Cruising Thailand; Phuket! (Duncan)
Cruising Thailand; Phuket! (Duncan)Report Abuse
Irene and I just got back from a month cruising Thailand and it was, well, underwhelming. We sailed up from Malaysia (actually, let’s get this straight from the outset, we motored, in fact we had the motor running almost everywhere we went.) I’ve never had so much contrary wind. We could cross a bay on Monday with a headwind, and return on Tuesday with a headwind. It was uncanny; we joked about it, initially. How could the NE monsoon have westerly winds? Apparently, very easily. As we ran north up the Thai offshore islands we encountered winds from everywhere except south, well that was at least something.
To add insult to injury, we had begun our escapade at a time when the tidal currents were running north to south during the six hours following sunrise. This of course was the time most island hopping was done; our trips were from 15 to 55 miles in length. So we motored, or on a good day motorsailed, with a headwind and against a current. I believe that if something isn’t mandatory you can’t say it’s unfair. I didn’t have to chose courses that exacerbated these forces, although north is where they put Thailand, and I didn’t have to travel during daylight, but there is an incredible amount of fishing lines, nets, flags and floats in these waters. We burned off $500 in the meteorological equivalent of banging our heads on the wall. We were again losers in the casino of Asian weather.
North of Langkawi we spent the first evening in a snug anchorage at Tarutao. High cliffs and an off lying island protected us. Local fishermen lived in great grottos in these walls; at night their voices and fires gave the place a Neolithic cast. We had cleared out of Malaysia and planned to clear into Thailand at Phuket, perhaps a week later. Jimmy Cornell would probably be shocked, but the practice is widely accepted and ruffles no bureaucratic feathers on either side. However, we did have to keep moving along.
Half way to Phuket lies the Ko Rok group; (“ko” means island in Thai, so it’s not a lack of imagination that has all the islands prefaced in that manner.) There for the first time in over a year we encountered clear water. There were lots of aquarium type fish, friendly sergeant majors and a shy reef shark; a real feeling of cruising set in. We really didn’t want to pull the dog’s tail in Phuket, so we moved along sooner than we wanted to – but not before visiting the Shrine of the Penis’.
Over the years fishermen have carved from driftwood (highly realistic) phallic representations. These range in size from “adequate” to telephone-pole-optimistic. I think that the underlying theme is one of paying respect to a Buddhist / Animist deity that dwells on that small point of land. It’s probably considered propitious for fishing to do so. The dildo-shaped array of hardware looks like the personal section in a Key West grocery store, but it certainly does put the island on the map.
We arrived at the famous Phi Phi Don group the next day, (the “h” is silent, as in Phuket.) I have never in my life seen anything like it. It was like “Wet and Wild” on amphetamines. Skinboats (full of pink and white skinned tourists) raced up and down the harbor at full bore. Admittedly the scenery is smashing, 600’ limestone walls rise sheer from the water (that would have been emerald if not for the sheen of 2-stroke oil.) There were probably 2000 to 3000 people enjoying the sights at any given time. They snorkeled –wearing life jackets – in a corralled off area, they lined the rails of tour boats and they sat under parasols in longtails that roared everywhere.
A longtail is a 30’ long wooden skiff with a four-cylinder car engine ingeniously mounted on a universal swivel at the stern. A 15’ pipe that carries an internal propellor shaft counterbalances the motor. This arrangement terminates in an open propeller that can be swung 180 degrees in and out of the water. It’s sort of like a 100HP Osterizer for snorkelers. These boats run a straight pipe exhaust direct from the manifold and create a good four foot wake; what else, oh, they have a 20 degree blind spot forward. There were about 150 of these working the bay and adjacent islands, apparently it gets really busy in high season...
The longtails were small fry though; the real menace here is the high-speed inter-island tour boats. These are 30’ speedboats powered by a pair of 200 HP outboards that go everywhere in a straight line and at full speed (35 –45 knots.) Additionally, these boats seem to be driven by short disaffected young men; the blind spot on these would be around half the horizon. The whole atmosphere was as though Dante’s Inferno had been set in a washing machine at heavy cycle. The rock and roll tapered off toward nightfall. We left for Phuket, still short of breath, at first light.
