Feb 122015

Every Southern trip is a bit different, but the most significant change for me this year will be two full day excursions to new snorkel spots near the island of Koh Lanta. But before leaving Trang, we will have a couple more food-related stops to make.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Early morning showers must be popular at the Thumrin Thana because the hotel’s water heaters could barely manage to raise the temperature to tepid. Perhaps my expectations are too high? Anyway, I’m getting used to this here.

Rather than eat from the hotel’s buffet, we stopped in at a local Hokkien-style dim sum place for one last Chinese-Thai fusion meal. On previous trips, this restaurant often was too busy to take us, so we made an early reservation. Already by 7:45 the noise level was so high that one could not communicate to our entire table of 13 with one shout. Having no wall on the street side and three TVs blaring did not help. The result was something of a mad rush to grab one of each item as stacks of bamboo steamer baskets began to arrive from all directions; eat first and inquire later. The steamed buns contained a tasty pork meatball rather than bits of BBQ pork; the unwrapped shrimp dumplings with small mushrooms were especially tasty. Two of the best dishes were large plates: local style roasted pork (with crispy skin and a savory red marinade, less sweet than Cantonese char siu), and roasted duck. We also sampled the fried bread (“Chinese doughnuts”) which were served with small dishes of sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar. But there was no need to fill up on sweets as we would soon be enjoying another course.

Trang is famous for its locally made coffee cakes, which are airy (due to a high percentage of beaten eggs in the batter) and somewhat less sweet than you would expect. Just North of town we stopped at Kook Ming, the bakery which originated this style of baking, but which is now widely imitated. On past visits, we sometimes were able to peer into the kitchen and photograph workers operating a huge stand mixer, pouring batter into Bundt pans, and removing freshly baked cakes from the oven. This time, we would have to satisfy ourselves with simply tasting the finished product and picking up a few snacks “for the island.”

Between Trang and Krabi there is a locally run cave attraction, Le Khaokob Cave. You start off with a party of four in a small boat with two guides who are your oarsmen, one in front and one in back. The hot and humid caverns feature a variety of interestingly shaped stalagmites and stalactites, shrines, and photo ops. But the crazy part is that certain parts of the cave are impassable without lying down flat (as flat as possible) in the boat to pass under the low, irregular, rocky ceiling. On previous trips through the half kilometer known as “The Belly of the Dragon,” I heard a few scrapes as the boat was guided through this section and saw blue paint on the rocks we passed under. This year, the water level was unusually high, so it was hard to see anything but the rock directly above your face (if you could open your eyes!). The back oarsman in our boat used a few reassuring English phrases such as “I will save you” as he guided the boat around low spots in the ceiling with his hands. Still, the ceiling actually left limestone deposits on my shirt as the dragon groped my chest three times. I think the oarsman and I both came to the conclusion that I should lose some weight before passing through the belly again.

Before lunch, we stopped at a saline hot spring in the Khlong Thom district. Many people have contracted colds and sustained physical injuries on the trip; hopefully the healing powers of minerals will help. I took a break in the shade while my fellow travelers poached in the unusually warm waters under the glare of the mid-day sun. After some cool showers, we were ready to move on.

As we turned toward Koh Lanta, we stopped at a gas station. Not for gas, but for lunch. The open-air restaurant here has an extensive menu, but Kasma recommended the stewed duck noodles, which is a savory soup flavored with star anise and cinnamon, tender duck meat and wide rice noodles. Even though it is hot out, it’s worth warming up your body just a bit more with a long simmered broth like this one. And of course, there is always ice water on the side to help balance things out.

Because we are taking two (heavily loaded) vans to Koh Lanta, we are using the car ferry instead of the passenger ferry. There was a long line by the time we arrived, but eventually an empty ferry returned and we were able to drive aboard the industrial-looking craft. There are few tourist accommodations on the car ferry, just an elevated walkway along one side where people took smoke breaks, and a blue door labeled Toilet that no one wanted to open. I snapped a few photos but soon returned to the van, both to avoid the smell of burning fuel and to escape the burning sun. Koh Lanta actually consists of two islands, so after speeding through Koh Lanta Noi, we took a second ferry to the Southernmost island, Koh Lanta Yai. (Noi = small/little, yai = large/big.)

Driving through Lanta, you cannot help but be reminded of the hectic development of South Kihei Drive in Maui in the 90s, with all manner of resorts and hotels cheek-by-jowl with shops, restaurants, bars, dive shops, and of course, Thai massage places. Because we wanted to snorkel at a spot a long boat ride South of the island, we kept driving and driving to less and less developed parts of the island. After passing over two fairly steep hills, we descended to “Waterfall Bay” and the Anda Lanta resort. Our rooms were in two different buildings, one with standard rooms (traditional Thai bathroom) and one with deluxe rooms (shower separated by a partial glass wall). I appreciated the more deluxe bathroom, but later discovered that the standard rooms used the space created by a more compact bathroom for a nice extra sitting area. If I were sharing, I think the standard might work better.

