For such a small province, Satun sure packs a lot in. The last stop on Thailand’s scenic Andaman Coast before you reach Malaysia, this is a wonderful region to explore with incredible islands and expansive National Parks. Nestled serenely in a corner of Thailand that mostly flies under the tourist radar, Satun is ideal if you’re seeking a tranquil tropical escape.
In 2018, an area covering four districts of Satun province was designated as Thailand’s first UNESCO Global Geopark. The area is home to a range of striking topographical features and the park includes dozens of uninhabited islands, imposing limestone mountains, waterfalls, vast caves and prehistoric sites.
Travel with a guide and take a sea kayak to the imposing Prasat Hin Phan Yod sinkhole on Ko Khao Yai. Adventurous travellers can also kayak through Tham Le Stegodon, a huge cave which is named after the stegodon fossils which have been discovered here. More fossils and evidence of ancient human habitation have been unearthed at Phu Pha Phetch Cave where a gap in the roof allows sunlight to stream in and illuminate the stalactites and stalagmites.
The UNESCO listing also covers the cultural heritage of Satun and acknowledges the work that has been done here to promote conservation, education and responsible tourism.
National Marine Parks and island hopping in Satun
Although there are a number of interesting locations on mainland Satun, there’s no denying that it’s the islands in the Andaman Sea that are the main draw for Thai and international tourists.
Tarutao National Marine Park encompasses 51 islands, many of them uninhabited. The archipelago is a haven for wildlife with monitor lizards, dusky langurs, fishing cats, hornbills and wild pigs amongst the creatures found here. This area of the Andaman Sea is also the location for Mu Ko Petra National Marine Park which includes islands in Satun as well as neighbouring Trang province.
Please note that there is an entrance fee to enter National Parks in Thailand. The fee is often included in the price of day tour tickets, but ask to make sure. Travelling independently, you will notice that park fees are sometimes collected at the point of departure e.g. at Pak Bara pier in Satun. For Tarutao National Marine Park, the entrance fee for non-Thais is 200 Baht (100 Baht for children). Tickets are valid for five days so keep it on your person at all times when travelling to islands within the park.
Of all the locations in Satun, Ko Lipe is the one which attracts the most tourists. Fringed with soft white sand and surrounded by inviting turquoise seas, the diminutive island is the best-known destination in Satun.
You’ll find a good range of accommodation and dining options on Ko Lipe making it an attractive destination for visitors ranging from solo travellers to couples and families. The compact size of the island makes walking a convenient way to get around, but motorbike taxis with sidecars are also available. If you’d like to arrange snorkelling or diving trips, that can be arranged at any of the tour offices on Walking Street.
The popularity of the island has soared in recent years. While Lipe old-hands may bemoan the development that has taken place on the island, it remains a stunning location to visit and a great base to explore surrounding islands in the Tarutao National Marine Park.
Read more about Ko Lipe and Tarutao National Marine Park
Ko Adang and Ko Rawi
A quick longtail boat ride across from Ko Lipe brings you to Ko Adang. Although the island is considerably bigger than neighbouring Ko Lipe, the protected status means accommodation options are limited. However, it is possible to stay overnight in National Park accommodation (tents or bungalows) and for anyone seeking seclusion for a few days, Ko Adang is a good option. And with easy access to Ko Lipe, you have creature comforts close at hand if you need them.
Some of the best snorkelling sites in the Tarutao Marine Park can be found in the waters off Ko Rawi where you will find an array of tropical fish and corals.
Ko Tarutao might not be the most beautiful island in Satun, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting. And with empty beaches and an abundance of wildlife, it’s a relaxing place to unwind.
In the late 1930s, this remote island was a penal colony with a number of political prisoners detained here. Those dark days are long gone, but the remnants of old prison camps can still be seen on the island. Ko Tarutao still has a remote feel to it and with the only accommodation being National Park bungalows or tents, it’s a good choice for a serene break away from the crowds.
Ko Bulon Leh
If Ko Lipe seems too mainstream for your taste and Ko Tarutao too basic, the charming island of Ko Bulon Leh may be just what you are looking for. Visitors here will find a few low-key resorts to choose from and a welcoming local community making Bulon a great place to kick off your shoes and relax into island life.
Ko Hin Ngam
If you visit Ko Hin Ngam, be sure to stick to the adage of, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints”. Ignore this sage advice at your peril. This tiny island features a beach of striped pebbles which, according to local legend, are cursed by the ‘God of Tarutao’ and anyone who takes a stone away from the island will suffer misfortune.
There is another local legend that applies to Ko Khai and the island’s iconic natural rock archway. Local belief says that if you walk through the arch with your partner you will be assured eternal love. And if you’re single, you will find the love of your life.
There is no accommodation on Ko Khai, but the island can be visited as part of a day trip from Ko Lipe. Some scheduled speedboat services between Ko Tarutao and Ko Lipe also include a brief stopover at Ko Khai.
People of the Sea
The islands in the Andaman Sea are home to seafaring indigenous people. The different groups – Urak Lawoi, Mokken and Moklen – share things in common, but have their own culture. The term that Thai people use to describe all the groups is ‘Chao Ley’ which translates as ‘People of the Sea’. Sometimes referred to in English as ‘sea gypsies’, the Chao Ley were settled on the islands in the Andaman Sea long before the first tourists arrived. In Satun province, Chao Ley communities continue to live in small villages on Ko Lipe and Ko Bulon.
Travel on the Satun mainland and you’ll soon notice the importance of Islam to the local communities. As always, wherever you are in Thailand if you respect local culture you’ll be warmly welcomed.
Most visitors to Satun province head straight to the islands via Hat Yai, Trang or Pak Bara and bypass Satun Town. While the quiet provincial capital isn’t packed with must-see sites, spending time here is an enjoyable way to sample the culture of Satun.
Visit the elegant Sino-Portugueses mansion that houses the Satun National Museum and admire the architecture of Satun Central Mosque. From Satun Town, head inland to explore the mountains and forests of Thale Ban National Park.
The small fishing town of Pak Bara is the main point of departure for boats to Ko Tarutao, Ko Lipe and Ko Bulon. Tour offices in Pak Bara can organise boat transfers and snorkelling trips, but if you’re travelling via Trang or Hat Yai, you may find it easier to book transfers from tour offices there.
Travel to Satun
The nearest airports on the Thai mainland are Trang and Hat Yai. If you are travelling to Ko Lipe from Bangkok, low-cost airlines Air Asia and Nok Air have previously offered a combination ticket that includes flight to Hat Yai, minibus transfer to Pak Bara and ferry to Ko Lipe.
Depending on the departure time, boats from Pak Bara to Ko Lipe will stop at either Ko Bulon Leh or Ko Tarutao to drop off and pick-up passengers. During the high season, some Lipe bound speedboats will also make a brief sightseeing stop at Ko Khai.
You can book National Park accommodation on Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang at the office adjacent to Pak Bara pier. It used to be possible to book online using the Department of National Parks website, but the process can be frustrating to say the least and it’s easier to book in person.
If you’re travelling by train, Trang Town is an ideal place to stop and spend a night or two before making onward travel arrangements to Satun and the islands. Another option is to travel by train to Hat Yai.
The best time to visit Satun and the islands is from November-April. The Tarutao National Marine Park is closed from mid-May to mid-October.
There are cash machines and money exchangers on Ko Lipe, but not on any of the other islands so make sure you have enough Thai baht with you.