It’s a surreal land, so phantasmagorical as to make someone want to pinch herself to see if she’s dreaming. Gilded temples and giant statues of the Buddha adorn misty islands afloat upon jade-colored seas. Eagles circle peaks; herons fish from caves; dolphins glide through pellucid waters. Peculiar plants that might’ve been drawn from the imagination of Dr. Seuss and bizarre amphibious creatures live among the islands’ jungle-filled gullies and fissures. This heavenly place in Thailand is Phuket’s great bay, Ao Phang-Nga.
Over the past months, my husband, Michael, and I had worked our way along the Strait of Malacca from Singapore on our 47-foot Colin Childs steel ketch, Sea Quest; we’d been careful to hug the Malaysian coastline to remain out of reach of opportunistic Indonesian pirates. Our anticipation of reaching this fabled cruising ground heightened when we received word that our daughter would be flying in from the United States bringing along two of our grandchildren. Although by the time we reached Phuket in June it was already the season of the southwest monsoon, we intended to give the family a cruising experience that they’d long remember.
Having not experienced the southwest monsoon in Thailand ourselves, and thus unsure of what to expect, we were reassured to note that among the hundreds of islands of Ao Phang-Nga, several of them in the bay were large enough to afford protection in a blow.
Before departing with our daughter, Marina Batham, and the two 10-year-old cousins (Connor Batham, our son’s son, and Marina’s daughter, Sophia Simon), we first introduced them to Thai culture. We toured the exotic countryside, where under a temple’s upturned eaves, the children lit incense and, at the direction of a saffron-robed monk, applied tiny squares of gold leaf to Buddha statues. They climbed to the colossal 45-meter-high Buddha of Wat Chalong, which offers a view across the harbors and beaches of Phuket. Then in answer to Connor and Sophia’s passionate hope that they might ride an elephant, we found some of the massive pachyderms at a wildlife park, where the children were soon swaying upon the back of a gentle giant lumbering through the shade of a rubber plantation.
| |Batham grandchildren swim off Sea Quest at an anchorage near Ko Dam Hok.|
When the sun was low and the sting was out of the heat, we roamed the town of Ao Chalong among throngs of happy, convivial Thai people. Families sated appetites in the aroma-scented night market, selecting from a vast variety of red-hot spicy food or snacking on roasted grasshoppers and grubs, which, understandably, the American children eschewed for the more familiar fried chicken.
We sailed from Ao Chalong on a brisk breeze that gave us a fast trip to Ko Mai Thon, just seven miles away. Anchoring us amid a fleet of Thai fishing craft, Michael then took the kids ashore to run off steam chasing seabirds and picking up wondrous bits of flotsam and sea shells, all strange to their eyes. But there was too much swell for a peaceful night’s sleep, so we put to sea again, setting a course to the much larger island of Ko Phi Phi Don, 22 miles to the east.
Downwind, under main and genoa, Sea Quest kept up a good pace, sliding through the Phi Phi Leh channel in the fading light of evening. Sophia and Connor, both of whom had quickly recovered from an earlier bout of seasickness, spent the entire passage gaily chattering on the windward rail. Neither yet realized the many generations of salt water that ran in their veins or just how strong the influence of those seagoing ancestors might yet prove to be. Marina was no neophyte either. She’d crewed with us on a passage across the Coral Sea from Australia to New Caledonia a decade earlier. Later, just after she and Mark Simon had married, they cruised for eight months with us though the western Pacific Ocean.
In near darkness, we tucked into Ko Phi Phi Don to drop anchor under cliffs looming darkly against a quarter moon. A mile away, numerous tourist boats bobbed off the main beaches from which amplified music boomed long into the night. Morning’s peaceful quiet revealed a breathtaking wall of dragon-toothed peaks and handkerchief-sized beaches. As we approached one beach, a tribe of monkeys materialized out of the jungle, advancing curiously as our dinghy grounded.
