The first minutes on the snow-white, jungle-lined beach of Mai Ngam Bay are simply overwhelming. On both sides of the semi-circular curve of powdery sand, dense ever-green jungle that has never been logged and is rarely penetrated, rises out of the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. The trees are unfeasibly tall, their canopies alive with bird call. This is the habitat of hornbills, flying foxes, monitor lizards and a variety of monkeys, snakes and some of the world’s biggest crabs. A sea eagle or two usually make its rounds in the deep blue sky. In the evenings, giant fruit bats fly in bomber formation across the bay.
Mai Ngam Bay is a lot more Jurassic Park – 95% of the islands are covered in rainforest – than Phuket, which lies a few hours further south on the west coast of Thailand.
In the water, the biodiversity is even more remarkable- around the coral reefs you can see turtles, squid and larger rays. Some of the reefs suffered bleaching thanks to El Nino and global warming but there’s still plenty of healthy coral to be seen. Further out in the blue, around some of the archipelago’s rocky outcrops, large pelagic fish come to feed – snorkelers have reported seeing Manta Rays, guitar sharks and since 2019, the occasional appearance of tiger sharks. The mangroves along the shore are home to numerous baby blacktip sharks and sting rays.
It’s said that getting there is half the fun on days when the Andaman Sea is anything other than perfectly calm, that’s a hotly debated topic. The speedboat ride from Kuraburi in Phangna Province takes about 90 minutes. If there are waves, it’s a bumpy disco ride with many travelers’ faces turning as green as the islands they pass along the way. For the most part it’s straight across dee blue open ocean – the Surin islands are 60 miles from the Thai mainland, though the tiny archipelago, is barely five kilometers from the Burmese border.
As the boat approaches the island chain, the water gradually changes color from deep impenetrable blue to green and finally to picture postcard perfect turquoise. The jungle rises as a solid wall of green out of the water and unlike almost anywhere else in Thailand, the scenery is not blighted by developments, bungalows or resorts. On Ko Surin, there are no roads, no motorized vehicles, no shops, no bars and no restaurants. Apart from national park structures, there are no buildings on the Surin islands. Visitors can avail themselves to a handful of bungalows, but most hardy travelers who make it out here, sleep in comfortable tents provided by the national park. At Chong Kad, the park’s headquarters, day trippers from Khao Lak enjoy coffees and ice-creams before heading back to the mainland. An exhibition showcases the islands above and below sea attractions.
15 minutes further by long tail boat, Mai Ngam Bay is the more beautiful proposition. Stepping into the sunlight out of the jungle, most visitors get goosebumps as they soak up the perfection of one of the country’s last unspoiled spots.
The long tail boats that ferry guests between beaches and to the coral reefs are captained by Moken, former sea nomads who traveled on so-called kabang, their houseboats, along the Andaman coast for centuries. Tourism development and Thailand’s insensitive policies towards stateless people have put an end to their wild free-wheeling lifestyle – though 5000 Moken subsist across the border in Myanmar, some still living on their vessels. During the 2004 tsunami, the Moken of Ko Surin saved 90 tourists, recognizing the wave that eats people for what it was from stories that were handed down from generation to generation. But the sea nomads lost their two villages and have since struggled with forced assimilation, which on the whole has not served them well. In the national park at least, they now live in one remote village community which many park guests visit, and are employed by the park authorities.
The relative lack of phone reception and electricity – the park switches on its generator for a few hours in the evenings – reinforces the initial impression of having arrived in a part of the world that stubbornly clings to a sense of remoteness. But this is quickly forgotten when thousands of cicadas start their concert in the late afternoon and the day burns out in a mad psychedelic blaze of celestial colors, giving way to a spectacular firmament.