"Arctracer" Letters

Thailand Surin & Similan Islands, etc. Feb-Mar 2006

We just finished our first visit to Thailand. We left Langkawi, Malaysia on February 16, sailing mostly west to the Butang group of islands. This put us into Thai waters, since the border between the two countries is very close to Langkawi Island. We picked up one of the moorings which the Thai government placed at popular spots. These moorings are wonderful because they often save boats from trying to anchor in deep water near coral, and also because they preserve slow-growing corals from destruction by anchors and chains. The second day we moored at Ko Rok Nok, a National Park consisting of two small islands. We were asked to pay for visiting the park, but when we explained that we had no Thai money, the Park Rangers just smiled and went away. They weren't interested in Malyasian Ringits or US dollars. We spent a windless day there and did our first snorkeling in Thailand, but the coral and fish were mediocre. Jerry took the opportunity to scrape our hulls, which had developed a fairly elaborate ecosystem in the warm and often muddy tropical water. The wind was good on the next day, so we sailed to the island of Phi-Phi Don. We started to snorkel, but Jerry saw a few big jellyfish and decided to avoid the possibility of an allergy attack. This is a very touristy island, and although the tsunami did considerable damage to its resorts last year many tourists were enjoying the water, the beaches, and the local boats. On the 20th we sailed to Ao Chalong Bay on Phuket Island, anchored just long enough to check in with the officials, then sailed around the south end of Phuket Island to anchor off the beach of Nai Harn Bay. The 21st was our monthly anniversary, so we ate dinner ashore in a beachfront restaurant. The Thai dishes were very tasty, and not too overloaded with hot chilies. The trip to Phuket took five days for 147 miles, which is the normal slow speed of cruising in this area of light and fickle winds.

On the 22nd we started moving north along the west coast of Thailand towards the Surin and Similan Islands. We anchored each night near the coast, until we arrived at Ko Surin ("Ko" means "island" in Thai) on the 25th and took a mooring near the National Park headquarters. The Thai currency is called Baht , and US$1 converts to about B38. It cost B200 per person to visit the park for a week, and B40 per day to moor the boat. We bought tickets from park officials who visited us in their own small boat. We snorkeled twice on the 26th, and found some lovely coral and fish, including our first Giant Moray Eels - about five feet long with big heads full of impressive teeth. The next day we visited the headquarters and walked the only trail in the park to another beach with campground and restaurant. On the walk back Nina saw a mouse deer, a little over a foot high with brown fur, a mouselike snout, and hooves like a deer. At the headquarters restaurant we had pretty good seafood noodles and rice for lunch for a total of B250. The next few days were devoted to exploring other Surin Island anchorages. On most days we snorkeled at least once, and saw interesting fish and coral on almost every swim. The distances traveled each day were short, so Nina had time to replace carpeting glued to some interior walls with white vinyl and good white paint. We continued our backgammon and cribbage contests, ate Nina's wonderful dinners, and found time to read almost every evening.

We saw "Sea Gypsies" in the Surins. These nomads have lived aboard their small boats in this region for centuries. They cross the Burmese - Thailand - Malaysia borders with the seasons, speak their own language, have their own customs, and do not seem to care much for land-dwellers of any nation. Some of them are now living in houses and working for the National Park. As boatmen they shuffle tourists among snorkeling sites and beaches. One old couple came on their small houseboat to ask us for kerosene, and we were able to give them a quart for their lamp. Fishing provided their traditional sustenance, but now their fisheries are overrun by a vast armada of diesel-powered trawlers and other boats. The National Park was accepting donations of clothing and food to help them, but it is not clear how long this unique culture will survive.

(view Surin Islands photos)

On March 4 we sailed to Ko Tachai, one of the northernmost Similan Islands. We were greeted by a park ranger who spoke almost no English, but collected fees which were about the same as for the Surins. Thai writing uses its own unique letters - very interesting squiggles but completely incomprehensible - so although he wrote a receipt we still don't know what we paid for. The next morning we snorkeled and Jerry saw a beautiful Leopard Shark, reputedly harmless but still providing an adrenaline rush. We moved among the Similan Islands for the next few days, snorkeling frequently. We hoped to see Whale Sharks, but never did. These islands are rated among the top ten dive locations in the world, and there was a steady stream of divers on big boats out to see these famous sites. We tried the park headquarters restaurant a couple of times, and its food was Thai but not really special. We took an interesting walk one day across Ko Miang (in the Similans) through the forest, where we saw several flying squirrels and many Pied Imperial Pigeons. We also took the "adventure trail" up to a lookout, and had to use the fixed ropes to get up and down some of the steep rocks. On March 9 we finally left the Similans, and on March 11 we anchored again in Nai Harn Bay to have dinner ashore. The Surin-Similan trip took 18 days and we sailed 91 miles.

