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Paddling Thailand: Where To Go, What To Pack, And Things To Know Before You Go

Photo by: Norbert Braun

There are few places on the planet where kayaking is as simple and rewarding as it is in Thailand. The stunning emerald and turquoise waters, incredible snorkeling, and sandy beaches all lend themselves to an epic day of kayaking or SUP boarding. The waters are well-protected, making them safe for paddlers of all skill levels. The only hard part about paddling in Thailand is knowing where to go, and what to pack in your suitcase.

The fabled Phi Phi Islands and other stunning tropical islands near Phuket are arguably the most picturesque kayaking locations in Thailand. Several national parks, including Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park, and Khao Sok National Park are best explored by incorporating a kayak tour. Krabi is a great paddling location for those who love all sorts of outdoor adventures, and Chiang Mai offers great paddling in northern Thailand.

In addition to the natural beauty Thailand offers, there is also a great level of variety in the different paddling locations in this country. You can island-hop around different beaches that have been featured in various Hollywood movies, or venture into lesser-traveled sunken mangrove forests. Choosing just one place to paddle in Thailand can be difficult, but this article will highlight all the best locations, as well as items you should remember to take along with you when you embark on this worthwhile paddling adventure.

Why You Should Plan A Paddling Trip In Thailand

Thailand is one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. It has an unbeatable combination of fascinating history and culture, captivating natural beauty, and delicious cuisine. It is also one of the most affordable tropical destinations on the planet. There are two seas that border Thailand, which offer different paddling conditions, as well as famous rivers and stunning lakes worth discovering on a kayak or SUP board.

All of these pros lend themselves to the one big con of visiting Thailand, which is the fact that this country is often inundated with tourists. Many of the most popular and stunning island destinations are saturated with long tail boats, large ferries packed to the brim with international tourists, and tour guides bellowing into a megaphone. This can be rather off-putting, especially for those who want to experience the natural wonder of this country.

The good news is that by kayaking and SUP boarding, you can quickly escape the droves of tourists, uncover hidden bays, and find your peace and tranquility. The key is knowing the best places in this country for an amazing and budget-friendly kayaking adventure.

Top Five Paddling Destinations In Thailand

1. Phi Phi Islands

A trip to Thailand is incomplete without a visit to the Phi Phi Islands. This archipelago is composed of six islands, with Phi Phi Don being the only inhabited island. All the islands have stunning mountains, beautiful white sand beaches, and some of the best snorkeling in all of Thailand. The Phi Phi Islands are quite busy, but one great way to get away from the traffic jams of longtail boats and walking streets filled with tourists is to take a kayak out for a paddle.

One of the most iconic beaches in the world, Maya Bay, which was made famous from the film, “The Beach,” is located within this island chain, as are countless other breathtaking beaches, many of which are less crowded, and reachable by kayak. If the Phi Phi Islands are on your bucket list, make sure you plan at least one day to take a kayak trip to see the lesser-seen spots of this Thai marvel.

2. Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park

One of the most lush and wild archipelagos in Thailand is the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park. This park is located in the Gulf of Thailand, between mainland Thailand and Koh Samui, a popular resort destination and Thailand’s largest island.

The national park is made up of 42 islands that span more than 100 square kilometers. More than half of the park is underneath the water, making boats the best way to explore, and the only way to truly experience this Thai gem. There are many day trips and multi-day trips to this park, many of which include some form of kayaking. There are also several camping and low-key accommodations in the park. Consider staying here a few days and booking a kayak-centered excursion - just make sure you keep an eye on the weather, as strong winds and storms can cause last-minute cancellations.

3. Khao Sok National Park

Many people flock to Thailand for its other-worldly islands, emerald waters, and long stretches of beach - but parts of Thailand's interior are just as beautiful and worth exploring in a paddling vessel. One such place is Khao Sok National Park, located in the Surat Thani province. This vast jungle reserve is a field with wildlife, rivers, gushing waterfalls, and excellent hiking trails, but its crown jewel is Cheow Lan Lake.

This lake is a paradise for paddlers who love a wilderness adventure in tame waters. It is also the best way to explore much of the coastline, as hiking trails don’t reach a lot of the area, making paddling your best option. You can spend several days kayaking on the lake, and take shelter for the night in one of the several floating accommodations available on the lake. Multi-day paddles in this park are also a great way to avoid crowds and enjoy a bit of peace.

4. Krabi

Lastly, if you are an adventure and adrenaline junky, who not only enjoys kayaking but all sorts of adventure sports, then Krabi, Thailand is an essential addition to your Thailand itinerary. Krabi is known for its towering limestone cliffs that are excellent for rock climbing, as well as caves, and mangrove forests.

The mangroves are best explored by kayak, and booking a tour will ensure you don’t get lost in the forest. You can also rent kayaks from most beaches, including the stunning town of Railey Beach, where kayaking is the best way to see the dramatic coastline and escape the mob of tourists.

If you don’t mind taking a touristy day trip, you can take a boat to the famous James Bond Island, and kayak around this mesmerizing bay that was featured in the 1974 Bond film “The Man With The Golden Gun.”

