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Martin & Sue

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Searching for Solitude in Thailand - Part 1

 

Amongst the sailing fraternity, Thailand stands out as the Holy Grail of cruising grounds. The stunning photos of secluded palm fringed islands act like a siren to would-be cruiser the world over.  After 10 months on the high seas we had finally come face to face with these renowned images and we were looking forward to enjoying a few months slowly exploring the pristine bays advertised in the brochures.

Well, we can now report that after two month cruising the waters around Phuket it is obvious that many of the advertised destinations have been totally corrupted by tourism. We are, of course, not the first travellers to discover that the act of publishing an idyllic destination guarantees it will be ruined by the influx of tourists who flock there. ‘Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye’ sing the Eagles in their song ‘Paradise’ and their prophecy has sadly been fulfilled in many of the once pristine beachfront locations in Thailand.
 
 
Above: Only a few of dozens of tourist boats in the Similan Islands. Note the 3 outboards on the motorboat to the left   Above: Why not clear the jungle and build a villa?
     

Luckily, however, the cruising grounds are so expansive and there are so many magnificent Islands and bays to choose from that it is still possible to find the legendary beachside paradises that this area is famous for.  And having the freedom to seek out these locations is one of the joys of cruising in your own boat.

 
 
     

So, although fearful that the sharing our discoveries may be helping destroy them, here is a chronicle of our journey through the waters of Western Thailand.

 

 

Our search began at the southern tip of Phuket for it was important to complete our exploration of the West Coast before the monsoonal change set in and the south-west winds made the Coastline untenable. Nai Harn , our first anchorage after checking in at crowded and dirty Ao Chalong Bay (where incidently we had our dinghy anchor stolen), was certainly reminiscent of picture postcard shots found on Thailand brochures. Although crowded with yachts, it was a very large picturesque bay with a long white sandy beach and crystal clear water.

 
 

Actually at the time of arrival we could only surmise that the beach was made up of white sand for umbrella covered deck chairs were stacked four deep along its entire length!

     

At this early stage of our Thai journey this sight did not worry us unduly for we were well and truly due for some R and R after travelling constantly for the past 9 months. Besides, from our water based vantage point, we could easily ignore the crowds and we spent several enjoyable days relaxing on board. Moreover, some interesting eye candy could be viewed on the beach if one was prepared to gaze through the binoculars and sift through the layers of lounging, half naked, ivory white, mostly overweight tourists - although trying to spot the topless model amidst the strutting males sporting g-strings below their overhanging beer guts was certainly a bit of a challenge! Besides, once ashore and beyond the masses, we discovered several cheap restaurants serving very tasty Thai delicacies and cold beer.

     
 

     

The pilot guide lists several suitable anchorages along the west coast of Phuket so it was with great expectations that we headed off - but it soon became apparent that there can be many definition of the word ‘suitable’. Certainly we found many beautiful bays with magnificent beaches that would have looked stunning against a backdrop lush of green palms. However, increasingly as we made our way northward, the greenery was being replaced with resorts and by the time we had arrived at the main tourist beach of Patong, the tranquillity was well and truly eroded by disco music and jet skis.

 

 
Above: sometimes getting internet reception takes just that little bit more effort (and height)!    
     

With severe misgivings, we reluctantly anchored at Patong as it hosted a large shopping complex and we needed to sort out our Thai internet and phone coverage – plus stock up on fresh supplies for our trip to the outer islands. No sooner had we dropped our pick when we were circled by suicidal jet ski riders who appeared to be involved in some sort of competition with each other to see who could buzz the closest to an anchored boat without actually hitting it. Although tempted to bring out the squid jig and attempt to hook one of these ferals we quickly lowered the dinghy and headed ashore. We thought we had seen the ultimate destruction of paradise on Bali’s Kuta Beach but we now discovered how wrong we were. Amidst chaotic bike and tuk tuk traffic, literally thousands of foreign tourists milled for space on the pavements outside the seedy nightclubs advertising all types of girly shows and unmentionable ‘services’. The stifling heat seemed to give the environment an even seedier coating – and we wasted no time completing our jobs before returning to the boat (still swarming with jet skis) and pointing our bows northward. Maybe if we were 30 years younger.....but then again, maybe not!

 

 

Above: Coffee is so expensive here is protected with security tags in the supermarkets!

  Above: Interesting way to advertise a Weightloss program
     

To ensure that we made good our escape we bypassed the next few bays until we identified a quieter anchorage that was free of jet skis. A careful scan of the shoreline also confirmed the lack of deck chairs along the pristine, sandy beach and the only buildings we could see were low key beach front restaurants. Having again found serenity, we stayed for several days and when the swimming, reading and relaxing all became too much to bear, we went ashore and hired a motorbike from the waitress at one of the restaurants and explored the inland areas of Phuket by road – being very careful since the island is infamous for having the highest rate of motorbike accidents of anywhere in Thailand.

