dive sites in this area are Chumphon Pinnacle, South-west Pinnacle and Sail Rock. From Koh Tao you can visit all three, though Sail Rock is also accessible from Koh Phangan.
I recommend diving Chumphon and South-west from Tao, then Sail Rock from Phangan, a larger island that offers more opportunities for above-water exploration.
Chumphon is about six miles north-west of Koh Tao. This rocky pinnacle has colourful corals to admire and a great variety of macro life as well as
big stuff.
Whale shark sightings are common throughout the year, and in March this year minke whales were also spotted.
South-west Pinnacle is in that direction from Koh Tao and is one large pinnacle flanked by smaller coral outcrops. Expect a good variety of hard corals, lots of anemones with resident clownfish, and interesting nudibranchs.
Sail Rock is generally written up in guide-books as the top dive site in the Gulf of Thailand. A granite pinnacle rising 15m above the surface, it has little in terms of soft coral, but abundant hard corals and a great variety of marine life.
Enjoy searching for octopus and shy moray eels in small tunnels in the rock, and spotting tiny cleaner shrimps in the huge undulating anemones.
Schools of barracuda, batfish and mackerel swirl around the pinnacle in the blue, and you have a good chance of seeing whale sharks in the winter months. One of the major attractions is the vertical chimney. You can ascend from 18 to 6m, peering out of the windows at 12 and 14m on your way.

THAI LIFE
Thailand offers year-round diving, although at certain times specific areas may be subject to rough seas or rain. Generally the west coast is best from October to April, and the Gulf is better from April to October. That said, both sides will offer diving year-round, so just check with the dive centre beforehand and take into account the fact that some days conditions may rule out diving. The air is always hot and humid, even in the evenings, so leave the jeans at home.
The water is often a balmy 29°C, so you can ditch the wetsuit and go with shorts and a rash vest or a shortie if you want, though some divers feel more comfortable in thin full-length wetsuits.
Thailand is subject to tides, so there can be a certain amount of surge when diving. Visibility on the west is excellent, generally 20-25m though variable. In the Gulf it is a little more variable, but generally good at the offshore sites.
Buy a Thai Pay As You Go sim card for your phone. They cost only around £1, credit is cheap and they are available from all 7/11 stores. You can easily book accommodation and diving by phone, store the numbers of taxi-drivers (and dive instructors) you like, and call your hotel for directions back if necessary!
Travelling anywhere in Thailand is usually blissfully simple - walk into a travel agent and state your destination!
However, if an agent suggests that you cannot get to your requested destination but should go elsewhere, then tries to get you to book a room there, move on to another agent. All agents are on commission, but dont be forced into booking anything you dont want.
Accommodation can cost anything from £3 to £300 a night. If you have 5* tastes, booking your flight and hotel together from the UK can save a third off what you would pay if booking direct with the resort. Find hotels you like the look of online, then use search engines to find companies running deals.
Its usually easier to do this over the phone. Check the Sunday supplements in the national papers for deals as well. Accommodation can get tight in areas such as Koh Phi Phi in high season, so it may be worth booking well in advance.
Finally, food is plentiful, cheap and delicious over most of Thailand - from cheap eats to 5* food, you can get it all, everywhere!

FAMILY VALUES
Its called Reluctant Partner Syndrome. Despite your pleading, your non-diving partner has been convinced ever since that try-dive with the pervy instructor in Majorca 10 years ago that diving is the sport of the Devil. Your other half refuses to be left looking after the kids for days while youre larging it on a dive-boat, on what was supposed to be a family holiday.
Thailand has a great way of relaxing the senses. The people are lovely, the scenery breath-taking and life seems to slow to an easy, comfortable pace. In places such as the Red Sea, non-diving activities may be limited to sitting by the pool, but Thailand is rich in non-diving activities.
Spas are plentiful, and treatments are a fraction of the cost in the UK. Cookery courses are a good way to spend a day with the kids. Go elephant-trekking, canoe through caves and mangroves, explore jungle trails to cascading waterfalls or relax on the beach. The shopping is certainly one way of getting rid of females for a good few hours (or days). And, while not a very pleasant thing to do on your holidays, dentistry in Thailand is excellent, and very cheap!
Many boat trips are dedicated to snorkelling only, as opposed to the snorkellers being mostly ignored on a dive-boat, and sporadically told to get in and out of the water. Kon-Tiki Diving Centre on Koh Lanta has a fully equipped snorkel boat with trained guides to point out the best spots and teach you about different species. It also takes special care of kids.
Most dive centres do PADI Bubblemakers, a special course designed for children of eight up. From 10, kids can get their Junior Open Water certificate, giving them something to work towards on their holiday and tell their friends about when they get home.

