You’ve likely heard that Thailand is one of the best places in the world for scuba diving. As someone who’s lived in the country for over 3 years, I can confirm this as a solid fact. The country has everything including amazing wrecks, robust reefs, and abundant marine life. It is also one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks.
I can say with confidence that Thailand is on the list of top five most visited countries in the world for diving. There is no real way to verify this, as PADI and other organizations keep these numbers private. But, Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, is the most popular place in the world for open water certifications.
In 2018, over 30 million people visited Thailand. If even a few percent went diving, it’s more than total visitors to other diving destinations. Diving in Thailand is a big deal.
Best Locations for Diving in Thailand
Gulf of Thailand
The Gulf of Thailand is on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. The area is home to dozens of islands and one of the most popular parts of the country for tourism. Millions of people come through the islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui every year. As mentioned in the intro, Koh Tao is one of the top places in the world for open water diving certifications.
I recommend that if you are new to diving that you spend most of your time in this area. The Gulf of Thailand is generally easier to dive as the waters are calmer and the currents much less strong. This is in contrast to the Andaman Sea which opens up to the Indian Ocean.
Let’s take a look at the top spot for diving in Thailand on the gulf side.
As far as visitors go, this is the number one spot for diving in Thailand. I’ve been here at least four different times for diving and many more for vacation. It is one of my favorite islands in the country.
The island is about 80km (50mi) off the coast of southern Thailand on the gulf side. You can get here is by ferry from the coastal town of Chumphon. Lomprayah operates ferries to the islands in this area, including Koh Tao. There are other companies, but Lomprayah is the fastest with high speed catamarans.
If you want to do a discovery dive, or get an open water certification, this is one of the cheapest places to do so. There are dozens of dive shops around the island. I recommend Buddha View as I’ve always had good experiences diving with them. But, with a little research, you can find a dive shop that caters to your specific needs.
- When to Dive: You can dive Koh Tao throughout the year. But, there are certain times that are better for different types of dives.The wet season for south east Thailand is between October and January. During these months, the visibility can be quite poor for sites close to the island due to runoff. Sites further from the island won’t be affected as much.I recommend the wet season if you are looking to see ocean life. Many larger species of fish come out during this time to feed in the nutrient rich waters. This is also one of the best times of year to see whale sharks.The dry season runs from February to September. If you are new to diving and want near perfect conditions this is the time to visit. During this time of year you can expect rain to be much less frequent and visibility to be outstanding.
- Where to Dive: Koh Tao has plenty of sites suitable for divers of all levels. Don’t let the fact that so many people get open water certifications here dissuade you. If you are an advanced diver, there is plenty for you as well.Most of the shops around the island will post where they are going out for the week and what times. So, let’s take a look at the three best sites so you can better plan which days you want to go out.
- Sail Rock- talk to any of the local dive masters and they will tell you this is one of the premier spots around Koh Tao. The site is between Koh Tao and Koh Phangan and is about 30 minutes by boat.I’ve been here once before and it was a giant aquarium of marine life. On my trip I saw large schools of barracuda, two groupers, a school of parrotfish, and so much more. You can see moray eels around the coral and swim through giant bait balls. This is also one of the best sites to see whale sharks.You will need at the very least an open water certification with a deep dive qualification to dive here. The max depth is around 40m (131ft). Check out this video to get a better idea of what to expect on this site.
- Chumphon Pinnacle- this is hands down my favorite site. It is the only spot I’ve ever dove which I have seen whale sharks. Also, it is an all around awesome site for seeing abundant marine life. As with sail rock, you will need to have a deep dive qualification to dive here. The max depth for this site is around 35m (114ft). The visibility is usually superb throughout the year.I have seen barracuda schools numbering in the hundreds, giant grouper, and schools of parrotfish. The pinnacle is also amazing and full of color and smaller marine life. Here is a video to see what this site is like.
