Pleasures of the Andaman Sea

April 29, 2007 - Phuket, Thailand

Phuket

With the end of our ground tours and the first two months of our trip now over, our bodies needed a rest. Phuket is not a bad place for this. The streets are lined with bars, food stalls, proper restaurants, hotel of all classes and tourists. Our first impression of Karon, Phuket is that it may be too touristy for us to stay here for two months which was the original plan. Terry was having a hard time spending 120 baht (4 US$) for a bowl of Tom Kha Kai compared to the 80 baht we spent in Bangkok. But we adjusted. We got a beautiful room for 28 US$/night complete with refrig, A/C, and a balcony at “Live and let Dive”. The owner is a real cool guy, and totally laid back. Terry and I ate an early Thai dinner and walked 1 minute down to Karon Beach just in time to watch the huge red sun sink below the watery horizon. The next day after catching up on email, doing some research on the Internet, we swam under that same beautiful sunset in the warm Andaman ocean. The sunsets are amazing here. We repeated our sunset swim each night. Our last night we found a baseball-sized nut floating on the water and played catch. We stayed in Phuket for 4 nights before deciding to exercise our new found freedom and completely change the plans.

Song Khran

Song Khran is the Thai New Year and we were lucky to be in Thailand April 13th to celebrate with the locals and other tourists. It was absolutely crazy and a ton of fun! The Thais celebrate with a 2-3 day, someplaces a 1 week-long water fight. Shops ran their hoses out the front door into a tub which remained filled all day. People filled their water guns, cups, and buckets from this tub and splashed anything that moved. Throwing talc on wet passersby is apparently another way to celebrate as is smearing a watery talc mixture on peoples’ faces. We were warned the previous day so we walked around with our compact camera in the underwater SCUBA case. We had a blast taking some of these photos and videos. Huge blocks of ice were put in the tubs to make the water freezing! Throwing this freezing water in peoples’ faces and watching (or better yet, filming) their expressions was particularly fun, as was throwing water from the 3rd floor balcony on semi-dry people trying to sneak around and stay dry. People will soak you indiscriminately! No one is safe. Motor bike drivers got a face full of water while driving. Ok, we did that too ;-) The only rule seemed to be that no one was allowed to get mad. This was New Years and if you didn’t like it stay indoors! With people running back and forth across the busy streets, it is amazing no one got killed. Actually people did. I later read the death/injury stats for the different cities. These were at least lower than last years stats so I guess the New Year is off to a good start.

Koh Chang

We had decided early that we would change our plans and not spend much time in Phuket. We left much of our luggage and the computer behind in Phuket and headed North by ‘Visa Run’ bus to Ranong. Expats in Phuket make visa runs up to the Myanmar (previously Burma) border to leave and reenter Thailand in order to get another 60-day visa. In Ranong we caught a ‘long tail’ boat from the Koh Phayam Pier in Saphan Pla to a small island (actually a small archipelago) called Koh Chang. This Koh Chang is a small island on the Andaman sea, not to be mistaken for the much larger, and more well-known Koh Chang on the gulf side. There is nothing to do on the ‘unspoilt’ Koh Chang which is precisely why we chose it as a destination. There is no dock on Koh Chang either. The long tails pull up to shore, as close as they can, and you jump out waist-deep into the water. Then your bag is handed to you and you walk up the beach to the bungalows. There are a few companies renting bungalows on Aow Yai beach where we landed. We stayed at Sunset Bungalows. You have coffee in the morning. a beer at night, and all the time in between is spent laying in a hammock reading, or maybe swimming. Although we dragged our dive gear with us, there was no diving on or near Koh Chang. The one dive shop only arranged liveaboard trips to far away places. Our bungalow at Sunset was 200 baht/night or about 6 US$! That got us a bed and a wash room with a toilet, water spicket, and a bucket for washing. The toilet was not a flush toilet. You pour water from the bucket into the toilet to ‘flush’. The accommodations were very basic. But the food at the restaurant was some of the best we had in Thailand. We would find out later that the cook at the Sunset Cafe was particularly gifted and we would not find such quality at other destinations. At night we sleep under mosquito nets and were hot most of the night. Our last day we overslept and missed the 7:30 am boat back. We chillax’ed and caught the 1:30. [Terry: I don’t know what made us think we would get up at 7:30 am in the morning! It is a vacation we are on :) I remember I used to enjoy waking up early and getting my cup of coffee. Now, even though we get to sleep early, we still refuse to get up early. Mark mentioned that although we have shared many beautiful sunsets together, we have yet to see a sunrise together on our tour. I don’t think we are being lazy...we just like to sleep in.]

