The Land of Smiles has been attracting divers to its shores for many a year. Scuba diving in Thailand is blessed with some excellent conditions; warm waters, gentle currents, and whale sharks await. But with a few different locations to choose from, where should you head to in order to experience the best diving that Thailand has to offer? The eastern Thai dive destinations include Pattaya, Koh Chang, Koh Tao, and Koh Samui, and to the west of the Malay Peninsula you will find Phuket, Khao Lak, Phi Phi, and Koh Lanta.
Choosing which Thai diving destination is best for you will depend on your experience level, what you want to see, and at what time of year you intend to travel.
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Dive In Thailand?
If you’re undertaking a long-distance flight to get to Thailand, you will probably want to avoid the rainy seasons and enjoy lots of tropical sunshine. The east and west coasts of Thailand experience different weather patterns, so you will need to plan accordingly to get the best from the weather. In simple terms, when planning a diving holiday in Thailand, you should aim to avoid the monsoons. Thailand experiences a northeast monsoon and a southwest monsoon, and they affect different areas of the country.
The northeast monsoon typically begins around mid-October and ends in mid-February. With the prevailing wind coming from the northeast at this time of year, the dive sites in the Gulf of Thailand will be likely to be enduring its wetter weather. Conversely, this time of year yields the best diving conditions on the west coast of Thailand.
The southwest monsoon begins late in May and ends in mid-October. With the wind now blowing from the southwest, the west coast of Thailand will be the wetter part of the country, and the Gulf side will be experiencing their dry season.
Diving Thailand’s West Coast
Thailand’s largest island is one of its best known too. Phuket International Airport has recently undergone an extensive expansion programme, and it’s now easier than ever to find a flight direct to the southern islands. Phuket’s diving is a mixture of day trips and liveaboard diving. Day trips head to the Racha Islands and the dive sites at the Phi Phi Islands, as well as Shark Point, Anemone Reef, and the King Cruiser Wreck.
The Phi Phi dive sites include the Bidas – Bida Nok and Bida Nai. These two dive sites offer great chances of seeing reef sharks and are often visited by whale sharks too. Shark Point and Anemone Reef are good places to spot leopard sharks and seahorses, and the Racha Islands are perfect for inexperienced divers to enjoy the relaxed diving on offer.
Phuket is also a departure point for liveaboards to the Similan Islands, but the journey usually starts with a two-hour drive north to Khao Lak.
To the north of Phuket lies the town of Khao Lak – the gateway to the Similan Islands. The Similans are generally considered to be the home of Thailand’s best dive sites. Richelieu Rock, Koh Bon, and Koh Tachai. Dive centers operate large speedboats to the Similans as day trips, but much of Khao Lak’s diving is done from a liveaboard. Liveaboards often run 4-day schedules to take you out to enjoy the whale sharks and manta rays that often visit the west coast dive sites.
Richelieu Rock, often touted as Thailand’s best dive site, sits to the north of the Similan Islands and offers great chances of diving with whale sharks. The pinnacle is cloaked in red soft corals, and its name is attributed to the way these soft corals resemble the plush red cloak worn by Cardinal Richelieu.
Koh Bon can experience some strong currents, but this site is the best place to see manta rays. The currents can be challenging at times, but the reward of watching the mantas at the cleaning stations is spectacular. The dive site also attracts many smaller critters, with seahorses, Harlequin shrimp, and ornate ghostpipefish hiding amongst the cracks and crevices in the rocks.
Phi Phi Islands
The Phi Phi Islands were a favorite Thai diving destination well before Leonardo DiCaprio and friends filmed The Beach at Maya Bay. Phi Phi Don is the island with the resorts, and Phi Phi Ley is uninhabited. At the southern end of Koh Phi Phi Ley are the two Bida Islands, Bida Nok and Bida Nai. Bida Nok offers very good chances of seeing black-tipped reef sharks cruising in the shallows and leopard sharks resting in the sand. With turtles, ornate ghost pipefish, frogfish, and mantis shrimp to keep you entertained, Bida Nok can be stunning.
Bida Nai sits next to Bida Nok and offers similar underwater encounters, with seahorses being quite common here too.
On the way back to Phi Phi Don, you will pass by the Kled Gaeow Wreck. The Kled Gaeow was purposefully sunk in 2014 as a new artificial dive site. The wreck quickly became home to myriad species of marine life and is an easy but rewarding dive.