- Sattakut Wreck- this is one of the few wreck dives in the Gulf of Thailand. The Sattakut was a US Navy warship which saw battle during WWII. It was later given to the Thai Navy and finally sunk off the coast of Koh Tao for divers to enjoy.I’ve done this site once before on my deep dive training. It was awesome. The wreck is well preserved and intact. You can enter the wreck if you have the right experience and certifications. As I am not wreck certified, we only did a quick swim through the control room on my dive.You can also see quite a bit of life around this site. Expect to see barracuda, wrasse, groupers, and more. This is a fantastic all around site and one you shouldn’t miss. This video shows off some of the best the site has to offer.
I recommend making Koh Tao one of the first places you go for diving in Thailand. The water is calm, warm, and the visibility great most of the year. This is a great spot to get your feet wet and see what Thailand has to offer before moving on to other locations. It is also easy to get to compared to many other islands. The water is warm here throughout the year so you don’t need a wetsuit.
I usually like to wear a full rashguard as sea lice can sometimes be a problem. Though rare, I have been swimming, not diving, and swam through a group of them. They will make you itchy for a bit during and after your time in the water.
Remember that there are dozens of dive shops around the island. Make sure and do your research to find a shop that’s right for you. This is one of the most popular places in the world for diving. During high season dive instructors and dive masters come here from all over the world to work. A literal divers paradise.
The Andaman Sea is on the west side of the Malay Peninsula. It borders the Bay of Bengal and is a large part of the Indian Ocean.
Diving on this side can be trickier as currents are strong and the weather less predictable. For sites that are further out at sea, the water on this side is also known to be a bit choppier.
You can find sites for both beginners and advanced divers. But, many of the best sites are for experienced divers only. Always stay within you experience level and follow your dive masters instructions.
Koh Phi Phi
These are a series of islands popular with backpackers and known for partying. Maya Bay, made popular by the movie The Beach, is on the smaller of these islands, Koh Phi Phi Le. The bay is now closed to tourism to allow the reefs and marine life to recover.
The partying isn’t the only thing about the island, though. You can find pristine white sands bordering crystal clear turquoise waters. I’ve been here several times and each time I don’t want to leave.
As for the diving, it is one of the best places in all Thailand. You can see everything here including pristine reefs and great marine life. The waters around this island are one of the better places in the country to see larger shark species.
You can get to the islands via ferry from either Phuket, Krabi, or Koh Lanta. If you are coming from Bangkok I recommend flying into Krabi and taking the ferry from there. The ferry ride should take around 90 minutes. Flights to Krabi can be more expensive during the high season. But, you can usually find one for around $30 one way from Bangkok.
- When to Dive: As mentioned above, the Andaman Sea is more sensitive to weather than the Gulf of Thailand. The wet season for this side of the Malay Peninsula is between May and October. December through February see the least amount of rain with January being the dryest.If the main thing you want to see is aquatic life, the wet season can be better for diving in Thailand. During this time, many larger species feed in the more nutrient rich waters. But, visibility can take a huge hit during this time. So, I recommend this more for experienced divers comfortable with lower visibility dives.
- Where to Dive: There are two main islands making up the Koh Phi Phi islands. So, dive sites are plentiful. Not all the sites are equal, though. Let’s look at the top three sites that you cannot miss on your trip to the islands.
- Bida Nok- many consider this to be the best of what the Phi Phi islands have to offer. If you are looking for abundant marine life, this is the spot for you.You can see everything from giant bait balls to moray eels. This is also a great site to see sharks. The one time I dove this site we saw three medium sized black tip reef sharks. This isn’t common I am told. More often, you will see one if you see any at all. But, sharks have been returning to the Andaman and the gulf after decades of overfishing.Other fish you may come across include leopard sharks, nurse sharks, sea snakes, and manta rays. Max depth for this site is 33m (108ft). You can see some of the awesome ocean life at Koh Bida on this video.
- Shark Point- full disclosure, I’ve never dove this site. But, I’ve talked to many fellow divers who have spoken well of the site. So, it’s going on the list.As the name implies, this is one of the best places around the Phi Phi Island chain to see sharks. Especially, leopard sharks, which like to congregate at the sandy bottom. Aside from the sharks, the coral here is top rate. You can see vast amounts of colorful soft corals. The currents can be strong at this site and many of the divers I’ve spoke with consider it a drift dive. You should be at least an advanced open water diver with some drift experience before doing the dive. Check out this video to see the awesome colors of shark point.
