by Harriet Bond
(San Francisco, CA, USA)
Thailand offers an impressive range of outdoor activities and special interests. The coastal regions are ideal for all kinds of aquatic pursuits from sailing, waterskiing, jet-skiing, and windsurfing to big game fishing, snorkeling, and diving. Trekking in this spectacular region is also a popular pastime, especially in the forested hills and mountains of southern peninsular Thailand.
Coastal Thailand also has an extensive network of national parks. Exciting ways to explore the country’s natural wilderness include whitewater rafting and kayaking, canoeing, sailing, elephant riding, wildlife watching, and rock climbing.
Visitors can also take advantage of the growing number of excellent golf courses in various resorts such as Phuket and Hua Hin, or learn a variety of cultural skills such as Buddhist meditation forms, traditional Thai massage, and the delicious secrets of Thai food and culinary techniques.
DIVING AND SNORKELING
Abundant, gorgeous coral reefs thronging with aquatic life, and serviced by countless diving operations, make Thailand one of the world’s most accessible and rewarding destinations for underwater exploration. The Andaman coast and islands in particular, have some stunning reefs, ocean drop-offs, and submerged pinnacles, as well as visibility that often exceeds 100 ft (30 m). A rich variety of marine life – such as huge whale sharks off the exotic Burma Banks – can be spotted in these waters.
Much of the best diving is to be found in national marine parks, such as the Surin, Similan, and Ko Tarutao archipelagos; Ko Tao; and Ko Chang. The once magnificent Ko Phi Phi has not been protected by this reserve status, and has been damaged by anchoring and snorkelers breaking the coral.
Reckless fishing with dragnets, harpoons, and explosives has also killed some reefs, while siltation and pollution pose growing threats. Although the tsunami of 2004 caused a tragic loss of life, its effect on the coral reefs of the Andaman Sea was minimal.
Because of rough weather brought on by monsoons, the Andaman sites are accessible only from November to April; the waters of the Western Gulf are best visited between January and October. The Eastern Seaboard, however, is accessible all-year round.
Diving trips vary in length from one to several days, and many tours accommodate snorkelers also. The Asian Diver Scuba Guide: Thailand (Asian Diver) and Diving in Thailand (Asia Books) have comprehensive listings and details of dive sites. Additional information is available online at Dive Info, a good source of diving information. PADI approved divingcourses are widely available in Thailand.
The main centers offering courses are Dive Asia, Santana Diving and Canoeing, and Sunrise Divers in Phuket; Sea Dragon Dive Center in Khao Lak; Blue Diamond Dive Resort and Phoenix Divers in Ko Tao; Samui International Diving School in Ko Samui; Haad Yao Divers in Ko Phangan; Phi Phi Scuba and Viking Divers in Ko Phi Phi, Krabi; and Pattaya.
Basic diving rules include: inspecting equipment properly, making sure it fits well; only diving after adequate training; diving with a buddy system; making sure the group is not too large; being confident in the abilities of the instructor; and never touching the coral.
Snorkeling is an alternative to diving, since all one needs is the ability to swim. Medsye offers great snorkeling trips to the Similan Islands. Most hotels and guesthouses located near the reefs rent out equipment, but to make the most of the experience, it is best to buy one’s own. It is also important to be constantly aware of one’s position and not venture too far.