Mu Koh Similan National Park

south thailand

The Similan Islands are a group of nine islands located 70 kilometers west off the coast of Phang Nga province. They are well-known for their spectacular dive sites, breathtaking coral reefs and white, powdery sand. Not surprisingly, the Similans are ranked among the top ten most beautiful islands in the world.

The beauty does come with a price however, and the Similan Islands rank among the most expensive national parks to visit. This does little to dampen the enthusiasm of tourists visiting Thailand; since its inauguration, the islands have been thronged by thousands of guests every year. The islands are a classed as “Grade A” park by the DNP and are  great source of revenue for the department.

With the never-ending influx of tourists visiting the islands, the need for stringent guidelines and safety measures to protect the environment is of utmost importance. Thankfully, the management have kept a watchful eye on this site and some rules are strictly enforced. Islands 1, 2 and 3 are completely off limits to the public and are regularly patrolled by the Thai Navy. These islands are reserved as nesting sites for three species of sea turtles. Island no. 3 (Koh Payan) is also the sole nesting site for the Nicobar Pigeons and in the breeding season (said to be from mid-March onwards), all Nicobar Pigeons residing on the nine islands will conglomerate on that one island to nest and raise their young.

In late 2010 the government ordered a few of the dive sites near the Similans to be shut down temporarily to allow the coral to recover from bleaching and other effects related to global warming. While this may not be a long-term solution to the problem, it does prove that the national parks division and the Thai government are keen on keeping these islands as pristine as possible.

The park is closed from April to October every year due to the monsoon season when it is unsafe for boats to travel between the islands and the mainland. It also allows time for nature to recover from the aftermath of thousands of tourists trampling the beaches and diving in the seas.

On May 30th 2018 the DNP announced they would no longer allow overnight stays on the Similan Islands. 


Birding

Main Attractions: Nicobar Pigeon
Other Attractions: Green Imperial Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Beach Thick Knee

The sole purpose for visiting the islands is to twitch the Nicobar Pigeon, a bird rarely encountered anywhere else in Thailand or throughout the world for that matter. Despite a steady decline in numbers over the last few decades the birds are still quite common and are best seen in the early mornings from 5 – 9 AM when they come out of the forest and gather to feed at the campsite on Koh Miang. (Island no. 4)

Since the birds are not hunted they accept the presence of humans in the vicinity but will not allow people to get within five feet of them. In the past the population was higher but lax enforcement of rules regarding dogs and cats on the islands and the constant presence of thousands of tourists have had a negative impact and caused them to grow wary. Occasional trapping does occur as Nicobar Pigeons are available on the local bird market from time to time. Confiscated individuals are on display at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center near Phang Nga town.

Beach Thick Knee nests on Koh Payan (Island no. 3) and up to eight individuals have been spotted on the beaches of the island. Sadly, the island is off limits (unless one has special clearance from the Thai Navy) but at times birders have gotten lucky and found the bird on deserted beaches on some of the other islands in the early mornings.

Other birds which are commonly encountered are Green and Pied Imperial Pigeon. Some people say the Pied is easier to find than the Green although I tend to think otherwise. Either way, both species are residents of the islands and are best found by listening for their booming calls or scanning the tops of the trees where they prefer to roost.

Asian Koel is very common and their loud, obnoxious calls are heard at all times of the day and even into the night. Hill Myna is also fairly common and quite easy to spot; just look for a fig tree or listen for their shrill bell-like calls and most likely you’ll find all four aforementioned species happily sharing breakfast together in a fruiting tree!

White bellied Sea Eagle is also regularly seen soaring over the seas in the late afternoons along with Brahminy Kite.

In the winter, one can come across migrants such as Black Baza, Eyebrowed Thrush, Asian Brown Flycatcher and Chinese Sparrowhawk on passage.

Other resident species include Little, Intermediate and Great Egret, Black Bittern, White breasted Waterhen and Chinese Pond Heron.

On the open oceans a few species of pelagics can be observed if one is in luck. Most commonly encountered are terns such as Common, Bridled, White winged, Whiskered, Greater Crested and Little Tern, but on occasion one does come across Red tailed Tropicbird, Sooty Tern, Wedge tailed Shearwater and Lesser or Christmas Island Frigatebird, usually on the crossing between Thap Lamu and the islands.

The best time for finding some of these special seabirds is during the migration months from March to May when the birds are making their annual north to south passage. Around this time the seas are also generally calmer than at the beginning of the winter season (November to January) making it easier to observe the birds with the aid of binoculars.


Trails

Similan 1

Nicobar Pigeons are present on all islands but they are easiest to find on Koh Miang.

The trails on Koh Miang are very limited. The main trail on the island runs from Haat Lek to Haat Nah and is used by tourists to commute between the two beaches. It is very disturbed and filled with millions of mosquitoes, making it a very uncomfortable area to hang out. This is however, the only place to find the skulking species of forest birds on the island. A strong DEET based repellent is a staple every birder should have when birdwatching on this trail.

There is also a trail which forks out from this thoroughfare which winds up to a viewpoint, but other than the odd White bellied Sea Eagle or passing imperial pigeon, the trail is not very productive. A map of the trails can be viewed at the link to Nick Upton’s Thailand Birdwatching Site, posted at the bottom of this page.

Most people will find that birding around the general areas such as behind the campsite and near the radar tower and will get you pretty much everything that can be found on the island.