- King Cruiser Wreck- this wreck is north west of Koh Phi Phi Don between Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands. The King Cruiser was a ferry which struck a pinnacle while traveling between Phuket and Phi Phi. Sad events for the owners of the ferry (no one died thankfully). But, it has been a good thing for divers looking for something interesting. The main attraction here is the wreck and the marine life. If you have a wreck diving qualification you can enter the wreck. If not, the reef surrounding the wreck and the variety of marine life still make this a good site.The top of the wreck has collapsed so you will have to enter from the bottom hull where the ship struck the pinnacle. This video is amazing and does a great job showing what the dive has to offer.
I encourage anyone diving in Thailand to add the Koh Phi Phi islands to their list. The islands are paradise both above and below the waters. You can dive year-round as the water is always warm and the weather is usually sunny outside of the wet season.
As with other islands in Thailand, there are plenty of shops to choose from. There are instructors around the island that speak a variety of languages. You should be able to find a dive shop that fits your needs. Make sure when you are selecting where you want to stay that you do your research.
As I mentioned above, Koh Phi Phi is a popular destination for backpackers and partiers. If this is not your thing then you would be wise to book a stay at one of the resorts away from the main party areas.
This island is on the south west coast of Thailand close to the border with Malaysia. It’s a hidden gem among the hundreds of islands in Thailand’s waters. If you are looking for a chill place for diving in Thailand with pristine reefs and plentiful marine life, this is it.
You can get to Koh Lipe from Bangkok or other major areas by flying into Hat Yai. From Hat Yai airport, you will need to take a bus to the Pak Bara Pier. The ferries leave from here to Koh Lanta and other islands in the area.
The total trip usually runs around $60 (2000 Baht) depending on the time of year. From Bangkok to Koh Lanta should take around 7 hours. Add further flight time if you are in Chiang Mai or other northern areas.
Koh Lipe is going to be a bit quieter then Koh Tao or Koh Phi Phi. There are still plenty of places on the island where partiers flock. But, the fact it is harder to get here means fewer people make the journey. So, if the more party centric nature of the two above islands isn’t your thing, Koh Lipe may be more to your liking.
- When to Dive: You can dive Koh Lipe year-round. The best time to visit Koh Lipe in terms of weather is between the months of January through March. These months receive the least amount of rainfall.The rest of the year is still good for diving but you may experience more rain. I should clarify that just because it is the rainy season doesn’t mean that it is going to rain every day. This is true for all Thailand.Generally, the rain comes in the evening or early morning and will last for a few hours before the sun comes out. As with other locations on this list, the rainy season can be the best time of year to see larger marine life.
- Where to Dive: The island is smaller than many others around Thailand. But that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in good dive sites. Koh Lipe and the surrounding islands are excellent for reef diving. The area has experienced less tourism than other islands so the reefs are healthy. Let’s take a look at the two best spots you shouldn’t miss on your next trip.
- Stonehenge- not the Stonehenge you might be thinking of but similar. This site is a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of soft coral fields. The site gets its name from the many large granite rocks protruding from the sea floor. They resemble the ancient archeological site in the United Kingdom. This is a good site for divers of all skill levels as the site is between 5m (16ft) and 25m (82ft) of depth. The currents here can sometimes be strongAs for marine life, the coral here attracts a variety of amazing animals. Smaller fish include frogfish, ghost pipefish, moray eels, and seahorses. Larger fish include schools of barracuda, leopard sharks, and sometimes whale sharks. This video does an amazing job of capturing the color and life that you can see here.
- 8 Mile Rock- the name says it all. This dive site has many large pinnacles coming up from a depth of around 40m (131ft). As you can guess from the depth, this is not a site for beginners.Aside form the depth, you should also be aware of the currents. The currents around Koh Lipe are tidal. So, this area can only be dove a few days out of each month as the currents are too strong for the rest of the month. It’s best if you have experience diving these conditions before going to this site.You can see some spectacular marine life on this dive. It is quite common to find huge moray eels hiding in the coral. Be on the lookout for giant grouper, schools of barracuda, and ghost pipefish. Larger fish in the area include leopard sharks, sailfish, and the occasional manta ray. To get a better idea of what this site is like check out this video. It does a great job of showing off both the coral and marine life.