Actually, you don’t sail to Phuket (even if the breeze should come up), you go to Ao Chalong – which is very nice. Customs and Immigration (let the record indicate) were friendly and the small town had a homey feel. True, everyone had their hand in your pocket, but that’s just the lay of the land. Not many pink-and-whites here, you’re more likely to see the sort of sixtyish male sailor whose stories tended to be quite involved. We liked Ao Chalong (you must have been waiting!) From here we sailed (you know what I mean) up into Phang Nga bay. In this larger bay are all those whimsical limestone formations that look like Chinese mountainscapes. Misty, magical morning views of improbable shapes rising up out of the calm water. Here, the fishermen’s longtails are powered by smaller Honda 5 HP motors that have mufflers, when they’re new. We had abysmal weather while a low went through. One day we scared a thief off an anchored charter boat by blowing our air horn at him. We also had a “hong” experience; it was interesting.
A hong is a tunnel that leads into a limestone cliff face. It connects to a larger, open-to-the-sky- pool perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the rock. The tunnel was fully submerged at high tide and navigable on the ebb by a rowed dinghy. It was inky black inside and reeked of marine rot. Irene just loved it. The walls were bristling with sharp oyster shells, the tidal outflow took maximum exertion to make any progress against and at the end was a shallow murky lagoon where we got stuck with a rapidly ebbing tide. Well, mark that “D” for done; I’ll probably even have to make my own T shirt.
Krabi; again the geography is like an other world, awesome in the original sense – but it is utterly trampled by mass tourism. As an aside, I suppose yachties are spoiled in the sense that they get to see some of the marvels of the world, often without another soul present, and they expect more of the same! In any case I found myself thinking “what it must have been like.” It’s still pretty cool and if I was one of the pink-and-whites on the tour boat I’m sure I’d be in hog heaven. I wonder what the tourist thinks when he sees a bald tattooed thing sitting on a boat called Moose; cognitive dissonance?
We blew out of Phang Nga bay (notice how the “motor” word was avoided) and headed up the west coast toward the long anticipated Similan and Surin islands, just below the Myanmar (Burma) border.
Another front went through bringing rain, overcast and headwinds. We elected to go first to the Surins, and when we arrived, we were immediately approached by a Sea Gypsy couple. (These are members of the Singa – or lion – tribe of a group that have been water wanderers as far back as anyone knows.) The old man and his wife lived in a 20’ sanpan. Their pots, pans, jugs and utensils hung in the tiny shelter on the boat. She seemed ensconced, perhaps by tradition, in the bow while the man never left the rusty little motor in the stern. Through sign language he asked for a drink, then a cigarette – and finally settled for a gallon of gasoline. We maintain some standards of PC. They were not into trading – receiving was apparently more the thing here. Some of the sea gypsies keep cats and dogs aboard. As darkness fell they tied to some overhanging branches and cooked their evening meal. This encounter was well worth the gas!
That night a NW swell arrived – NW being the only sector open to the sea – and Moose rolled fiendishly. Next morning I set a 300’ stern line back to a mooring and got the boat to face into the swell, this reduced the rolling. We went snorkeling and found the coral largely dead, the fish few. The sky was gray and drizzle filled; we sat with a beer and agreed that it sure looked different in the brochure.
The Similans are the crown jewel of Thailand’s west coast islands. The geology is different; the islands are formed from immense boulders of white granite. There is a huge diving industry here – if you arrive late and dive boats (or fishermen) have taken all the buoys you will have to anchor in depths of 75 – 100’. I’d like to interject here that I’m a fairly happy, pleasant person. I try to see the positive in adversity; Irene and I are considering going through the Straits of Magellan for a diversion. But that day, that we arrived in the Similans, looked around for a mooring (and tried several) there was a four-foot ground swell running and boats were rolling in sickening arcs. We talked for ten minutes checked the plotter and cast off to do an over-nighter south. The high point was that we almost ran right over a whale shark. It was enormous, majestic. I can well imagine where sea serpent tales may have originated.
We sailed all night, seeing fishing boats with as many as 50 huge halogen lamps burning to attract fish. They glowed from under the horizon like cities. Just after dawn we arrived at Ao Chalong. We provisioned, checked out (paying a horrible overtime fee) and actually sailed to Koh Rok. I caught a big barracuda, which did not have ciguatera, and we picked up the best buoy in the cove. That night the wind shifted to ESE making the anchorage untenable. We set out before dawn, into a breeze that would eventually grow into a 30-knot headwind. We drove the Moose very hard into this (motorsailing) and thirteen hours later crept into the first anchorage in Malaysia. Cruising Thailand; Phuket!