With two rallies, four countries and five thousand miles of sailing all in our wake, we were looking forward to winding down the season with some relaxed and easy cruising.
We had more than a month up our sleeves before we planned to fly back to New Zealand for our “summer break,” so we decided to venture a bit into the waters of Thailand. We found the distances short, the anchorages generally very calm, the people warm and friendly, the food tasty and inexpensive, and the islands stunningly beautiful. Here’s a rundown of our little tiki-tour.
Checking out of Malaysia was a breeze. Customs, Immigration and the Port Captain all share a single office building just a few steps from our berth at the Telaga Harbour Marina in Langkawi. I was easily able to complete our outgoing officialities in about a half an hour, without suffering the usual case of writer’s cramp. We wish it was always this easy.
Langkawi is more or less marks the transition point between the Strait of Malacca to the south and the Andaman Sea to the north and west. Situated on the border between Malaysia and Thailand, it is where the murky waters of the Strait begin to have some clarity, where coral reefs proliferate and the limestone islands change to take on the more dramatic towering haystack forms that are some of the most attractive geological features on the west coast of Thailand. From this point north are the locations of some of the world’s top dive sites, and we were keen to jump in and have a look around.
Departing Langkawi in the morning, we had a lazy sail about 25 nm west-northwest to Ko Lipe, one of the islands in the Butang Group, just over the border in Thailand. We anchored in the large open bay on the south side for the first evening amongst the local fishing boat fleet and a few other cruising yachts. By the next morning, a refracted swell began to make things a bit rolly so we hopped around to the other side between Ko Lipe and Ko Adang where the sea state was calm for a day and a night.
We spent the day exploring Ko Lipe on foot. There aren’t many motor vehicles there and most of the “roads” are barely passable. The main village is spread out around the southeast corner of the island. Most of the homes are very basic but fairly tidy, clad in corrugated tin and elevated above the ground on stilts, presumably to protect them in a king tide, storm or tsunami. The grocery store offers a few basic items and a small assortment of fruits and veggies. We were able to purchase a Thai prepay SIM card so we could use the mobile phone. The locals were friendly and quick to smile but didn’t seem to pay too much attention to us visitors.
Once a reclusive sea gypsy fishing village, Ko Lipe is slowly embracing tourism at a very basic level. With little more than a few backpackers’ accommodations and a few casual restaurants, this place is definitely the place for the adventure/eco traveler, diver or anyone looking to get way away from the crowds, high rises and high prices. We were reminded by the ubiquitous Internet cafes and pirated CD and DVD stands that civilization is not far away. Transport to/from the mainland is by ferry. The jetty was knocked out in the Tsunami, so ferry passengers have to transfer to a long tail boat to get to the beach. It’s not easy to get here, but for the intrepid traveler, it is well worth it. After a great Thai dinner at a small beach restaurant, we enjoyed socializing with some local ex-pats and fellow travelers at Jack’s Jungle bar, a very rustic and friendly little joint in the middle of the island. There’s nothing quite like night life, island style.
A westerly change in the breeze once again caused us to shift anchorages, this time to the east side of the island. We dropped the hook on a sand bottom with Moonshadow’s stern sitting just over the edge of some coral reef. We weren’t expecting much, but diving right off the swim step couldn’t have been much easier, so we jumped in and enjoyed an hour of underwater exploration in the very clear water. In spite of a number of fish traps laid in the area, the fish were abundant and the coral reef was alive and well. Most notable were the prolific clown anemone fish and numerous beautiful but dangerous lionfish. We were pleasantly taken aback by our first dive in Thailand.
The next day we moved another ten miles west-northwest the other end of the island group, anchoring between Ko Rawi and Ko Butang. We’d heard that this was one of the better dive spots in the area and we were anxious to check it out. We jumped in and made an underwater circumnavigation of a small, rocky outcrop off the northwest corner of Ko Butang. The steep rock walls were scattered with a variety of beautifully colored soft corals and provided some interesting seascapes. Because it was on the seaward end of the group, there were plenty of large and interesting fish clustered on station at various points waiting for the currents to deliver their next meal. So far, Thailand had not let us down on diving.
We sailed due north the next morning in a light, warm westerly breeze. We made a layover stop 40 nm north, taking one of the many excellent government provided moorings close to the reef in the lee of Ko Rok Noi and Ko Rok Nok islands. As we arrived, a dive boat from the mainland was picking up its divers, so we reckoned the diving had to be at least reasonable there. Unfortunately, protection was only fair and we experienced a bit of sea swell which worked in between the two small islands. The next morning we decided to head further north and find a more comfortable anchorage. Perhaps we’d get a jump in on the return trip.
Powered by a light westerly, we sailed another easy 36 nm north and anchored in the incredibly beautiful south facing bay at Koh Phi Phi Don. “Phi Phi” (pronounced pee pee) is actually two tall limestone islands connected in the middle by a low lying spit of sand. Between the two beautiful beaches of this sand spit was a collection of hotels, shops, restaurants, nightclubs and dive shops. Phi Phi wasn’t actually on too many people’s radar screen till Boxing Day of 2004. But anyone who saw coverage of the Tsunami would have surely seen the horrific images of the giant waves pounding the beach, and literally sweeping away almost everyone and everything that was clinging to this bit of sand.
