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Andaman  
 
   
     T
he Andaman Sea stretches along the western side of Thailand and has the distinction of possessing crystal clear waters. Indeed, the Andaman Sea is unique in the entire South-East Asian region in that the color of its waters is distinctly blue and one can quite easily look at the sea from its surface and see the fishes underwater. The beaches of Thailand that lie along the coasts of Andaman are wide and delightfully sandy so much so that visitors often come to the western coast just to enjoy its fabulous beaches. An often cited cliché these days is that the location scouts for the movie ‘The Beach’ could think of no better place in the world than the Andaman coasts of Thailand to film the movie. Fortunately, in spite of all the clichés and consequent inrush of tourists, it does not take a great deal of effort even today to find a stretch of beach along the Andaman coasts of Thailand all for oneself.

   It is also a remarkable fact that one can find a complete and cohesive underwater ecology along the Andaman coasts of Thailand. This means that along a micro-stretch of these coasts, one is likely to find marine life ranging from large fish to microscopic fauna and an astoundingly colorful coral reef that is widely regarded by experts as being amongst the best in the world. One of the consequences of this almost overabundance of marine life is that snorkeling is very popular here and people often equate their experience with that of Maldives. Of course, the difference being that the grainy beaches of Maldives get replaced by the soft and sandy beaches of Thailand with all-time stars such as Patong Beach and Karon Beach just waiting to delight the visitor.

   The Andaman coasts of Thailand also have an element of mystery to them. Quite apart from the prospect of lost treasures and hidden beaches that has attracted adventurers from around the world; even the local people often tell stories expressing their profound respect and awe for these coastal stretches. There is, for example, an old story told by the natives that “Beyond the blue seas lies a green sea that only a man who is aware of the passing time can ever hope to find.” Although there might be deeper connotations to this enigmatic parable, the generally accepted view is that it refers to an extraordinary site called Talay Whak. At Talay Whak, during low tides, a strip of land quite remarkably emerges out of the Sea connecting two islands on which one can walk and which are surrounded by a Green Sea entirely uncharacteristic of the area.

   The Andaman coasts of Thailand also contain, quite predictably, what are regarded as some of the best dive sites in the world. Hin Muang, Hin Daeng, the Similans, Surin Island etc are but few instances of such sites. What makes this region an outstanding destination for diving is quite simply the unmatched diversity of underwater flora and fauna one can find here. The Government of Thailand, conscious of the above fact, has taken measures to close the area to tourists during the rainy season with the intention of preserving its underwater ecology. The characteristic friendliness of the people in this region also reflects on the service provided by the boat-crew which makes the diving experience all the more enjoyable.

   One would need to travel to the Southern parts of Thailand (usually Phuket or Krabi) to visit the above mentioned dive sites and beaches. The recommended mode of conveyance, especially if one wants to go exclusively for Diving, would be to take one of several flights that go from Bangkok to Phuket daily. Flight options range from low cost airlines that could take one from Bangkok to Phuket in about 25 USD to the more conventional airlines. Taking the Bus is another option; Phuket or Krabi would be the destinations depending on the point where the boat needs to be taken. The Highway from Bangkok to the Southern regions is not particularly good but traveling by car (or motorcycle) is never a bad choice in Thailand. One needs to get on to Highway 34 that is west-bound and then continue south along Highway 4 which would take one to both Phuket as well Krabi. Taking the train is relatively more time consuming and is recommended only if one wants to get a feel of what a train ride is like in Thailand.

Hin Muang
    The name Hin Muang in Thai translates roughly to ‘Purple Rock.’ The local people have named it so because the site consists of a rock that is completely submerged underwater and is entirely covered with soft purple corals. The unusual color of these soft corals attracts a wealth of underwater life to Hin Muang. One can experience what is called ‘wall diving’ at Hin Muang as the edge of this rock is almost vertical. Hin Muang is covered with anemones, colorful sea-fans and contains an abundance of little caves, ledges and rocky outcroppings which provide shelter to innumerable underwater creatures. Manta Rays and Grey Reef Sharks are also often cited at Hin Muang.

Hin Daeng
   
Not far from Hin Muang is the formidable Hin Daeng. Hin Daeng in Thai translates to ‘Red Rock’ and it is basically a colossal limestone rock that lies submerged underwater. As can be guessed, Hin Daeng is covered with red corals that are often confused as being the surface color of the rock itself. A first experience of Diving at Phuket usually begins with the sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang that are often covered in the same trip due to their relative proximity to each other. Hin Daeng also offers ‘wall diving’ and is considered as offering the deepest ‘wall diving’ experience Thailand with depths exceeding 60 meters. Little fish like Nimos and Cartoon fish thrive at Hin Daeng as this is one of the spots where they learn how to survive. Whale Sharks have also often been cited here.

Anemone Reef
   
The name of this site in Thai is Hin Jom which means ‘Sunk Rock’. This site features another enormous submerged limestone rock but covered totally with sea anemones. The anemones that sway in harmony with the water currents make the rock appear alive; the whole waterscape is a truly phantasmagoric sight. This spot is famous for lion fish which often come out in packs here. Barracudas and Tunas are also easily seen and with a little bit of luck, one might spot Leopard sharks as well.

King Cruiser Wreck
   
The King Cruiser actually hit Anemone Reef and sank on May 4th, 1997. Fortunately, every one of the several hundred passengers escaped. Currently, she lies at a depth of 12-30 meters underwater not very far from Anemone Reef. The King Cruiser wreck holds a plethora of difficult to find underwater life. It is advised that the diver be a little cautious while diving through this wreck as many years have passed since it was sunk. However, the unique varieties of underwater life that hide within the interstices of King Cruiser Wreck and the sheer excitement of swimming through a real wreck are not to be missed.

Shark Point
   
This dive site has the unique distinction of being a favorite resting spot for the Leopard Shark and has consequentially been named after the Shark. The Leopard Shark can often be seen resting at the bottom of the sea-floor in this area. Shark Rock is another name by which this site goes by. There is a fair variety of fauna around the Shark Rock as well but not quite like what can be seen at the previously listed dive sites. One thing the prospective diver should keep in mind is that the water currents at Shark Point can be a little strong and it is therefore recommended that one perhaps plan for a ‘drift dive’ so that excessive energy is not wasted in trying to swim back to the boat.

The Similans
   
The Similans are a group of nine islands and they derive their name from the Bahasa Malayu word ‘sembilan’ which means nine. This place has been repeatedly listed as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. One of the amazing aspects of the Similans is that if one draws a line dissecting the eastern islands from the western ones, this would be roughly in correspondence with the change in topography one finds underwater.

    The western side of these islands features enormous granite boulders that stand on top of each other creating amazing natural underwater archways. The eastern side, on the other hand, offers an exquisite display of hard corals that create an underwater landscape reminiscent of gardens on earth. Diving over these corals is quite like flying weightless over queer gardens of another world. The hard corals in these parts slope downwards 30-40 meters underwater.

   As can be imagined, there is an absolute overabundance of underwater life in this region. Experienced divers, in fact, often visit the Similans once a year just to catch a glimpse of rare underwater flora, fauna and big fish. Whale sharks and Leopard sharks are often cited at the Similans. Most divers prefer taking a live-aboard boat when visiting the Similans as this gives them maximum time as well as freedom to take in the beauty of this unique destination. It is also recommended that one be a little careful of maintaining steady buoyancy while diving here as mistakes can lead to defaced corals that take very long to grow back.