On my first trip to Thailand, I did my first snorkeling in the Tarutao park. The undersea life includes enormous colorful clams and soft corals, which were quite novel to me as I had never seen anything like them in Hawaii or Cancun. In recent years, the one island in the park open to development, Koh Lipe, has seen enormous growth. Setting “Survivor Thailand” here might also have increased the popularity of the park.
Thursday, February 5, 2015
We ate a quick breakfast of fried noodles at the Bara Resort and headed a short ways down the road to the pier where our boat was waiting. After making sure we had all the right luggage on board, we headed out to sea. Slowly. Our pleasure craft had a shaded top deck and a large passenger cabin, but seems to manage a top speed of about 15mph. Speedboats flew past us. But we’re not in a rush; this is our time to relax.
About three hours later, it seemed, we ran our boat into the soft sand of Koh Khai, famous for its beautiful stone arch. (Koh Khai translates to egg island, and was so named because turtles lay eggs here.) We set up our mats under the shade of some trees and after splashing around for a while we opened our box lunches of stuff over rice.
(A trip member later commented to me that she felt it was not safe to eat lunches that had been cooling at ambient air temperature for over four hours, which is what we typically had on full day boat trips. Some box lunches were ready-to-eat when you opened the polystyrene clamshell or plastic box, some required you to open a sealed plastic bag and pour it over plain rice, and others were served family style from large plastic containers. These are common ways to take away lunches in Thailand, and we did not have mass outbreaks of illness, but I can understand why someone who is prone to digestive upset would be nervous about it.)
One of the fun things about this island is that it is an obligatory 15 minute stop for the ferry, so every so often, a group of people clamber out of their speedboat and variously take photos of one another, or photos of themselves, or just have a smoke. Between groups, I was visiting the far side of the arch and on my return through the shallows, I kicked a rock. Ouch, I think I broke a toe. Despite the ugly bruising, the skin isn’t broken, so I’m going to carry on. (Having looked up diagnosis and treatment of a broken toe online, it appears that rest and ice are called for. Not sure that hours of snorkeling followed by ice cold whiskey fit the bill, but that’s what’s coming.)
As we approached Koh Lipe, we stopped to do a little snorkeling around a large rock on the East side of the island, Koh Kra. Only two of us got in the water here, I think, and while it wasn’t the most scenic site, it felt good to be watching fish again.
Approaching Pattaya Beach on the South side of Koh Lipe is a bit surreal. The longtail boats are double-parked at the beach to accommodate the comings and goings of a huge number of tourists. Our large boat can’t even get close, so we hired a local longtail boat for the duration of our stay to taxi us in and out, and to accompany us on our snorkeling adventures. Progress through the shallow waters to the beach was slow as we had to weave our way through the rocks.
We eventually managed to get on shore and some luggage carts from Varin Beach Resort were there to meet us. I last stayed at Varin in 2005 when it was a small upstart operation. It now is huge, with several classes of cabins, new hotel-style rooms, and a bustling dining room. The current “standard” bungalows are much larger than they were in 2005, although they still offer a Thai-style bathroom. (That’s okay, I don’t expect to have completely dry feet for a few days.) We got our electronic keycards — necessary both to enter your room and to operate the electricity — and I got a quick shower. We would have time for a little “happy hour” before dinner with some Scotch, Thai soda water, and music from my phone.
Tonight we ate at the resort. There is a profusion of new restaurants on the island, but no one has had time to research them. (The ones I sauntered past on the “walking street” often had grills out front and enormous, expensive-looking prawns and other seafood. Maybe a few weeks of “research” could be in my future?) Back at Varin, we ate reasonably well. Steamed whole barramundi with soy sauce and black mushrooms, a spicy chicken curry, panang curry beef (a little tough), and mixed vegetables were about what you might expect at a resort which caters primarily to foreign travelers. The squid dish was harder to figure: it tasted surprisingly like BBQ sauce from a jar. No worries, there’s never a shortage of food at a Thai dinner.
Tomorrow we will be heading out for a full day on and off the boat, not returning until evening. Time to make sure everything is cleaned and charged up.