Phi Phi will undoubtedly never be the same. That said, as far as we can see, at least half of the structures have been rebuilt or repaired. The people of Phi Phi have shown tremendous courage and spirit and want the world to know that they are open for business and are willing and able to accommodate more tourism. We spent five days there, enjoying numerous excellent dives at nearby Koh Phi Phi Le, hiking on Phi Phi Don and enjoying some great meals out, shopping and a bit of nightlife. Accommodation ranges from backpacker’s bungalows to 5 star hotels, with the emphasis toward the low end. Hippie’s Bar on the beach is very friendly joint and plays some great music. Phi Phi Don is one gorgeous spot and we definitely plan to return.
Living high up in the vertical cliffs of Phi Phi Don, as well as many other islands of the area, are a species of bird that is renown by the Chinese for the excellent flavor of the saliva they use to construct and attach their nests to the cliff. This substance, called simply “bird’s nest,” is literally worth more than its weight in gold. The men who harvest bird’s nest regularly risk their lives climbing up the steep cliffs on ropes and rickety scaffolds to get to the nests. We saw some of the areas where they work, and could only shake our heads in disbelief. Clearly OSHA standards have not reached the bird’s nest industry. Some private islands with large populations of these birds have full time guards who will not hesitate to shoot anyone who appears to be poaching their sources. This bird’s nest stuff must be a “weal tweet.”
We were anxious to check out some of the action of the annual King’s Cup Regatta, so we headed west-northwest 25 nm to the resort island of Phuket. With a 40-something foot cruising boat in tow whose transmission had packed up, we navigated up the narrow and shallow channel to the brand new Royal Phuket Marina near the top of the tide. The “pucker factor” was pretty high as we went over some spots in the channel that showed less than 2 meters of depth. We draw 1.8m and our tow drew 2 meters. Yikes!
The staff at the Royal Phuket Marina was most welcoming. They were on hand to catch our dock lines and gave us a warm greeting and ice-cold face cloths. Not a bad way to refresh oneself after a warm, salty sail. That night, the marina was the venue for a spectacular party for King’s Cup participants and marina guests. Food, wine and beer were all flowing freely all evening, while a large group of yachties socialized and enjoyed live music and dancing on the stage. The highlight of the party was a spectacular fireworks display. The bad news was that it was launched from a barge placed in the marina. The breeze sent the fireworks right over the marina, and all the yachts were covered in the fallout from the fireworks. The event planner failed to realize that one burning yacht could have ruined the whole party. We spent a few hours the next morning scrubbing decks which we had just scrubbed the previous afternoon. Arrrgh!
The Customs/Immigration/Port Captain office was a half hour away by taxi at Ao Chalong. While all the officials shared one office, we found the check-in process to be a bit “paper intensive” but otherwise relatively easy. Thank God for our on board copier, as the Thai government needs three or four copies of everything. We wonder where all those copies go once we check in/out. Other than one neo-Nazi dressed in a neatly pressed and intimidating uniform, who issued curt orders and whose vocabulary was devoid of the words “please” and “thank you,” the remaining officials were friendly and helpful to us Thailand newbies.
From our “base” in the Royal Phuket Marina we spent a week exploring the island, Phuket town, catching up with friends participating in the Kings Cup, taking in the Phuket International Boat Show, provisioning, and getting some of our SCUBA gear serviced. We felt that, for our liking, Phuket was a bit expensive, overdeveloped and tainted by tourism, but a good place to shop and get some boat work done.
A week in Phuket was probably a bit too much for us, and we were anxious to go “remote” again. Since we were more or less leaving the civilized part of Thailand, and had no desire to return to Phuket on this trip, we decided to check out of the country. It paid off for us to arrive at the official’s offices just before their lunch break. It appears that the lunch break is thine divine right, and no person or no thing shalt delayeth thine lunch break. Everyone there was most helpful in getting the myriad of forms completed in extremely short order, offering to do most of the work on our behalf. What took other yachties an hour to do, took us a mere 15 minutes. Timing is everything!
With the Thai officialities sorted, we ventured further north into the beautiful and exotic area known as Ao Phangnga or Phang Nga Bay. This shallow and well-protected bay covers roughly 200 square miles and features some of the most interesting and beautiful limestone rock formations we’d ever seen. We passed the sailing hours gazing at the islands, imagining what human or animal forms they resembled. The truth is that many of them just look like huge phalluses.
