Feb 062006

Satun (Saturday, February 4, 2006)

The noisy air conditioner and defective showerhead made rising and shining a chore, but I made it to the lobby on time. We sped from Satun North and West to Pak Bara Pier where we dropped in on a local shop for a breakfast of pad thai noodles. I picked up a bunch of bananas for the island, but they would only survive 30 hours before becoming too overripe to keep eating.

Our boat cruised slowly for Koh Lipe (gaw lee-PAY), and we stopped at a picturesque island for lunch and a quick snorkel. The water here was not very clear, and during lunch the island was suddenly overrun by a large group of Thai weekenders, numbering at least 5 dozen. A few of them stepped into the water, but most simply took and posed for snapshots. It was a bit distracting, and a huge contrast with last year’s quiet conditions.

After the other group cleared out, we returned to our boat and very near our destination jumped out for another quick snorkel. Here we saw a lion fish last year, and there was another one this year. But much of the sea life that I remembered (from photos, of course) was gone or invisible. Ocean conditions are quite variable, with El Nino having caused many changes a few years ago. Perhaps the lack of “soft” corals was more natural, but hopefully we will see them somewhere else.

Koh Lipe: Slipping Away Again to Margaritaville

Landing on Koh Lipe, we headed to the Lipe Resort (or Lee Pae Resort, as they often spell it). The Varin had given away our cabins for the first night, so we switched to the resort Kasma used in prior years. No air conditioning, but a lot of shade trees. Maybe it would be okay?

The bungalows vary from an older thatch style to a new cinder block style, all a fairly good size. At check in time, the rooms were not too warm, but they remained stubbornly in the 80s during the evening and overnight, as the breezes from the beach do not seem to carry through the densely placed buildings. The overhead fans run in circles and don’t really help much. Hmmm… well, this seems to be a problem on the islands in general.

I quickly processed the day’s snorkel photos and one of our drivers came by to invite me over for drinks. I contributed the Sangsom (Thai run) and they contributed the Glenmorangie (a single malt scotch specially labeled for sale at the DFS duty free store). I showed photos and fired up iTunes to entertain the neighborhood. Between sips I killed as many of the jumbo mosquitoes as I could, but I missed a few. Actually, it’s difficult to distinguish the stinging plankton marks from the mosquito bites… some day I will study it in more detail. By the time I got to dinner, my protestations of “mai mao” (not drunk) were not very persuasive.

The food was only a little bit better than the island cuisine to which we had become accustomed on Surin. There was a deep fried whole fish with slices of fried garlic and turmeric; mixed vegetables in oyster sauce; a red curry or soup (photo indeterminate/memory blank/mai mao); a shrimp and squid curry with green beans; and a squid salad. After dinner I charged up all the batteries and had a banana or two. I have at least a half dozen left from the big bunch, and they really are becoming “fragrant.”

Koh Lipe (Sunday, February 5, 2006)

Going With the Flow

We met for breakfast at 7:30, which allowed some time to catch the sunrise, eat a banana, and prep the gear for a day of snorkeling. We got underway around 9:00, and there was a strong breeze and an equally strong current. Our first spot off Koh Adang was easy in one direction and nearly possible in the other. After about half an hour, we clambered back on board our boat and headed a couple beaches away for some shore time and lunch. The fried rice with chicken (or, for some people, mixed seafood) was a bit greasy, and I ate yet another banana. As there were no other takers, I threw the remaining five bananas as far into the brush as I could. As we left the island, someone reported hearing an animal crashing through the brush, perhaps on the trail of the bananas.

Our second snorkel spot was just across a channel from our first, off Koh Rawi. This is a huge reef, impossible to cover in just an hour — or perhaps even two. While much of the coral is rather boring, the variety of clams is stunning. Color-corrected pictures show countless combinations of brilliant blues and lime greens, purples and browns, and some of the clams may be over a foot wide. There also were fish, of course, including a lot of anemonefish (some clown anemonefish like “Nemo,” and various others).

While we were in the area, we visited “black rock island” (Ko Hin Ngam), which features an inexplicable pile of smooth stones revealing colorful layers. A freshly repainted sign warns of a curse on those who take stones from the island, so we were careful to check our sandals. Those skipping the stones will be monitored for any ill effects. Back at the Lipe resort, we eagerly awaiting electricity, which was half an hour late. Meanwhile, I processed photos and returned to our drivers’ bungalow for a very light happy hour. I snuck away to photograph the sunset, which is more spectacular from further down Pattaya beach. I was confused by the people throwing frisbees: why aren’t they editing their photos? I just don’t get it.