I recommend Koh Lipe if you are looking for an island that’s a bit more quiet and laid back. Don’t get me wrong, you can still find plenty of party locations around the island. But, as mentioned, the island is a bit harder to get to than others so it hasn’t cultivated the same party crowd. As with other areas of Thailand, the waters and air temperature are warm throughout the year.
You won’t need a wet suit for any of these dives unless you are cold natured. I would recommend a rash guard as sea lice can sometimes be a problem. The number of dive shops around Koh Lipe is less than in other areas, owing to the island being smaller. But, you should be able to find a shop that fits your needs and is to your liking.
The last two locations on our list are the real treasures when it comes to diving in Thailand. I’m talking about the Surin and Similan Islands. Both of these are in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s western coast. We’ll look at the Surin Islands first.
The Surin islands are an archipelago chain about 60km (37mi) off the coast. There are five islands in total which form the Mu Ko Surin National Park. You can only visit these islands during the months of October through May. The islands are closed through the rest of the year due to the rainy season. This is to help restoration of the reefs and local landscape. Also, getting to the islands becomes difficult during the monsoon season.
If you want to stay on the island, there are a few primitive bungalows which you can rent. As a diver, I would recommend that you opt for a liveaboard rather than staying on the mainland.
You can arrange a liveaboard in Phuket and will have more opportunities for diving. Most liveaboards will do the Surin Islands, Similan Islands, and Richelieu Rock over 6 to 8 days.
- When to Dive: As mentioned, the islands are open from October through May and closed the rest of the year. The best time to dive will be December through February. These months experience the least amount of rain.During the rainy season, getting to the islands can become dangerous. They are in the open waters of the Andaman Sea and more prone to rough waters and dangerous storms.
- What to See: Many divers consider these islands to be some of the best in the world along with the Similan Islands. There aren’t too many dive sites. If you decide to go via liveaboard, it will be possible to hit all the main sites at least once. So, let’s take a look at the top three.
- Richelieu Rock- this usually ranks as the best site to dive in the Surin Islands. Many divers I know who have made this dive put it in the top five on their best sites in the world. After hearing what they have to say, I can understand why. Richelieu Rock is a pinnacle about 16km (10mi) from the main island of Ko Surin Nuea. You will need to be at least an advanced open water diver for this site. Currents here are strong. The dive is usually done at a depth of between 20m and 28m (65ft and 91ft), though the max depth is around 35m (114ft). The pinnacle is in the shape of a horseshoe and is too large to completely see in one dive. If you have travelled here via liveaboard, there will usually be at least two dives for this site. This is one of the best sites in all Thailand for seeing larger marine life including whale sharks. You can usually see large schools of barracuda and giant trevally. Giant manta ray often make an appearance around here as well. If the smaller life among the coral is more your thing you will also find plenty here to enjoy. You can see ghost pipefish, seahorses, harlequin shrimp, and frogfish. Sometimes, you can find tomato clownfish around the coral. Here is an awesome video showing the colorful side of Richelieu Rock and the smaller marine life.
- Koh Torinla- this is the southernmost of the Surin Islands. You can expect some awesome coral on this dive along with the amazing marine life.The islands east coast is great for beginners. You can see large fields of hard coral running north to south. Staghorn coral is the most prominent.There are tons of fish species here for you to observe and photograph. Be on the lookout for large angelfish, schools of snapper, barracuda, and batfish. If you are into larger fish, you’re in luck as well. Common species include mackerel, reef sharks, and the occasional eagle ray. Check out this video showing off some of the life around the site.
