Thursday, March 20, 2014

Khao Lak Part 2 - Snorkelling Similan and Surin Islands

Day 3 – And another early start with a 8am pick up. At 8:30, our hotel manager asked for the agent’s phone number and called them to confirm everything was OK, informed that they were on their way. By 9, J and I were cursing not having more time for breakfast and a few more zzzzz’s. But they finally arrived and we were at the Tablamu pier quickly and on our boat not long after. The tour company we were with had three boats doing the same multi-stop snorkelling tour. But there were over a dozen boats. They couldn’t all be going to the same place – surely.


Arriving at the first snorkelling site at Koh 9, we saw a few other boats around – but they were a fair distance apart. Grabbing our snorkels, masks and fins, J and I were first in and exploring the reef in no time. Colourful fish were plentiful, but the coral was mostly bleached and damaged. That was the same in most of the sites we visited in the Similans. In places there were signs of recovery with some patches of blue or white corals. For me, I enjoy watching the fish, spotting as many species as I can, trying to recall their common names. Many fish were accustomed to all us visitors, following behind your fins hoping to get some scraps; some even swam right up looking as if they were going to attack.




Just before midday we arrived on Koh 8 Similan island after snorkelling at another spot. Famished from all the activity, J and I mused at the crowd of people from all the tour boats, herded off, into food queues, then herded back onto boats. Each tour company had their own food pass with curries and stir fries to help yourself. Pity they were mostly cold but hit the spot anyway.



Seeing how many people had walked to Sail Rock lookout, J and I decided to head off to the least crowded part of the beach to do some more snorkelling. It was gorgeous to be there just the two of us in the clear warm water. Visibly was so good it felt as though you could see for miles.



On the way back to Khao Lak, most people dozed, rocked by the motion of the boat over the waves. We reviewed some of the great shots J snapped with his underwater camera, with a couple of great shots of the sea turtle that was swimming around with us at one point. We were back at Lah Own by 4:30.

Showered and refreshed, we now a mission to complete: find ‘The Rusty Pelican” Mexican restaurant. This time, we asked the hotel to order a taxi to take us over to Bang Niang town to check it out by night and search for our prize. A fair way down the side road, we finally found it, and we had a very memorable and delicious meal (reviewed in the restaurant section separately).

Back on the main road, a market with lights and children’s rides caught our attention on the other side from the town, so we went for a look. Very few tourists were over there, with local families enjoying a carnival-like atmosphere. A band was playing and people were relaxing at tables with jugs of beer. Children were nagging their parents for money to go on the rides, or play the games, or to buy a treat (like children the world over).


I stopped to talk with some kids and their mother, the girls loading pop guns to play an arcade game where they had to shoot their desired prize. With looks of serious concentration on their faces, they took aim with air rifles almost as big as themselves to claim their treasure. J wouldn’t let me go on the giant jumping castle :( !


Leaving with a few pairs of sunglasses (from a stall that had exactly the same ones seen all over Phuket, Krabi and Khao Lak but for a fixed price of 50 bhat each), and a few crazy/amusing tee-shirts for my daughter, we crossed the road, enjoying a cold beer before heading back to the resort. The local cat come to sit with us on the porch while we un-wound after our big day, and tomorrow would be equally big.


Day 4 Another early start and prompt pick up at 7:15am. From what I’d read, it was a lot further to Kuraburi pier for the trip out to the Surin islands, but I don’t think it took more than about half an hour from Lah Own. A small pavilion provided a staging area for Baracuda tours to sort out who was going to which islands. Two boats were off to Ko Ta Chai, and just our boat to Surin. Mr Big was our tour leader who ran through the day’s plan, dropping in lots of jokes through his explanations.


It took an hour to get out in the twin-hull boat with barely a bump the whole way. Approaching the islands, the colour of the water was an almost unbelievable shade of aqua-marine making us feel as though we were entering into a postcard picture. J and I had gear in hand ready to jump in as soon as the boat had anchored. 


