Koh Wua Ta Lap and its spectacular viewpoint of the surrounding islands is a common destination for tourists coming from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. What few people know is that you can elect to camp overnight on this small island as part of any tour.When the day boats go home, only a handful of guests and park staff remain. As you stretch your toes in the fine white sand, one of the most popular marine parks in Thailand feels like your own private island.
The first stop on our tour to Angthong Marine Park was to Koh Mae (Mother Island) to see views of Thale Nai (Emerald Lake.) This lagoon was the inspiration behind the book and movie ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Scenes from the film were shot on location at the ‘Blue Lagoon’ (as it is nicknamed in the movie) as well as other places in Thailand such as Koh Phi Phi. The Emerald Lake is believed to have once been a giant limestone cave who’s roof collapsed overtime due to rainfall erosion.Linked to the sea through an underground passage, this salt water lake measures 250 meters in length, 20 meters wide, and 7 meters deep.
The stairs up to the viewpoint and down to the edge of the lake were narrow and steep. Climbing down the stairs, fit for a size 4 shoe, I had to hold on to the railing, carefully placing one foot on each small step in front of me. The slow shaky descent was worth it. Even from a close distance, the lake maintains its spectacular emerald sheen while still being surprisingly clear. Peering down into the water you can see crabs, urchins, and schools of fish that have made their way through the underwater tunnels to thrive in the safety of the lake’s protected waters.
After our visit to the Emerald Lake, we headed back to our tour boat to feast on a buffet style lunch of Massaman chicken curry, spring rolls, and all the fresh pineapple you could dream of. The meal was impressive for pre-made bulk dishes fit to serve a group of more than 50. As we replenished and re-hydrated, our boat slowly floated towards our second island of the day- Koh Wua Ta Lap (Sleeping Cow Island.)
Having elected to camp overnight on Koh Wua Ta Lap, we arranged a time with our tour guide to meet the next day for our ride back and made our way to the park headquarters to organize our tents for the night. The park staff did all the heavy lifting, setting up our tents and bedding while we cooled off with a beer at the island’s only restaurant. Once our tents were made, we stored our overnight bags, and set off to enjoy the fine white sand beach and views of the island-dotted ocean.
By 3:30 the last of the slow boats and speed boats headed back to Koh Samui and Phangan. We scrambled to grab a final beer from the closing beach side shop and sat down on our blanket to enjoy the last of the sun and a now pristine, empty beach.
As sunset approached, we changed our clothes in preparation for what we knew would be a humid, sweaty hike up to Koh Wua Ta Lap’s famous view point. The climb up was more intense than our tour guides had warned us. From the get go, we were using our hands and ropes to pull ourselves up over rocks and thick roots. Thankfully, the trail has several viewpoints on the way up, allowing us to stop and rest while taking in the beautiful scenery. Each vista overlooking the turquoise blue water and dappled islands was more stunning than the last.
When we were 50 meters from the top and felt like we had made it, we made a turn around the last bend of the trail to see a final stretch of jagged limestone standing between us and the wooden viewing platform. Well worn foot and hand holds of previous visitors created smooth and slippery sections of rock while other portions remained sharp to the touch. We climbed on all fours, using our hands and feet to keep us sturdy as we crept over the rock towards our final destination. The viewpoint lived up to all of its hype. From all the time I have spent in Thailand, I’ve never seen a more picture perfect view than the sun setting over the Angthong archipelago.
During our time in Indonesia weeks earlier, trekking up volcanoes for sunrise views was the thing to do. We decided Angthong would be the perfect place to catch the final sunrise of our vacation break. I woke up several times to peer out the tent and check to see if orange was seeping into the horizon. It was only us sitting on the beach and one park staff jogging up at down the short stretch of beach. We sat in silence together as the clear morning sky filled with soft pinks and oranges.
After a few more hours of soaking up the sun we prepped for our final hike of the trip to Buaboke Cave. Sleepy eyed from the sunrise wake up and still sore from the hike the day prior, we set off on the beach side trail. The hike was steep but short and we soon found ourselves at the entrance of what we thought was a modest sized cave. As the trail continued, however, we realized that what we thought was the main entrance to the cave, was actually just a small passage compared to the large cavern opening before us. The path continued through the cave to yet another opening on the other side. The cave was full of incredible stalagmite and stalactites and well worth the sticky 30 minute hike.
If you make a visit to Koh Samui or Koh Phangan, a trip to the Angthong National Marine Park is a must-do. Looking out from the viewpoint at Koh Wua Ta Lap, I crossed off a tick on my bucket list I didn’t even know I had. I got to witness a sight so undeniably beautiful, that I had finally made it into the postcard-perfect destination that made me first want to travel to far away beaches as a young girl.
View Point: Witnessing this spectacular view is what makes the trip unforgettable.
Sunrise: Watching the sunrise over the pristine and empty beach at Koh Wua Ta Lap is worth every hour of missed sleep. Not only will the colors rising over the sea and distant Koh Samui leave you in awe, but it will also get you up early enough for a couple more hours of unadulterated beach time before the crowds retake the island.
Dusky Leaf Monkeys: These monkeys are the permanent residents of Koh Wua Ta Lap and you are almost guaranteed a sighting if you stay overnight. These monkeys make their way down from the hills to roam through trees, bushes, and trashcans near the park headquarters at dusk and in the early morning.
