To visit this pristine archipelago of 42 islands is to step back in time and revel in Thailand’s natural beauty. White-sand beaches, waterfalls in hidden lagoons, dense jungle and limestone cliffs set the scene for hiking, swimming, kayaking and unwinding with a postcard-perfect backdrop at every turn.
Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park received its national park status in 1980. Although it was already a popular destination for backpackers, it was the 2000 movie The Beach that really put it on the map. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie’s idyllic setting has turned the marine park into a star attraction that’s a must-see for anyone visiting Koh Samui. Fortunately, only licensed tour operators can take tourists into the area, and development has been kept to a bare minimum. Koh Paluay is the only one of the park’s islands that’s inhabited – a small sea-gypsy fishing community calls it home.
A day tour or sailing charter will take you to the stunning beach on Koh Mae, the ‘mother island’. A 20-minute hike along a trail and up a wooden staircase rewards you with views over an emerald-coloured lagoon surrounded by sandstone cliffs known as Thale Nai. Some of the islands rise 400 metres above the sea, so many of the hikes on offer can be steep in places – the 500-metre hike up to the lookout at Wua Ta Lap isn’t easy, for example, but it’s worth it for the panoramic views over the islands. On hikes, keep an eye out for long-tailed monkeys, sea turtles, iguanas and birds or don a snorkel at one of the beaches to discover colourful fish and other marine life in a vibrant underwater world. Koh Sam Sao has a coral reef to explore, as well as a striking natural stone arch that curves out to sea.
Book a daytrip from Na Thon or Mae Nam in Koh Samui to get to this island paradise. The marine park lies 28 kilometres from Samui, and most tours offer you the chance to go hiking, kayaking, swimming and sunbathing. The best time to visit is from March to October, when the seas are at their calmest.