"Arctracer" Letters

Ko Samui, Aug-Sept 2009

In the summer of 2009 we spent a month in the Gulf of Thailand around Ko Samui and nearby islands. This was a relaxing "vacation" with snorkeling and sightseeing mixed with boat maintenance, reading and playing on computers. The Anthong National Marine Park was very beautiful and had much wildlife. Ko Tao had good snorkeling, and its east side was relatively peaceful. While we are glad to have visited the other islands we found them heavily developed and the waters not clear enough for good snorkeling. Here are details of our visit:

Anchored at Nathon, the busy administrative and business center of Ko Samui, we checked in with Thai Immigration officials on August 20. They were not used to having sailboats arrive from foreign countries so it took a few hours to complete all the paperwork. The anchorage in 12' [9 degrees 32.3'N 99 degrees 55.8'E] between a reef and the ferry jetty was exposed to the prevailing westerly wind, so the next day we sailed around to the shelter of Bophut Bay on the north coast and anchored in 11' at low tide [9 degrees 33.9'N 100 degrees 01.6'E]. This bay was a base for Sunsail and other charter boats, and we saw several of their catamarans and monohulls moored there and sailing around the islands. We went ashore to visit the village which tourist information labeled a "fishermen's village" and "the most attractive village on the island." Although it was no longer a fishermen's village, it was indeed one of the more attractive villages that we saw on the island. It was a solid strip of restaurants and shops catering to tourists with more construction going on. The "Karma Sutra" restaurant offered free wi-fi, so we spent a few hours there using our computers and having Thai food for lunch. This big island had many resorts and other developments, and the water was not clear enough for good snorkeling, so we had little reason to stay.

We raised sail on the 22nd and headed for the next big island to the north, Ko Phangan. Once in the open space between the islands we realized that the wind was fairly strong, over 20 knots. We sped along at 7-8 knots with too much mainsail and just part of the jib, and slipped into the lee of high hills in less than an hour. Then we had strong gusts one minute and calm the next, which made our progress along the coast rather erratic, but slow enough to consider each bay as a possible anchorage. We finally decided on Ao Thong Ta Pan in the northeast corner and put our anchor down in 21' just after high tide [9 degrees 46.9'N 100 degrees 03.5'E]. This gorgeous bay provided good protection from all but east winds which were not expected at this time of year. There were resorts all around the bay, and one of them had free wi-fi, so we spent considerable time on our computers. The water did not look good for snorkeling, but it was such a comfortable place that we stayed for two days. The night-fishing "squid boats" often came into this and other protected bays to sleep during the days, but we often saw them far from shore in deep water too.

(view photos of Ko Samui and Ko Phangan)

On the 24th we got an Internet weather forecast which indicated pleasant winds that day but stronger winds for the following few days. We raised anchor and sails just before a rain cloud appeared from behind the hills, and managed to sail away from that in fairly strong winds towards Koh Tao. We were aiming northwest, but the strong winds were just enough north of west to push us east of our rhumb line. We ended the day by taking down our sails and motoring the last few miles straight into the wind. We picked up a mooring just before dark in Ao Leuk, the bay on the southeast corner of Ko Tao [10 degrees 04'N 99 degrees 50.5'E]. What a beautiful place! The water was clear enough for pretty good snorkeling inside nicely marked areas and there were only a few low-key resorts. Boats full of snorkelers and other boats full of scuba divers came and went all day, but it was very peaceful after they left. We snorkeled in two different areas. The corals were not brilliant but were fine. There were few large fish, probably because the locals were often fishing, but we did see our first "Titan Triggerfish" and the largest species of Butterflyfish, "Chaetodon Lineolatus," very pretty. We relaxed and puttered with various projects between snorkeling expeditons before moving on the 27th to Tanote Bay [10 degrees 05'N 99 degrees 51'E]. Resorts and huge granite boulders surrounded the bay. We snorkeled along one edge, but the water was deep all around the enormous rocks and was not to our liking. The next day we motored past Hin Wong Bay and picked up a mooring in the bay furthest north on the east side of Ko Tao, Ao Kluay Theuan [10 degrees 07.1'N 99 degrees 50.7'E]. This had no resorts at all (though some construction was beginning), and there was a long stretch of snorkeling area along the shore. Although boats brought snorkelers and divers all day, it was a beautiful, quiet place. Fishing boats and large tourist boats sometimes took a mooring at a spot where a hose brought water for scrubbing decks from a stream on the hill. We had some heavy rains during the two days spent here, so relaxed and worked aboard when not snorkeling.