While the forests of Koh Miang is  moist and diverse, the forests on Similan (island no. 8) are dry and lack bamboo due to the poor quality of soil and its inability to retain water. Koh Similan does have a long nature trail which runs from the main campsite on the north of the island, to the south of the island. The trail is rumored to be about 1.8 kilometers long and could host a few species which are not present on Koh Miang.

The bird list for the islands is very limited with only a handful of known resident species and few wintering visitors from November to April. A temporary list, written by Nick Upton, can be downloaded here.


Accommodations and Fees

simbungs

On May 30th 2018 the DNP announced they would no longer allow overnight stays on the Similan Islands. 

Most visitors stay on Koh Miang (Island no. 4) as there are no bungalows available on any other island. Birding here is better than on Similan (Island no.8) where the other station is located. Bungalows cost a pretty penny but are still cheaper than on the Surin Islands; the price for an air-conditioned room stands at 2400 baht a night with non-aircon rooms (with fans and screens) going for 1500 baht.  Tents can be rented for 800 baht a night and are a clean and cheaper alternative, with fresh bedding and rudimentary mattresses. The tents are usually pitched near the sea and are fine to sleep in as long as there is a good breeze coming in from the ocean. One can also choose to stay on Similan (island no.8) but accommodations there are confined to tents.

All electricity on the islands are supplied by a generator which goes off at 6 AM in the mornings. – No late sleep-ins here!

[To reserve a DNP bungalow or tent at Mu Koh Similan National Park, click here]

Booking a bungalow at the national park will be very difficult. The DNP website does not offer bungalows for rent and no one ever answers the phones at the Similan National Park office. Your best bet will be to contact your boat service provider and ask them to book a bungalow for you.

Meals are quite expensive (400++ to 700 baht a meal for two persons) as everything must be brought in from the mainland, so if you are on a budget I would recommend you bring your own food for the trip. All meals come as a set menu so those who have special needs or prefer a vegetarian diet should be forewarned and plan accordingly.

Similan National Park ranks among the most expensive national parks in the country. Foreign adults are charged an entry fee of 500 per person and children over the age of three must pay a cool 200 baht a head.


Transportation to the Similan Islands

simboat

To get to the Similans one must contact a private tour company as the national park retired their aging and unseaworthy ferry decades ago. The Similans are roughly 35 nautical miles offshore (around 70 kilometers) and the trip usually takes about an hour and a half by speedboat, depending on the weather condition and wave height.

There are a few companies which offer tours to the Similans but for those looking for a recommendation I suggest you try Love Andaman. I’ve used their services in the past and find them to be friendly and reasonable, with excellent service and a high safety standard. Speedboat prices are never certain as they fluctuate on a yearly basis, so for information call or visit their website.

Those who have the time and want to see as many birds as possible should buy a round trip ticket and book a tent for the night. It should only take a day to see all the birds on Koh Miang and another for Koh Similan.

If you are only going for the sole purpose of twitching the Nicobar Pigeon, this can be done on a snorkeling daytrip tour. All tours stop for lunch on the island between the hours of 11 AM to 2 PM. Once ashore, ask the kitchen staff if they can show you the pigeon. – No, I guarantee you they won’t be reaching for the recipe book! They will lead you to the back where the rubbish fill is located and I guarantee you should find at least two or more birds hanging around waiting for some scraps to be thrown out.

Those spending a few days on the islands should not miss out on the incredible diving and snorkeling experience this site has to offer! Snorkeling equipment can be rented from the park office and the park staff regularly organizes snorkeling tours from Koh Miang to Similan in the afternoons.


Directions to Thap Lamu Pier (Similan Islands HQ)

If you are coming from Phuket, drive north to Highway 4 past the town of Kok Kloi and Thai Muang in the direction of Takuapa. After passing Thai Muang, keep heading north until you reach Thap Lamru, located in Lam Kaen district. There will be a T-junction with a sign which points left to Thap Lamu Naval Base Golf Course (marked in pink on the map) and the Similan islands. Here you turn left down Highway 4147. At the end of this road will be a parking lot and a few offices of companies which offer boat services to the Similan islands.

For those who are not planning on booking in advance, I’d recommend you arrive at the pier by at least 8 AM. This will allow time to find a good tour and get on the boat. Boats usually leave the pier at around 8.30 – 9.00 AM.

Those booking through a travel agent or boat service can arrange for a pick up and drop off service and avoid the hassle of driving after a long day in the sun and surf.


Personal Opinion

Pros: Birding is easy and straightforward; guaranteed sightings of Nicobar Pigeon; fantastic scenery and breathtaking beaches; high possibility of pelagics and other seabirds sightings during transfers from the mainland.

Cons: Low diversity of birdlife on the islands; exorbitant entry fee imposed by national parks department; high cost of dining, lodging and transportation; overcrowded from November through February; open only six months in a year.

The Similans are one of the top five most beautiful islands in the world. – Just knowing that should be enough to justify a visit to these isles of paradise. – Plus, did I forget to mention the Nicobar Pigeon is a resident of these islands?

This page was last updated in March, 2018.

Useful Links

– Department of National Parks: Mu Koh Surin information and datasheet
Nick Upton’s review of Mu Koh Similan National Park
Review of Mu Koh Similan National Park by Thai National Parks (Private website)
Birdlife International: Assessment of Mu Koh Similan National Park

Similan National Park in Photos