Surat Thani, Thailand, May 03
Thailand (Part 3)
We were picked up early from the hotel, stopped by the dive shop to drop off our big packs, and then headed down to the Taplamu pier to board the dive boat. Once aboard, we discovered that we had been added on to a dive trip from a different company because the dive boat from the company we had booked with, Blue Zone, had some mechanical problems. This was sounding a bit sketchy to us, but our outlook improved when we talked the divemaster into allowing us to do three dives instead of just the two we were scheduled for.
The weather was perfectly clear and the water was like a sheet of glass. After a couple hours of lazing on the upper deck, we arrived at our first dive site of the day near the island of Ko Bon. Besides Sue and I, the dive group consisted of a couple from England, a Thai couple, and two guides. The guides and Sue were the first to enter the water and as I was standing on the dive platform getting ready to jump in I heard Sue shouting at me. She yelled something like "Hurry up! You have to see this!" and disappeared under the calm surface. I popped in my regulator, plunged in and started my descent. As soon as I was underwater I could see what all the excitement was about - a giant manta ray was swimming just a few meters away! I'd say it was at least fifteen feet across from wingtip to wingtip, maybe larger. It was slowly flapping it's enormous wings, gracefully gliding along in a slow, lazy circle around our group of divers. I have to say that this was the most amazing experience with the animal kingdom that I have ever had. I think we were all fairly stunned. To see such a bizarre and magnificent creature in it's natural environment really makes you numb with awe. The guides later told us that even they don't see manta rays very frequently so we were very lucky. I hurriedly took several pictures with my underwater camera, but unfortunately none of them came out.
After lunch, we cruised to our next dive site, a spot called North Point off of Island 9 of the Similan Islands National Marine Park. The coral formations were fabulous and the colorful tropical fish were numerous, but we didn't see any more manta rays (or whale sharks, which we were hoping to encounter as well).
For our last dive of the day we headed to a place called Breakfast Bend, also near Island 9. As we were suiting up, some dark clouds rolled in and the wind picked up considerably, making the water rough and choppy. We jumped in just before a heavy rain started to fall. Our guide took Sue and I on a very lame dive which involved circling the same shallow area twice while the rest of the group dove elsewhere. When we asked him about it, he said that he preferred to do a safe dive because of the storm, but we suspected it was really because we had only supposed to be on a two dive trip. It was, however, pretty neat to watch the raindrops pelting the choppy surface above us from the calm of the water below.
We climbed back onto the dive boat and late in the afternoon, as the rain was tapering off, Sue and I made a rendezvous with a small speedboat which took us onto the beach of Similan's Island 8. We made arrangements with the fairly unhelpful staff to hire a tent in the nearby camping area. The tents were thankfully already pitched, and decently large, but all very close together. And as it had just rained heavily, things were a bit damp. We snagged the dryest sleeping bags we could find from the other available tents, stashed our gear, and headed to the campsite's restaurant.
Walking across the campsite in the darkness, we started to get the impression that the whole place was kind of dirty and not very well maintained. This was confirmed as we arrived at the 'restaurant', which was basically a bunch of picnic tables set up on a concrete slab with a wooden roof overhead and some sort of kitchen behind. Piles of garbage cuold be seen behind and to the side of the kitchen area and some trays of broken and decaying eggs added a pleasant aroma. Along one side of the eating area lay the skeleton of a whale shark which appeared to be in the abandoned process of being put together for display.
Despite all that, the place was buzzing with activity. There were mostly groups of Thai people on camping holidays and a few other foreigners. We met Wolfgang and Johanna from Austria, who had arrived that day from the mainland on a snorkelling trip.
Later in the evening, our impression of the campsite further degraded as we were walking back to the tent area and saw several small rats (or large mice) running about in the darkness. Back in the tent, we hung our bags of food (mostly fruit and bread) from the ceiling in an attempt to prevent discovery by any roaming ants. This turned out to provide some middle of the night entertainment (not including the inebriated staff of young Thais celebrating someones's birthday with many celebratory choruses well past camp quiet time).
Several times we were awakened by slight scratching sounds against the nylon overhead. The resident campsite rats were literally climbing up the sides of our tent onto the roof in their attempts to find a way into our savoury smelling bag of victuals. Each time we woke up I would smack the wall of the tent, sending one or several little rodents skittering back down the sides. It was a long night.
