After two days gathering an ever-so-brief overview of Thailand’s coastal Trang, we pushed even further south towards Satun. Though the border between the neighboring provinces is unmarked, I noticed a stark difference as we entered the heart of predominantly Muslim Satun. Temples were replaced by mosques, women were swathed in colorful headscarves and simple signs outside hole-in-the-wall restaurants promised Halal food would be found inside.
Many travelers to Thailand steer clear of the region known in guidebooks and news reports as the “Deep South,” fearing the ethnic and religious insurgency that has plagued the region for years. Yet Satun is generally considered a peaceful province, and violence in the southern region has hit a historic low. So far, the crowds haven’t caught on.
There’s never been a better time to visit.
Well, there is certainly a better time to visit than the particular period when I did. I’d been hearing expat friends rave about the beauty of hidden gem islands in the area for years, and could hardly wait to see them with my own eyes. Except I couldn’t. As the guide on our boat tour of Satun’s marine park pointed to what was allegedly an island in the gray distance, I nodded noncommittally. “I’ll take your word for it.”
My visit coincided with the absolute worst of the 2015 Southeast Asia Haze, a crisis caused by illegal forest burning in Indonesia. This goes way beyond tourists getting disappointing vacation snaps — it was an ecological, economical and health disaster for the region.
While the famous stone arch of Ko Khai didn’t look exactly as Google had promised in the moment, I nonetheless enjoyed hearing the local lore of the good luck couples who walk through the curved stone will enjoy, and watching the excitement of our Thai hosts as they sauntered through themselves.
Back on the boat, we passed by more of the fifty-one islands that make up the Tarutao National Marine Park, and I vowed to return to see them more clearly someday.
Another notable stop was the islands of Ko Hin Ngam, covered not in sand but in beautiful black-and-white-swirled stones. Pretty as the pebbles were, we didn’t dare take one as a souvenir, as local legend suggested we’d lose all the luck we’d gained on Ko Khai — and then some — if we dared.
I was skeptical when we stopped for snorkeling, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the visibility was better below the surface than above it. The diving trip in Koh Lipe that has long lingered on my bucket list quickly moved up a few notches in urgency.
Back on land, we set off to explore a part of Satun paid even less attention than its stunning islands — the mainland. In 2008, a small local cave gained national attention when the 1.8 million-year-old jawbone fossil of a Stegodon was found inside by a local fisherman. It’s not hard to picture the prehistoric elephant-like giants roaming through this lush Jurassic Park-like setting still today.
To my over-eager chagrin, self-paddling is not allowed, though I appreciate that guiding provides a rewarding employment opportunity for the local Thungwa community.
The 2.5 miles journey follows the curves of the longest salt water cave in Thailand. And the possibility of finding fossils isn’t the only draw — distinctive rock formations inspire creative interpretations, stalactites and stalagmites glisten in the low light, and the cave spits out into an idyllic mangrove forest.
At one point, we turned off our torches and marveled at the total blackness that surrounded us.
Satun is not a simple province to visit. The nearest airports are hours away in neighboring provinces, and connection times can make the journey from other major destinations a full day mission. While islands like Koh Lipe are poorly kept secrets, there are plenty of barely visited specks of sand where you can re-enact your own version of The Beach, and countless mainland corners where you can well and truly congratulate yourself for having gotten off the beaten path.
I can’t wait to get back — hopefully before the crowds do.
I’m sorry to hear that the Haze impacted your trip, but I’m glad you mentioned the long term impact it had on the local population (and environment!) because I feel like it was an issue poorly addressed by the travel community. Satun definitely seems like a location worth (re)visiting in the near future.
To be honest I think I was in such a haze (pun intended) at the time that I didn’t even notice what the travel community was saying about it at all — I was more plugged into what my local Koh Tao community were saying about it. What was word on the blogging street?
What a pity that you had to battle that haze! The pictures you took are still beautiful though so at least that worked out well! Even with the haze it looks like an area worth visiting, so thanks for the head’s up!
I think it will be wild to return someday and make the comparison — crazy!
I am sorry you experienced the awful haze while you were there. Thank you for being so informative. I was in Sumatra recently to see the orangutans and learned so much about the environmental problems. So happy you have such a wide audience who can benefit from your education.
I will be taking the ferry from Langkawi to Koh Lipe the beginning of November and was hoping to take the same cave trip that you just wrote about. Can you tell me where you based yourself and who you used?
Hey Lisa! We stayed at this guesthouse, and it was lovely! There is very little information about Stegodon Cave in English, unfortunately. Your best bet is to contact the local tourism board and ask if they can book a tour for you. This region does indeed have limited tourism infrastructure. Best of luck.
Thank you Alex!
This looks like so much fun! Whats your favorite part of Thailand that you’ve explored so far?
Great question! Well Thailand feels like home of course 🙂 I also love Tonsai Beach in Railay and Pai near Chiang Mai. I’d love to explore those regions more.
Soooo hazy but still so colorful underwater! And you KNOW I would have panicked in that cave—just seeing these photos made my pulse quicken!
It was definitely a LONG time to be in a cave. My neck and back were feeling the burn by the time we got out of the kayak.
Ughhh. THE HAZE!!!! Survivor (US reality show) shot in Koh Tarutao during one of its’ earlier seasons. Trang and Satun really look and feel like laid back kind of places.
Actually, I remember hearing that mentioned about Survivor! I remember watching its first season so closely with my family — can’t believe it’s still on!
Alex, so glad you mentioned that an inconvenience for a traveler is often detrimental to a community. Hate when people suggest you shouldnt go somewhere (ahem Bali) because tourists ruined it! Like, I’d rather spend my trip picking up trash than allow a gorgeous place to go to ruin. Not that we ruin everything ? #rantover.
I’m very intruiged by the Muslim identity in this area. Did you feel comfortable mingling with locals or taking photos with/of them?
Looking forward to more gorgeous photos!
Hey Lauren! Totally understand that rant. We were so on the go on this short press trip that there wasn’t much mingling time to be had beyond chatting with our hosts and guides. The owners of our guesthouse were very conservatively Muslim but also extremely warm and welcoming — I would have felt very comfortable staying there on my own!
Really impressed with your cave photos – photography in the dark still eludes me – the flash either washes everything out, or is still too dark. 2 1/2 miles of dark cave sounds awesome!
It’s tricky, and definitely requires a little more post-processing than normal!
This looks amazing, thanks for bringing Satun to my attention as I’ve never heard of it before. I’m returning to Thailand in August so I might just check it out!
Nice! Let me know if you do — I’d love to return again for longer someday.
I’m currently planning a trip to Thailand, so I’m going back and rereading a bunch of your posts! (Which are super helpful, as usual!) We are going for our honeymoon in February, and plan to stay on Koh Lipe for about 4 days. It looks GORGEOUS. I hope you get back there for your diving trip!!
Me too Jamie! I’ve explored so little of the West Coast of Thailand… it’s shameful!