Ranong (Monday, January 23, 2006)
The Palm Court opened early at our request. In addition to the usual eggs, toast, and rice porridge, the restaurant served the Southern staple of thin rice noodles with various sauces. One was a traditional mild peanut sauce (more like a soup than the peanut sauce served with satays) and the other a stronger flavored fish curry. Two small bowls of noodles and three cups of Lipton tea would have to be enough to hold me until lunch. We convoyed to the pier without incident and loaded onto our boat for the two hour journey West to the Surin islands.
The large boats which ferry visitors from and to the mainland are required to tie up to a buoy quite a distance from the beach on which we need to land, so two “longtail” boats came out to taxi us into shore. Our longtail was a simple wooden boat containing several benches and a huge outboard motor with a long propeller shaft; at the front was painted the phrase Donated by Reuters. Since the tsunami, the park has received more donated boats than it ever had before, so thank you Reuters.
We were surprised to find that the park had built a floating pier for the longtails, and then befuddled to be making a “wet landing” directly on the beach (you jump out of the longtail into about a foot of water, or a little more if the boat has drifted back from where it was run into the sand). But it was all very familiar to me, unlike the scene that greeted us a park headquarters. None of these buildings, from the open air dining hall to the gift shop, had been here when I hiked through in February 2005. The progress in cleaning up the island after the tsunami has been tremendous. We hiked up a long staircase toward our cabins; as this is the path to high ground, it also is the tsunami evacuation route. Mine is the highest cabin, but in truth, I am not expecting evacuees this week — or any time soon.
Kasma hired a boat for the afternoon and we headed out to a nearby snorkel spot, Ao Mae Yai (Ao means “bay” in Thai). The fish were plentiful and the corals in good condition (some reefs did not fare so well in the tsunami). A few fist-sized jellyfish bobbed in the waves, but they were easy to dodge. I felt a few twinges on my legs, perhaps from stinging plankton, but in my new long-sleeved nylon/lycra top, I felt nothing on my arms. So far, so good. Our second spot was the reef at Ao Mai Ngam, off the beach where we camped last year. The fish life was good, but I couldn’t find the spots I enjoyed last year; perhaps they were further in and easier to spot swimming out from the beach. Here, too, we saw the white jellies. A bad trend.
Map and photos: http://thailand.jeffersonscher.com/uw06/Surin1.asp
We returned for a cold shower and dinner. In between, I processed some of the day’s snorkeling photos. The park is busier this year, and is offering set menus consisting of three dishes and a soup. For the first night, we had a steamed fish with black mushrooms and Chinese celery, in a light soy-based broth/marinade, served in a large foil package; squid and shrimp in a mildly spicy sauce; Chinese-style mixed vegetables; and a hot and sour coconut milk soup with fish. Pretty good compared with last year’s drab offerings.
After dinner, I returned to the cabin to recharge camera batteries and pass out from the heat and fatigue. It was a pattern I would repeat the next couple of days.
Koh Surin (Tuesday, January 24, 2006)
We began our morning with “ABF” (American Breakfast), an egg cooked sunny side up in a perfect circle; four short “sausages” (really, hot dogs); and white bread that could be toasted over a charcoal brazier. Kasma passed around a spicy tamarind spread for those who found this a bit too bland; I gave up my hot dogs to someone who liked them and headed out a little less full than usual.
Our morning stops were at Mungkorn Island and Ao Suthep, two reefs facing one another across a narrow channel. I liked these reefs when we snorkeled here in February 2005, and they were nice this time around, too. The jellies followed me to Mungkorn; I can’t remember which reef, but in at least one place, I felt dozens of small BB-sized jellies bobbing along my face. It was pretty alarming, but the fish were a good distraction. The lunch set was similar to the dinner set: a soup, a fish, a squid and shrimp stir-fry, and a vegetable, this time cabbage with pork. After lunch, we saw a Malayan Flying Lemur “hiding” in a tree near the dining hall (it was hiding by hanging on to the trunk and looking very much like a nearby dead branch).