5. Chiang Mai

If you are already planning to travel to the enchanting north of Thailand or have a passion for adventurous river kayaking, then the Chiang Mai region is your ideal Thai destination. The most commonly kayaked river in this region is the Chiang Dau River.

This is a river you should explore with a guide, as there are rapids that can be dangerous for those unfamiliar with the river. There are many tours, several of which combine other popular Chaing Mai excursions with a kayak journey, including a visit to an elephant sanctuary, and cave exploration.

This is also a great place to paddle during the rainy season. Rivers are full, offering a swollen fun river, with all runs open. The dry season (March through June) still offers paddling opportunities, especially for those looking to casually explore the northern Thai jungle in a kayak.

Packing List For A Thailand Paddling Vacation

  • Quick Dry Towel: Packing a quick dry towel is a smart idea when traveling to any tropical paddling destination. They dry in under an hour when you hang them out in the sun. This compact towel will come in handy when you need to dry off or want to lay down on a sandy secret beach.

  • Mask And Snorkel: Masks and snorkel gear are often available when you book a guided tour and are even available at many ocean-front hotels. The problem is the quality of the gear is often lackluster and poorly maintained. If you plan on doing some extensive snorkeling in these incredible waters, bring your mask and snorkel if you have the space for it.

  • Long-sleeve Rash Guard: A long-sleeve rash guard is a great way to prevent sunburn. It also helps keep away stinging organisms that can cause skin irritation.

  • Reusable Water Bottle: You will notice a lot of plastic bottles littered around many of Thailand's more popular islands. To avoid contributing to this pollution, do your part by bringing a reusable water bottle.

  • Dry Bag: Bring a dry bag to use as a day pack for all your aquatic adventures. Traveling in Thailand often involves taking longtail boats, ferries, and extended kayak adventures. Having a dry bag will keep you reassured that your electronics and important documents are safe and dry.

  • Mosquito Repellent: This is also available widely in Thailand, but make sure you choose a brand that works.

  • Waterproof Sunscreen: Bring a reliable sunscreen. Many travelers find that some sunscreens in Thailand are not the same as those they are used to. Bring some quality reef-safe sunscreen that you trust.

  • Underwater Camera: Whether it is a GoPro, or a quality waterproof cell phone case, if you have a device that can capture aquatic images make sure you bring it to Thailand. This is the perfect place to unleash your inner Jacques Cousteau.

  • UV-Blocking Polarized Sunglasses: The sun is very strong in Thailand, as is the glare coming off the water. Bring sunglasses that block UV rays to protect your eyes, and are polarized so you can see into the water easily.

Five Things To Know Before Paddling In Thailand

1. Know The Weather Before Booking A Trip

Thailand enjoys a warm tropical climate throughout the year. This means it is possible to paddle in this country throughout the year. There are, however, some months that are better for paddling than others.

Keep in mind monsoon (rainy) season occurs between July and October each year. This means a lot more storms and is not ideal for paddling. Also, keep in mind that the weather varies greatly throughout the country. Try to keep your trip plans flexible so you can chase perfect paddling weather if your first choice experiences stormy weather when you plan to visit.

2. Tours Are Often The Best (And Only) Option

As much as self-guided kayaking can feel liberating, it is not always the best and least-crowded method of paddling. This is because many of the most incredible paddling destinations in Thailand are located a long distance from main beaches and ports.

Therefore, a guided paddling trip, with powerboat transfer is usually an ideal way to enjoy pristine waters and unspoiled nature.

3. Do Research To Avoid Crowds

Crowds in Thailand are a real issue, especially around tropical beach destinations. They can make it challenging and even unsafe to paddle in certain places due to boat traffic. Therefore, it is always smart to do proper research and avoid launching a kayak anywhere where there is a lot of boat and tourist traffic.

Spend a few extra dollars to launch your kayak from a quiet and safe launching point, or consider joining a guided tour. Remember that while guided tours cost a bit more, they often take you to incredible hidden gems that you are almost certain to miss if you venture out on your own from a kayak rental shack.

4. Be Wary Of Jellyfish (And Larvae)

There are very few predators you need to worry about in Thailand. There are few sharks, and there are virtually no instances of shark attacks in Thailand. There are, however, some jellyfish whose sting can derail your otherwise blissful holiday.

There are two jellyfish seasons in Thailand. One is between July and December when the dangerous box jellyfish are particularly prevalent. There is another jellyfish season between November and April. The waters are quite warm in Thailand, and you may find yourself snorkeling and suddenly surrounded by barely visible jellyfish larvae. These larvae don’t cause powerful stings but can leave itchy marks that can irritate you for days if you are allergic. This is why a clear mask and a rash guard are packing essentials.

5. Inspect Equipment Before Venturing Out

Lastly, remember to always give your paddling equipment a thorough inspection before venturing out into unfamiliar waters. Kayak rental facilities are plentiful, but there doesn’t seem to be a standard, or the typical safety measures taken that you are likely used to in Western countries.

Therefore, make sure all the gear is operational. Ensure the PFD fits, floats, and properly clips. Also, ensure the paddle is intact, is not loose, and there are no noticeable cracks. Even a short paddle can be derailed by a broken paddle.

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