The macaques the children had earlier encountered at the “monkey school” back in Ao Chalong had been trained from babyhood to have manners. Wild macaques had no such manners! To prevent these engaging animals from climbing over us and possibly biting, we had to force them to back off with a splash of water or a handful of tossed sand. They seemed used to visitors and demanded food. But after our rebuff, they sat nearby, pouting like spoiled children, until their playmates diverted them into a game of tag. A female clutching an almost hairless newborn slung close to her chest walked nonchalantly past the cavorting youngsters to climb into a tree to nurse.
I stepped forward to try for a camera shot through branches. A male monkey moved closer and eyed me, giving me a warning. Threateningly, another also advanced. I was already stepping back when a sharp bark rang out a signal! Instantly, the tribe descended on me like an army of Lilliputian soldiers, grabbing my legs and pulling at my clothes. Alarmed and holding my camera high, I leaped backward into knee-deep water.
| |The visiting crew included Sophia Simon (left), Marina Batham (center), and Connor Batham (right), who befriended a monkey en route.|
The weather pinned us down in Ko Phi Phi Don. When it lifted, we set off on the 20-mile sail to Ko Dam Hok, known also by the moniker Chicken Island, which the rock formation on its south end resembles. With the bright gennaker gaily set, we enjoyed smooth sailing until the clouds morphed from white to leaden gray to an ominous bruised purple while the water churning under our keel strangely brightened to luminescent jade. An early gust from the oncoming squall overpowered the old gennaker, ripping it from leech to luff, its torn remnants streaming ahead like circus pennants. By midafternoon, with the squall gone as quickly as it’d come, we dropped anchor near tourist boats in a picture-perfect cerulean lagoon over which towered a giant pinnacle of rock.
Connor and Sophia launched their paddleboard while we enjoyed a steaming cup of tea. But the mood was shattered when a strong gust of wind sent the teacups flying. Connor and Sophia, having noticed another advancing squall, had hastily relaunched their paddleboard off the beach to return to_ Sea Quest._ However, the force of the ensuing gusts capsized them. The kids, now in deep water, sensibly clung to the overturned paddleboard as Michael drove the dinghy to the rescue. Sheeting rain masked the now-deserted beach. Nearby islands disappeared into the gloom. This anchorage, so peaceful just an hour earlier, was no longer safe. The bay’s towering rock pinnacle was causing the wind to accelerate to over 40 knots. As repeated williwaws swept the bay, a nearby fishing boat hastily hauled in his anchor. We followed suit.
Well away from williwaw-producing mountains, the local boat anchored among other fishing boats. We joined them and were rewarded with a reasonable night’s sleep. Early next morning, we relocated to a spot off a nearby sandy isthmus to swim over reefs abounding in parrotfish and red corals.
Later, however, we moved back to the spectacular anchorage from which we’d been blown from the day before. To entertain the kids, Michael rigged the boom we use to hoist the dinghy as a swing so they could catapult into the sea—a strenuous game they kept up for an hour or more. Unwilling, however, to spend another night under the gust-prone rock, we set sail for the Ko Hong island group, in Krabi province, 12 miles distant. Along the way, Connor and Sophia practiced seaman’s knots, soon learning to tie clove hitches, bowlines, rolling hitches, and sheet bends. The weather seemed more settled now. When_ Sea Quest_ dropped anchor, she lay peacefully floating in a pool of ever-changing shades of green—soft turquoise over the sunlit sandy bottom, almost black where the waves undercut the high cliffs. A graceful curtain of water droplets, like a jeweled veil, fell from the limestone stalactites on the cliff walls.
In delightful anticipation, Connor and Sophia had the paddleboard launched in a flash. They were seen disappearing under the curtain of drops into a deep fissure that suggested a secret cave, or what in Thai is called a hong. We followed in the dinghy. The hong‘s inner walls were stained with black and red oxides in a fantasy of forms. Under a cave-like overhang, ribbon-festooned Thai fishing boats were moored, their crews napping away the daylight hours in the cool shade. We paddled quietly, birdcalls and nature’s sounds enveloping us in serenity. The primordial pool was a nursery for thousands of glinting fish, creating a hunting ground for cobalt-plumaged kingfishers and a home for hundreds of palm-sized starfish sprinkled across the sandy bottom like reflections of the night sky.
