Most visitors make a beeline for the beach when they reach Phuket, without realising that the centre of the island is covered in lush, tropical jungle, waterfalls and beautiful wildlife.
Additionally, the national park areas just off Phuket island, in Phang Nga, Krabi and Surat Thani provinces, are well worth the short drives.
It can be a marvellous break from the hustle and bustle of developed resort areas such as Patong, giving visitors a true taste of the Thai wilderness without go-go bars and wild beach parties.
Here are the main national parks on Phuket or within a three-hour journey of the island:
National Parks in Phuket
The Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary
A beautiful place for some light jungle trekking on the island, Khao Phra Thaeo National Park covers approximately 2,200 square kilometres of forest and serves as a nature preserve for many species of wild animals.
There are two beautiful waterfalls here that draw lots of Thai picnickers on the weekends. Bang Pae is the highest waterfall on the island, with a drop of about 18m. It’s a 10-minute walk to the waterfall from the parking area on the southeast edge of the park. Just next to the parking area is the information desk of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. Ton Sai waterfall is also located in Khao Prataew, but on the west side. 254 Moo 2, Thepkrasattri Rd., Thalang, Tel: (076) 311 998.
Sirinat Marine National Park
In the north of Phuket island, Sirinat National Park covers 90 square kilometres and includes the popular Nai Yang Beach. The land-based portion is home to many unusual plants and animals, while the majority of the park area encompasses the sea and mangrove forests. There are coral reefs about a 1,000m offshore in depths of four to seven metres. In addition, a convenient nature trail guides visitors on a light walk through the park, with signs in English and Thai. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 200/100 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 40/20 Baht. 89/1 Moo 1, Ban Nai Yang, Sakhu, Thalang. Tel: (076) 327 152, 328 226, Email.
National Parks in Phang Nga province
Similan Islands National Marine Park
The number-one place for scuba diving in Thailand, this national park encompasses 140 square kilometres and is known for its massive granite boulders both on land and under the water. The beautiful collection of 11 islands offers sparkling sands and clear waters that are sure to impress. Underneath the water is abundant sea life, including ghost pipe fish, sharks, mantas and the occasional whale shark, while above the waves is a variety of birds and mammals.
The Similans are about 70kms from Tab Lamu pier, near Khao Lak, and boat services are available from here and from Phuket. The park is open only in the high season (November-May – monsoon winds in the low season make for dangerous seas. Not all islands are open each year, with some closing to allow the reefs to recover from any damage. There are bungalows, restaurants and camping facilities on islands No 4 and No 8. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 500/300 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 100/50 Baht. 93 Moo 5, Lam Kan, Tai-Muang, Phang Nga. Tel: (076) 453 272, Email.
Khao Lak Lam Ru National Park
Often passed over in favour of the beach, Khao Lak Lam Ru should be visited if you are staying in Khao Lak and have a little time to spare. It rarely disappoints those that make the effort.
It covers 125 square kilometres and contains many mountains, the highest of which goes over 1,000m. Many rivers in Phang Nga province emerge through this park, including the Phang Nga and Takua Pa rivers. Inside the park are dense forests and wild animals – tigers, boars, deer, tapirs, gibbons, bears – and most visitors will want to head to the five-step Lam Ru waterfall, which flows year-round. The park is signposted on the main road just before reaching Khao Lak from the north. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 200/100 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 20/10 Baht. Moo 7, Khuek Khak, Takua Pa, Phang Nga. Tel: (076) 485 243, Email.
Surin Islands National Marine Park
Covering 135 square kilometres, this park lies just south of the Thai-Myanmar border in the Andaman Sea and 100kms north of the Similans. More than three-quarters of the park is sea and there are five main islands here that serve as shelter for fishing boats and as home to Moken sea gypsies. There is still relatively little pollution here and the islands are covered in lush jungle.
The healthy marine life consists of hard and soft corals and many species of fish and shark, making this a popular place for scuba diving despite its distance from tourist areas. Divers may have heard of Richelieu Rock, which is part of the this group and is noted for sightings of whale sharks. A ferry runs from Kuraburi to the islands, taking about four hours. Bungalows are available but should be booked in advance with the national park office on the mainland. Worth the 400 baht entrance fee for multi-day visits. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 500/300 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 100/50 Baht. Kuraburi, Phang Nga. Tel: (076) 472 145-6, Email.
