Ang Thong National Marine Park
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Most of the islands are close to each other making a breathtaking panorama sailing around the park. All the islands are of different sizes and shapes. Most of them are covered with tropical forests and named after their distinguishing geography, a kind of descriptive appellation, such as 'Sleeping Cow Island' and 'Three Pillars Island'.
Angthong, translates as 'golden bowl', occupies almost 250 sq km and includes 50 sq km of limestone islands and karsts topography which rise from the sea as dramatic rock cliffs and bizarre rock formations. Caves, hidden lagoons and white sand beaches are there to be explored and snorkeling among the shallow coral gardens makes a popular and fascinating day trip.
Ang Thong National Marine Park is a protected nature area consisting of over 40 islands, and is famous for its natural beauty. All of the islands are uninhabited and undeveloped except for one. This island, Ko Paluay, is inhabited by sea-gypsies who still earn a living from fishing.
Flora and fauna
The woods in this national park can be classified as dry evergreen forest, beach forest and limestone forest. Dry evergreen forests are found in larger islands like Wuatalab, Paluay and Samsao. Beach forests are lighter woods found in small stretches along the beaches and the shoulders. Limestone forests are found on limestone mountains with thin soil layer. Plants are smaller.
Larger animals do not thrive on these islands as they are small and dominated mostly by steep limestone mountains, with only few lightly to moderately slanted plains. Sixteen species of mammals like otters, langurs, crab-eating monkeys, hogs, silver haired bats, dolphins and whales are found.
Other inhabitants are at least 54 species of birds, including Little Herons, Brahminy Kites, Common Sandpipers, Oriental Pied Hornbills, Drongoes and Hill Mynas. 14 species of reptiles are found like ground lizards, iguanas, Green turtles, Hawksbill turtles, phytons and cobras.
Only five species of amphibians are found, Common Asian Toads, Tiger frogs, Rugose frogs, Grass frogs and Tree frogs.
The waters of the national park are home to Butterfly fish, Angel fish, Parrot fish, Blue-Spotted fantail rays, Blacktip reef sharks, snappers groupers, sea slugs, blue swimming crabs, sea fans, sea whips, giant clams, oysters and coral. The park is also a breeding ground for mackerel.
Access to the Marine Park is controlled, but there are several Samui based boat rental and kayak operators who are licenced carriers, catering to both independent visitors and in organized kayaking/camping trips. There are also boats based in Koh Phangan and Koh Tao that run sailing live aboard cruises to the Ang Thong marine park.
You can go to Marine park by slow time consuming ferries with many other people in big group (40-50 people, only from Ko Samui) or in smaller group (max. 25 people) by speedboats so you can enjoy more from park. Tours from Ko Phangan cost officially 1600B (+200B entrance fee), but can be bargained down to 1400B in Tan Tour if booking directly with them (no commision for middle-man agent/hotel) in Thong Sala between piers west from 7-Eleven. Tour includes pick-up from accommodation, light breakfast, speedboat transfer to marine park with nice snorkelling (better than anywhere on Ko Phangan), visiting crowded touristy Emerald lake viewpoint, then buffet style lunch on another island with beautiful viewpoint and tough hiking (if you will go to the top without breaks at three lower viewpoints and you are really fit you can be on top in 30mins, lower viewpoints with worse views are less challenging) and then relax on another island at deserted beach where you can do kayaking (+200B/person) and transfer back to Ko Phangan and to accommodation. If you want avoid crowds and money is not problem or you are travelling with friends in bigger group you can do private tour for 15000B for maximum 10 people (price from same travel agency, maybe possible to bargain or cheaper at other places) on the speedboat and you can depart/arrive at any time.
Entrance fee to the marine park: Normally not included in the tour fee unless otherwise specified, 200 baht/foreigner, 100 baht for foreigner kids under 12 years old. Price for locals 40 baht.
The most common transport from Ko Samui are tour boats taking 40-50 people, with lunch on board. These require you to transfer to a longtail boat to get onto the shore of whatever island you are visiting, which can be tricky and requires a modicum of fitness.
Or else you can take speedboat tours which also provide a snorkeling program and less people in group/board. It gets you to the archipelago faster. The best way is to put together a group of friends to hire a boat and explore the islands and beaches in your own time.
Most tours go to the Park's Visitor Center for lunch and kayaking. The Visitor Center is visited by most tour operators, making it very crowded. This applies for the time from about 10am to 4pm. Before and after it's a totally secluded place with almost nobody around.
Ko Mae Ko (Mother Island) is a must to visit. Here, an emerald seawater lake in the middle of the island is encircled on all sides by limestone cliffs, but linked by an underground tunnel connecting with the sea. Reaching the lake entails a strenuous climb of 40 minutes or so, but is rewarded with a spectacular view across the whole park.
Rather, the climb is up a series of staircases wonderfully combined into the natural landscape of the karst, threading through a narrow opening in the rock face at one point, and entailing minimum exertion if you pace yourself and are in decent physical shape. The final series of steps is a bit steep and caution should be exercised when descending the steps, but the entire trip up and down would not take 40 minutes unless you stopped and enjoyed the spectacular Emerald Lagoon, as the locals call this trapped sea-lake inside the collapsed island, for 20 minutes or so from the lookout point at the very top.
Caves in many of the islands have intriguing rock formations. Visit one for an awesome experience. The beaches are surrounded with excellent coral reefs which make for perfect swimming and snorkeling. Hundreds of beaches here in the archipelago are deserted. Get a boat and find your own secret beach away from the crowds.
Other popular sites are Ko Sam Sao (Tripod Island) with an extensive coral reef and Wua Talap Island or 'sleeping cow'. It takes some effort to climb up the steep 430m hill to a viewpoint offering great scenery of the entire archipelago and the mainland.
The main restaurant managed by Nam is excellent and offers a variety of cuisine. Only be careful to order early as the cook leaves by 10pm and the lights go out by 11pm. Cheapest rie meal is vegetable fried rice from 60B, usually delicious meals with good portions cost 100-120B, worth spending money, but place your order as soon as possible, because preparation is VERY slow, expect waiting for 30-40mins for meal in not crowded restaurant.
The Park headquarters offer two "bars" that sell beer. And by bar, this usually means a cooler full of beer. But when sitting on the beach watching the sun set, it beats most bars and clubs fairly easily.
You should take water anyway, you'll need plenty.
The park headquarters are located on Ko Wua Talab, which has basic bungalow accommodation.
The park has 5 bungalows which are of different sizes. The costs are quite low - 500 Baht per day - for a 2 bedroom cottage. The cottages are set in a beautiful backdrop and the park staff are very friendly, and fanatical about football. However please note that the park is not for the resort seeker. Facilities are basic - no hot water - and the park shuts off its electric supply at 11pm. So no electricity at night which only adds to the appeal of the place.
In case the cottages are full, you can rent a tent for 2 for 250 Baht. You can also bring your own tent and camp at the camping grounds. But you will almost always find a tent to rent.
Probably one of the best hikes in Thailand. In the National Park headquarters there is a path leading up the side of the rocks. This will take maybe 25-30 minutes to walk up, and well worth it. But be warned, this is not a hike for the faint hearted. Make sure you have good footwear as there are sharp limestone crags which will be your foothold, especially towards the peak. With a breathtaking view of all the Ang Thong islands, the end result of the hike is well worth it. Beware though, the hike is very steep in some sections and offer questionable ropes to hang on to. But this hike will justify the trip to Ang Thong alone.
Obvious things like take water, hat, sunscreen and something like an old t-shirt to cover up with when you snorkling are always worth mentioning.