We awoke early to a gloriously bright and sunny morning. We brushed away the few ants who had cleverly managed to infiltrate our grocery bag from our bread and fruit, ate breakfast, and walked a few meters down to the beach. The sight we were greeted by made the all-night rat siege worthwhile. The beach was finally the picture perfect pristine postcard paradise we had expected to see in Bali. The sand was pure white and powder soft, the finely ground-up result of the extensive coral reef just offshore. The water was clear and warm and filled with multitudes of colorful tropical fish. We spent the morning and early afternoon at the beach, alternately sitting around reading, snorkelling over the amazing reef, and climbing up some rocks for a spectacular view of the bay.
We ate lunch with Wolfgang and Johanna at the not-quite-a-restaurant and heaped accolades on the marvelous beach while disparaging the filthy campground. We discussed the option of hiring a speedboat to take us to a campground on a different island in the marine park but decided to give the current site one more night.
Wolfgang and I spent the rest of the afternoon on a fairly tough hike along a nature trail another beach on the island. Along the way we stopped at a lookout which afforded a spectacular view to the south of some other islands comprising the marine park as well as the vast expanse of ocean to the west.
Upon reaching the end of the trail, we found an abandoned campground and a long stretch of deserted beach. We walked to the end of the beach and over some rocks and decided to wade out through some shallow tidal pools to snorkel in the deeper water offshore where we could see some submerged reefs. As we were sloshing through one large pool, we were stopped in our tracks by some large fish zipping around in the water nearby, breaking the surface with their fins. We soon realized that there were three young black-tipped reef sharks in the pool with us slashing through the water with lightning quickness. The sharks were each about eighteen inches long and they seemed to be chasing each other about the pool. Several times they darted between us and around our legs. Another amazing display of marine life. I would rank this just below swimming with the manta rays. We continued on into the deep water hoping to catch sight of some larger black-tips, but we didn't see any. The highlight instead turned out to be catching a glimpse of a small squid (known in these parts as a cuttlefish).
By the time we made our way back to the campground the sun had set and I was exhausted and slightly perturbed about losing my hat somewhere along the trail. I showered and then Sue and I joined Wolfgang and Johanna for dinner as a brief evening storm rolled through.
As we were heading back to our tent, Sue stopped off in the camp office. A few minutes later she came in and announced that she had talked the manager into letting us stay in one of the "longhouses" for the same price as the tent. The longhouses were a small step up from the tents, dusty and dirty, but at least they were somewhat solid wooden structures and we assumed we would have a reprise from the nightly rat siege. Wrong. Not long after going to bed, the scratching noises started right underneath our bed. We tried to ignore them, but it sounded as if something was being slowly dragged across the floor. After a few futile attempts at scaring the rats away with mean words, I was forced to probe the filthy underworld beneath the bed with my flashlight. I discovered that far back against the wall, too far to reach by hand, was a package of cookies, half torn apart. Within a half hour I had fished the package out using a MacGyver'd contraption built from a bamboo broom and a wire hanger. I tossed the package out the front door, wiped off my dirty knees, went back to bed and fell asleep to the blissful sounds of rats fighting over stale cookies outside the longhouse.
In the morning, deciding that we had had enough of the rats, Wolfgang, Johanna, Sue and I hired a speedboat to take us over to the campsite on Island 4. Another backpacker coming back from there had reported no rat sightings, so we were game to give it a chance.
To be sure, upon arrival we found the campground at Island 4 in great condition. It was clean and the tents even included semi-comfortable cots to put our bedrolls on! The campsite manager Mr. Chaturathep Khowinthawong and his staff were helpful and quiet. Soon after arriving, we even witnessed them loading up a boat with all of the garbage from the campground. (We speculated that the Island 4 garbage must be shipped over to Island 8...) Before long we discovered the reason for the marked shift in campground quality: the princess of Thailand's royal family keeps a holiday house on the island. Can't have the princess treading amongst the rats now, right?!
The beach here was just as beautiful as the other, even better actually since less people were staying on Island 4. We spent the rest of the day enjoying our newfound rodent-free paradise by snorkelling over the colorful reef and relaxing on the beach.
Sue and I had a long snorkel around the northern end of the beach and then spent most of the day alternating between resting in the shade and swimming in the ocean. Late in the afternoon we followed a trail to the other side of the island where we climbed over some enormous rocks to watch the sunset over the ocean. Afterward we walked back to the campground through the jungle in the dark, aided only by a weak flashlight, and paranoid that we were going to trip over a python.
Today we said goodbye to our Austrian friends Wolfgang and Johanna and the beautiful Similan Islands and caught a ride back to the mainland on a dive boat carrying a group of Italians on holiday. The nearly three hour ride was highly enjoyable as we were invited to share a meal with them as well as being entertained by well-sung renditions of classic Italian and American ballads.