Friday, February 6, 2015
The nearest large island to Koh Lipe is Koh Adang, where you can find rustic park accommodations and the secluded beach where Survivor was filmed. We would be focused on the waters around the island, looking at the local undersea life.
Your day at Varin begins with the breakfast buffet, which features a mix of Western and Asian choices, such as fried chicken drumettes, rice salad, pancakes and “sausage,” and so forth. The layout is so bad that you need to keep crossing in front of other people to get what you need. Because if you wait for them, you will never get anywhere. Still, we were able to satisfy our caffeine and calorie needs and get to the beach on time.
Where our longtail boat was nowhere to be found. Apparently low tide held them up on the other side of the island. We’d be angry, but the driver brought two young boys along on the front of the boat where they practiced their skills with ropes and the snorkel ladder. We couldn’t help wondering why they weren’t in school on a Friday, but they were charmingly earnest in their efforts to carry on an old tradition.
During the course of the day, we snorkeled at five different spots, starting with a pinnacle seemingly in the middle of nowhere that is home to numerous colorful soft corals. Unlike “stony” corals that build calcium carbonate skeletons, the soft corals are more similar in their structure to plants and seem better adapted to spots like this one with a constant strong current. Because the waters are rich in nutrients (“stuff”) you can get the best photos by diving a bit below the surface and taking a close-up.
After hitting two more spots, we took the longtail to the beach on Koh Adang for a box lunch of something over rice. While fending off ants, we also enjoyed the antics of a hermit crab exploring some snorkel fins. It wasn’t long before we were back in the water over the reef just in front of the beach, and then at a final spot before heading back, late and tired, to Koh Lipe.
I did something bad to my knee getting off the boat at lunch, so I was hobbled a bit getting back to my cabin and over to happy hour. Today we attracted a few more whisky drinkers. The rotgut of choice this year is 100 Pipers, imported from Scotland by Seagrams, and available for about $20/liter. Domestic products are much cheaper, but you’re paying for a less offensive flavor. Add ice, soda water, and bottled water, and you have a refreshing way to forget about all those itchy stings and bites for a while.
Back at the Varin dining room, we had a compulsory 350 baht dinner set, which is somehow linked to our room rate. Our selections were a spicy shrimp and squid salad, mixed vegetables with shrimp, whole fish topped with fried garlic, deep fried shrimp, and a soup with chunks of taro and fried fish. It wasn’t too bad, but it’s certainly a better deal to order for yourself.
Tomorrow we will head further West and snorkel, snorkel, snorkel again.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Today, after another breakfast scrum, we head out to the Southwestern corner of the Adang-Rawi group, to a set of small islands (rocks, really) with interesting reefs. Our first spot was another pinnacle with soft coral, perhaps with a little more variety than yesterday’s spot but less total volume and a bit more challenging current. We took a little photo break, cruising slowly around an unusual rock formation before trying our second spot. Due to wave action, we retreated to a more sheltered reef where numerous other boats also were bringing their snorkelers. Despite the congestion, we were able to find some interesting fish.
To save time and reduce our stress, we had lunch on our big boat rather than visiting the beautiful beach where monkeys terrorize visitors by trying to steal their food. Been there, done that. Originally we had planned three snorkel spots for the afternoon, but the third had such a strong current that two of our first three testers were swept away from the site, and the third reported it was no fun fighting the current once you get there. So we headed home, with a brief stop on Koh Hin Ngam. That island is build from polished round stones that oddly accumulate only here. A large sign warns of a curse on those who remove any of the stones from the island; we checked our shoes just to make sure. We definitely don’t need any bad luck.
Another shower, and another happy hour. It will be my turn to bring the booze to the next island. And I somehow need to get my iTunes library to load on my laptop, since my phone just doesn’t have the volume for a large party. As we say back home, “First world problems.”
At dinner, we had a velvety coconut soup with chicken, a steamed fish with a spicy sour dressing, massaman curry beef, Chinese broccoli stir-fried with (I think) chicken, and whole shrimp grilled until the shells were crunchy and then topped with red curry. Just goes to show that this kitchen can cook if you order what they do well.
Tomorrow we will boat back to Pak Bara, grab a quick lunch, then drive to Trang, where we will eat very, very well.