Aboard the boat, we’d fallen into a comfortable domestic routine. By the time the crew emerged sleepily from their bunks, Michael would have ready stacks of pancakes, bacon, and tropical fruit. The BBC world news crackled over the airways. Later, we switched to the local FM station to catch the quaint sound of Westminster chimes followed by a gentle female voice intoning, “It is now eight o’clock in the Kingdom of Thailand!” Then Thai voices sang the national anthem. When we’d peek on deck, an inconceivable landscape worthy of a science-fiction fantasy would greet us: vertical islands towering above their narrow bases, pinnacles standing like obelisks, the razor-back ridges of blade-like islands split almost to sea level, and, as far as the eye could see into the haze of Asia, a beguiling verdant land.
| |Connor Batham took to the swing set up by his grandfather, Michael Batham, for hours of flying into the water.|
Where we next dropped anchor, the strong currents flowing between the halves of an eroded island spooked Connor and Sophia a little, so I claimed the paddleboard for myself. The hong here consisted of a deep-water bay, the far side pierced through with a sea cave. Poking along the sheer rock walls, I noticed a dark, surging tunnel redolent with the smell of weed and sea creatures. Just a hint of light in the gloom tempted me to go farther. Letting my eyes adjust, I slid between overhanging rocks to enter a dimly lit pool. The family had to tip and wiggle the dinghy to fit its larger bulk through the tight passage. High overhead, a bird, complaining, fluttered from his roost.
This hong, like others throughout the archipelago, was formed by water eroding the porous limestone constituting the islands. Like cavities in a rotten tooth, large caverns were created that eventually collapsed, exposing the chambers to the sky. The one in which we floated was flooded from wall to wall. However, it led on through a rock-strewn tunnel into yet another, which, with its gloomy walls and gray water, emerged into view like the spooky swamp setting from The Lord of the Rings.
Surprised by our approach, a dragon-like four-foot monitor lizard splashed into the water and swam out of sight. Connor and Sophia were eager to follow it into a farther hong, but the dinghy wouldn’t fit. So the two of them slipped onto the paddleboard and bravely set off alone through the dark tunnel into a creepy, real-life place that the denizens of Disneyland can only dream of conjuring up to frighten city-dwelling children.
In calm weather, we wound our way close along the shores of the many islands, basking in their unusual beauty. Through the heat of the day, we watched tourists from passenger ferries climb into inflatable canoes to be escorted into the hongs by guides. Fortunately, by late afternoon, the uninhabited islands became deserted and their wildlife cautiously emerged.
The upper reaches of Phang-Nga bay are intersected by channels through mudflats. The water is opaque here. Several times Sea Quest squelched into the soft mud as we searched for depth along our way. Thai long-tailed boats manned by Muslim couples fished the bay. One stopped near. “Sawasdee krap!” they cried, calling out the Thai greeting while offering up dripping prawns from their sloshing bilge. Anticipating a tasty gourmet meal, we paid the asking price—about double the town rate, we later learned. But oh, were they ever fresh!
As expected, Ko Khao Phing Kan, otherwise known as James Bond Island after being featured in The Man with the Golden Gun, was a crowded tourist hub. However, Connor and Sophia, exhibiting symptoms of that modern malaise, shopping-mall withdrawal, were keen to get a fix. They’d worked hard to earn cash for their trip, but they’d been whisked off into a wilderness before they could spend any of it! Passenger-carrying long-tailed boats, with exposed propellers whirling dangerously at the ends of long shafts, jostled us for space to land on the tiny beach. Multicolored souvenir stands formed a gauntlet to run for those tourists more interested in scenery than trinkets. Michael and I dropped off Marina and the kids and retreated out of the way, promising to return later to pick them up. In the dinghy, we circled the island’s pair of sugarloaf peaks and the iconic tower of rock featured in the movie.
| |The region’s clouds can morph quickly from white to leaden gray and then, in squalls, to an ominous bruised purple. During one such burst, Sea Quest‘s gennaker was ripped from leech to luff.|
The now-sated children returned to the boat clutching their haul of souvenirs. With only inches under Sea Quest‘s keel, we eventually nosed our way to the fairy-tale scenery of the Ko Raya group of islands. Our skipper was suffering a headache from dehydration the next morning, so Marina and I took charge, launching the dinghy to search for a remarkable cave we’d seen mentioned in a particular guidebook.