Ranong

We arrived back in Ranong in the afternoon and didn’t want to rush out the next day so we decided to stay two nights. The very cheap (240 baht/night) room at the Asia hotel seemed to us like an old psycho ward of a hospital. I thought I was in an episode of ‘The Paranormal Project’. So the next night we bailed to the not-so-cheap (1280 baht/night) ‘Jansom’ hot springs hotel. It use to be ‘THE’ resort in town and although a much newer and nicer resort has been built, and the prices at the now decrepit Jansom suggest they haven’t figured this out yet. We did have the use of the natural hot springs and the pool which would have cost the two of us us 600 baht to use if we were not hotel guests. But I planned on making the most of it and although I was told they had no room to store our luggage, I convinced them to hold our two large dive bags for the 4 nights we were in Koh Phayam. This was one of the reasons we ‘splurged’ and stayed at Jansom. Unlike Koh Chang, Koh Phayam had a reef, but still it only boasted snorkeling and so we decided to leave our dive gear behind. Later, after Koh Phayam, we would return, get our bags, and without staying another night leave for Khoa Lak. This allowed us to pack a small ‘overnight’ bag for Koh Phayam. This freedom certainly paid off. Ranong has ‘songthaew’ which are large truck-like tuk-tuks. They have predetermined routes around town and you pay 11 baht regardless where you get on and off. We made good use of these. Ranong is not a tourist town and according to many, ‘has nothing to offer’. However we had a great meal across from the Jansom Hotel. It was a Thai BBQ much like a Mongolian BBQ back in Arizona. You have a plate for raw meat which you grill at your table. Another plate is for a variety of pre-cooked foods and salads. There were also noodles and raw vegetables you boiled at your table. All for 69 baht/person (about 2 US$). [Terry: Yes, the restaurant Thai BBQ was very much like a Mongolian BBQ back in Arizona except for one small difference. The staffs stood at the buffet area and unsuccessfully fanned the flies away from landing on our food. It’s pretty customary to find ants crawling on fruits and in canisters of sugar for coffee. Yesterday I poured hot water into my instant coffee grounds and although I haven’t touched the sugar canister, I found a dead ant floating in my coffee cup. A true local would have just drank it and thought “Protein! What a bonus!”; I am not quite there yet but I am proud to say I didn’t even bat an eye. I just continued my conversation and removed the ant with my finger and wondered why I was such a Starbucks snob when instant tastes just fine. All kidding aside (about instant coffee), the food at the restaurant was really good and cooking it ourselves was very fun. I still feel like I have to constantly fan flies away from my food while I eat and feel disturbed that Mark sees no need to do so. He is probably right; I mean the flies probably have sat on my food long before it got to me. However, Mark is disturbed by the ants on his pineapples. He always warns me to be careful not to pick up ones with ants! Too funny. We both hate roaches though. Mark and I decided we are both mature enough to admit to ourselves we don’t need to try eating everything just to say we did it. We probably wont be buying a roach for lunch... unless of course if it came free with our meal then we just might save it for dessert. For now, we have been sticking to ice cream for desserts. Mark was so happy to find an orange flavor with chocolate chips!!!]