From Taplamu we headed north by bus to the small seaside town of Khuraburi. Our next destination was the group of islands in the Andaman Sea making up the Ko Surin National Marine Park. A woman we had met in the Similan Islands had spent a long time in Surin and highly recommended a trip there considering we were so close. We arrived at Khuraburi toward dusk in the rain and took a room in a small dive hotel next to the tiny bus terminal.
The rain continued into the evening and having nothing better to do but wait for the morning ferry out to Surin, we had dinner at a small restaurant next to the hotel called the Pakarang Kitchen. We ended up having quite a good time. Sue made a lifelong friend in a woman named Tum who was working at the restaurant. We bought some suprisingly good ice cream from a shop across the road for Tum's two young boys and ourselves and in turn she introduced us to a bizarre new fruit called the 'luk-yee' which was like a prune wrapped in a furry satin shell.
In the morning we rode a songthaew down to the pier and a couple of hours later we were moored in Mai Yai Bay on Ko Surin Nua (North Surin Island). A longtail boat trandferred us and the other passengers to Ao Mai Yai beach where the campground was located. We found the area to be not quite as nice as Similan's Island 4, but still way better than Island 8. The campground was fairly crowded with both Thai people on holiday and other backpackers and the tent rental was kind of pricey at 300 baht (about $7 US) per night.
After settling in to our tent we hiked along a nature trail to Mai Ngam Bay on the other side of the island. There we found a deserted campground and an empty beach. We had planned on snorkelling in the bay but after walking about one hundred meters over coral formations in the shallow water we realized the tide was out too far to make the effort worthwhile. Sue cut her foot on some sharp coral in the process. Back on the beach I performed some first aid work on Sue's foot and then we sat under the shade of a tree for a while watching hermit crabs and tiny ghost crabs crawl warily around us. Before heading back to Ao Mai Yai we explored the deserted campground and happily discovered some newly constructed and very clean showers with running water.
We spent the day on a snorkelling trip by longtail boat. Sites around Surin that we visited included Jaag Bay, Ko Stok, Mai Yai Bay, Hin Kong, and Tow Bay. The coral formations were absolutely spectacular, even better than those in the Similan Islands. We didn't see quite the same variety of tropical fish though (and no manta rays).
In the morning we took the ferry back to Khuraburi on the mainland. Since we were getting close to the end of our 30 day tourist visa we decided to head north to the town of Ranong where we could briefly cross over the border into Myanmar (Burma) and then back into Thailand, receiving a fresh 30 day visa in the process.
We arrived in Ranong by bus in the afternoon. It was too late to arrange the boat transport needed to cross the border so we decided to wait until the next day which would give us some time to explore the town of Kawthaung on the Myanmar side. We ate a surprisingly good dinner of crabmeat with curry powder and fried rice at a small restaurant called J&T Food & Ice across the street from our hotel and then strolled down to the night market for some fruit sampling. We bought a some mango and tried a tasty new fruit called a rumbutaan which looks like a reddish golf ball with soft little spines sticking out all over.
With some directions and advice from a very nice woman in a cafe, we walked to the post office and then caught a songthaew to the immigration office. We filled out the necessary forms and walked on toward the fishing pier area (saphaan plaa) to find the boat which would take us to Myanmar. We briefly negotiated with some locals who were offering to take us on their own boats, but decided to continue on in search of the "official" public ferry. After becoming slightly lost and sloshing through large puddles of fish guts along the pier (to the bewildered amusement of the local fish handlers who were sorting out the morning's bountiful catch), we arrived at the proper place only to find that there was no public ferry, only private longtail boats with no shade. With Sue in full bargain shopping mode, we spent about fifteen minutes negotiating and arguing over the price of the boat trip. Finally, we climbed over several other boats to reach our boat, waited a while in the hot sun for some shady Thai mafia character to climb aboard, and then we were off.
In about an hour we had crossed the Pakchan Estuary separating Thailand from Myanmar and stopped at a small immigration checkpoint which was basically a shack built on stilts over the water. Inside we paid $5 US each for a one day visa, had our passports stamped, and then continued on by boat to Kawthaung (also known as Victoria Point).
Once on the pier in Kawthaung we had to visit another immigration office and leave our passports to ensure compliance with our one day visa. Having completed this we were free to roam the town for a few hours and so became immediate tour guide targets. We were quickly befriended by two young guys named Hashim and Ween. We asked them to bring us to a cheap restaurant where the local people eat for lunch. so we could sample some genuine Burmese food. We ended up walking to an air-conditioned restaurant where the food was somewhat expensive, but quite good and extremely spicy. We had fried suid with cashews and hot and sour prawns. Not really the "local" experience we were hoping for, but we did appear to be the only foreigners present. As an added bonus, the waitress stood nearby our table fanning us with a menu.