Koh Lanta is often regarded as the best land-based diving in Thailand. The island sits just south of Krabi Town and is the best jumping off point to dive at Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. The twin pinnacles of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang are Thailand’s deepest dive sites, with the bottom dropping away past 70 meters. Hin Daeng translates as Red Rock in English, and is blanketed with predominantly red soft corals, while Hin Muang means Purple Rock, and is mainly covered in purple soft corals. Both dive sites serve as cleaning stations for passing manta rays and whale sharks and are considered Thailand’s best dives outside the Similan Island group.
Dive centres on Koh Lanta also run regular trips to the Phi Phi dive sites, as well as the stunning Koh Ha. Koh Ha translates as Five Islands, and this mini-island group rises majestically from the azure Andaman Sea. Whale sharks regularly grace the waters around Koh Ha, and the dive sites are also popular with underwater photographers looking for cool macro critters to photograph.
Frogfish, Harlequin shrimp, ornate and robust ghostpipefish, and seahorses are all readily found. As are turtles, morays, and a plethora of multi-coloured nudibranchs. Koh Ha is also famed for the Chimney and Cathedral dive sites. The Chimney is a vertical swim through on Koh Ha #1 and the Cathedral is a huge cavern on Koh Ha Yai dive site.
Diving Thailand’s East Coast
The bustling resort town of Pattaya offers the chance to log some dives close to Bangkok. Pattaya’s dive sites are popular with Bangkok divers, and the town’s proximity to Bangkok makes it an easy weekend getaway from the Thai capital. A taxi ride takes around two hours, and there are buses and minibuses running too.
Pattaya is great for wreck diving, and with the dive sites relatively close to shore, it’s perfect for a weekend of diving for Bangkok dwellers. The wrecks are good for spotting blue-spotted rays, resting bamboo sharks, groupers, and scorpionfish, but can experience some current at times.
The Far Islands, a little farther out, offer the chance for some reef dives too. At the Far Islands, you can expect to find hawksbill turtles, blue-spotted rays, and even the occasional eagle ray.
The stunning island of Koh Tao sits in the Gulf of Thailand, just north of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Samui. Above the surface, Koh Tao is idyllic, with the beautiful beaches often empty during the day as the majority of the island’s population is out diving. Koh Tao is a favorite destination for backpackers and is often their first port of call after Bangkok. The island is very much a dive island, with around 50 dive centres enjoying its calm waters. The large number of dive centres and lack of marine park helps keep the cost of diving down in Koh Tao.
Koh Tao is one of the best known places to learn to dive. While the diving is not particularly impressive, the gentle conditions and cheap course prices have made it one of the world’s busiest dive locations in terms of the number of Open Water certifications issued.
The Gulf of Thailand is essentially a huge bay, with limited water movement. This lack of currents makes for relaxing, easy dives, but also means there is less marine biodiversity compared with the west coast dive sites. Still, Koh Tao is often visited by whale sharks, and there’s always a good chance of seeing a turtle (Koh Tao translates as Turtle Island).
Thailand’s second largest island has been a big draw for tourists over the years. The island is easily reached by flight from Bangkok, and the large range of accommodation and amenities make it a great holiday island.
Unfortunately, the waters around Koh Samui are not great for diving, and much of Koh Samui’s diving takes place in the dive sites of nearby Koh Tao. In between Koh Samui and Koh Tao lies Koh Pha-Ngan, and off the north of Pha-Ngan is the dive site known as Sail Rock. Sail Rock juts out of the water and provides the best dive in Thailand’s Gulf. The rock is covered with healthy hard corals and is densely populated with fish life, including large numbers of barracuda and batfish, and there’s a very good chance of a whale shark here too.
An alternative to Pattaya, Koh Chang is also easily reached from Bangkok. And, as Thailand’s third largest island, Koh Chang is a great place to dive. The island is more laid-back and less developed than Koh Samui or Phuket and offers a great place to relax and chill. Underwater, Koh Chang houses Thailand’s largest wreck – the HTMS Chang Wreck. It was sunk as an artificial reef off Koh Chang in November 2012 and is a great dive for advanced and experienced divers.
With around thirty dive sites to explore, you need more than a weekend in Koh Chang, and the reef dives include sightings of turtles, nudibranchs, moray eels, and some larger fish such as trigger fish and barracuda. The world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, is an occasional visitor, so you should keep your fingers crossed and one eye on the blue.
Our Final Thoughts…
Scuba diving in Thailand can be a fantastic experience. The warm water, gentle currents, and frequency of whale shark encounters ensure it remains a popular choice for divers. More experienced divers will prefer the deeper water and more varied marine life of Thailand’s west coast, whilst backpackers flock to Koh Tao in the east to earn their Open Water licences. Enjoy the great diving, superb beaches, and tasty-but-spicy cuisine in one of the world’s best tourist destinations. The Land of Smiles is waiting to welcome you to its excellent dive sites.