Land of Smiles: Islands of the Gulf

The gulf of Thailand boarders Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Once called the gulf of Siam it is now one of the most popular destinations for back-packers and divers. Exquisite food, cheap accommodation and easy diving conditions definitely makes it a top destination.

Thailand’s islands became the go too destination after Alex Garland’s book “The Beach” was made into a Hollywood blockbuster. When the young Leonardo DiCaprio and friends found the white sand and turquoise waters of the secret paradise, everyone on the planet it seemed wanted to experience it.

Koh Tao and Koh Phangang are two of the islands found in the gulf. Both same, same but very different, offering very different island vibes.

Koh Tao:

If you ever have a conversation with a group of divers, this little island will probably be mentioned at some point. It is almost expected of people to have spent sometime during their diving career in this part of the world. Breath-taking scenery, clear waters, and cheap, delicious food are just a few of the many reasons why it is so popular.

Koh Tao is a back-packers paradise. To be able to eat authentic Thai cuisine for such little cost is always a bonus for a hungry traveller. Taking a look around the island and the main hub of Sairee Beach you may get the feel of being at an 18-30s getaway. With bar crawls, beach games and fire shows it certainly sets you up for a good time while you are not underwater. Dive shops and bars pretty much dominate the scene here.

Underwater however is where you want to be. Boasting over 30 dive sites you are spoilt for choice! Most of them only a short boat ride away. Two of the “must see” sites are the pinnacles; Chumphon & South West. These are the furthest sites from the island but well worth the longer boat ride. Here is where you have a more likely chance to encounter the world’s largest fish…. The Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus).

If your interest is in diving then this is the island for you. It is very small, so makes getting around pretty easy. Not only does it have cheap back-packer style accommodation, there are also high end resorts to be found in quieter spots such as Shark Bay. So there is something for everyone.

Of course why just visit one island? Especially when they are situated just a short ferry ride away from each other. Koh Phangang is the nearest island to Koh Tao and holds another level of beauty.

Koh Phangang:

Famous for its “Full Moon Party” many people by-pass this island when thinking about diving. It holds a very positive energy and has a lot more of a laid back vibe than its sister island Koh Tao. Being a much larger island, you can often feel like you are the only person in paradise. It also hosts many more resorts with private pools on the beach so there is definitely a more “up-market” feel compared to Koh Tao.

There are a few shore dives available but the number one dive spot to get to on this island is out in the channel. Sail Rock is one of the most renowned dives sites in the Gulf of Thailand. Situated in the channel between Koh Phangang and Koh Tao. It’s a rock pinnacle sitting in the middle of nowhere. After a 30minutes or so you will see a rock appear on the horizon, protruding out of the blue waters, almost as if it was dropped there. This dive site is top of the list so you may find a row of decrepit thai fishing boats turned dive vessels, rafted up together with groups of divers giant striding into the channel. An early wakeup call is essential if you want to get the rock to yourself. Whale sharks are no stranger to the rock so always take a look out in to the blue. Another great aspect of the site is the chimney that reaches up through the rock. Truly worth a visit, it can be a rough ride through the channel, so it’s often advised to take a sea sickness tablet before you leave.


A common fish you will see on Thai reefs is the territorial Titan Trigger Fish (Balistoides viridesens). These beautiful fish are quite famous in Thailand due to their temper and lack of patience for divers. Their most distinguishing features are the dorsal and anal fin that propel in a very different way to most other species of fish.

They get there name from the spine at the front of their head that is triggered by their dorsal fin when they are feeling threatened. Trigger fish are very protective of their nests which are usually on the sea bed surrounded by small rocks. This cocky fish will let you know if you are getting too close so beware, they are not shy to show you who is boss!

Another feature that you can’t miss is the dentures on these fish, and they are not afraid to use them. There are often stories being shared after hours over a few bottles of Leo or some Hong Thong, usually with a few battle scars being compared. The stronger the drink, the bigger the fish gets!

Now a trigger fish’s territory resembles a cone shape. The point of the cone is the nest and as you travel up the water column their territory expands. Do Not Swim to the Surface, a common mistake by divers. The trick is to stay low and kick on your back away from the stealthy diamond shaped predator.

Don’t let this fish get you worried. It always adds a comedic side to diving when you pass someone who has tread too close for comfort. Especially when it’s a battle between; a 6 foot something man vs a 10 inch lippy fish.


With the amount of divers these reefs are exposed to it is our job to look after it. Thailand has a reputation for cattle farm like dive boats, with 40+ SCUBA enthusiasts entering the water at one dive site. Try to avoid diving with shops that cater for the masses, unless you just want to see bubbles and people at every corner and of course never touch, take or tease the wildlife.

Many of the dive shops on the islands have put into place coral nurseries to help keep the reef sustained. Thailand suffer from extremely high sea temperatures during some months with the water temperature reaching 33 degrees Celsius which is far too hot for coral to survive so coral bleaching can be common.

Ang Thong National Marine Park is a protected area to the West of Koh Phangang. It includes 42 stunning islands. All apart from two are uninhabited and undeveloped. It is a beautiful example of an archipelago and worth a visit. You pay a small fee to enter the park, and you can witness the untouched beauty for yourself.

The land of smiles will keep you smiling throughout your time there and also when you look back at the memories. This kingdom offers so much adventure on land and sea and is undeniably a destination to visit.






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