Map and Photos: http://thailand.jeffersonscher.com/uw06/Surin2A.asp
Soon it was time to head out to one of Koh Surin’s premier spots, Torinla. The amount of broken coral here is mind-boggling, and the intact parts of the reef hint at the greatness that must have been. Still, even with much of the picturesque staghorn coral spread out like debris, a tremendous diversity of life remains; some spots truly look like a scene from Finding Nemo. My own experience here was a bit unusual, I made a different turn at the beginning and was circled — slowly and from a respectful distance — by a school of mean-looking barracuda. Great photo op. Time to seek safety in numbers with the rest of the group. I found several watching a curious ball of fish that all seemed to be fighting for something, presumably some kind of food, as several different species were involved making mating behavior unlikely. After we had our fill of this reef, we headed a short distance away to another reef which I had not previously visited. Our boat captain led us to a black-tipped reef shark, which made wide circles around the reef, coming into view a few times. I continued to move with the current and eventually spotted a small turtle. I followed it back in the other direction for a while, keeping an eye to make sure that it didn’t get caught in the net in its path. I then followed a bit more and saw it drop quickly to the coral and make like a rock as a smaller reef shark passed by. Perhaps it wasn’t safe for either of us to play this game. I headed back to the boat.
Map and Photos: http://thailand.jeffersonscher.com/uw06/Surin2P.asp
After another cold shower, I discovered that my backpack had soaked through on the bottom, getting my passport and Thai baht quite wet. Fortunately, it was all salvageable and after a little whiskey tasting down by the beach, we made our way to the dining room for another soup and another steamed fish. We also had fish cakes with a choice of a sweet mildly hot sauce and a stronger green sauce, and vegetables in “crystal” noodles (transparent mung bean threads) with a few shrimp. After dinner, the wind began to blow and blow; through the night, it sounded as though it might be raining. But with lights out after 10, it was difficult to know.
Koh Surin (Wednesday, January 25, 2006)
By morning it was clear that the wind was not going to stop and that we would face choppy waters on our way out to Stork Island, on the exposed Northern side of the main island. Coincidentally, the day we had intended to go to Stork Island in February 2005 the sea was too choppy, so apparently this is not unusual here. I loaded up on crab fried rice (not much crab, actually, but lots of rice) and part of our group headed out to sea under an overcast sky. We got a bit wet on the way, but no one lost their breakfast. On the protected side of the island was a small armada of illegal fishing boats; fortunately our captain was not required to take action on that, other than radioing back to headquarters, so we were not delayed from our appointed task. I had heard that one can see leopard sharks, but I saw only black-tipped reef sharks. Lots and lots of them in all sizes. The fish didn’t seem bothered, so neither was I. Quite the opposite: when I dove down to swim with a group of five sharks, they all got out of the way and gave me a lot of space. Reminds me of that joke about attorneys and “professional courtesy.”
After getting our fill at Stork Island, we crossed a narrow channel to Ao Jaak. The reef here was quite attractive, but the continuous waves made it difficult to navigate. We got separated and our boat had to make individual pick-ups to get us back in time for lunch. At which I ate way too much. By the time I finished thirds and fourths of fish with a spicy-tangy-sweet sauce; a curried chicken and potato soup; pork with pineapple and green onions; and a little bit of omelet, I was really set up with some stomach troubles on the wind-whipped waves. The sun had come out, but the wind hadn’t quite given in yet. I made it to the next stop, but I didn’t feel so hot.
The reef at Turtle Bay is very long and varies from a system of coral heads on a shallow sandy bottom to a drop-off that falls away more then 50 feet. Despite its name and reputation, we did not see any turtles today. The sand was quite stirred up by the heavy wave action, so our visibility was more limited than usual. I spent most of my time on the edge of the reef (10-20 feet) where I could dive down and explore. Unfortunately, I got out of sync with the group and had to make a long swim to get to the boat, thoroughly pooped out. Next we took a detour to the Moken Village, a set of recently rebuilt houses-on-stilts for the sea gypsies who inhabit these islands; there are other settlements, but this one has multilingual exhibits for tourists, and will be the site of a new school. The solar collector was being used today to play the radio. I felt awkward taking photos, so I let others do the shooting, and I joined in the shopping. Crafts included carved wooden boats of various levels of sophistication, and woven baskets, mats, and bracelets. For about $25 I picked up an incredible boat; now the challenge will be to get it home in one piece (one dry piece).
Map and Photos: http://thailand.jeffersonscher.com/uw06/Surin3.asp
I joined the half of the group heading back to our cabins while Kasma hit one last snorkel spot (the first spot for a second time). This gave me time to grab a cold shower and color correct a few underwater photos before dinner. [dinner details TBD] Checkout time on Thursday was uncertain: it was 10AM if the rooms were needed, and later if they weren’t, and we wouldn’t really know until 9AM. This means I’ll have to do as much as possible to be ready before our 8AM breakfast, just in case. If only I can avoid passing out immediately…