Daytime crowds: While unavoidable, and understandable given the beauty of the place, the steady stream of crowds as you hike to the Emerald Lagoon and laze around on the shore of Koh Wua Ta Lap will definitely put a damper on the otherwise picturesque sights of the Marine Park.
Getting In and Out
The only way to get to the many islands of the Anthong Marine Park (if you don’t have the cash to charter your own boat) is to choose between one of the many tour operators offering day trips from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
Most tours will pick you up between 7:30 and 9:00 a.m. from your accommodation and drop you back off around 5:00 p.m. that same evening. A minivan will take you to the pier to get on your designated tour boat. A standard slow boat tour costs about 1,400 baht per person and will include a park fee of 200 baht, lunch, water, and soft drinks. On a slow boat tour it will take about an hour and a half to arrive at your first Angthong island destination. A more luxurious speedboat tour, which will get you to the islands in half the time, will costs anywhere from 2000 to 3000 baht. Most guesthouses and hotels will provide you with a bounty of tour brochures to chose from and will help you to call and reserve your tour.
Each tour operation has its own itinerary and activity options. Most often, tours offer hikes to the Emerald Lake Viewpoint and a stop at Koh Wua Ta Lap. In addition most provide kayaking or guided snorkeling. With Samui Island Tour, kayaking costs an extra 450 baht. From what I have seen on the two Angthong tours I have taken, I don’t think either of these extra activities are worth the extra cost. Instead, I suggest renting a kayak from the National Park upon arriving at Koh Wua Ta Lap (see the essentials section below for more information on tour and park activities).
Both times I have gone to Angthong I have chosen to go with Samui Island Tour because their non-kayaking trip was 100 baht less than the other tours. They have always been very professional and well-organized. Knowing our intention to stay overnight, upon signing in we were immediately guided to an area where we could store our overnight bags. Later we were given clear instructions on where to meet the tour boat the next day to return to Koh Samui. They were also happy to accommodate our complex travel plans. They provided us with information on how to catch a ferry to Koh Phangan directly after the end of our tour from the adjacent pier.
Koh Wua Ta Lap Viewpoint Hike: On both our tours to Angthong, the guides warned the day tourists that the viewpoint hike is a steep climb up and that they recommend wearing closed toed shoes. What they fail to mention is that the last 50 meters of the climb to the viewpoint is over sharp jagged limestone rock. It is doable in flip flops, Lex in fact did it barefoot, but it is not a choice I’d recommend for the less hardy traveler. The viewpoint hike is a quite strenuous 1 hour, 500 meter climb to the top. Luckily, there are viewpoints every 100 meters where you can stop to take a break on your way to the top.
Staying overnight at Koh Wua Ta Lap: The Anthong Marine Park headquarters at Koh Wua Ta Lap offers 6 basic bungalows and camping tents to rent. Bunaglows need to be booked at least 60 days in advance and cost 600 baht for a two bedroom room. For more information on booking a Bunaglow check out the park website. To ultimately book the reservation you will need to head to the Thai Department of National Park’s website.
Renting a tent, on the other hand, can be done without any advanced notice. You can rent a tent for 150 baht per person. Simply head towards the national park headquarters (next to the island’s restaurant) when you arrive. They will assemble the tent and provide modest bedding including a thin pad, blanket, and pillow. You can also bring your own tent to camp at the park head quarters. There is a small restaurant on the island to provide your meals during an overnight stay.
If you are planning on staying overnight, you’ll simply need to do is tell your tour operator when booking the day tour. They are used to overnight guests and will help you to store your bag on board and give you instructions for when they will pick you up the next day.
Island Activities: While many day tours offer the option of snorkeling tours, or include free snorkeling, I’ve only heard negative things about the quality of the snorkeling around the Angthong Islands. The water around the islands is relatively shallow and full of sea urchins — an unappealing combination I have no interest in trying out myself. Furthermore, the number of boats coming and going every day stirs up sediment and reduces the visibility around the popular Angthong islands.
Many tours also offer guided kayak trips as part of the day trip. This, however, is not your chance to glide along the island coasts and take in private, unsullied views of the archipelago from the sea. Instead, you’ll find yourself in a long slow line of fellow kayakers, never far from sight of the tour boat and other visitors you’ll soon reunite with. (This may not be the case with tour companies specializing in solely kayak tours, such as Blue Stars Tours, which includes special cave kayaking.)
A better option is to rent kayaks from the park head quarters to check out some of the other beaches and islands near Koh Wua Ta Lap. They cost 500 baht and are usually not included in tour prices, so if you are visiting the park to be sure to ask your tour operator if that’s part of the package.
When to Visit: Angthong is a great place to visit most anytime of the year, except when it hits peak rainy season in November and December. During this time of year wild waves will make the boat rides unpleasant (if not downright dangerous) and the visibility poor. In general, check the weather before booking your trip to Angthong. If rain and high winds are predicted, I’d suggest postponing your trip to avoid a rough and rocky ride. The Marine Park is usually closed in November and the first part of December anyways to make the decision easier. The start and end dates of the park closure adjust yearly depending on how light or heavy the rainy season is.
There is a warning sign posted at the park to be on the lookout for Box Jellyfish from June to September. When I visited for the first time last year in mid July, me and my friends got several minor stings from regular jelly fish when swimming off the coast of Koh Wua Ta Lap.