The 42 large and small islands of this national marine park intrigued me, so after the Wat Kow Tahm retreat, I signed up for a day trip on the wooden Orion boat, to see them. The trip went well and I recommend it. These jungle-clad limestone islands rise steeply out of the emerald waters to the west of Koh Phangan and present a huge challenge to would-be hikers. Beaches of inviting white sands are relatively rare. After about 1.5 hours of travel, we dropped anchor first at Koh Wao, one of the northern islands, for snorkeling amongst colorful fish and bits of coral. I was eager to try out my new waterproof rugged camera, a Panasonic DMC-TS3 that's claimed to be useable as deep as 40 feet/12 meters; review at Would it really be OK to take it underwater, or would I end up with a worthless waterlogged camera? I hopped in to find out. The snorkeling was good, and I had plenty of time to paddle around to see the fish, corals, and anemones.

We dive into the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

Sergeant major fish have earned their stripes, it seems. They hang out in schools near the surface
and feed upon the larvae of invertebrates, zooplankton, smaller fish, crustaceans and various species of algae.

Hungry fish among the corals

Sea urchins play hard to get for predators. The yellowish protuberance in the center is the anus; the mouth is on the bottom side.
The five white spots are ducts for the gonads, and fertilization takes place in the surrounding sea water.
See for more on this intriguing creature.

Next we motored south to Koh Wua Talap, the largest island and with a fine beach. Here we had a choice of an easy 50-minute round-trip walk to a cave or a very tough 1-hour, 20-minute climb to a viewpoint 262 meters above the sea, not a walk for the faint-hearted as the brochure stated. Unfortunately we didn't have time to do both hikes. I went for the viewpoint's breathtaking panorama, following an incredibly rough and steep track of tree roots and jagged limestone rock. Sweat poured off as I slowly drained my valuable bottle of cold water. Two very welcome rest stops on the way up provided places to cool off a bit and get a taste of stunning views of the islands. Nearing the top the route crossed extremely jagged rock and I wondered if the sharp edges would shred my shoes. The uppermost viewpoint really did make the climb seem worthwhile with a splendid panorama of nearly all the islands set in deep blue waters. About that time I happened to look at the front of my camera and saw that the lens was fogged up from the inside. So my camera wasn't really waterproof to even 2 meters. I opened the camera's side door, dried the seals, and let the camera sit in the sun with the hope that the lens would defog. It did, and I got the summit pictures, though the delay made me late getting back down and back on the boat.

Ao Ka Beach at Koh Wua Talap Island, taken from the first viewpoint on the tough trail to the lookout.
There's no dock, so we transferred from boat to shore in a long-tail boat, visible on the lower right.

A sturdy rope helped ascend the steep route to the viewpoint.

The going gets tougher as we ascend.

Nearing the top, we get this view.

The last bit has this steep climb over sharp jagged limestone.

The sweet feeling of accomplishment.

At last, the viewpoint! Some hikers are now wondering how they're going to get down.

In this view north from the lookout you can just see the tiny islands on the horizon in the far distance where we went snorkeling.
Below on the left are bungalows; overnighting here on Koh Wua Talap island would be an appealing option.

The lonely coast of Koh Wua Talap in this view southeast from the lookout.

We stragglers transfer by longtail boat from Koh Wua Talap back to our boat.

Some of the group abandoned ship and hopped onto kayaks for the next leg of the journey, to Koh Mae Koh, an island with a nearly inaccessible lagoon in the middle. All of us landed at a pretty beach, then began the climb to the lagoon, completely surrounded by high cliffs. Luckily a fine set of steep staircases led up to the rim viewpoints, then down the other side to the lagoon. The water had a pretty shade of blue, though essentially the same as the surrounding sea. In fact it was obviously the same water as fish and sea urchins had found their way in, no doubt via underwater caves. Lastly, the boat crew brought out sandwiches and soft drinks for the long ride back to Thong Sala on Koh Phangan.

By coincidence, Robert Mark, one of the Wat Kow Tahm participants, was also along on the tour.
His guided kayak trip entered sea caves along the way, one with an overhead skylight.

Kayakers set off for Koh Mae Koh island. I stayed on the main boat.

From Na Tap Beach on Koh Mae Koh, I climbed a steep staircase for my first view of this pretty lagoon, Talay Nai.

Strange-looking plants grew along the way to the lagoon.

Seemingly impenetrable limestone cliffs enclose the lagoon.

This boardwalk led out into the lagoon, where we could look down and
see small fish swimming. Us humans, however, were forbidden to swim here!

Could this little cave on the edge of the lagoon lead to the sea?

Islands of Ang Thong National Marine Park recede into the sunset as we motor back to Koh Phangan.

On to Koh Tao Diving