 

 

After a week or so of lazing around it was time to head offshore to the famed Similans – a group of nine islands 34 nautical miles offshore and purported to be teaming with tropical fish and colourful coral. Despite confused seas we had an uneventful sail and arrived around 4pm, taking a national park mooring on island no. 4, Koh Miang (Koh meaning Island). Although surrounded by several dive boats and a few yachts, the calm conditions and the reflective turquoise blue water made for a tranquil setting. This lasted until dusk when even more dive boats arrived and we were soon surrounded by the sound of generators and the gushing sound of compression tanks.

     

A few hours later a nasty south-easterly swell arrived, accompanied by a stiff breeze from an obtuse direction – thus creating the conditions for a very unpleasant night of rocking and rolling. By early morning we had had enough and sought refuge on the lee side of the island. Unfortunately the large swell followed us as it funnelled between the islands and we decided to cut our losses and headed 5 miles northward towards island no. 8, Koh Similan.

Here we found a pretty, well protected bay with a beautiful sandy beach. Hidden behind the fringing palm trees was the National park Headquarters and no sooner had we picked up a mooring when the rangers arrived to collect the $A20 fee. Although they maintained that this charge was for one night, we later found out that it was actually for a 5 day pass – one of the few times we were ripped off by officials in Thailand. It was still early and we were just settling down to enjoy a leisurely snorkel in the calm reef-fringed cove when the first of the speed boats arrived. So began a day of constant rocking and rolling as we braced ourselves against the wash created by the 4 by 100 hp outboard engines attached to the stern of the tourist laden vessels. To add to the chaos, it seemed that no one had explained to the skippers the safety etiquette of slowing down when entering a small, crowded bay and we gazed open mouthed as they zoomed, in still on the plane, barely missing several snorkelers and divers. At one stage I counted 25 speed boats – and since each carry around 30 passengers it is not surprising that the white sandy beach was soon camouflaged by sunbakers.

 

 

Below: The view from the rocky lookout on the Similans

 

Below: A bit too close for comfort on the moorings!

     

Having paid our fee we were reluctant to give up our mooring to go in search of calmer waters so we gritted our teeth and spent the day jumping in and out of the water as we explored the coral only metres from the transom steps – taking special care to keep out of the way of those wayward, water-churning outboards. By dusk the speed boats had returned to the mainland with their tourist cargo and we deemed it safe to venture ashore to climb to the top of a rocky outcrop to view the stunning sunset. 

 

 
     

So we moved on – travelling a further 50 miles northward towards the Surin Islands, located just short of the Myanmar border. We were still working on the theory that the further we removed ourselves from the tourist route, the more likely we were to find solitude and unspoilt paradise. We could see the coastline of Myanmar in the distance as we entered the channel between Koh Surin Nua and Koh Surin Tai.  After glancing around at the majestic island scenery, with its sheer sided jungle covered slopes as they dropped into the sea, we suspiciously noted that the bay was tantalisingly empty.  As we settled down to enjoy the novelty of having such a special place to ourselves, we felt like we were holding our breath as if waiting for an armada of dive boats to appear around the headland. As night fell, and we were still the only boat taking advantage of the many National park mooring buoys, we became nervously optimistic that, maybe, we had finally found the isolation we had been craving.   

A few hours after dark, and just as we were preparing to face another sleep-depriving, hot, breathless night, a noisy squid boat approached and took up a nearby mooring. Over the next few hours, others local boats joined them – and suddenly our prized location didn’t seem quite so attractive and we started to recall the story of the yacht Mr. Bean that had been boarded (and the skipper murdered) whilst on a National Park mooring in the Butang Island group further south a few months ago.

 

 

Despite telling ourselves that such events were very rare our imagination started to work overtime, and we became a little uneasy about our vulnerability. Perhaps there are some advantages to crowded anchorages after all! Of course our fears were unfounded and, after an uneventful night, we awoke to the sight of 5 of these wooden fishing vessels rafted up together as they swung from the one mooring – and to the smiling waves of the fisherman as they called out morning greetings on their way back out to sea for a day’s fishing.

 

   

One of the ‘problems’ for Australian cruisers is that we are so lucky to have the beauty and variety of the Great Barrier Reef in our own backyard that the reality of other so-called ‘world renowned’ reef sites rarely live up to the tourist hype. During our travels through Indonesia, Malaysia and now Thailand, we had found nothing to surpass the variety of fish life or coral that we were familiar with in our homeland backyard.  But now, finally, we had stumbled across the jewel in Thailand’s marine tiara.