Below, corals provided a vibrant backdrop to all the lively fish of all colours and sizes. There was some bleaching, but at the first site it wasn’t that bad, and was the best snorkelling we did during our entire trip. One of the nicest touches of the tour was the staff being ready with towels and cool drinks as soon as we came in from the sea. It just made the day so enjoyable and relaxing, and we certainly felt well looked after.


Before lunch, we stopped at a Moken village not far from the snorkelling site. Though interesting, it really felt as though our visit was an intrusion. Walking through the simple huts, the villagers stayed away from us as Mr Big told us about their history and customs. During the 2004 tsunami, the villages quickly understood the changes in the sea, running to warn as many people as possible to get to higher ground. In the entire Surin island area, only 3 lives were lost, with over 1500 surviving due to the warning relayed by the Moken people. It was also heartening to see a community centre and school so the whole ‘sea gypsy’ community could receive an education that would well equipment them for future opportunities.




Ko Surin Nam island (or the North island) was our stop for lunch, the absolute epitome of a tropical island paradise. A few bungalows stood under the shady trees looking very inviting, while the tents paled in comparison. I immediately pencilled in an overnight stay on my ‘to do’ list if we ever returned to this part of Thailand. Even though there were other tour groups on the island, it was so well managed that each group’s lunch time was staggered to be half an hour apart, making it feel much less crowded. The food was OK and very similar to the others we had on other snorkelling trips: big platters of not too exciting stir fries and curries, but it was plentiful and hit the spot. 


J and I wondered to the other side of the island, which is only a hundred metres or so. Soaking in the gorgeous scene, we waded in the clear blue water splashing along the sandy shore. Soon we were called to board our boat, leaving behind the stunning island.



As much as I wanted to stay in the island, I was keen to see more and snorkel. We stopped at two more places all fairly close together, where there were more jellyfish than the other site, both the pink ‘moon’ jellies and the tiny stingy ones. I was grateful I was wearing a rashy and shorts to block out most of the annoying stingers. The corals were more bleached than the first site, but there was plenty of colours and fish to make for a lovely experience. I was fortunate enough to have a black-and-white banded sea snake swim right up to me from the bottom, surfacing right beside me. I watched as it took a breath, it’s nose poking out from the water, it’s long body suspended in the water. By the time J came over, it slithered away quickly returning to a rocky ledge on the sea floor.



With fresh fruit and cold drinks in hand, we headed back to the main land much too early for me, but on schedule. I would have been happy to stay our until dark! The time went so fast. On the journey back, we chatted about what we had seen. A few others had seen turtles and a huge potato cod. Mr Big said he saw a big shark, right near us, but he chased it away. The twinkle in his eye quickly gave his tall tale away.


Dropped back to our hotel by 5, we rinsed off all our gear, showered and prepared to get packing. It was our last night in Khao Lak. For our last dinner we chose Sky restaurant that was at the end of the street (reviewed in the restaurants section), and it was absolutely delicious! Highly recommended. Then the last night of shopping on the strip, not that I wanted to buy anything. But J was addicted to the jam filled biscuits that were served on the boat on our snorkelling trips. So we traipsed through the local stores and finally found a large bag of them to take away and snack on during the flight home. Apart from some more snacks and drinks, we didn’t buy anything else. We had a few beers at one of the cafes and headed back, pretty tired from our full day. Neither one of us were looking forward to leaving. At least we had our room until 4pm the next day so could sleep in, enjoy one last day, and pack at our leisure.

Last day was a reasonably lazy one. After a big breakfast, we walked the length of the beach, down past the lighthouse, wading in the clear waters along the way. It’s such a pleasant walk but pretty sweaty in the hot late morning sun. A last dip in the ocean, followed by a rinse in the pool before lunch at one of the beach shacks near Lah Own. Taking our time relaxing gazing over the water and watching the world go by, we enjoyed our last cold beers before the final pack.





All our gear had dried under the hot Thai sun, and we were on our way to the airport far too quickly. I wasn’t ready to leave. And as it turned out, we had a bonus extra day in Phuket, after Jetstar cancelled our flight and put us up in a hotel in Kata for a night. Sure it was a bit of a drama, and the mis-communication and long time waiting on the plane waiting to find out our fate frustrating, but J and I enjoyed another day in beautiful Thailand. But the following day, our flight finally took off (after another three hour delay), and we arrived home; the cold Melbourne air hitting us like a slap on the face. Before we left the car-park on the drive home, we resolved to return to Khao Lak ASAP.



