007 degrees 48.8’N 098 degrees 21.8’E Ao Chalong bay, Phuket, Thailand
After nearly four months in Malaysia, it held a special place in my heart. So when, as we were about to enter Thai waters, Aaron, my crew mate, said the water would be so much clearer in Thailand, the beaches whiter, the people friendlier, the culture more outgoing, I felt a little defensive. Surely there couldn’t be that much change in the 20 or so miles between Langkawi (Malaysia) and Koh Lipe (Thailand)? How can the water clarity be that varied or the rocks producing an entirely different kind of sand?
Well, he was right. As as came to anchor in a channel between Koh Lipe and Koh Adang, I could see straight through the crystal clear water to the white, white sand. A quick hop ashore in the dinghy and there was a beach bar, where the barman let me put a drink on tab because I had no Thai baht. And there was Thai pop music playing, Job To Do, not Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
But there were also the tourists.
Thailand proved a bit of a culture shock to me. For a start there are bars everywhere. If you want a beer, unlike in Malaysia, you don’t have to hand over the amount of money that would buy you two main meals, or track down the local Chinese under-the-table dealer; you just pop to the corner shop. And maybe it’s just these western islands, but the entire place seems to exist entirely on tourism and nothing else. The ‘local’ Thais are often immigrants come from inland to make a fast baht selling to holidaymakers. And sell they do – taxi boats, boat tours, diving, fishing, sailing outings, rooms in beach bungalows, meals, drinks, pancakes, clothes, shoes, buckets filled with Thai rum, coke and Red Bull, and fake Tiffany jewellery.
At Koh Lipe we took full advantage of our new-found alcohol freedom to visit the bars, leaving our flip-flops on the sand outside the entrance everywhere we went, as etiquette demands, and sitting on cushions on the floor. We swam and kayaked in the beautiful Andaman Sea, which was a blessed relief after the murky green waters from the Malacca Straits northwards.
After two nights in Lipe, meeting up with friends on Incognito we met in Danga Bay, we carried on to Koh Lanta, via Koh Muk. Koh Muk is a tiny rock island that contains the Emerald Cave – a beach in the centre of the island you can only reach by passing through a cave system in total darkness. We visited in the morning, before the tourist boats arrived, all four of us having to lie flat in the dinghy to fit through the cave mouth. After a few wrong turns (it was black as black can be) we emerged onto a perfect tiny white beach with turquoise waters. Last night’s high tide had wiped away any trace of human existence from the beach and it felt like we were the first people to ever discover it. If we’d come two hours later on an organised tour boat the effect wouldn’t have been half as spectacular, coming into the light, blinking, to see 30 other slightly-pink holidaymakers taking photos. That’s the beauty of having your own boat – to discover really out-of-the-way places or to get a different perspective on the more established attractions.(Naughtily, we wrote ‘Hello tourists’ and ‘Elvis was ‘ere 2010’ in the sand.)
Koh Lanta was a much bigger island, 30km long, and popular with divers and Swedish holidaymakers. There are two Swedish schools on the island so the Scandinavians can take three-month holidays there and not feel guilty about the kids’ education.
We anchored in Kantiang Bay, in the south of the island. On shore, it was ATMs, massage parlours, restaurants, bars and tourist information shops and little else. As we are tourists, Tyrone and I booked to go on an elephant ride and trek to see a cave and waterfall. I was feeling guilty after being horrified seeing an elephant chained by the feet at Danga Bay Petting Zoo, only able to take one step. But these elephants, when we met them, seemed healthy and happy. Tyrone and I rode Mae, a baby at 12 years old, whose neck hairs tickled me between my toes when I rested my feet on her warm, wrinkly shoulders. She trumpeted when her trainer asked her to, sucked up water to give riders on another elephant a “shower” and said goodbye to me with a hand/trunk shake. I paid 100 baht (two pounds) to feed chunks of pineapple to a male elephant, who extended his trunk to sniff out the fruit, grabbed it between his nostrils and shoved it, peel, spicy leaves and all, into his mouth.
Aaron hired a motorbike, I jumped on the back and we went on a tour of Lanta for the afternoon.We had orange shakes at the lookout bar, topped up with petrol from a shack, bought jewellery in hippy Lanta Old Town, bought fruit from sea gypsies, went to the southern tip to laugh at the signs outside the individually-named tree houses and watched the sun set over the water.
While we were enjoying ourselves on land, Gillaroo was having a bit of trouble. The fire extinguisher went off in the engine bay under my bed, rendering the starboard engine useless. Then part of the port engine melted through, meaning we had no engine at all. A bit of upside down engineering from Aaron and Tyrone got us limping onwards.
Koh Phi-Phi Don and Koh Phi-Phi Lai were next. These are naturally stunning islands with sheer, green-topped cliffs shooting into the sea with sandy beaches in between the steep outcrops. But they are tourist crazy. Phi-Phi Don, the larger of the two, is like a figure of eight with a beach either side of its waist. It’s not far to walk between the two but it is a completely built up maze of shops, hotels, bars, dive shops and stalls. Sunbathers pack the beach, reminding me of Bournemouth or Weymouth back home. Still, from Gillaroo with a dinghy and a canoe at our disposal, we could get away from the hoardes and explore by ourselves.
Phi-Phi Lai is famous for housing the beach from the movie The Beach and its little bay is rammed with boats every day. We arrived as the sun waned and the trippers were leaving, so in the end only three yachts and one German kayaker shared the water overnight. It truly is a beautiful place and I understand why the locals market it so heavily to holidaymakers but I couldn’t help thinking that there must be thousands of just as stunning, deserted islands out there, maybe in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea or the Philippines, that would be so much better, their tranquility not being ruined by some tattooed Europeans playing topless ping pong in the water.
Phuket was our final destination in Thailand and is not place I care to revisit. From a yachtie point of view, it is excellent for reprovisioning (there is Tesco and also Brussels sprouts), boat repairs and work. We have a new spinnaker, eight extra feet of chain on our anchor to reduce the risk of dragging, and lots of marine bits and bobs. But the nearest road is full of brothels and when I went for a run I had to leap over a dead rat on the pavement.
We leave Phuket now for the Indian paradise islands of the Andamans, about four days’ sail away, and while I have had fun times in Thailand, I can’t wait to get back to a quieter, calmer, less commercial way of life. Hopefully it’ll be a bit like the best parts of Borneo, except with cold beers if I fancy one.