Many parts of Southeast Asia are famous for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. There are few parts of the world with as many great areas to get your face and body under the water than over here in the tropics. Countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, in particular, have world-class snorkeling and diving sites. If you’re thinking of getting your open water certification, want to get dives in, or love snorkeling, Southeast Asia is the place. Today we’ll chat about our favorite locations to get in and under the water and share tips from some of our friends. Get ready to get wet!
Following is a rough transcript of Talk Travel Asia Podcast Episode 48, Snorkeling & SCUBA Diving in Southeast Asia.
Trevor: Something I’m well aware of, while exploring beaches and island around the region for over a decade as a travel writer, I rarely go anywhere along the coast without a mask in my bag.
Scott: I was quite into diving when I first moved here in 1999, did a number, then stuck to snorkeling for quite a while but started diving again a couple years ago. While I like diving, I found I was seeing the same things and didn’t want to spend the money and time seeing more clown fish. Snorkeling is a solid, and almost free, way to enjoy under the water.
Trevor talks about some things to keep in mind when diving/snorkeling in the region, explaining that, unless you’re an experienced diver, you should know that diving can be dangerous. You have to sign a waiver saying that you won’t hold someone responsible for your death. You need to trust the people who operate the dive, their equipment, and their knowledge of the water conditions.
Scott follows-up by reminding listeners about not flying 24-hours after diving, doing some research to ensure the provider is reputable (boats go down in Thailand), ensuring the sites are at your ability, and checking the quality of reefs and water clarity online. Things change quick here (e.g. Similan Islands being shut, kidnappings in Borneo)
Scott and Trevor then get into it, going through some of the spots they’ve snorkeled and dove at, ones they’ve heard about, and ones their friends recommended by country:
Trevor: Thailand has a global reputation for diving, but I find that most people who have a lot of diving experience around the world are generally disappointed. Thailand has a horrible track-record for preserving its environment and the cost of developing all its coastlines and islands has been the destruction of its undersea marine environment. In recognition of this fact, the Thai government recently closed the island of Ko Tachai indefinitely, starting October 15 of this year. That said, Thailand still has some fantastic underwater attractions, and, if you’ve never dove before, there are some good opportunities for learning, here and there; for experienced divers, you need to generally temper your expectations.
Regarding the Gulf vs Andaman coasts, the gulf (east) side is pretty much beginner-land for divers and offers very little in the way of good snorkeling. According to Wikipedia, the gulf coast of Thailand has 120sq km of coral reef; only five percent of which are considered to be in fertile condition. Ko Samui and Ko Phangan have virtually no snorkeling opportunities of note; Ko Tao is still hugely popular for getting your dive certification (it has long been tied with Cairns, Australia as the destination providing the most diving certifications), but it’s a tiny island overrun with snorkelers and divers.
Scott: I dove around Ko Tao a number of years ago – more than a decade actually and enjoyed the dives. I did them with both large dives schools (and crowds) and with a small operator away from the crowds out of a longtail. Pretty good options of sites and price is low. I also did a couple dives off Ko Chang more than a decade ago. It was okay and was more just to get dives in. The waters are super tropical around there but it’s not one of the region’s top dive spots. That said, if you’re over here in the tropics and wanting to dive, you could do much worse.
Trevor: I still think a day-trip on a longtail boat around Ko Tao, snorkeling here and there is probably the best snorkeling experience in the gulf, but diving, I would give it a pass (honestly, I say give the whole island a pass nowadays). Otherwise, the only place in the gulf I’ve been in recent years that was interesting at all, was the marine park off the island of Ko Kood, near the Cambodian border, which was still only moderately appealing.
The Andaman Coast is far better, but really only far from the tourist hordes. Ko Phi Phi and some of the islands around Phang Nga Bay had once been pretty solid. It used to be pretty normal to spot Leopard Sharks off Phi Phi Ley, but after the closing of Ko Tachai, I’ve heard rumors that they may close Phi Phi Ley’s Maya Bay next. This is the famous bay from the movie The Beach, which is simply inundated with day-trip boats from Phi Phi and Phuket.
Generally speaking, your best bet for diving and snorkeling on the Andaman Coast are the national parks north of Phuket: Mu Ko Similan and Mu Ko Surin Islands, though I hear that Phuket’s most famous site, Richelieu Rock is pretty impressive.