On August 29 we motored around the northeast corner to Ao Mamaung ("Mango Bay") to take a mooring [10 degrees 07.4'N 99 degrees 50.1'E] and snorkel. We were surrounded by boats full of snorkelers and divers until late afternoon. The corals were fair, but there were few fish. We watched a local man on a dive boat fishing while his divers were in the water. We got a lot of rain during the night, and the morning looked gloomy. This bay was quite rolly from waves generated by westerly winds, so after breakfast we moved back around the corner to the shelter of Ao Kluay Theuan.

On the last day of August there was practically no wind, so we decided to motor around to the main town, Mae Hat (Mae Haad), for fresh fruit and vegetables. However, the town is on the windy west side of the island and the very busy anchorage is not only shallow but is full of coral. We did not stop but went around the south end of the island to pick up our old mooring in Ao Leuk. It was still morning, so after lunch we dinghied to the beach and walked over the hill to Mae Hat. Many of the island's roads are in terrible condition, but walking the 1.5 km was interesting. We passed the dump (along the side of a road) the recycling facility (piles of bottles and cans) and the power plant (not just a building but also several trailers with big diesel generators). The main road along the west side of the island was lined with shops, and we found surprisingly good selections of cheeses, frozen meats, vegetables and fruits. An afternoon squall raised a significant chop and we were glad we had not anchored off the town on a lee shore. Long beaches on the west side of the island are lined with resorts, but the westerly winds make the waters rough and bring rubbish to the sands. The walk back over the hill with our groceries was hot and tiring. We stopped for a relaxing early dinner at a restaurant on the beach of Ao Leuk. Back aboard, Nina spent hours cleaning and preparing prawns, squid and greens for the freezer.

On September 1 the morning weather looked fine in our anchorage, so we dropped the mooring and began to motor away. We soon saw a big black cloud approaching from the west, so turned around and took the same mooring just before a squall hit with gusts to 28 knots and considerable rain. It was a better day for laundry than snorkeling, so that's what we did. The next day we did get away, and motored to Ao Hin Wong, 3.8 miles up the east coast, [10 degrees 06.2'N 99 degrees 50.9'E] and anchored in 40' near "Freedom Fargo." We first saw this cruising boat at Rindja Island, Indonesia in 2005. It has been chartering at Ko Tao for three years. This was the only cruising boat we saw during our month in the Ko Samui region. We tried snorkeling at the south end of this bay, but the Sargent Majors and other small fish were a terrible nuisance because they were used to snorkelers feeding them. We climbed right back into our dinghy and rowed away. We snorkeled along the huge rocks on the west side and saw a few nice fish through foggy blue water.

The next day we finally motored to the northwest corner of Ko Tao to Nang Yuan and picked up a mooring near the sandbar which connects three small islands [10 degrees 07.1'N 99 degrees 48.9'E]. This is Ko Tao's most advertised attraction and there were resorts all around with crowds of people enjoying sun and sea on the sandbar. The snorkeling was quite good with numerous fish, though the corals were only average. Both large and small boats constantly brought loads of snorkelers and divers. We enjoyed our turn, then dropped the mooring and sailed down the west and south sides of the island to again pick up the mooring in Ao Leuk, having completed a second circumnavigation of the island. It was nice to be away from the crowds again. We went ashore for one last meal on the beach that evening and discovered that the waiters were from Myanmar.

(view Ko Tao photos)

On September 4 we put a reef in the main and headed towards Anthong National Park 24 miles to the southwest. Less than halfway there we encountered a strong squall with gusts to 39 knots and sustained winds over 30 knots for at least an hour. We practically hove-to while spray blew completely over the top of the cockpit, an unusual occurrence. One of the mainsail slides near the top of our mast broke in the strong wind. The "sunbrella" cover of one water jug was blown away. Leaky hatches let sea water into both forepeaks, drenched our mattress and ruined one small clock. When the wind subsided below 30 knots we continued on our way, and were happy to drop anchor in 37' in the lee of Ko Thong Thang Thaeng [9 degrees 40.7'N 99 degrees 41.2'E] near several fishing boats. We cleaned up the boat and relaxed. The next three days continued quite breezy and the fishing boats didn't leave, so we stayed and did boat projects while some of the fishermen swam ashore and brought coconuts back to their boats.