(view Similan Islands photos)

Our older computer refused to boot up for several days, despite Jerry's poking around in Microsoft's files. He had some rude thoughts about the software which had eliminated many of its most important files. He finally reformatted the hard drive, used the CDs which were provided when we bought the machine back in New Zealand to reinstall Windows 98, and then used an assortment of our later backup CDs. Everything went remarkably well, and he was able to have it working pretty much as before within just a few days. Since this is our only computer with a functioning Iridium link, we were very happy to have it again for email on the boat. We used email cafes in Phuket a few times, especially to check our excite account, but we rely heavily on the old laptop and were delighted to have it running properly again.

Getting from Nai Harn Bay to Ao Chalong town can be an educational experience. A taxi driver estimated one-way would cost B500. Motorscooters rent for B200 to B300 per day. The first truck driver Jerry spoke to wanted B150. He finally discovered that the standard fare for a ride on a truck (small pickup with benches in the back) is B20 and this is even posted in some of the trucks. The drivers will gladly accept more from customers willing to pay. He rode slowly with the locals for B20 and enjoyed seeing all the construction projects. There are already more resorts than needed to accommodate the existing numbers of tourists, but more resorts are being built and there seems to be a large demand for new private homes too. The Thais appear very industrious, and the roads are lined with a multitude of very small (one-family) businesses.

At a fishing store Jerry bought good Thai charts of Thai waters for B250 each. He bought fruit, vegetables and flowers from street vendors. He bought shampoo from a Mormon pharmacist with a degree from Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. This was surprising, since almost all Thais are Buddhists, but at last he had found a Thai who could converse easily in English. He found milk in a 7-11. Chains like KFC and MacDonald's are everywhere, even if we do not spend our money in them. ATMs enabled us to withdraw cash in Baht with our VISA cards without worrying about the exchange rate.

The Thai government is in crisis because the Prime Minister is accused of unethical behavior which resulted in his family getting a huge amount of money in a stock sale. There have been mass protests in Bangkok, the capitol, but he refuses to give up his position. Some of this has even reached the BBC news broadcasts which we listen to most mornings. Some Thais are as embarrassed about their top government officials as we are of ours. Thailand was never colonized and still has a king. Like the English queen he is highly respected but relegated to ceremonial duties. He is currently the longest serving ruler in the world and his picture is on every banknote and coin in the country. He is a scholar, a jazz musician and as a sailor is the only reigning monarch ever to win a gold medal in an international yacht race. The parts of Thailand we saw seemed unaffected by the political mess but we hope this little democracy can solve its internal problems soon.

The beach at Nai Harn Bay is perhaps typical. It has several large resorts and a number of small restaurants, bars, shops and vendors offering carvings, paintings, clothing and other stuff. Some beach vendors offer massages, which are supposed to be very relaxing. Many tourists come from Thailand itself and other Asian countries, but there are also flights direct from Europe and Australia, so the scene is truly international. "Longtails" are traditional open wooden boats with diesel motors perched on the transom and a long driveshaft extending back and down to the propeller. These boats and modern speedboats take tourists fishing, to snorkeling spots, or just sightseeing. Most tourists swim and work on their tans during the day, but the sun is so hot they spend much of the time lying under a large umbrella. Sometimes the younger generation can be seen playing soccer, paddleball or frisbee on the beach. Walking for exercise, or even jogging, is sometimes seen. Thai women are usually well-covered even in the water, but Europeans (a term which includes all white people) often wear very skimpy bathing suits and some women go topless. It is not unusual to see gay couples, or European men with younger Thai women in what may well be a temporary relationship with an economic aspect. None of this seems to bother the Thais, who are evidently very tolerant and happy to have all kinds of people spending time and money in their country. We were visited one afternoon by a German man and his five-year-old daughter, who swam out to see our boat. We invited them aboard, and Nina gave the little girl and her smaller sister who stayed ashore some shells and shell necklaces. Thai beaches can be quite entertaining.