National Parks in Surat Thani province
Khao Sok National Park
If you are visiting Phuket and you enjoy national parks, you should not miss out on Khao Sok. Just a few hours’ drive north of the island, through beautiful scenery, this park is located just inside Surat Thani province and encompasses 645 square kilometres. The park is mountainous and lush with tropical forests, and home to a variety of interesting plants and animals, as well as caves and a variety of impressive waterfalls.
Along with the charming national park accommodation, there are many resorts and bungalows, as well as quaint restaurants and massage shops, catering to visitors. Khao Sok Riverside Cottages is recommended for those who want to be close to nature but also need to have a nice room and good service.
The park also encompasses part of the Chiewlan Reservoir, which is about a third of the area of Phuket, and has spectacular limestone scenery similar to Phang Nga Bay. There are simple floating resorts on the water that offer a complete getaway from modern life. You’ll never know silence or starry nights like those on this huge lake. The best way to get to these resorts is by long-tail boat from the dam, which is reached via a turnoff in Baan Ta Khun on Highway 401. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 300/150 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 40/20 Baht. Moo 6, Khlong Sok, Phanom, Surat Thani. Tel: (077) 395 154-5, Email.
National Parks in Krabi province
Than Bok Korani National Park
If you are driving to Krabi this is a very worthwhile stop just off the main road at Ao Luek, Pha Nga Province. The park is situated among the distinctive and ubiquitous karst mounds scattered all over this region and consists of multiple caves with delightful, fairytale ponds of emerald green, flanked by tall cliffs and finished off with steps of gushing water. It’s better to visit during the week when you can have the whole place to yourself, and is certainly one of the best kept secrets in the area. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 300/100 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 60/30 Baht. 2/2 Moo 2, Ao Luk Tai, Ao Luk, Krabi. Tel: (075) 681 096, Email.
Hat Noppharat Thara National Park – Moo Koh Phi Phi
Often mistaken for being part of Phuket province, the Phi Phi Islands are actually within Krabi province and are located about 40kms southwest of Krabi Town. The two main islands of the park, Phi Phi Leh and Phi Phi Don, are famed for their backpacker charms and scuba diving. Accommodation is on Phi Phi Don, and Tonsai Bay is a popular hang-out for those in search of bars, massage shops, restaurants and scuba diving lessons.
There are no cars or motorbikes on Phi Phi, so transport to other parts of the island not within walking distance is made by longtail boat. Maya Bay was the location for the filming of the 2000 movie, The Beach, which starred Leonardo Di Caprio. Worth the 400 baht park entrance fee. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 400/200 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 40/20 Baht. 79 Moo 5, Ao Nang, Muang, Krabi. Tel: (075) 637 200, 661 145, Email.
Khao Phanom Bencha National Park
Another lovely place in Krabi province that few tourists ever get to, this 50-square-kilometre park features virgin rainforest set among a range of mountains (up to 1,350m, the highest point in Krabi) with several worthwhile waterfalls and a hiking trail, to boot. The park has a wide variety of animals and bird-life, which can sometimes be spotted and offers a camping ground set among pleasant surroundings at the entrance. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 100/50 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 20/10 Baht. 170 Moo 4, Tub Prik, Muang Krabi, Krabi. Tel: (075) 660 716-17.
Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Reserve
There are three very good reasons for visiting this small park. First, is the delightful walk through the forest – an easy couple of kilometres’ hike thanks to well kept paths and wooden walkways. Second, is the extraordinary Emerald Pool at the end of the walk. To see it at its best, get there early in the morning before the water gets stirred up by bathers. Third, is the possibility of spotting Gurney’s Pitta; one of the rarest birds in the world – indeed, thought to be extinct until a small flock was discovered in the park in 1986.
Not far from this park is Klong Thom, where natural hot spings cascade into a stream down a hillside. Over the eons, the water has carved natural basins in the rock, forming delightful warm baths. Entry: Foreign (Adults/Children): 200/100 Baht; Thai (Adults/Children): 20/10 Baht.