The first thing that struck us as we were surrounded by hundreds of small, inquisitive, yellow and black zebra fish was the crystal clear visibility. Finally we had found water so gin clear that the yellow and purple coral outcrops five metres away seemed eerily within an arm’s reach. We felt like we had interrupted some sort of morning feeding frenzy as a wide variety of colourful fish, in an assortment of sizes, darted past us. The colours and patterns were amazing – one species sporting iridescent blue spots while another type featuring a tartan pattern of yellow and black. Most were uncannily similar in colour to the surrounding coral, blending slyly into their environment as they hovered. Although there were no really large fish (despite being a National Park where fishing is banned, we suspected the local boats cleaned them out by fishing under cover of darkness) the variety and numbers were impressive and competed squarely with anything we had experienced in some of the best Australian sites.

 

  I
Over the next few days we moved several times to other secluded moorings scattered around the northern most island of the Koh Surins. Most days we snorkelled twice a day, sometimes selecting a new reef to explore and other times revisiting our favourite spots to reacquaint ourselves with the friendly, curious fish.  Interestingly, each location hosted unique variations of coral formations – some favouring colourful beds of clams striped in blues, purples and yellows and others hosting underwater seascapes of fan shaped structures in startling white or forests of cauliflower heads camouflaging hundreds of small, swarming fish. We were particularly amazed at the territorial behaviour of the many fish varieties – and over several days we noted with fascination that many of the fish kept strictly to a particular location, even forming the same patterns as they hovered together above coral outcrops. One day we saw several massive sea slugs half hidden in the sand although one especially ugly creature was on the move, periscoping its way up to higher ground.  We’re not sure if the spring tides coinciding with the full moon had anything to do with this phenomenon! 
     
     
 

 

Another memorable afternoon, as we sedately floated above this underwater cinema, I spotted a one metre long black and white banded sea snake slithering towards us. Although aware that these creatures very seldom bite humans I also know that they are very curious and the thought of this one coming any closer threw me into a momentary panic that no doubt caused a bit of extra fin flapping – enough anyway to warn the snake off for the next time I looked it had disappeared (although I did keep glancing around behind me for the rest of the session in case it was trying to catch me unawares!

 

  Below: The friendly Thai Navy come aboard for a chat

Being so close to the border with Myanmar the Thai Navy had a presence on the Islands. One day a large black inflatable came along side Mandolin Wind and we were introduced to Kong, the commander in charge of the Search and Rescue (SAR) team (so named because, as well as guarding Thai Territory, they spend their time rescuing silly tourists who drift off in the strong tidal currents and can’t make it back to their boats). With halting English Kong was able to make himself understood and he explained that he just wanted to say hello and be friends. We showed them around the boat and spent a very pleasant hour talking to the guys about their jobs and families etc. A few hours later they were back, this time armed with a fresh bag of fish and squid for us.

 

     

Eventually after a week or so, just when we thought that perhaps we really should move on, our friends on the catamaran Braveheart rang to say they were on their way out and did we need any provisions. Needing very little convincing, we elected to stay for a few more days ( which turned into another week ) so we could show them around the best snorkelling spots. Besides, having only seen one other yacht during our entire stay at the Surins, we were starting to tire of our solitude and found ourselves craving the company of other boats – especially friends we could share sundowners with as we gazed at yet another spectacular sunset. Maybe there is such at thing as ‘too much of a good thing’?   

 

 
 
Above: Up she goes   Above: Nearly there - just have to set it
 
 

Eventually it was time to return to the mainland and make our way southward once more. For once, the wind was behind us and we were finally able to enjoy a five hour spinnaker run – that is until the wind built to over 20 knots and, erring on the side of caution, we reluctantly snuffed it.  Braveheart, living up to their name, valiantly persevered for a few more hours but paid the price when they tore their shute getting it down.

 

Left: Judy from Braveheart shows the sailmaker the tear in the spinnaker after returning to Phuket

     
 
     

Still in company with Braveheart we idyll away the days island hopping close to the mainland coast of Northern Thailand. Here we found some pristine, isolated anchorages far off the tourist route that refuelled our enthusiasm and appreciation of the splendour to be found in these magnificent cruising grounds.

 
 
 
The weather continued to cooperate and most nights we were able to retire to the shore for the odd ale/wine and to barbeque our dinner under the fading light of colourful sunsets. In the seven days it took us to return to the northern tip of Phuket we saw no other yachts and best of all no tourist boats or resorts - only the occasional local fisherman.
 
With the southwest wet monsoonal season fast approaching, it was now time to head for the east coast of Phuket and Phang Nga bay. Fortunately we still have 4 weeks left on our Thai visa so there is plenty of time to discover new unspoilt vistas amidst the magnificent limestone formations and unique hongs that are characteristic of this all weather bay.