To better enjoy the sunset, we ventured North one beach to Kantiang Bay, which also is the home of Same Same but Different, a restaurant operated by the owner of Ruen Mai in Krabi (and a popular Thai expression). After wandering around the soft sands taking photos, once the sun made its exit, we ambled to our table, where to accommodate our party they had perched extra chairs perilously close to the edge of the platform. Fortunately, we had no accidents, physical or culinary. Dinner began with fried fish cakes featuring a strong flavor of kaffir lime leaves, and not at all rubbery, which can be a problem with this dish in some restaurants. Rounding out our set, we enjoyed tamarind prawns, crab meat in a rich yellow curry, a steamed or poached fish steak in red curry, and morning glories stir-fried with garlic, fermented soy beans, and fiery chillies.

Our morning boat call is not until 8:00, so we have time for a leisurely visit to the resort’s breakfast buffet (or time to catch a few extra winks?).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Anda Lanta breakfast buffet has a wide range of choices, from breakfast cereal to a Thai dish and steamed rice. I settled on a scramble with onions and ham, and lots of fruit.

When our longtail boats finally arrived, we discovered they had a different design. Instead of several rows of seats, there are benches on each side of the boat under a plywood roof (decorated with a blue tarp) with a free area in the center for bags (and later, for serving lunch). The driver also has a steering wheel. But the engine was just as noisy for the 75-90 minute ride to Koh Rok, a set of islands Southwest of Lanta known for its dive and snorkel spots. Due to strong waves, we started in a channel between two islands, just off Koh Rok Noi. This was a pretty spot with a number of interesting fish and eels.

Blackeye Thicklip Wrasse off Koh Rok Noi Parrotfish off Koh Rok Noi Parrotfish off Koh Rok Noi Checkerboard Wrasse off Koh Rok Noi Giant Moray Eel with Cleaner Wrasse off Koh Rok Noi Black-Spotted Sea Cucumber off Koh Rok Noi School of Golden Rabbitfish off Koh Rok Noi

My troubles began at our second spot, when I noticed some air leaking into my mask in the “suck” test: before going in the water, you put the mask to your face and suck in through your nose. What you want is silence and a perfect fit; what I got was a little leak of air. I flicked the nose purge valve and it broke off, so the mask was now useless. I borrowed a mask from the boat and tried that out. Without the corrective lenses, though, it’s very hard to see anything interesting. Before our third spot, I borrowed some duct tape and tried to close up my nose purge valve. It worked at first, but it’s very hard to attach anything to flexible silicone for any length of time, so the leaking got worse and worse. Would this be my last snorkel?

(Today’s GPS Track Note: Started recording a bit late, but you get the idea.)

Back on Koh Lanta, after a quick shower and rinsing of gear, I visited with our drivers for happy hour. It was my turn to supply the Scotch, and I drowned my snorkeling sorrows just a bit.

For dinner, we ate at the resort. They set up a table for us under the trees, at the edge of the dining room, where we couldn’t hear the rest of the guests (and presumably vice versa). The food was pretty good. [what we ate]

After dinner I pulled the purge valve out of my mask completely leaving a hole a bit smaller than a dime. I hoped that putting duct tape on both sides of the hole, creating an adhesive-to-adhesive seal, would solve my leakage problems. Time would tell.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

After another buffet breakfast, we headed West to Koh Haa (5 islands), another popular dive and snorkel location, about 75 minutes by longtail boat. At our first spot, the mask repair held, with the entire nose area silver from carefully crisscrossed layers of tape. However, I completely missed an amazing chamber inside the karst lit by a shaft of sunlight and populated by huge fish. Some trip members said was the best thing they had seen at all our snorkel sites, so I guess I’ll have to come back here someday, or at least enjoy their photos.

Once back on the boat, things started going wrong. Our driver whisked us away to the far side of a different island, while the other driver drove to a lagoon that Kasma had selected as our second stop. We were confused, but did not have any Thai interpreters in our group and no cell service to call and make inquiries. Shortly after getting into the water at the wrong spot, we were approached by the other boat and given instructions to get with the program. When we arrived at the official second spot, there were major surface waves, which made it somewhat difficult to swim around. I did what I could, but here I missed the turtle. Doh!

We returned to the unofficial second spot for lunch on the boat, and then a bit of snorkeling where eels and sea snakes were abundant. Then back to Anda Lanta, another happy hour, and another dinner under the trees. It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it.

(Today’s GPS Track)

Tomorrow morning we leave Koh Lanta for Krabi, which will be the base for our final two days of snorkeling. We also will get to see how our custom-made batik shirts turned out and eat like royalty at Ruen Mai. What’s not to like?

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