Following lunch, Hashim and Ween took us through a market and down some small streets lined with shops. The locals, especially the children, enjoyed staring and giggling as we passed by. All in all, Kawthaung seemed a lot like some of the other towns we had been in recently in southern Thailand.
We headed back to the pier, collected our passports from immigration, and said goodbye to our guides. They were attached to a group of newly-arrived foreigners before we had even boarded our boat back to Thailand. An hour later we were back in Thailand and had to visit the immigration building again to get our new visas. From there we caught a songthaew back into town. By the time we made it back to our hotel late in the afternoon we were exhausted and sunburned and very sorry we hadn't thought of getting a 60 day visa before leaving Malaysia.
We had again had a good dinner at J&T Food & Ice and then Sue rewarded herself for saving us money on the boat ride by purchasing a new skirt while I worked on updating the web site.
We found a small coffee shop obsequiously named 'The Coffee Shop' and had a very decent Western-style breakfast. Afterward, I bought a cheap new watch for ten dollars to replace the one I had lost in Ko Tarutao and then we caught a bus toward the town of Surat Thani on the east coast of southern Thailand. We assumed our usual public bus positions way in the back with our bags and settled in for a reasonably comfortable five hour ride. Along the way we a farmer carrying a yoke loaded with two large baskets boarded the bus and sat near us. He offered us some of what he was carrying, which after some effort with the Thai phrasebook we determined to be truffles.
Surat Thani is a large, busy city and we were glad to find our cheap hotel of choice, the Muang Thai, without much trouble. Our room actually had a TV, but all of the channels were in Thai. (This actually proved to be mildly entertaining, especially the commercials.)
During the course of the day my right elbow had become red, swollen up like a baseball, and very painful. We guessed that a coral scratch I had received while snorkelling in the Similan Islands had become infected so I began self-medicating with the prescription of Cipro we had brought along in our medical kit.
For dinner we walked down to Surat Thani's very large night market and found a stall selling fried chicken and fries called "KFG". (This presumably stood for "Kentucky Fried Gai"; gai means chicken in Thai.) We then waited in a line of locals at another stall where a largish, irate-looking woman cooked up the best pad thai (fried noodles) we've ever tasted. Following that we found another stall where a woman with no customers at all was selling crispy fried insects. I wanted to take a picture of her cart so I offered to buy some bugs. Sympathetic to my plight of having to choose between the various grubs, beetles, and locusts, she kindly offered us a free sample. I chose a grub (I think) and an inch-long black beetle. Sue graciously declined while managing to look thoroughly repulsed. As I munched my grub, the bug lady broke the carapace of the beetle in half and squirted some brown liquid inside before handing it to me. Neither bug tasted particularly bad, but I didn't place any further orders.
Dive site at Ko Bon
Getting ready to dive, Ko Bon
Beach at Ko Similan (1), Similan National Marine Park
Beach at Ko Similan (2), Similan National Marine Park
Beach at Ko Similan (3), Similan National Marine Park
Natural sunblock, Ko Similan, Similan National Marine Park
View of islands south of Ko Similan, Similan National Marine Park
Iguana in the camp, Similan National Marine Park
Nicobar Pigeon, Similan National Marine Park
The biggest hermit crab you have ever seen, Similan National Marine Park
Sai-En Bay (1), Similan National Marine Park
Sai-En Bay (2), Similan National Marine Park
Hey, where did Sue go? (Similan National Marine Park)
I'm down here!! (Similan National Marine Park)
Sunset over the Andaman Sea, Similan National Marine Park
Boat ride back to Kao Lak from Similan Islands
Campsite by the beach, Surin National Marine Park
Beach at Ko Miang, Surin National Marine Park
Longtail boats for hire, Ranong
A monk on the Saphaan Plaa (fishing pier), Ranong
Buddha watching the village, Ranong
"Sittin' on the dock 'o the bay...", Ranong
Shipbuilders at work, Ranong
Temple (mosque?) on Kawthaung (Victoria Point), Myanmar (Burma)
Approaching Kawthaung, Myanmar (Burma) by boat
Entering Myanmar (Burma)
Road to the temple, Kawthaung, Myanmar
Woman-and-children-with-covered-heads Crossing, Kawthaung, Myanmar
The Captain, On the boat from Myanmar to Thailand
"KFG" (Kentucky Fried Gai? (gai = chicken in Thai)), Surat Thani
The best pad thai (fried noodles) in Surat Thani
The bug lady's wares, Surat Thani
Fried locusts from the bug lady's cart, Surat Thani
Sampling a beetle, Surat Thani
Dessert stall - that's more like it! (Surat Thani)