Ko Samae San or Samae San Islands is the dive destination that divers in-the-know head to when diving Pattaya Thailand (Ko and Koh means island).

Pattaya might not be one of the first names to pop into your mind as a scuba diving destination in Thailand. The diving destination along the Thailand/Malaysia Peninsula are much better known with international reputations. The Andaman Sea has some of the best diving in the world and a great liveaboard destination. On the east side of the peninsula, in the Gulf of Thailand, you will find Ko Tao, known for the most dive certifications in the world.

Location

A Modern City

Pattaya is a different breed, it is a modern city and one of the major tourist destinations in the country. Each year over a million people find their way there to enjoy the sun, the sand, the waters and the nightlife. Originally a “sex-tourist” destinations it has also become known as a family destination. There are sections of the city with the “sex-tourist” appeal still, however, you will find mostly couples and families.

You will find the major international hotel chains, high-rise condominiums, a few shopping malls mostly along beach road are all here. Outside the city proper, you will find a number of family-style attractions including Cartoon Network’s Water Park. The area has about 20 golf courses. Pattaya is only about two hours east of Bangkok and even less from Bangkok’s main international airport. Pattaya’s own airport has been raised to international status and is being enlarged and upgraded with expanded service on its way.

reef diving near pattaya
Diving Koh Chuang reef from Pattaya Photograph by Andrew Jennings of underwaterclicks.

Clearly, this is vastly different from the dive destinations Thailand is known for which are mostly remote, simple and laid back. The dive industry here, however, is active. Many visitors come and dive as a part of their vacation. They will likely dive less than the divers that go to the dive destinations to the west, still, they are there and in larger numbers. Discover dives are also very popular with many of the dive centers dedicating the afternoons to these try diving guest.

The Typical Pattaya Dive

I am sure that the tourism authority won’t like what I say and most of the promoters and dive shops will strongly disagree but the average dive in Pattaya is average at best. In my view, it is mostly because it is all “follow-the-leader” style of diving and the inexperienced divers damage the corals and scare off the marine life. However, there are a few “secrets” you should know. I was recently in Pattaya and made my rounds to a half dozen or so dive shops. I mostly talked to expat dive instructors, these instructors have years of experience and have worked in many locations. The key question was how to get the best dive. Overall the responses indicated that there is great diving in the area, even in the areas where the groups of divers go.

The point that was most frequently made by these professionals is that your best bet to get a great dive was to set yourself apart from the pack. Do not let a tour operator set up your diving. Go into a dive shop or two or even more and talk to the dive guides and instructors the day before you want to dive. Tell them of your interest and be forthwith about your abilities. Do not brag and boast your ego, just straight forward. Let them know, you are serious about having the best dive.

These guides/ instructors can point you in the right direction as to what dive site is best for you and will often suggest that they will take you under their wing. One of the instructors told me that he will often separate the underwater photographers from the other divers and take them in a different direction from the dive “trails”. Just a 50-meter swim can make a huge difference.

Pattaya diving is around the Offshore islands. Informally they are referred to as the near islands and the far islands. The three “near islands” are Ko Lan (also spelled Ko Larn and called Coral island), Ko Sak, and Ko Krok, and are about 7 kilometers (4.3 mi) from the Bali Hai Pier in Pattaya. Dive boats, tour boats, and ferries to the islands all depart from the pier. The “far islands” are Ko Phai, Ko Man Wichai, Ko Hu Chang and Ko Klung Badan, are located offshore further west of the “near islands”.

Pattaya has also become known as the wreck capital of Thailand having some war wrecks and additional artificial reefs created by sinking old vessels. These sites are generally further away that the coral sites around the islands.

sea turtle breeding grounds Ko Samae San National Park and Marine Reserve
Hawksbill Sea Turtle at Japanese Gardens dive site. Ko Samae San National Park and Marine Reserve is a turtle reserve. Image by Andrew Jennings.

Ko Samae San National Park and Marine Reserve.

The real secret of great Pattaya diving is a 30-minute drive away. Just past the Royal Thai Navy’s largest base is the Ko Samae San National Park and Marine Reserve reached from a small fishing village. The park consist of Ko Samae San with six other small islands and the adjoining waters. Since most of the Pattaya’s dive centers will schedule a few trips each month and a few will visit more frequently, the islands receive relatively few divers.

The dive boats to Ko Samae San carry fewer divers and you will not find more than one dive boat on any site. The park is also home of the area’s most famous wreck the Hardeep, and it is the most dive location. To many, she is the best wreck site in Thailand and she deserves respect on many levels.

hardeep wreck
The Engine room of the Hardeep image by Andrew Jennings.

The S.S. Suddhadib (also spelled Suthathip) or more frequently called the Hardeep is a steamship sunk in WWII that is 68.11 meters long with a beam 10.84 meters. She sits on her side in 26 meters of water reaching up to about 16 meters. She was built in 1918 and named after one of the daughters of King Rama V. The wreck sits between two islands that can channel a strong current over the wreck. So extra care needs to be taken in the planning and timing of the dive. The depth required Advance Open Water certification and a wreck certification for penetration dives. Because of the possibility of rapidly changing conditions on the site, expect to do a checkout dive on another site before being allowed to dive this wreck.

shark fin rock dive site
Shark Fin Rock Dive Site image by Andrew Jennings

If you are not an advance open water diver, you will still find that Ko Samae San is an excellent dive destination. The coral gardens around the islands are outstanding. There are five primary dive sites that even novice divers can explore. Still, they provide a dive that experienced divers will enjoy. The islands are open to deep water so pelagic species also are seen as they come in to feed and the visibility is good. When the currents are up over the Hardeep, the conditions are often right for a drift dive that can take you over the wreck. This combination of different dive sites each with outstanding diving and extended visibility is what is driving the locals and divers in the known to take a few extra minutes to drive to Ko Samae San.

Ko Samae San National Park and Marine Reserve is also where many of the locals head when they want a beach day. The main island, Ko Samae San, is lightly developed with some hiking and biking trails, a few shelters and five perfect beaches. Visitors can visit the island during the day by way of a small ferry. The tourist who jam the beaches along Pattaya’s waterfront or takes a trip to Coral Island does not know of this paradise.

While most of the dive centers travel to Ko Samae San National Park and Marine Reserve infrequently, Scuba Diving Pattaya Dive Centre uses it as their primary dive destination, focusing on divers who want a personalized experience.

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