Word is that if you’re lucky enough to visit these islands before 1000 or after 1600, when you have the place to yourselves, you’ll be unable to locate the hidden hongs on your own. Most are invisible unless you know exactly where to look, and then you have to muster up the courage to wind your way blindly into the darkness. In our case, it took some careful searching of the coastline, but eventually we hauled up on a gloomy beach smelling of the dung of the bats and swallows that flitted overhead. Inside the shadowy cave, we found a shrine in the elaborate shape of a mosque. Although it’s usual to find Buddhist and sometimes even Taoist shrines in awe-inspiring places, we’d never before seen Muslims make a shrine like this.
We headed south again, this time setting a course to the honeycombed island of Ko Phanak. Without a careful watch on the comings and goings of the tourist boats, however, it’s doubtful we’d have discovered the sea-level passages that led to the secret open-air chambers of the island’s interior. We found them to be havens for wildlife in the hours around dawn and dusk. Monkeys came down from the cliffs to frolic on the sand, sea eagles wheeled overhead, kingfishers darted past in a flash of color, and spectacular butterflies rode sunbeams. At our feet sat amphibious mudskippers fanning out blue-spotted dorsal fins in a courting ritual. The more soberly clad females shyly observed this display with bright eyes comically rotating on stalks. Overhead, awkward-looking black and white male hornbills supporting ridiculously large beaks announced their presence with a rasping cackle before flying to another branch, followed closely by their mates.
Our family cruise was winding to a close, and the weather was again deteriorating. We decided to take shelter on Ko Phuket, at Ao Po, close to the airport. As the visitors packed up and made ready to leave the boat, Sophia enthusiastically claimed that her favorite memory was swinging out over the water on the end of the dinghy boom.
“That,” she exclaimed, was “real cool!” Conner’s close encounter with the unknown, especially with wild monkeys, had also left him in raptures. “I want to be a skipper when I grow up so I can do more of this cruising sort of thing,” he said. We also discovered that he nurses a secret aspiration to write. I found a crumpled page from his notebook, a first attempt, he told me, at a cruising article. It read, complete with his creative spellings: “If your familey wants to go some ware go to Thailand, Phuket. It is cool for the kids. Fun playses to go like Phi Phi. There is beutiful snorkeling. You can feed monkies, kayak, ride elefants, and many more fun things. Lots of fun for the parents to. So come on down to Phuket, Thailand!” He’d added his byline at the end: Connor Batham.
We hadn’t realized how astonishing the islands would prove themselves to be, so full of encounters to fire the children’s imaginations. They’d climbed, paddled, snorkeled, learned seamanship, and, in squalls, had even capsized on the paddleboard and kept their heads. They’d proved their courage and resourcefulness. Phang-Nga bay had indelibly imprinted itself in the children’s memories and met everyone’s highest expectations, all in a land beyond belief.
What we didn’t at that moment realize was that this trip would be our swan-song voyage aboard Sea Quest. Soon after the departure of Marina and the children, Michael and I decided that we were ready to return home. We’d lived and cruised aboard Sea Quest for 18 years, sailing the farthest reaches of the Pacific in the great triangle extending from New Zealand to French Polynesia to Japan, including a five-year side trip into Southeast Asia. Our wanderlust finally sated, we were ready to hang up our watch caps and in the future ride the roiling seas and the heaving horizons only in our dreams.
After tens of thousands of miles and countless Pacific and Asian landfalls, the Bathams sold Sea Quest in Malaysia and are making a go of living ashore in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. They sail their daysailer Wakatere for a week at a time, fishing for their dinners and still getting a kick out of life.