Khuraburi (Thursday February 3, 2005)
Koh Surin National Park is Thailand’s premier snorkeling destination, with numerous reefs teeming with fish and unparalleled corals. At least, it was before the tsunami. With only tent camping available, it was not the destination one would have hoped for, but at least it was open. Having already spent six days on the water, we would see whether Surin remained #1.
The Greenview’s breakfast buffet featured the same hot dogs masquerading as “sausages” as the Krabi Maritime; perhaps they don’t know what they’re missing? We raced from the hotel to the pier in Ban Hin Lahd and … waited. Our boat was the first going out to Surin for quite a while, and much lumber and supplies had to be loaded. Another party traveling with the same tour company was late, and the boat was held for them. It got so late that we purchased take-out lunches of turmeric chicken and rice to take with us. Eventually, after about a three hour delay, we were on our way.
We are staying on the largest island in the Surin chain, Koh Surin Nuea (North Surin island). The waters are very shallow, so our ferry boat hooked on to a buoy in a relatively protected area and we hopped on a longtail to travel about 1.5 kilometers to a beach with shallow water — very shallow, so we waded through a couple of inches of sandy muck in water up to our knees to get to shore. This type of drop-off and pick-up is normal here; remember to wear some kind of foot protection, as there are rocks and pieces of coral (and, for now, at least one broken-off longtail propeller) hiding in the muck. Between the passengers and luggage, and lunch, it probably was another hour before we arrived at our campsite. As the tents were taking a long time to arrive, a number of us went snorkeling off Ao Mai Ngam (Mai Ngam beach), where we had to swim out for about 10 minutes over sand-encrusted terrain to begin to see any marine life. This area appears to have been seriously impacted by the tsunami because it was so shallow. Life on the reef was colorful, but it was getting late, and we were eager to see our tents and take a shower.
The park has a monopoly on food service, and its meals could not compare to the ones we enjoyed on the mainland. Still, they were okay; far better than the Cup ‘O Noodles and fresh pineapple I saw some of the low-budget campers wolfing down. For dinner, we had the classic chicken with garlic and Thai basil; a squid curry with green beans; shrimp and squid with a sour-sweet sauce (tamarind maybe?); stir-fried mixed vegetables; and a hot and sour shrimp soup that tasted better than it looked. Not a bad start. The lights would be on only until 11, so I borrowed a flashlight and sacked out. Tomorrow would be a big day on the ocean.
Koh Surin (Friday, February 4, 2005)
The plan for today was: breakfast, snorkel, snorkel, lunch, snorkel, snorkel, snorkel, dinner. Our first stop was off Koh Surin Tai (South Surin island), at Ao Suthep. Exposed directly to the tsunami, there was some damage to the reef, but life nevertheless remained.
West-Northwest of Ao Suthep is tiny Mungkorn island. Its Southeast facing reef was still in reasonably good shape.
We headed back to our campground for lunch; nothing exciting. I changed the battery in my Canon PowerShot S45 and repacked it in its waterproof case for the next two spots. Unfortunately, I nudged the sliding front door just out of its “on” position, so when I got into the water at Torinla, perhaps the best snorkel spot around Surin, it was dead. Rather than risk ruining the camera, I abandoned it on the boat and ended up not taking any photos there or at “Turtle Bay,” our fourth stop. At most of these sites, our longtail captain would hook up to a buoy and have us drift with the current to the next buoy. About half way between the two, I got an intense pain in my right forearm, which I guessed was a jellyfish sting. I have seen numerous jellyfish, and felt many tiny stings, but nothing like this. It wasn’t until about 3:09 AM that I saw the intense reaction around the meaty part of my forearm. Well, I’ll spare you further details, but it would be a good idea to carry good itch medication if you are sensitive to jellyfish stings. (Most people apparently are not.)
We got back late and enjoyed our cold showers. Looking at my photos, it appears we had the same chicken, shrimp/squid, and mixed vegetable dishes as the previous night. The park added fried fish steaks topped with thinly sliced fried garlic, and either fried chicken or pork. We were hungry, so no serious complaints, and the park sells cold beer, too. Another night to rest up for a hard day of waterplay.