September 8 was fine and all the fishing boats left early. We motored three miles to anchor off the Park Headquarters on Ko Wua Talap [9 degrees 38.1'N 99 degrees 40.4'E] in 18' near a marked-off snorkeling area. The water was too cloudy for snorkeling, as we discovered when we tried. We rowed to the beach and checked in with the Park officials. The charges were 100 Baht per person plus 50 Baht for the boat for a week in the park (total $7 US). We walked up the steep trail over sharp limestone rocks 450 meters to the viewpoint with a spectacular panorama of the islands and sea. Along the way we saw Dusky Langurs which were quite used to people and easily photographed. The tourist boats left about 15:30, and the park staff then played volleyball and golf. The park restaurant opened for dinner at 18:00 for the staff and the few tourists who stayed on the island. We ate good Thai food at reasonable prices. Then the tables were rearranged and we found ourselves part of a birthday celebration for the cook. The 35 employees and six tourists had a good time, with Gon playing guitar and singing with various other instruments and voices.

The next two days were a mix of sun and light rain. We spent most of our time aboard. At "happy hour" we watched Pied Hornbills flying over the cliffs, including juveniles with undeveloped bills. White-bellied Sea Eagles were a common sight all around these islands, and we saw Pied Imperial Pigeons too. We ate suppers in the restaurant ashore. We climbed the steep trail to Bua Bok Cave whose stalactite and stalagmite formations were better than we expected. We looked for the "Lady's Slipper" orchids unique to these islands but saw none. The small nursery behind the park headquarters had a few of the plants but none with blossoms.

On the 11th we motored 1.5 miles to anchor off the second beach on the east side of Ko Mae Ko in 21' [9 degrees 39.2'N 99 degrees 40.1'E] with high cliffs on three sides. A few fishermen lived ashore and kayakers paddled past, but it was a tranquil and beautiful place where we watched Pied Hornbills and Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphins. We rowed our dinghy to the third beach where there was a small dock and refreshment stands. From there we climbed steel and cement stairways over the cliffs to see the 200m by 250m landlocked lagoon "Talay Nai" inside the island. This is the "golden cup" for which the park is named. The lagoon is connected by underground tunnels to the sea and has many fish. There are nice views from high on the cliffs. We motored back to park headquarters on the 13th for a last supper ashore with the friendly park employees and watched the end of an English Premier League soccer game on their television. A Bryde's Whale died on a nearby beach 4 years ago. Its skeleton was reassembled by Gon, a park employee, and was one of the interesting displays in the visitors center.

(view Anthong Park photos)

We sailed back to Ko Samui on the 14th. It was a slow downwind sail as we didn't use our spinnaker. We finally arrived at Bophut just before a squall hit. The next morning we went ashore and walked to the "Big C" supermarket 2 km up the main road. We walked back with bags full of food, and stopped for lunch at the local market near Bophut's main intersection. We got our purchases aboard, then went ashore again and caught a songthaew to Chaweng Beach. This long sandy beach on the east side of the island is highly developed, with resorts all along the beach backed by a road solidly lined with shops and restaurants including a Hagendaz Ice Cream Parlor, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. The beach was lovely, but there were so many vendors working among tourists lying on the sand that we needed to escape. We went to the Tesco-Lotus supermarket for a few more items, then took a songthaew back to Bophut. Rain started falling heavily as we walked into town, so we took shelter at a roadside shop and ate their good soup. We walked back to our dinghy through puddles, and were happy to relax aboard once again. After that day we were sure Ko Samui was too developed for our tastes.

On the 16th we spent much of the day at the "Karma Sutra" restaurant. The lunch was good, and then we spent several hours using free wi-fi to get our emails and update our website. The next day we got diesel by taking our jerry cans ashore where a friendly ex-pat took them to a filling station. His charge for this service was very reasonable, and we were happy to be loaded with fuel for the trip south. We walked to the market and stocked up with fresh fruits and vegetables. The 18th was the last day of our Thai visas, so Jerry rode a songthaew to Nathon and then walked to Immigration where they stamped our passports. This was the only "port clearance" available. He bought a huge pumpkin and a bag of langsat (local fruit) and was back aboard before noon. We took our computers to "Karma Sutra" for another lunch and wi-fi afternoon. Huge speakers were set up and tested on shore in the evening, and there was a pretty good fireworks display that night. We accepted this as a farewell gesture by the locals.

We were awakened just before dawn on Saturday the 19th by announcements coming through the huge speakers on shore. It was the start of the all day "Adventure" races. There were evidently races for all ages and abilities. The big event lasted more than four hours and combined running, cycling, swimming and kayaking. We saw part of it as we motored parallel to the beach towards the "Big Buddha." Our port propeller started sounding strange, so we continued with one engine around to Ao Choeng Mon and anchored in the protected bay in 20' at low tide [9 degrees 34.6'N 100 degrees 05.1'E] to take a look underwater. The propellers seemed okay, and we scraped off the barnacles. We raised anchor for the last time in Thailand and started sailing south towards the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia, 275 miles away.

(view Ko Samui Area photos)