The Tarutao National Marine Park includes the enormous but seldom visited island of Tarutao, and the more remote Adang-Rawi group of islands where, weather permitting, we will spend many hours face down in the water and enjoying unspoiled vistas (or various beverages) on white sand beaches.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
The Bara Resort knows how to make porridge and fry an egg, but the noodles were far too chewy (and unfortunately, would make a second appearance, no more cooked than before, in our lunch boxes). Soon we found ourselves on the dock with our bags — I had slimmed down to one large wheeled duffel, a bag of snorkel and beach gear, a backpack, and a separate camera bag — ready to board a chartered speedboat.
In previous years, Kasma was able to rent a huge converted fishing boat that offered multiple levels of seating and a high view from the sunny upper deck. The boat we used in 2015 seemed to be falling to pieces and has since been retired, so the best available option this year was a speedboat. On the minus side, speedboats offer very little open air seating for those who like to photograph in all directions or whose stomachs do not do well in interior seating. And then there’s the smell of partially combusted fuel when the boat needs to go in reverse, which definitely doesn’t help with the stomach issues. But they are much faster than the big fishing boats, so if you are bored by a leisurely cruise and want to start your beach time ASAP, it’s a fine choice.
We disembarked at Koh Kai (Egg Island), a picturesque rock with a fine white sand beach divided by an iconic arch known as the Lover’s Gate. (When the tide isn’t too high, you can walk through the gate to find the more secluded end of the beach, but you’ll need to bring your own lover with you.) We spread out our beach mats and towels, and observed a loud rustling from the mat of fallen leaves behind us — and it appeared to be moving. Dozens of hermit crabs in very similarly colored shells came out of the leaves to visit us and retreated to the leaves when crows appeared. The ants, on the other hand, were relentless; some of them ended up stowing away with us and reappearing on our speedboat.
Before lunch, there was time for a little snorkeling around the point of the island. There isn’t a beautiful reef here, but there are quite a few fish who call it home. Photo opportunities abounded above the water as well, from pretty vistas to the occasional raptor, and of course the other tourists who flock to the island for a brief time to get selfies with the arch.
On the way to Ko Lipe, we stopped at one snorkel spot East of the island. The afternoon light made for good visibility, but getting back onto the speedboat was surprisingly difficult due to a strong current and tiny ladders. Eventually we all managed to get on with a minimum of bumps and bruises, and we soon landed on Hat Pattaya (Pattaya Beach of Ko Lipe, not to be confused with Pattaya, the city on the Gulf of Thailand). We made our way through the soft sand under the fierce sun, past the crowds of tourists, to Varin Resort. They had built a completely new main building since my last visit here two years ago, exchanging a more traditional wood structure for a very modern looking one with slick marble floors, on which I would slip and slide on sandy sandals many times in the coming days. Hopefully they will think better of it very soon.
Varin has changed enormously since 2005, when their huts were small and dimly lit, and the curtains appeared to have been sown from children’s bedsheets. That year, dinner was served at a table on the sand, with our plastic chairs gradually sinking during the course of the meal. Now they have long buildings of efficiently designed rooms and a dining room that appears to seat hundreds. It has lost some of its charm, but considering the island’s rapid development, it makes sense to change to meet the demand. We mostly need a crash pad between snorkeling trips, and it has air conditioning, so despite the rough towels and enormous mosquitos, it works for us.
Before dinner, we met for a happy hour in front of our drivers’ room. They know where to source ice cubes and soda water, and we provided the Scotch, iTunes, and various snacks collected from convenience stores. Some travelers appear to have a bit of a snack obsession, as the number of obscure flavors of peanuts, cashews, and potato chips grew night by night. We grabbed a couple sunset photos before sitting down to dinner in Varin’s dining room. Tonight was our mandatory set meal, which consisted of tod mun (deep-fried fish cakes) with a sweet-tangy cucumber relish, broccoli with fried tofu and shrimp in oyster sauce, hot and sour soup, a salad of mixed seafood and more tofu, and a whole fried fish. Not too bad.
Tomorrow we begin our two full days of snorkeling in earnest, hitting as many spots as conditions will allow.
Friday, February 3, 2017
My personal trauma begins before dawn: for the first time since it started growing in, I will shave my mustache. It’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly, but thinning/flattening it did not solve my mask issues, so it has to go. I don’t recognize my face in the mirror. Do you?
Varin’s breakfast buffet offers the usual: rice porridge, fried eggs, toast, and stir fries. They also have tasty fried chicken, but I didn’t discover that the first morning or I would have loaded up on that. We finished by 8:00 and assembled on the beach to meet our boats, which due to low tide arrived about 15 minutes late. Our crew was comprised of a father and sons (or son and friends) from a sea gypsy (chao ley) family. We had met some of them two years ago, and the boys were now old enough to drive, although at times holding the longtail motor’s propeller against the sea seemed to be a job for two of them. We headed out to various spots for snorkeling and ate box lunches on a secluded beach.
My mask sealed better without the upper lip hair, but still not perfectly. I think they did not have my face shape in mind when designing it, or perhaps I’m just overthinking it: the more I let my face relax and conform to the suction from the mask (perhaps it’s a wee bit tight?), the better it worked. Still, I’m getting a lot of seawater in my sinuses, which probably isn’t so healthy in the long run.
Back at Varin, after a quick shower and attempting to clean the salt water out of our gear, we assembled for another happy hour and then another Varin dinner.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Another day, another buffet breakfast. We headed further out, so we had quite a long ride before we circled a peculiar rock formation South of Koh Rawi for photos, and then settled down to the difficult task of snorkeling and eating another box lunch on the beach (thankfully without harassment by monkeys).
On the way back we stopped at Ko Hin Ngam — we previously snorkeled on the back side, but this time we went ashore. Peculiarly the island has no sand beach but instead has an enormous pile of colorful pebbles. To prevent tourists from carting them all home, there is a large warning about the curse of the island that will follow those who remove a stone. It is safest to take only photos.
Since our day ran long, we had fewer attendees to our last Lipe happy hour, and our appetites appeared a bit diminished at dinner.
We’ve been blessed by good conditions and can only hope the ocean is kind to us for our final four days of snorkeling later this month. But our more immediate destination is Trang, a city with delicious food and a nearby preserve for early morning birding.