Scott: I’ve done a few dives out of Ao Nang, heading to the islands on the way to Ko Phi Phi. The diving was pretty decent with some nice fish life and so-so corral. One thing is that these waters can get pretty rough at times and have some decent currents which can really impact your visibility.
The BIG site on this coast are the Similan Islands, which are about 50km off of Khao Lak. You have to do liveaboard diving or out and back for a day which is a long, slow trip on a regular boat or about 1.25 hours or so on a speedboat. My wife and I did a day dive here in March 2016. We got two dives in and it was nice – not quite as amazing as I’d expected but nice. Relatively clear water, saw a big turtle, a few nice coral walls and some massive rocks.
Our friend Laurie in KL does a lot of diving in the region and said she’s been here in 2000 and it was incredible, then back in 2015 and it wasn’t nearly as good. While she liked it, she says there was coral bleaching here in 2010-11 and the corals aren’t as nice as before. We’ll have her recommendation for the company she used at the end of the show notes in the Links section.
Trevor: One dive site in Thailand still on my list is Hardeep Wreck off Pattaya, a WWII ship that I hear is a pretty sweet wreck dive, if you’re into that sort of thing: I hear its a bit challenging and only for people more into wrecks than fish, but I like diversity in my dives.
Scott: On that same coast, Ko Samet – Ko Ta Lu: was nice for a snorkeling trip. It’s about 30min by speedboat from the island and you can swim around the island more or less. Nice snorkeling and worth a trip out if you’re there.
Trevor: My coolest fish/ diving or experience from Thailand was the Leopard Sharks at Phi Phi Ley: I saw two doing a mating ‘dance’ one time and chilled out at the bottom beside another. For snorkeling it was the water quality and diversity of marine life off the Similan Islands.
Perhentian Islands: Trevor: I haven’t been to the Perhentians in nearly 20 years and then it was relatively undeveloped and recalled having good snorkeling and diving.
Scott: My wife and I went to the Perhentian Islands in July 2014 and did two dives in one day there. We hadn’t gone diving in years and it was fun enough. We had been expecting really great things based on everything we had heard but the water wasn’t overly clear that day. Saw the standard fish and such. Apparently the visibility wasn’t so hot due to it raining heavily the night before. I didn’t think of this but if you’re diving close to and island there’s a lot of wash-off during heavy rain and it impacts visibility. Still a nice outing.
Laurie says that Pulau Redang is her favorite place in Malaysia for diving. From KL, you can dive there in about 4.5 to 5 hours and then hop on the ferry for a 45-minute ride to the island. The island is beautiful with some long white beaches. Chance to see turtles, sharks, big schools of fish, really beautiful sea life. Depending on time of year, the visibility can be outstanding. I always go with the company Diver’s Den run by AB Lee and Sharon Khoo. They are outstanding people and great divers. Safety is of top concern. They also run underwater photography courses. I love these people and will go diving with them anywhere.
Langkawi: There is advertising for diving around here, I’ve heard you’ll see nice things but nothing that makes it stand-out or be really famous in the region.
Borneo – Sipadan – Trevor: Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my Sabah time in the interior, as I’ve heard good things about diving around Sipidan on the southwest tip.
Scott: This site on the far SE of Borneo is considered one of the best in the world. My wife and I almost went there but went to the Perhentian Islands instead. You have to fly at least one flight, for many people two flights. It’s very close to the Philippines and there have been people kidnapped by pirates around here. You mostly stay in the town of Semporna which I’ve heard is a dump and go out to the islands. There are not really places to stay right out on the islands and the ones that are out there have had people kidnapped. Great site – a bit dodgy at times.
Trevor: I have yet to find any good snorkeling in Cambodia. That said, I haven’t gone on a dedicated snorkeling or diving trip, just poked around a bit in the waters with my mask. Cambodia does have a reasonable collection of islands off the coast and the water is relatively clean this far from much development or run off.
I’ve talked to dive operators in Sihanoukville about diving, and have been told the best way to experience Cambodia’s marine world is via live-aboard as the best sites are far from the coast. Options include: Koh Rong and Koh Rong Saloem, Koh Kon (Koh Koun), Koh Tang and Koh Prins.