HIDDEN GEM: KOHLIPE
Koh Lipe is a small island that forms part of the Tarutao National Park. It has white sand beaches, gently swaying palms, great snorkelling straight
off the beach and fabulous diving in the rest of the national park. Its an off-the-beaten-track island, worth the extra effort to get to while in Thailand. Access it by daily ferry from Koh Lanta between November and May. The rest of the year, the ferries run weekly from Pak Barra, a small fishing town near the southern border town of Satun. www.forradiving.com, www.oceanprodivers.net, www.kohlipethailand.com

DIP YOUR FEET!
Not dived yet, or have a family-member or friend who wants to learn Thailand is a great place for introductory courses, with top-quality instructors and equipment at budget prices. Choose your location and dive centre carefully, and you will be enjoying high standards for a fraction of the price, with the benefit of sunny days and paradise beaches thrown in for free!
The best-known place to start diving in Thailand is Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. Once used to house political prisoners, and developed only relatively recently, it certifies more divers than anywhere else of similar size in the world. Such high volume brings the inevitable problem of slipping standards. However, while Tao is a little notorious for teaching fast and in huge groups, there are some very good dive centres on the island.
Tao has excellent training sites on its doorstep and wins on price - an Open Water course here costs around £200, and accommodation ranges from just £4 per night to around £150 for top class.
Tao is quite a party island, with all-night beach parties for those so inclined. If that sounds like hell to you, or you are in a family group, another option is Koh Lanta, on the west coast in the Andaman Sea.
Lanta is a small, as-yet underdeveloped island, though new resorts are springing up at an alarming rate. A course here wont have more than four people in a group, so dive-centre service is personalised.
Courses are usually conducted at a more leisurely pace than on Tao (where an OWD course is completed in three days), and instructors will let students do things at their own rate, depending on how they take to the water rather than on when the next course is starting.

TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Thailand offers good opportunities for technical, cave and freediving, and even becoming a divemaster or instructor. It has particularly good cave-diving, with much of its systems unexplored, so its worth considering for courses. Maximum depth is around 65m, and several centres run technical diving and rebreather courses.
There is also a good freediving scene, as on Koh Lanta, and, given its temperate waters, Thailand is a good place to learn this skill.
Fancy going pro Youll find many offers both east and west for divemaster internships. Usually you dont pay for your course, but work for the dive centre for around three months, during which time you train for three days a week and work for the centre for three.
Compared to a three-week course, this is one of the best ways to do your divemaster. By getting involved in the running of a centre, you understand what working in diving is about.
Shops often take on interns they like, too. If you fancy this route, check out dive centres on the Internet and email them. Those that run good internships will usually send a personalised response. Be aware that, though you will have to work, you are not there as cheap slave labour!

FLYING TO ASIA
Either book your trip through a reputable specialist dive tour operator, or find cheap flights online - www.ebookers.com has good last-minute deals. If you book direct with the airline, booking early and being flexible on dates is the best way to a good deal.
Look at flights into Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as well as Bangkok. Getting to Thailand from there is easy on local airlines that run frequent cheap flights.
AirAsia has just started running a route between Stansted and Kuala Lumpur at bargain-basement prices. From KL you can pick up flights to Krabi (near Koh Lanta and Phi Phi), Phuket and Bangkok. Tiger Airways flies from Singapore to Phuket. Also try Emirates and Gulf Air, which run cheap deals at certain times of year, www.airasia.com, www.emirates.com, www.gulfair.com, www.tigerairways.com
UK tour operators who can arrange packages to Thailand include: Aqua-Firma Worldwide, Aquatours, Barefoot Traveller, Crusader Travel, Dive Tours, Dive Worldwide, Divequest, Explorers, H2O Active Travel, Geo-Dive, Hayes & Jarvis, Kuoni, Oonasdivers, Regaldive, Scuba Safaris and Snooba Travel.

DIVING AND SLEEPING
Koh Lanta: Diving - Blue Planet Divers, www.blueplanetdivers.net;
Kon-Tiki Diving, www.kon-tiki-diving.com;
Flip Flop Divers, www.flipflopdivers.com;
Go Dive, www.godive-lanta.com;
Lanta Diving Safaris, www.lanta-diving-safaris.com. Accommodation - Thai House Beach Resort, www.thaihousebeachresort.net;
Twin Bay Resort, www.TwinBayLanta.com
Koh Phangan: Diving - Sail Rock Divers, www.sailrockdiversresort.com;
Reefers Diving, www.reefersdiving.com
Koh Phi Phi: Diving & accommodation - Barakuda Dive Centre, www.phiphibarakuda.com;
Moskito Diving (also operates the liveaboard Excalibur), www.moskitodiving.com
Koh Tao: Diving & accommodation -
Big Blue Diving, www.bigblue diving.com;
Sunshine Divers, www.sunshine-diveresort.com
Similan Islands: A quick look online gives some idea of the volume of different boats offering trips to the Similans. I have dived with Sea King on four trips and rate it very highly, www.seaking-diving.com