A side note is my trip to the spectacular ‘Ngao waterfall’. This is where I really learned how the songthaew worked. They were different colors (red and blue) for the different areas of Ranong. Each color had several numbered routes. The Blue #6 would pass the Jansom and go to the market. I learned that Blue one with no number written on it went to Saphan Pla (the pier) and I was able to use this learned tidbit to help out two tourist even though I had no idea how to get where I wanted to go! I just asked the driver, ‘Saphan Pla?’, as I heard it pronounced so many times, and he would nod yes. I told them, ‘yes, this goes to the pier’. In the 1 and 1/2 hours I waited for the right songthaew, a motorbike taxi tried to sell me a ride. He told me the waterfalls had no running water now and he could take me to ‘a better waterfall’. I wasn’t going to fall for such obvious Bangkok tuk-tuk trickery and so I politely declined. When I did finally reach the waterfalls and saw that there was no water, I just laughed. This back and forth of meeting distrustful and trustworthy people leaves you in a constant state of flux. The tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok will lie through their teeth to make a fare. Then you meet Thais that just want to be helpful. Fortunately I immediately caught a songthaew going back to the hotel. The songthaew drivers are awesome. They beep to let you know they are coming and will stop until you wave them off. It is almost impossible not to catch one. They have a great eye for potential customers. This guy saw me on a side street across the highway and waited for me to crossed Highway 4.

Koh Phayam

We almost skipped Koh Phayam thinking it would be similar to Koh Chang. We were wrong. Koh Phayam is more developed. It has a proper pier and has three roads on the island albeit only wide enough for motorbikes; there are no cars. The motorbike taxis wanted 140 baht to take Terry and I to the other side of the island where the quieter and nicer bungalows were. We learned never to take the first offer and kept walking. We ended up renting our own motorbike for the full four days for only 600 baht, 300 ($9) more than the round trip on the taxi would have cost. But you can’t put a price on the freedom of having your own motorbike. It was a 20-minute ride to our bungalow at Bamboo Bungalows on Aow Yai beach on the other side of the island. We also rode to and from the mini-market, and just rode for fun! Before dark we rode the bike up and down the beach while the sun set. And the sunsets are incredible. The colors are so vibrant it feels like you are looking at a CG scene from a Pixar film. This time we splurged for a room with a fan which set us back 400 baht/night (12 US$). Like on Koh Chang everything at the restaurant, morning coffees, nighttime beers, and all the meals in between are added to you tab and you pay the whole lot on check out. Our room was a bit cleaner too. And better sealed so we could keep the bugs out. We still slept under the mosquito net, but I felt safe enough to sleep without a shirt and was a lot more comfortable. With the fan running until 11 pm (when all power was turned off in the village) we had a good 4 nights sleep. It is amazing that with nothing to do, time flies on the island. Since I had finished my previous book, ‘Getting to Yes’, I borrow one from the restaurant, ‘The Cider House Rules’. This book would make its way off the island and eventually back to Phuket where I hope to finish the 700-page monster. Terry left some book in exchange for the one I ‘borrowed’ and I will leave “Cider House’ in our Phuket hotel for someone else to enjoy before leaving. Terry and I spent much time on the beach at sunset observing the little crabs and searching for the many sand dollars we found. We even found a few that were alive (I had never seen one before). We tried to snorkel but the urchins were laid out like a Cambodian mine field and we soon gave up.

