Unlike Phang Nga Bay and the paradisiacal island of Phuket – the two best known and most popular tourist destinations in the Andaman Sea – these secret islands have managed to jealously guard their unspoiled natural charm. The stunning beaches are not over-run with tourist resorts and facilities, instead they remain wild and mysterious, rocked tenderly by the waves, while beyond the sands, the gentle contours of the land are wrapped in dense tropical greenery where monkeys rule in the lush forest kingdom.
At the southern tip of Phang Nga Bay, lie the two main islands of Koh Lanta where it's impossible to set foot on the seemingly endless beaches without being tempted to kick off your sandals and walk barefoot, feeling the heat of the sun-warmed sand permeate through your whole body. This feeling of gentle relaxation must account for why the island has become such a draw for backpackers and explain the bohemian spirit that pervades the very air. Today, although there is a wide range of good tourist services, there are also careful limits to modernisation, and no building is allowed to exceed the height of the local coconut palms.
An unspoiled tropical forest covers the mountains that cross the islands, and to the south lies the Mu Koh Lanta National Marine Park. This exceptional natural area is a veritable wildlife treasure trove, with rain forest, mangroves and coral reefs. There is also a rich historical and cultural heritage. The sea gypsies – the Chao Leh as they are known in Thai – who settled here hundreds of years ago, still maintain their own unique language, beliefs and rituals, and a life in harmony with the natural rhythms of the moon and the sea. Lanta Old Town, an ancient trading port with its stilt houses built over the water, is a cultural melting pot of peoples whose roots include Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim and western.
Leaving Koh Lanta and sailing south gives us a chance to see some of the other nearby islands. The three-hour ferry trip includes several stops that allow a closer look at these pearls of the Andaman Sea, and ends with the arrival at the Tarutao archipelago, a marvellous universe of 51 islands near the sea border with Malaysia. Here the experience is even more idyllic as there is no dock or harbour and you disembark directly onto the island of Koh Lipe itself through the gentle waves that maintain a year-round temperature of around 25º C.
Four beaches surround the smooth contours of Koh Lipe. The two largest, Sunrise and Pattaya, flank this island setting for barefoot-living at its best. There really is no need to wear shoes at any time, not simply because so many of the activities on offer take place on, in, under or alongside the seductive waters of the Andaman, but because the only street – a lively 15-minute stretch of bars, restaurants, massage parlours and craft and souvenir shops connecting the two beaches – is itself made of sand.From Koh Lipe, the outermost islands of the Tarutao National Marine Park are just a short boat trip away. The natural underwater wealth, ranked among the best in the world, led to the area's classification as a national park in 1974. There's no need to be an expert diver to discover the unique corals and the colourful fish hidden in the intricate nooks and crannies of the reefs: the waters are so clear that they are easily spied from the decks of the vessels that offer day trips out among the islands. A dive of just a few metres with snorkel gear will allow you to experience close-up the extraordinary underwater life of the Andaman, a kingdom of twisting coral that is home to more than 25% of the world's tropical fish.
Surprisingly, the idyllic island of Koh Tarutao, which gives its name to the archipelago and the park, was established in 1930 as a penal colony for political prisoners. During the Second World War, lacking supplies from the mainland, the prisoners and their warders turned to piracy and pillaging, and many ships were sunk and their crews killed. Since then, though, the only activities of the islands have been the peaceful agriculture and fishing of the locals.Leaving Koh Lipe, all eyes turn to the tiny island of Koh Khai with its dramatic arc of rocky coastline and dazzling white sand that is the symbol of the national park. This little islet, whose name means 'egg island', is where the sea turtles of the Andaman come to spawn.Koh Tarutao is the largest island of the Natural Park, and a tour around it in a typical Thai long-tail boat will provide the opportunity to admire its magnificent beaches, caves and the mysterious windings of the mangrove swamps. Inland, some 60% of its 26-kilometre length is covered by magnificent tropical rain forest which can be explored via paths through the dense green. It is home to a wide range of fauna: primates such as langurs and macaques, deer, wild boar and otters, as well numerous species of birds.