The abiding image of Thailand’s Andaman Coast is of long sandy beaches backed by swaying palms and a verdant hinterland of rainforest. Centered on Ko Phuket, the upper half of this coast has many attractions. This region suffered the most from the 2004 tsunami, in particular Ranong, the Surin, Similan, and Phi Phi islands, but rebuilding and environmental restoration work has been swift.
The Andaman Coast around Phuket has long been a magnet for Thais and foreigners. Merchants were drawn by its strategic position on the spice routes between East and West (see pp350–51); prospectors came for the rich tin deposits. This is a lush, fertile region. Much of the interior is cloaked in rainforest, and rubber, coffee, cashew, banana, and durian plantations are common.
The outstanding natural beauty of the Andaman Coast is known the world over. The biggest draw in the region is Phuket, now a resort island, which has superb beaches, excellent diving facilities, and the most developed tourist infrastructure in Southern Thailand. Over the last 20 years, many traditional sea gypsy and Muslim fishing villages on Phuket and around Krabi have been transformed into vacation resorts. Long-tail boats take visitors to sights like the extraordinary limestone stacks of Phangnga Bay. In remote mangrove channels – accessible only by canoe – otters, monkeys, and sea eagles still live undisturbed.
There is outstanding scenery and diving around Ko Phi Phi, though it is now firmly on the tourist trail. Visitors wanting sand and sun without the crowds head for relatively undeveloped islands such as Ko Lanta. Unspoiled beach resorts can be found along the stretch of coast from Ranong to Phuket, and the virgin rainforest of Khao Sok National Park is located inland. West of here, the Ko Surin and Ko Similan archipelagos offer some of the world’s best dive sites. The southwest monsoon, which lasts from about June to October, makes some of the outer islands inaccessible