The Nangnuan

After returning from Koh Phayam, we went to Khao Lak to Sea Dragon Dive Center to catch a liveaboard. Yes, our first diving for this, ‘Mid-Life Crisis Pacific DIVE tour’. And about time, almost 3 months into our trip! We stayed the night at Sri Guesthouse next door for 500 baht for an A/C room. It was so nice to have A/C and a hot shower since we had neither in our bungalows. Like Phuket, everything we needed was so close that we didn’t see much of the town. No matter this time, we were there to dive. We boarded the Nangnuan early the next morning. We discussed that a non-liveaboard testing of our gear (after 3 months of transportation) would have been prudent, but everything worked great. Our destination was the Similan Island National Park (nine Similan islands plus Koh Bon I think). The Similans are said to be the best Thailand has to offer divers! Liveaboard life is certainly for us! In the early morning you roll out of bed into the ocean. The only interruption is the dive site briefing that gives us time to share a cup of coffee. And the briefing were very professional. The liveaboard cost us about 300 US$ each but that includes accommodations, all meals, and all dives. Other than alcohol drinks, which Terry and I skipped, it is all inclusive. We chose the Nangnuan because she is a small vessel; 3 crew, 2 dive guides, and 8 passengers max. Each group has a dive master/instructor guide and 4 divers. The sleeping quarters are on the top level. 10 beds on the canvas-covered side of the ‘sun deck’. At night a cross breeze would blow through the ‘cabin’ and kept is very comfortable. Since we were on the ocean there were no mosquitos or even flies. We did 9 dives (2 night dives) for the 3-day/2-night trip. A full day was 4 dives. Surfacing on the morning dive we would be yacking about all the cool things we saw. And then we would get a whiff of breakfast coming from the boat and hurry back. The food was decent; breakfast was western-style and all other meals were Thai which is what Terry and I prefer. We rarely eat western breakfast anymore. It is expensive compared the the local food and many of the times it just is not cooked ‘right’. So these days, breakfast is usually noodle soup or stir fry vegetables. When we weren’t diving, eating, or sleeping, we were snorkeling or taken to a nearby beach with the dingy. [Terry: What a treat to dive on a liveaboard! Many divers including Mark have told me about liveaboads, but it is one of those things one has to experience to know it. The crew wakes us up (so much better than an alarm clock) so we can drink coffee and chat about diving before jumping into the WARM water (no wetsuit needed!!!) and dive like crazy. Then we get out of the water to eat breakfast and chat about all the fish we saw. Then we nap for a couple of hours. We then dive, eat, and nap again for another couple of hours. Then repeat! Except right before the night dives, we woke up to see the sunsets. In Kauai after our dives, Mark and I would drive 30 minutes back to our place chatting about the dive and that was fun too. But we would get home, get our towels in the washer, take care of our gear, and take a full baths before we even thought about what to eat. Not that I am complaining... but eating and napping right after really heightens the diving experience in my opinion.]

Oh yes, the diving... I think the night dive was the highlight for me. The bioluminescence was the best I have ever seen. With my light off I watched Terry swim. The ‘sparks’ flew off her fins, hair, and even bubbles like dust off a pixy as she swam. The lightning from the storm topside could be seen underwater and when we surfaced there was a beautiful display of cloud to cloud lightning for us to watch. I guess no trip would be complete without learning something new and seeing something new. Our dive guide, Claire, was a 5-year veteran instructor and knew the area very well. She taught me a few new tips about equalizing. And since all but one of our dives were drift dives we honed our buoyancy skills during our safety stops. I was even able to do a full ascent without touching my low pressure inflator once; using the timing of my breathing. I was told this was possible by my Hawaii instructors Kevin and Stacey, but ‘doing is believing’. As far as seeing new things: I could only remember about 5 new fish per dive before I needed to look them up in the book. I will not bore everyone with all the details. Suffice to stick to the highlights and mention the sharks, turtles, Clown Triggerfish (always wanted to see one), the beautiful Regal Angelfish, Tiger Cowries, sea snakes, sting rays, lionfish, and scorpion fish. And we saw the usual suspects as well; the angels, butterflies, humuhumu we saw frequently in Hawaii. Our last dive was as perfect as it sounded during the briefing. We saw everything Claire promised we would plus a couple bonuses. We started with two egg cowries waiting just where they were suppose to be like we had an appointment. They proudly displayed their full mantels for us which were jet-black with a white-dotted pattern like a stary night. Then there were the two black male ribbon eels I had always wanted to see. The real treat for me: a juvenile Rock-mover Wrasse. He was determined to show us his fine rock-moving abilities by overturning rocks almost as big as he was. The turtle munching on soft coral was a bonus! We ended the dive atop a large coral head and spotted the only Pallette surgeon fish (Dory from ‘Nemo’) that lives in the area. Previously we had seen Nemo (Clownfish), Gill (Moorish Idol), Bloat (Puffer), Bubbles (Yellow Tang), and Jaques (Cleaner Shrimp). We nearly had the entire cast! At least enough for a sequel.

Pictures

Karon beach, Phuket
Motor bike restaurant
Sunset swim
Motor bike drivers
 
 
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