Koh Surin (Saturday, February 5, 2005)
The plan for today was… breakfast, snorkel, snorkel, lunch, snorkel, snorkel, snorkel, dinner. As we headed North and then Northeast around Koh Surin Nuea, we encountered heavy swells. These presented some challenges when we arrived our our first site, just off Ao Chak (or Ao Jaak) on the Northeast-facing shores of the island. Our second spot was the relatively protected waters of the reef off our campground. It was a long slog through the sandy muck to get back to the dining room, and then, all too soon, another slog through the muck to get back to the boat.
Our first stop [at ???] was once again a long boat ride, and the clarity of the water and number of fish were disappointing. A second spot wasn’t much better. So we headed back to Turtle Bay, but conditions were not as nice as on Friday. But we did see this gigantic eel and several specimens of the elusive Oriental Sweetlips.
At camp, another cold shower awaited, and our final park dinner. We had a deep fried whole fish topped with sauteed onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers (and I think a sweet sauce); stir-friend green vegetables; shrimp with a sour-sweet sauce; and an odd dish of small fried chicken pieces so overcooked and dark that we continue to refer to it as “frog.” (For all we know, it may have been.) I finally wised up and added my beach towel to the thin “mattress” (cotton-batting sleeping bag) supplied by the tour company. A lot of anti-itch lotion still was needed to make it through the night, as new jellyfish stings made themselves known. Next time, maybe I’ll bring full body armor.
Koh Surin (Sunday, February 6, 2005)
Sunday was election day in Thailand, so the plan was to vacate our tents by 9:00 AM, gather for an early lunch at 11:45 AM and then leave shortly thereafter so that our tour guides could get back in time to vote. It didn’t go quite so smoothly, of course, because this is Thailand. But we did make it back for a second night in Khuraburi.
After an unmemorable breakfast, I tried to stay out of the sun. But, having packed and applied various topical steroids to my jellyfish bumps, I thought I might accompany a fellow traveler on what promised to be an easy hike to the visitor’s center, about two kilometers each way. While the visitor’s center had been closed due to tsunami damage, the cabins nearby were not damaged, and we thought we would check out where we would have stayed had everything gone as planned. The trail turned out to be much rougher than anticipated, with a lot of roots, low branches, loose piles of leaves, and big rocks to climb. Here and there a park sign describing the foliage would assure us that we were, in fact, on the trail, but there were no other hikers, and in a few places maintenance was urgently needed. By the time we reached the end, I had soaked two shirts with sweat and was going without. We already knew we were going to be late for lunch, so we tried to hail a longtail, but we just missed it. We scrambled back for a ways, and then switched to the beach, and then the ocean, wading through the mucky sand (complete with rocks, chunks of coral, propellers, and other debris) back to the usual beach. We beat the longtail! But we were too late for lunch; it was in plastic bags, and we reversed course immediately to return to our big boat. On board we would “enjoy” the rubbery squid and greasy fried egg over rice (the rice bag was rubber banded at the end, so the easiest way to eat was to slit it down the middle, pour everything in, and use the plastic spoon).
Return to Civilization
We arrived back around 3:00, and headed directly for the Greenview. Check in, crank up the air conditioning, shower, feel like a new person, and then fire up the computer. No internet access, but time to make backups of photo cards, burn CDs, etc. At dinner we returned to our regular large table immediately in front of the karaoke stage; I think we all had some idea what that meant. But first, we ate. The resort food either was especially good, or we were particularly starved for good food after being on Surin for three days, or both. Anyone who has ever eaten at a Thai restaurant probably has tried Tom Kha Gai or Tom Kha Kung, a coconut milk soup with chicken or shrimp, respectively. We had a mixed seafood version that was so smooth and creamy and well balanced in flavor that it put all others to shame. An appetizer of fried shrimp cakes was good enough to order a second round. A salad (photo indeterminate; memory lapsed); stir-fried leafy green vegetable with meaty dried shrimp; and a green curry with shrimp and Thai eggplants rounded out the selection.
I kicked off the after-dinner entertainment, but this time I was not singing alone. Our driver Bpat (phonetic) sang a passionate Thai song that had the female employees in the restaurant giggling into their palms. Kasma’s husband Michael then performed a song with special lyrics dedicated to an earlier driver. I followed with one more, and then Michael returned and brought the house down with the Prik Kee Noo song, once in Thai and once in English, including inspired dancing. Prik Kee Noo are the small but very hot “Thai chillies” — known here as “mouse shit” chillies — so loved that a song about them, popularized by a well known singer, was on the machine. Tomorrow we would return for a third time to the Maritime Park & Spa in Krabi, where who knows what might happen!