Our first stop was in a small cluster of dramatic looking islands known as Koh Hong. We weren’t exactly blessed with ideal weather that day, so photography was severely limited, but in between a couple of squally downpours, we were able to hop into the dink and do a bit of exploring. Koh Hong contains a small cove, its entrance nearly blocked by a large rock pinnacle. Once inside, it is a beautiful rock garden, with lush tropical plant life, a few small patches of dark sand beach, and numerous caves at sea level that penetrate all the way through to the other side of the rock, at least 50 meters away. The sea has intricately shaped the limestone at sea level, leaving some very colorful and interesting formations. One cave we entered had a spectacular vertical skylight in its middle. In some cases, roots come though the ceiling of the cave from who knows how far above, In most cases, we were sharing the space with fruit bats, hanging from the ceiling, cloaked in the thin black skin of their wings. Koh Hong would be ideally explored by spending a few hours a small sea kayak, and one can arrange a day tour from the mainland or Phuket. Many local fishermen ply these waters in small long-tail boats, and occasionally they would drop by the boat and politely offer to sell us some of their catch.
Into the north part of Phang Nga Bay feed more than a handful of large rivers. Because of this, the already shallow bay has a myriad of shoals. From Koh Hong, we had to take a rather circuitous route northward, as if we were sailing through maze, in order to make our way to the amazing village of Ko Panyi at the mouth of the Panyi River. Ko Panyi is easily one of the most attractive, quaint and unique island villages we have visited all year. It is primarily a fishing village, consisting of about 200 individual residences, as well as numerous restaurants and shops. The inhabitants are all strict Muslims. The most unique feature of the village is that almost everything but the mosque is built on wood or concrete stilts over the shallow water. I reckon the richest person there is the guy who owns and operates the pile driver.
The villagers welcome visitors, and operate a number of seafood restaurants that are visited by day trippers who arrive on tour boats. There are also a few guest houses with overnight accommodation. We spent most of one afternoon wandering along virtually every stretch of narrow walkway in the village, observing the various aspects of life in this small water-bound community.
During our walkabout we encountered a group of men sitting on the floor in passionate discussion (politics we presumed). At the village barber shop, a man was getting a shave with a straight razor while reclined in an old-fashioned barber’s chair. Just a few steps down the street two other men were carefully shaving all the fur off a headless animal with straight razors, apparently dressing it for the spit. We later determined that it was a goat when we discovered the head sitting on the floor a few feet away. An infant baby was happily sleeping in a hammock, completely covered in mesh, suspended from a ceiling beam, safe from mosquitoes. One resident had a pet eagle, which he happily put on to a small hand perch and handed to Merima for closer inspection. A couple of women had three pet monkeys which they unleashed on us and then, grabbing our camera, took our photograph. I had to pay them a few buck to get my camera back-a bit cheeky I thought. A large tom cat was happily snoozing on a corrugated tin roof. Women were cooking chicken skewers on crude barbeques. Children played out on the narrow streets and in the playgrounds of the school and mosque. Through open doors in a couple homes we were able to observe a man hand weaving a fish net from monofilament and another fabricating an intricate fish trap, almost a work of art, from bamboo cane. The locals were very friendly and smiling, and almost all greeted us in some way. The homes ranged from rather rough-hewn to quite ornate, but all were reasonably tidy. That evening we picked a fish from one of the farm pens, which was the main course for an excellent meal cooked up for us at a small restaurant/guesthouse. Being a Muslim village, beers were a no-no.
The following day, sailing before a nice northerly breeze, we mad our way about 30 nm southwest to Koh Dam Khwan. Koh Dam Hock and Koh Dam Khwan are a pair of attractive islands, not far off the mainland coast near the resort area called Krabi, so they tend to get a lot of tourist boats disgorging day trippers from the mainland. In the late afternoon when the tourists disappear, it becomes a quiet and idyllic little spot. We took a dive, but the underwater landscape was pretty average and the visibility poor, possibly due to runoff from mainland rivers.
With not much reason to hang around, we sailed south the following morning, hoping to dive a spectacular spot near Ko Mai Phai. The seas were quite rough, and the only mooring was dangerously close to the rock wall, so we gave it a miss and returned to the safety of Koh Phi Phi Don, about five miles to the south.
The day after we returned to Koh Phi Phi Don we gave our legs a bit of a workout with a 5 mile walk through some rugged bush, farm and coastal land. We enjoyed a nice Thai meal and, of course, the Singha (Thai beer) always tastes better when you’ve earned it.
With time starting to run short on us, we retraced our track back to Ko Rok Noi, and arrived with plenty of time to get wet. The conditions were much calmer, making for a lovely dive and a calm evening on the mooring.
Our last stop in Thailand for the season was at a lovely little bay on the south east corner of Ko Tanga. The water was placid, the island quiet, and we had the place to ourselves. We enjoyed an OK dive in the afternoon and then washed and put away our SCUBA gear for the season.
The final leg of our trip was the short 20 mile hop back to the Telaga Harbour Marina on Langkawi. With the breeze up and rain pissing down, the trip was fast and wet. After a stop at the fuel dock, we tied up Moonshadow, spent Christmas week putting her away for the season, and enjoying Holiday festivities with cruising friends and former MooCrew Eric Strasser who dropped in from Singapore to hang out with us for a few days.
Three days after Christmas, we hopped a plane back to New Zealand for a “summer break.”