- K

Monday, March 17, 2014

Krabi to Khao Lak


Transfer from Ao Nang to Khao Lak was organised though ‘Andaman Camp & Cruise’ otherwise known as ‘Krabi shuttle’. We waited at reception for our pick up, watching a driver with a Krabi shuttle sign, not knowing it was for us. Finally the hotel staff alerted us to each other and we were soon on our way. 

Our driver was very quiet but drove very fast, so we arrived at Than Bok Khorani (or Thanboke Koranee) national park in no time. After some initial confusion (i.e. I though our quote included activities but it turned out it did not), J and I paid 1000 bhat to take a longtail through Tham Lot (or Lot cave) and to Phi Hua To cave (or Big headed Ghost cave). The former is a river passageway through a lovely cave beneath a limestone karst mountain full of crystal stalactites and stalagmites surrounded by jungle. Most visitors kayak through, but we didn’t want to get wet. It was as we entered Tham Lot that the only camera we had with us decided to overheat (or whatever) and refused to work.



The Phi Hua To cave is also known as the ‘skeleton’ cave with many ancient rock paintings. There, we got out of the boat and were able to wonder around to discover the cave by ourselves. If you go with a guide, you’ll be shown the various paintings – not just the most famous one of the ‘big headed ghost’ on the ceiling near the entrance. On the rear and side walls are many figures of fish, people and other animals. Many are faded so I suggest to take a torch to help you spot them. J and I just examined the walls to find the many paintings ourselves. There’s also a boardwalk to view the mangrove forest that was a pleasant shady stroll. The whole area around the river is very scenic too. And, it was mostly quiet, a little bit off the tourist trail and well worth a visit.


From there, it was a very short distance to main national park headquarters where a creek runs below the limestone mountains and emerges to form stunning emerald-coloured lagoons.



In the lush forest, there are some small waterfalls where locals like to cool off with a dip in the clear ponds. Not far along one of the paths, there's a hidden cave, with a Buddha statue and ‘Buddha footprint’ shrine. Still visited by locals, the smell of burned incense hung inside.




We were almost the only ones there, with a few local families arriving as we left. It’s not a large area and you can easily walk through in half an hour. But J and I spent some time cooling off, taking photos and enjoying the many bright butterflies fluttering around – it was like the butterfly garden that you might find in a zoo. Peaceful and beautiful. A true little highlight.



It was about an hour drive to our last stop, Wat Bang Riang, a mountain temple that houses a sacred Buddha Tooth relic. Circumambulating three times, I paid my respects and made an offering before taking photos of the magnificent view and beautiful temple, its walls covered in murals depicting stores of The Buddha. 




Out and to the side of the temple was a pavilion offering a stunning view of the valley. It also gave a great perspective view of the temple. A giant Guan Yin ( the Buddha of Compassion and Love the equivalent of Tara in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) stood overlooking the valley a little down the hill. Despite hunting and looking for a sign, I couldn’t find the path to get to it for a closer look. 


However, I did check out the three large Buddhas on a seemingly abandoned platform close to the top of the mountain. I needed to do a little bush bashing to get to them much to Js amusement. Flights of concrete stair with serpent banisters lead up to the three giants, but the jungle was re-claiming them, the sight seemingly abandoned. 


As we drew closer to Khao Lak, we were pulled over by police. The driver was made to get out and we observed him being man-handled away to the police car. J and I sat in the car pondering our fate, wondering what was happening. Sure, he’d been speeding a bit, but I wondered whether there were speed cameras along the road we’d come from. After ten minutes he returned, flustered, tisk tisking about the 2000 baht fine he’d been made to pay. Language got in the way of us finding out what really happened, but I think it was half bribe, half speeding ticket. Not too long later we were happily at Lah Own resort in Khao Lak where we gave our driver (wish I recalled his name as he was a nice guy) a large tip (to help him pay his fine) and bade him farewell after a magnificent day of sightseeing. 

 
- K