As I mentioned above, the Surin Islands are one of the best locations for diving in Thailand. Richelieu Rock is the primary dive site around the Surin Islands for seeing marine life. The Surin Islands is one of the best places in Thailand for hard coral. I will warn you that the coral around the islands is recovering after mostly dying off. This doesn’t mean that the site is a complete loss. You can still see some amazing coral around the islands and it is still wholly worth a visit if you get the chance.
Liveaboard is the best way to dive these islands. Many liveaboards will do the Similans and Richelieu Rock then the Surin Islands. If you want an interesting experience, you can book the junk boat liveaboard the June Hong Chian Lee. This is the boat form the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun.
You need to remember that you can only dive these areas between October and May. The national park closes the rest of the year to allow the flora and fauna above and below water to recover. You will need to plan your trip to Thailand and your dives around the Surin Islands accordingly. If you are planning on doing a liveaboard it is wise to book well in advance as these can fill up fast. Some liveaboards fill up over a year in advance. This is one spot you will need to plan and prepare for ahead of time.
Lastly, while Thailand can be one of the cheapest places in the world for diving, the Surin Islands isn’t. Expect to pay well over $1,000 for a 6 day excursion. This is still cheap if you compare the prices to similar liveaboard trips such as the Cocos Islands. But, it does buck the trend of cheap diving you are going to find in places like Koh Tao.
So, here it is. The crème de la crème of spots for diving in Thailand and one of the top places for diving around the world. The Similan Islands are 89km (55mi) south of the Surin Islands and 65km (40mi) west of the Thai mainland.
You can find an incredible array of marine life around the eleven islands which make up the island chain. The reefs here are quite amazing as well. Though, as with the Surin Islands, the reefs are still recovering after major die offs in 2010.
To dive around the Similan Islands, you will have to book a spot on a liveaboard. Overnight stay on the islands is completely prohibited. All the bungalows which were on the islands were demolished to help the flora and fauna to recover.
You can book liveaboards from Phuket where they will launch from the northern part of the island. I cannot stress enough how important that it is you plan everything well in advance. New regulations now limit the number of people who can visit the Similan Islands. Also, some of the islands are indefinitely closed to tourists. The number of people trying to visit the islands has not dropped, though. If you do not book everything well in advance there is a good chance that you may not be able to secure a permit.
- When to Dive: The Similan Islands, like the Surin Islands, are open between October 16 and May 15. Throughout the rest of the year access to the islands and the waters around them are off limits. This allows the coral around the island recover.December through February are the best months to dive. These months experience the least amount of rain on the Andaman side.
- Where to Dive: Since you will be doing these dives via liveaboard, you will see a variety of sites around the island.Most liveaboards will go to the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock and then the Surin Islands at the end. So that you can get an idea of where you will be diving, I’ll take you through the top sites around the Similan Islands.
- Elephant Head Rock- I’ve talked to many divers who have dove the Similan Islands. The one response I always get is that Elephant Head Rock was one of the more interesting dives they’ve made. You will swim through giant granite boulders which create a maze of channels for you to explore. The max depth of the site is around 40m (131ft) so you will need an advanced open water certification for this one.The divers I’ve spoken with also reported the currents to be strong here. This is a great spot to find an incredible variety of marine life. You can find turtles swimming through the boulders and giant grouper and starfish. Giant barracuda often prowl the waters above the rocks.If you’re looking for sharks this is one of the better places. It is almost guaranteed that you will see medium sized sharks on this dive. Be on the lookout for whitetip reef sharks, leopard sharks, and blacktip reef sharks. Check out this video which does an amazing job of showing off the more interesting parts of this site.
- Christmas Point- this is another site often touted as one of the best around the Similan Islands. Like Elephant Head Rock, this site has granite boulders which have created some impressive underwater formations. The marine life here is varied and abundant. You can see everything from sharks and rays to micro life great for photographers. Be on the lookout for whitetip reef sharks and leopard sharks. If you are lucky, you may come across a guitarfish. Many divers will tell you that the real treat here are the colorful ribbon eels which swim around this site. The yellow and blue of these eels makes for some excellent photography. Other fish around this site are giant barracuda, humphead wrasse, and oriental sweetlips. Smaller fish around the coral include fire goby, clownfish, starfish, and more. This is also a good spot to see whale sharks and giant manta rays. Another thing good about Christmas Point is that it wasn’t affected by the 2010 coral bleaching. The coral around here is still largely alive and intact. To see what I mean, check out this awesome video.
