Ang Thong Marine National Park is composed of more than 40 small islands, most made of stunningly rugged limestone karst, and mostly uninhabited. I had been wanting to visit Ang Thong ever since we arrived in Thailand’s gulf coast. But, the only way to get there was to take a day trip on a cheesy overcrowded group tour boat, or to pay an exorbitant fee for a private charter. Neither option appealed.
And then my parents came to visit, offering up a third way. My parents are huge sailors. (Well, perhaps more accurately, my dad is a huge sailor and my mom is a good sport.) They keep their own boat and charter it out to others not too far from their Florida home. As it happens, the same company that takes care of their boat back home, has operations here in Thailand. They were lucky enough to be able to swap boat time, making their time in Thailand – with no hotel to pay for – relatively affordable and a little slice of something different.
So, after months of anticipation of Asian sailing adventures, mom and dad finally arrived in Koh Samui. The daytime temperature in the week leading up to my parents’ arrival had been between 35 and 39C (95-102F), and very humid. Nights were only dropping to about 31C. Not comfortable sailing weather, not by a long shot. May is known to be one of Thailand’s hottest months, but several locals told me it was the hottest they’s seen it in 15 years or more. One blamed it on El Nino, another on the lack of rain, but whatever the cause, the heat was oppressive. And with the water temperature here in the Gulf of Thailand clocking in between 31 and 32 C (88-90F), not even a dip in the ocean is refreshing.
So it was in that heat that we set off. The ocean was a sheet of glass, without even the slightest touch of breeze to stir it. I’ve never seen such a vast, unprotected body of water so perfectly still. The first day, for want of wind, we had to motor all the way out to the park. Basically, we had to motor everywhere, every day.
We did get to see some adorable spectacle monkeys on one of the islands, and we had the distinct privilege of puttering around amongst the close-set islands and beaches after the day trippers had gone home. Having 60-some-odd islands all to yourself is pretty cool. Ang Thong may be one of the few places left in Thailand, or maybe even the world, where you can still find a perfectly deserted beach – provided you have your own transportation.
We were quite disappointed by the pollution. As is the case around many of Thailand’s islands and beaches, tourism is taking a visible toll on the environment. We saw several tour boats dropping large amounts of waste into the sea, we watched a disturbing number of plastic bottles drift by our boat, and all of the beaches visited by tour boats, or in the path of a tour boat, were littered with trash from processed food and soda.
At night it was too hot to even consider going down to sleep in the cabin. We splayed ourselves across the deck hoping for the slightest breeze, or even a bit of rain, to cool us down. No luck.
Back home, as a kid, summer weekends often meant sleeping on our boat. This was kind of like camping, but on the water. We had to relieve ourselves in the glamorous “marine toilet” also known as the “head,” and we cooked dinner under the stars on a small portable grill we attached to the back of the boat. This time around, before we even set out, it was unanimously decided that it was far too hot to cook on the boat.
In the park, the island with the park office where you pay your fee also has a small restaurant. It is run by the same large extended family that runs the park office and the handful of basic bungalows and tents for staying overnight in the park. I had high hopes for a good traditional home cooked Thai meal. The food was… salty. Very, very, very salty. Mediocre at best. And that is a very generous review. I have rarely been disappointed by food in Thailand – it is one of many things this country does just right. Not in Ang Thong. Our second night in the park, we opted for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the boat instead. Yep, that bad.
On day three we motored back to the sailing base on Koh Samui, and on day four we turned the boat in… six days ahead of schedule. We were supposed to spend another day in the park, then head up and sail around Koh Tao and Koh Phangan for a few days. All I can say is that I’m glad we didn’t have to pay for the boat, otherwise we surely would have suffered through the whole ten days. Instead, we went back to our Koh Tao bungalow, checked my parents into a hotel, and cooled off in the pool for the rest of the week.
I maintain that the best way to explore Ang Thong is by your own transport. And I do think it could be a lot of fun. Just try to go at a different time of year, when the temperature is a bit more moderate, the winds a bit more consistent. It will be immensely more pleasurable that way. Just don’t go in May, especially in an El Nino year.