Our Diary Thailand (1)

I must apologise - I have neglected and ignored you for the past six months. I've come to realise that my forays into posting the odd snippet onto Facebook is not enough. You may be becoming bored with our ramblings around the seven seas, but as a method of keeping track of our time I can think of no better way than to occasionally put fingers to keyboard.

Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have now given way to Thailand. The west coast of Thailand sits in the Andaman Sea, thought to be Thailand's greatest natural asset. This area has thousands of islands and glorious beaches, all easily accessible, which are a big draw for cruisers and tourists from all over the world.

We left Langkawi after Chinese New Year 31st January. It is only 120 miles (1 days sail) to Phuket - our "official" check in port in Thailand, however the Thai island chain begins only 25 miles north. Like many cruisers we took our time and explored a few of the islands on the way. Poco linked up with Santana and Swara 2 with the aim to party our way to Phuket. (We were stocked up with duty free beer and wine ready for action.)

Koh Muk was the first main stop for a visit to the Emerald Cave, our first taste of tourist-infested Thailand. Giving credit, the Thai National Park Authority, try to control the huge influx of people - or cynically stand by and take the 200 Baht ($6) entrance fee - and they do provide moorings and friendly smiles at the main sites. Thailand's thriving tourist trade

is supported by fleets of high speed power boats, long tail "fishing boats" and large ferries taking thousands to the surrounding islands daily. Koh Muk was no exception. Like every other tourist site we visited, these various craft scream in, screech to a halt, disgorge their passengers and barely after they've arrived, off they go again to the next beach, hong or old film set. The process at Koh Muk was a highlight in its efficiency. The pleasure craft arrive. Life jackets donned, the passengers jump into the water, form up into a line, each clinging onto the life jacket of the person in front and, like an orange crocodile, snake through the cave entrance guided by a local. With squeals of delight the whole entourage is plunged into darkness as they pass through the cave entrance, emerging at the other side into an enclosed limestone "room", paved with a white beach and sheltered by mangroves, surrounded by towering cliffs, with no obvious way out. There is no escape if you find yourself trying to fight this human tide; your only option was go with the flow! We stood on the beach mesmerized by this influx, but with photos taken the crocodile turns and moves out leaving us to marvel at the peace and tranquility of being alone in these magical places. We soon learnt that these influxes of tourists are fleeting and we visited the most popular sites late afternoon and early morning, where we had the places to ourselves.

With Koh Muk "ticked off" we headed to Koh Ngai for the night; a resort island, generally undiscovered by the hordes, we anchor off the beach and spent a couple of days, snorkelling, walking and enjoying our first taste of Thai Food from the restaurants and bars along the beach.

In 2000 The Beach, staring Leonardo DiCaprio, was filmed on a small beach on Phi Phi Le. The Thai tourism authority then went into overdrive and created a "must visit" place, fed by hundreds of power craft to ferry the gullible masses of tourists. We picked up a mooring on the south side of the island and dinghied to the "Beach". Rounding the point with the "Beach" in sight, we stopped - there was no way we could land, wall-to-wall speed boats, thousands of people, not our type of thing! We did stop on an adjacent beach and just gazed in amazement at the comings and goings. Here we observed the latest hobby - "The Photo Shoot" - where, with expensive digital camera in hand, one person (the photographer), shouts commands at the "model" who then tries to emulate Elle Macpherson et al. We surmised these "glam" photos would be posted onto Facebook! This pastime became a common sight on all the Thai beaches, much to our amusement.

Having learned our lesson we returned to the boats and waited until the people went back to their hotels, and enjoyed solitude and sundowners on the beach! Phi Phi Don, a few miles away, is vying for the accolade of most beautiful island in the world - unfortunately out-of-control development and tatty surroundings detract from this once idyllic sand strewn place. Amongst the beached wreckage of old long tails we celebrated Kevin's birthday (Santana) - party time again!

A day sail/motor took us to Ao Chalong where we officially cleared into Thailand - a straight forward exercise. We hung around here for a few days, stocking up with delicacies, such as bacon, pork and sausages (after 3 months in muslim Malaysia) - and visits to Tescos supermarket - a delight.

Our general plan was to continue cruising up the west coast to the border with Myanmar and then return south via the Surin and Similan Islands. The west coast of Phuket is bounded by lovely beaches, wall-to-wall sunbeds, night clubs, massage parlours, bars and restaurants. Interestingly, the most common "foreign language" was Russian with most restaurants providing menus written in Russian.

There are many great anchorages along the way encouraging a slow meander and lazy attitude. Meals ashore were a delight and it was often cheaper than eating on board - around $5 for a main course. Our favourite places were Freedom Bay and Nai Harn (Airport Anchorage). At Nai Harn we again met up with Santana who were taking the same route and agreed to sail in company.

After leaving Phuket and the tourists behind, we motored north, firstly anchoring at the Naval Base at Ban Thap Lamu. The Naval Wives Club restaurant here came highly recommended by Gary from Inspiration Lady, but we decided to stay on board (a month or two later we drove here from Phuket, whilst Keith's foot healed and enjoyed their delightful food). Further north we entered a coastal "channel" through mangroves - with little or no visitors we often had these glorious beaches to ourselves.