On March 16 we sailed around the bottom of Phuket Island to anchor near the cruise ship wharf and oil terminal on the east side. The following day we motored through the dredged channel towards two marinas. The old marina was full, but the new Royal Phuket Marina which opened in December was practically empty and glad to accommodate us. We filled up on fuel, since the light winds had made us run our engines more than usual. This marina is intended to be "world-class" and already has a gourmet bakery/restaurant which makes fabulous chocolates and pastries. We tried their bagels and smoked salmon one morning. The bagels weren't great (certainly not up to NY standards), but the salmon was a treat. The manager of the marina is from Arkansas and the hardstand manager is English, but the rest of the staff are inexperienced Thais. There is a fancy new condominium development around the marina too, but few residents. The shallow entrance channel is a bad problem since keelboats can barely get through at high tide. We rented a car and driver to shop at a huge Tesco supermarket, stocking up on things we haven't bought since Australia. Prices seemed about the same as in the USA. We tried to contact a rigger (without success), and will spend more time on rigging when we go back to Thailand. The marina tried to get us to stay for two weeks, but we left on the next day's high tide as we only had 2 days left on our visas. Two days later we were relaxing back at Nai Harn. On March 20 we both caught a truck to Ao Chalong and checked out of Thailand with the officials, which cost us B300. We bought some supplies at the small shops, and caught another bus back to Nai Harn. That night we had a steady hard rain for over an hour. We opened our water tanks and filled them to overflowing with the water running from our decks. This is supposed to be the dry season, so we were happy to have the water.

Sailing to Malaysia gave us an opportunity to visit more islands. The first day we sailed to Ko Racha Yai, a popular dive site. Bubbles rose near our boat most of the day as a stream of dive boats gave customers one-half-hour under water. We snorkeled for a while, but found the water full of small jellyfish and small particles and more boulders than live coral. There were many small, friendly fish, apparently fed by dive operators. We dined ashore at the very quiet resort that evening, and sailed to Phi-Phi Don the next day. This time we snorkeled over surprisingly good coral and saw some interesting fish. The following morning we motored south along the side of Phi-Phi Leh and saw limestone caves in the towering cliffs. Some caves have ladders and ropes to enable collection of swiftlet nests for Chinese "birds nest soup." This dangerous occupation is an important moneymaker for locals, and one cave even had a guard. We anchored that night off beach resorts on Ko Lanta Yai.

On March 24 we sailed to Ko Muk and took a mooring near the famous "Emerald Hong." A hong has an entrance cave into a space open to the sky where the cave roof has fallen. There are many of these near Phuket, and they are tourist attractions. Watching the scene this afternoon we counted as many as seven large tour boats rafted together at the entrance while their customers swam in and out of the hong. We estimate 500 to 1000 tourists visited this hong today. We snorkeled in too, but found it so dark that we had to go with a tour group whose leader knew the way. The tour groups included children and non-swimmers, so they wore life preservers and formed a human chain by hanging on to each other so the leader could practically pull them through. We were totally disoriented in the middle of the 80 meter long tunnel, but the noisy crowd had fun. The interior was marvelous, with a sandy beach and trees growing in a "room" enclosed by high cliff walls. It was quite an interesting experience.

We arrived in Langkawi on March 27 after overnight stops at Ko Phetra and Ko Tarutao. The totals for the trip back from Phuket were seven days and 167 miles. The weather continued mostly overcast, with fluky winds, some rain and occasional thunderstorms - very peculiar for this time of year. Anchored outside Telaga Marina, Jerry rowed ashore by 4:30 but found the officials had already gone home. He signed up for wi-fi at the marina office, so we could access the Internet directly from the boat with our newer laptop. A squall in the night made a French sailboat drag anchor and run into our anchor bridle, but there was no damage and the situation was quickly resolved after we heard a "bump" on our port hull. We were again thankful for our big anchor and heavy chain, our primary "boat insurance." The next morning we found the officials and got properly checked in to Malaysia.

We'll be here for a while, doing boat work and filing our income taxes. Then we'll head north again to explore more of Thailand. We want to be ready to show Jennifer, Antonio, Nico and his friend Stephanie some of Thailand's interesting places when they are with us from July 5 to July 30. We're excited about their visit!