Scott: I dove out of Nha Trang about 20 years ago. We were traveling and wanted to dive. It wasn’t very good, saw a lot of sandy bottom, but like many of the dives I’ve mentioned, we were diving more to get out and do it where the water was warm, rather than cold water back in my native Canada.
Trevor: Obviously one of the premier dive sites in the world. With over 17,000 islands someone could easily do an entire podcast, not just a single episode, on diving and snorkeling in Indonesia. Flores, Komodo, Sulewesi: I think doing a live-aboard diving trip in Indonesia is probably on the bucket-list of any serious diver. Personally, however, my Indo diving and snorkeling is limited to Bali and the Gili Islands off Lombok.
On Bali, the best snorkeling is along the Amed coast. Bay after bay of shallow reefs and crystal clear water fed by the most powerful channel current in the world (that passing between Bali and Lombok, which you can see in the distance to the East). For divers, there are two wrecks in the area: one in Amed that can be enjoyed even snorkeling (the mast of the Japanese fishing boat is maybe 5-6 feet under the surface). The other dive, considered one of the top wreck dives in Asia, if not the world, is a bit farther north in Tulamben (where the snorkeling is not good).
The best diving in Bali is up north at Mejangan Island, part of the Bali Barat National Park, the only NP on the island. Amazing amount and variety of marine life. I know lots of serious divers go gaga about nudibranch. There were many here. I hear Indo in general has great environments for these colorful marine creatures.
Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida: I just checked out a new snorkeling spot on Nusa Lembongan, an island 30 minutes speedboat ride from Bali. At Nusa Penida I snorkeled with giant manta rays and swam beneath two, running my hands along their underbellies as they passed!
Laurie went to Gili Meno and says it was amazing: “We had a week of really beautiful dives with turtles almost every dive. Also plenty of interesting life – sea horses, frog fish, cuttle fish, octopus, etc. The dive shop we went with was fantastic – Divine Divers – run by a Dutch couple who were very friendly, safety of divers and the reef was top priority. One thing I loved was that after the dive, they were there to fill in log books and really talk about what was seen on the dive, bringing out books, giving great information. So many places don’t do things like this. They have a really nice group of rooms and a pool (they do dive courses in the pool of course but it is also nice to jump in after a dive). I am looking for an opportunity to go back to them as soon as possible.”
Trevor: According to the WWF, 70% of the coral reefs in the Philippines have been completely destroyed. That said, with more than 7,000 islands, there clearly must still be some phenomenal diving and snorkeling in the Philippines.
Coral reefs aside, I enjoy wreck dives, and I hear there are some great WWII shipwrecks in the Philippines, particularly in the waters surrounding Coron, of the Calamian Islands, such as The Taiei Maru (also known as Okikawa Maru). I also hear that Monad Shoal, Malapascua, is one of the few places in the world where divers stand a chance of seeing a thresher shark, instantly recognizable by its elegant, tapered tail.
Trevor: Papua New Guinea: aside from hearing amazing things about the interior: this must be one of the most unspoiled natural landscapes on earth, there has got to be some great diving too. Also, long on my bucket list for an “undiscovered” surf/dive destination: Palau.
Scott: Some of the islands in the Andaman Coast in Myanmar. They’re not really open yet, but one day it would be really great to see not only the islands around there but what’s under the water. And a wreck dive in general. I’ve heard there are some neat airplanes in the Philippines that you can see. And I’d like to dive with huge rays.
- Keep expectations in check
- Review the seasons and currents that can impact diving before going
- Do some research on who you’re diving with – there are a lot of companies that cut corners and you don’t want that
- Don’t touch coral – ensure you’re up to date on your skills and dive within your abilities – you’re often far from decompression chambers and such if needed
Links from Today’s Episode:
- Similan Islands: Our friend Laurie recommends Khao Lak Scuba Adventures:
- Pulau Redang: Divers Den
- Gili Meno: Divine Divers
- Green Fins Thailand
To learn more about Scott & Trevor:
- Follow Scott on Twitter: @scottcoates73
- Trevor’s Blog
- Scott’s Blog
- Groovy Map Seoul
- National Geographic Cambodia
- National Geographic Thailand
- Follow Talk Travel Asia on Twitter
- Follow us on Facebook
- Follow us on Instagram
- Follow us on Vine
- Theme Music by Jamie Ruben
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