In short, the answer is quite often ‘No, not a great deal.’ Other than a couple of boats which are based in Phuket, most of them sail from a pier in Khao Lak. Therefore, even a Phuket-based boat or dive centre will have the logistics worked out to transfer guests from and back to either Khao Lak or Phuket. As you may have already guessed, Phuket and Khao Lak are the two main areas of mainland where scuba diving and tourism are extremely important to the local economy. However, in addition to Phuket and Khao Lak, there are other places where the diving businesses operate from and send boats to The Similan & Surin Islands, as well as Myanmar, Hin Daeng/Muang and Koh Haa.
Khao Lak dive centres are by far the most numerous of those that offer Similan Islands liveaboard diving trips. The reason for this is that Khao Lak, a seaside town in the province of Phang Nga, is the nearest point of mainland Thailand to The Similan Islands, and there is a port at Tab Lamu, which has several piers. However, Khao Lak is still unheard of by many international tourists, as well as some who already live in Thailand. Phuket is far better known, and has its own busy international airport. Phuket has many more hotels and more dive centres than Khao Lak, but not as many as Khao Lak that offer liveaboard cruises to The Similan Islands. Even further away is Ranong, located north of Phang Nga and bordering Myanmar (Burma).
Khao Lak: Most convenient for everyone. Khao Lak’s geographical location makes it most convenient for almost everyone involved for organising and joining a Similan liveaboard diving cruise. At the Pier in Tab Lamu there is plenty of space for boats and vehicles, especially when compared to Phuket. This extra space is mainly due to this area not being a hotel hotspot which would skyrocket land rental fees. Also, Khao Lak is the nearest point of mainland to the Similan Islands, thus the boats use less fuel than if they travelled from or back to elsewhere. After all, running a boat is more expensive and slower than running a vehicle on the road. So, with the dive centres and boat owners operating from around Khao Lak, and the fact that it is a nice place for holidaying couples and families, the seaside town has grown in recent years. As a result, many divers who want to join a Similan liveaboard decide to stay in Khao Lak, as the accommodation is better value than in Phuket and there is a lot less travelling involved.
Phuket: Popular year-round. Phuket has a long history of being a very popular tourist destination, both for local Thai people and for international tourists. This is Thailand’s largest island, but is connected to the mainland by Sarasin Bridge. Also there’s an international airport that services dozens of airline carriers. On Phuket Island there are hundreds of hotels and dozens of diving centres and schools. Diving to the south and east of Phuket can be done all year round, but the Similans is seasonal. While a few of the Phuket diving centres have and run their own liveaboard boats that sail to The Similans, most of them in Phuket act as agents for the liveaboard business, and will send their customers to other companies: usually in Khao Lak. However, there are several of our more luxurious boats which are owned and managed by companies in Phuket. These companies don’t have much in the way of shop-front retail business premises, because most of their communications and logistics are done online. In addition, their large boats are where all the diving equipment can be stored. Thus there is no need for an office where guests can check in and fit diving gear.
Ranong: Far away. Ranong is several hours by road north of Phuket and past Khao Lak. It is the border province to Myanmar (Burma) and it has a relatively short coastline, but a longer land border. The only Similan liveaboard dive centres based in Ranong operate their Thai-licenced liveaboard boats that sail into Burma more than just within Thailand. Ranong has a domestic airport that offers a few flights to Bangkok’s Don Meaung Airport. For anyone wanting a liveaboard diving trip just to the Similan Islands, sailing from Ranong offers a very limited choice. However, for those divers already in the area, this could be perfect.