The tiny island of Ko Pha-ngan, famous for its full moon parties on Haad Rin beach, unbeatable scuba diving and multitude of sandbars, lies to the east of the Thailand mainland, around 55km off shore. It’s not a new tourist destination. Being a favorite holiday island for previous Kings of Thailand and a stop off point for a notorious band of Muslim sea gypsies from Malaysia over a century ago, these days modern explorers have taken to its pristine beaches and sublime surf with the same enthusiasm.
The island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, with its sister island Ko Tao a few kilometres north, and the popular tourist hotspot of Koh Samui to its south. There are only a few dive sites specific to the island, with a couple of attractive beach dives thrown in for good measure, but it’s location makes it perfect for reaching some of the most famous dive sites, like well-known Sail Rock and the Southwest pinnacle, which both lie northwards. A tourist destination at heart, scuba diving on Ko Pha-ngan has been a main source of tourism for over a decade, so it’s well catered for here. There are a good number of dive shops and specialist tour operators leaving from both the north and the south of the island, and most of them offer pickups from local hotels.
It’s a short boat ride away from the Ang Thong National Park, a collection of over 40 pretty, isolated islands bursting with marine life. Blacktip Reef Sharks, sea slugs and blue swimming crabs call the warm waters here home, and the islands have become popular with divers and day-trippers looking for the perfect retreat.
Ko Pha-ngan has a rainy season that runs from May to the following January, but although that seems quite long in comparison to its short four months of hot weather, the rainy season doesn’t actually get that cold, rarely falling below 20°C. The worst months fall between October and late December when the monsoons hit the island, and although they can affect water visibility and current strengths, the island itself still enjoys a vibrant tourist scene.
The waters around Ko Pha-ngan are mostly clear, protected waters with great visibility, as well as some great beach dives. There are one or two outlying sites that are internationally recognized for their interesting formations and abundant marine life.
Sail Rock, to the north of the island, is nearly always on a diver’s list of ‘must-dive’ destinations in the Gulf of Thailand. This remarkable natural structure rises 55m from the seabed in a wall of solid rock, sitting out on its own in the middle of the Gulf. It’s not the best location for beginner divers with strong currents and few ledges to stop upon, but the 40m depth below the sea line is perfect for more advanced divers confident in the water. Whale sharks regularly visit the site; over 40 sightings were recorded back in 2009 alone. But even if they don’t appear divers are usually treated to the sight of large schools of trevally, chevron barracuda and mackerel. Another treat is the vertical swim through the famous chimney. The entry points are at 6m and 18m and certainly make this location a little more interesting than your usual diving experience.
The Ang Thong Marine Park to the west of Ko Pha-ngan is another popular location for diving in Thailand, but this chain of islands is also visited by day trippers and kayakers, making it a busy place to be. Some of the smaller islands in the chain are less well known, but getting to them without a diving guide or scheduled trip can be difficult. Divers going out solo can take the ferry from Koh Samui to reach the chain, but most of the dive shops also run dedicated trips out, and they’re worth considering, for they have some of the brightest coral reefs and an abundance of marine life.
Another of The Gulf of Thailand’s most famous dive sites is the Chumphon Pinnacles, located just northwest of Koh Tao. Lying below the surface at a minimum depth of 12m, this rocky ridge is a fascinating series of rocks wending their way along the seabed. This reef is home to a plethora of interesting animals, from grey reef sharks to the smallest of sponges. It’s a 50-minute speedboat ride from the north of Ko Pha-ngan, but very much worth the trip.
Ko Pha-ngan sits in the Gulf of Thailand’s most picturesque waters and it’s built an understandably good reputation for scuba diving trips in and around the island. It might not be quite as famous as Koh Samui to its south, but for a quieter, more relaxed and slightly less touristic location, it’s the perfect holiday location. It’s a largely undeveloped island, with no real transport network down its eastern coastline, but in the west, dive shops can be found from north to south.
The town of Ko Pha-ngan in the west is the biggest urban development, amounting to little more than a dozen under-developed streets, but even so, there are still four scuba dive shops in the one location. The Phangan International Diving School is a 5 star PADI Instructor development shop with dive offices in the main resorts around the island. It’s been open since 2004 and has grown to be one of the most recognized schools on the island. As well as the usual array of dive trips and scuba courses, they also have a dedicated underwater videographer for hire, giving customers the unusual option of recording their adventures.
In the north, the Sail Rock Divers outfit has taken its name from one of the most famous of all the local dive sites, which they regularly take day trips to visit. They’re found at the end of the northernmost road at Chaloklum and run speedboat tours and cruiser tours for up to 30 divers. The dive team hails from various parts of the world and their experience has earned them a five star rating with PADI, as well as a loyal following of past and current students.
When it comes to buying equipment, finding a great outfitter with plenty of choice can be a struggle in some of the more remote locations. Therefore, the All Scuba Solutions shop in Ko Pha-ngan town is a welcome addition to the island. The shop stocks everything from ScubaPro and Aqualung, to Suunto and Mares, with at least another ten major brands represented. It’s unusual to find such a specialist shop on an island of this size, particularly when it doesn’t offer trips or courses of its own, but given the popularity of scuba diving on Ko Pha-ngan, this little gem of a retail outlet is understandably busy throughout the year.
Ko Pha-ngan doesn’t have its own airport, but the international airport at Koh Samui is a 50-minute ferry trip away. An alternative method of travel is by boat from the mainland. It’s a slightly less expensive option, but add about four hours travelling time from Bangkok.
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I hadn't bee Scuba diving since I was 16 years old so I was nervous to start up again after so long. I called into the shop intending to do a refresher before a trip away and ended up signing up for the Advanced open water course. I was able to speak to the instructor at the shop and he explained clearly what my options were. I signed up to do my Advanced course and had a fantastic 2 days of diving. The visibility was terrible but Andy the instructor and dive center manager was able to make th...
Decent dive operation but this is not a luxury liveaboard. Tired decor in cabin, mattress on floor and badly leaking pipework in the bathroom. It is very basic. The crew are helpful though, the divemaster good and the dive deck well organised. The sites in Similan Islands are pleasant but average with the exception of Richelieu Rock which is very nice. All sites are very crowded with many boats around.
The waters around Ko Pha-ngan are mostly clear, protected waters with great visibility, as well as some great beach dives. There are one or two outlying sites that are internationally recognized for t...
Ko Pha-ngan sits in the Gulf of Thailand’s most picturesque waters and it’s built an understandably good reputation for scuba diving trips in and around the island. It might not be quite as famous as ...