Dinner was again in the local dining room. Our soup was mild, based on a garlicky chicken broth with lumpy ground pork meatballs, Chinese broccoli, and seaweed. I’ve ordered something similar in California, but there the seaweed was overpowering; this one tasted much better balanced. This was followed by a whole steamed fish topped with chopped garlic and chillies and a soy-based broth; a fish curry; a salad made of very thinly sliced lemongrass and shallots, heavily spiked with chopped Thai chillies, and topped with a few dried shrimp; and prawns with mildly seasoned glass noodles (mung bean threads). Tonight there was dessert: sweet baked (?) bananas in a salty-sweet coconut milk soup. Hopefully these bananas will help compensate for the ones I had to abandon earlier today.

After dinner it was back to the hot cabin for another difficult night under the terrycloth towel that passes for a blanket here in Thailand. It’s a constant struggle for balance between being cool and being protected from biting insects. Either way, I lose.

Koh Lipe (Monday, February 6, 2006)

The Day of Swimming Upstream

This morning I wanted to try to catch the sunrise from Sunlight beach, on the Northeast corner of the island. Unfortunately I got a bit of a late start and arrived when the sun was a bit above the horizon. I strolled around looking at the growing row of resorts; there also was a school for the sea gypsies here. Finding my way back I took a wrong turn into the hot interior of the island, and by the time I got back to the cabin I was squeezed for time. Eventually I made it to breakfast and onto the boat for another day of snorkeling and other fun in the sun. For those keeping track, breakfast was mild, garlicky chicken broth with lumpy ground pork meatballs, Chinese broccoli, and seaweed — so far, it’s last night’s soup — with wide rice noodles. We would consume many more calories later.

We started out at some rocks in deep water near Koh Lipe. Here we saw the most colorful display of soft corals last year, and they were pretty spectacular this year, too. Our second spot was relatively close, another 20 minutes or so. We came here for the calm water, but the coral was rather boring by comparison. I did see a black-tipped reef shark in the shallows, keeping a respectful distance, and the trend of finding lots of stinging plankton in the water continued. I have been wearing my older, tighter turtleneck top under the newer long-sleeved top, but my legs, face and even the back of my hands still get a twinge every now and then. The sight of variously shaped translucent white jellies bouncing off the face mask no longer alarms me that much; the exposed parts of these plum-sized blobs don’t seem to pack a punch.

We headed further out, toward the Southwest end of the island chain protected by the park. (Not very well protected — we saw fishing boats all over the place). Here there was a pretty island good for photos, with a shallow reef one could snorkel on the way back to the big boat. We piled into a longtail for the photo op, but it was shadeless and scorching, so many of us were quickly back in the water. Just more fish and more coral. We navigated around to a shady beach for lunch, but two other boats beat us to it. We found another one, but recent reports of aggressive monkeys stealing food from tourists led us to eat on the boat. Our box lunch today was better: chicken with peppers and onions over steamed rice. Apparently the onions are not very authentic, as Thais prefer shallots. We will have to have a discussion with the kitchen and see whether they can be persuaded to serve us the real stuff. The box lunch was followed by various sweets, and the boat crew served slices of pineapple and watermelon at unpredictable intervals.

After lunch we returned to a rocky island I recall from last year where we were told we could snorkel around either clockwise or counterclockwise. The current pushed you either way, which meant that I couldn’t get back around the other side. I’m not a strong swimmer, especially with a camera in my hand. So we mostly snorkeled in one direction and lingered in the back. Here the sea life was dominated by schools of tiny fish, perhaps anchovies, that sometimes formed shimmering “balls” and other times swam in long lines like a 10-lane freeway. Finally we got back to our boat and headed to the area’s most recognizable landmark, a large stone perched atop another large stone. Before we got there, we had one more snorkel option. The current was very strong here, so it wasn’t as pleasant as the earlier ones. I think we were all ready to return to dry land for a few days.

Back at the “Lee Pae,” I took a cold shower and worked on fish photos. I thought I would pass on happy hour, but when I got to the dining room a bit early, I discovered it already in process. My turn to buy ice so we could choke down the last of the rice whiskey. Dinner was significantly improved over previous nights; apparently Kasma’s discussion with the staff was successful. First to arrive was a seafood mousse that tasted mostly like fish. Plump and less rubbery than the ones we tried in Bangkok, it was one of the milder dishes on the menu. Next we tried a fiery southern sour curry of prawns and cabbage. The broth was reminiscent of cabbage soup — into which someone dropped an entire cupboard full of hot chillies. Much rice was needed. Three more dishes quickly arrived: a whole fried fish with a hot sauce similar to that served on “larb”; fried slices of pork topped with deep fried garlic shavings (the least successful dish); and a salad of slivered green mango with what appeared to be dried, crunchy fish of about the size we had snorkeled through earlier in the day. For dessert we passed around various cookies and sweets; we were encouraged to eat them up now rather than have to pack them for the boat ride back.

After dinner, I cleaned and packed everything so that I would be ready for an early departure. Not! As always, my travel clock read 84 degrees and I was too drowsy to do much more than brush and floss and set the alarm, vowing to arise early for the journey back to shore and on to Trang.

Page of underwater photos: http://sothai.com/uw2006/tarutao.html

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