- Hideaway Bay- since the other sites are for experienced divers, I’ll close out with one for all levels. This dive is in a shallow bay with loads of coral and some very colorful marine life. It gets deeper around the area where the granite boulders are. The site ranges in depth between 7m and 35m (22ft and 114ft). The reef is on the shallower parts of the site which is great for beginners. Unlike other sites around the Similan Islands, the currents here aren’t strong.The coral here is quite plentiful. You can find a variety of hard and soft coral as well as a large number of sea fans. This site also wasn’t affected by the coral bleaching of 2010 as much as others in the area.As for the marine life you can find large and small fish and everything in between. This is a great place to see blue spotted stingray which are common around Thailand. There are also a few prominent fields full of garden eels. Giant moray eels are quite common around the area as well as the more colorful ribbon eel. If you are into photography you can find smaller life too including clown fish and batfish. I will say that this is one of the more popular dive sites because of its depth and the calm currents. It is often very crowded. Make sure that you remember your boat before going into the water so you know where to go when you get out. Here is an excellent video that shows off some of the smaller critters you can see around the site.
The Similan Islands are a diver’s paradise like no other. This is continually ranked as one of the best places for diving in the world. Usually held up next to places like the Cocos Islands.You should be aware that there are new regulations which have come into place as of 2018. These will affect diving in this are in the future. These changes are for the best and will help the reefs and islands recover from decades of mass tourism.
As mentioned above, single use plastics of any kind are not allowed on or around the islands. Also, the number of visitors allowed is a little over 3,000 people each day. The number of divers allowed is a little over 500 a day.A few of the islands are now closed indefinitely for both visiting and diving. This won’t affect the most famous sites but it does mean traffic is going to increase at other sites to pick up the slack. The limit on divers each day should help to ease this.
Lastly, entry-level courses are now banned from taking place around the islands. This means you will need to be certified before making the trip or you will be out of luck. Advanced courses such as nitrox training are still allowed. You are also now required to have insurance to visit and dive the islands.
Practical Advice for Diving in Thailand
Thailand is one of the best places for divers of all levels. But, you need to make sure that you are sticking to your experience level. If there is one thing that I can’t stress enough it’s that you are the only person responsible for your own safety.
In my experience, most of the dive operators are great. The dive masters they hire are focused on safety and do their best to make sure you are at the right level for any dive you go on. But, this isn’t always the case. Accidents do happen. One thing about Thailand is that things can go wrong quickly. Safety standards are well below many other nations and this can extend to diving.
As I said, my experiences have been great. I have always dove with schools that take care of the equipment and with masters committed to safety. But, it’s on you to research any dive school you intend to go with. Do your research online and ask around before you commit to diving with any school. The dive community around Thailand is tight knit. Fellow divers will tell you which schools are good and which to avoid.
The waters around Thailand stay warm throughout the year and you shouldn’t need a wetsuit. I usually like to wear a 1mm wetsuit to protect against sea lice or ther itchy critters. But, it is quite unnecessary. The exception to this will be any deep dives you make during the rainy season. These can be chilly and you may want a 3mm wetsuit for these. The dive master you go with can tell you the conditions for that day so you can equip yourself.
Finally, I cannot stress enough that you should have dive insurance for your trip. Many of the sites you will be going to can be around remote islands. If anything goes wrong and you need emergency assistance you may have to take a trip in a helicopter or speed boat. These aren’t cheap. Neither is treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. If you need emergency assistance expenses can add up fast.
Are you excited about diving in Thailand now?
I’ve dove in many countries around Asia and Central America but I always come back to Thailand for more. This country has provided me with some of the best diving I’ve ever experienced and I hope I’ve piqued your interest.
Have you been diving in Thailand before?
If you have experience diving in Thailand and want to add something leave a comment. We enjoy hearing from divers of all skill levels and would love to hear from you.