Koh Phayam, just 4 miles from the Burmese border, was our final island on our northward journey. This is a delightful place, there are two protected bays on the west and one on the east so there's good anchorage the whole year. Long Beach, where we spent nearly two weeks was delightful and very laid back - little bars and restaurants, a lovely beach, surf - it has it all. There are no cars on the island so scooters are the main form of transport. After much persuasion, supported by Santana, I got Christine to be pillion passenger for a tour of the island. Apart from the screams and claw marks on my back we had a lovely day.

Apart from rubber, Koh Phayam's main cash crop is cashew nuts - these were being harvested whilst we were there. Cashews are a strange crop, they are in two parts, the fruit (cashew apple) and protruding from beneath this is the nut. I tried the apple which is very astringent and also bit into the nut - unbeknownst to me the nut is highly toxic and has to be boiled, steamed,soaked and dried before it can be eaten. This episode left me with a swollen lip covered in sores for a week - eating Thai chili food was impossible!

On Boxing Day 2004 the west coast of Thailand was hit by a tsunami, although today there is little sign of its destruction except for a few abandoned hotels. One enterprising group collected debris from the beaches and built a bar in the form of a galleon in Buffalo Bay, Koh Phayam - an interesting landmark.

Lotus eating cannot go on forever, so we headed south to visit the Surins and Similans. These are two groups of island in the Andaman Sea are managed by the Thai National Parks Authority. Despite the ubiquitous tourist boats these are both worth a visit. The Surins have lovely anchorages/moorings. There were half a dozen yachts at one anchorage attracted by a lovely beach with barbeque and afternoon rest spot under a huge shade tree, bordered by sparkling clear blue water. This became the favourite place to hang out. A return visit is a must.

The Similans, being closer to Phuket, were much busier, although there was plenty of moorings, the waters around were a bit choppy. Lovely diving here - I joined up with Helmut and Kerstin from Lop to for a dive - we had a lovely time exploring some underwater sculptures and coral outcrops littered with a myriad of sealife.
After the Similans we made our way back to Ao Chalong visiting some new places on the way. An unfortunate incident at Patong beach left us with a chunk out of the bow, when a Jet Ski hit us - we were at anchor! I don't think the rider will be so willing to play chicken around yachts again…

On the east side of Phuket is huge Phang Nga Bay,littered with towering islands made from limestone. This reactive rock is worn by the wind and rain to create surprising pillars strewn with caves, tunnels and hongs (hidden "rooms" in the centre of islands, often only accessible through small hidden caves).

The most famous of these is James Bond Island made famous by a couple of seconds of fame in The Man With the Golden Gun forty years ago. Most of today's visitors weren't even born when this was filmed! This film set is photographed by thousands each day, another tribute to Thai Tourism marketing. A whole industry of speed boats, restaurants, and excursions have been built around this unassuming rock, we spent 10 minutes here and escaped - disillusioned. Avoiding the tourist traps in Phang Nga Bay is easy as there are hundreds of other delightful places to see; often we would have breakfast at one island, lunch at another and overnight at a tourist spot, which we often had to ourselves. This trip was an exploratory trip to work out an itinerary for Pippa and Xavier (Christine's niece and great nephew) forthcoming visit.

Pippa and Xavi duly arrived. We had pulled into Ao Po Grand Marina to rearrange and tidy Poco. Our itinerary was not very adventurous but packed in a lot of visits to hongs, beaches, islands, etc. Xavi loved exploring caves and was a true water baby - he particularly enjoyed going fast in the inflatable dinghy! So entertainment for the six year old Xavi was easy. Highlights: BBQ at Koh Hong Krabi, seeing a dolphin close up, caves and hongs at Koh Phanak, visit to Paradise Island resort where we had great fun in the pool, and just generally messing around in boats. We all had a lovely week, the weather was good and company delightful. It was sad to see the two leave.

To drop them off we pulled into Ao Po Marina again and decided to stay a while to do some boat projects: replace the 10-year-old canvas work, change our anchor chain (now considerably worn) and maintain and refurbish the aft heads. These projects were underway when Keith's left foot became painful and infected and he was unable to walk. We hired a car and paid a visit to Phuket International Hospital. After a brief examination an abcess was discovered, which was excised and a portion of sea urchin spine discovered - daily visits for wound dressing was ordered and total rest in between. Boat projects were halted midstream for the next week. The wound quickly healed and after three weeks our projects were completed. We checked out of Thailand as our Visas had expired, and headed back to Langkawi, Malaysia for the wet season. Our trip south was faster, the weather had started to close in and exposed anchorages became uncomfortable. After a four day trip we arrived in Kuah and met up with Santana, Swara and Lop to again. We are now planning to head south to Penang for a while and after that - not sure, but we certainly will be heading back to Thailand later in the year.