slice-of-thai.com Journal 3/26/99: Beaches and Diving

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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3/26/99

Needless to say, I had had more than enough of Chiang Mai. I went to the train station and boarded an all-day aircon train to Bangkok. The view and the aircon actually worked in the morning—my first, and only, successful experience with aircon transportation in my entire 2.5 month trip. But then as the sun started burning hot, the train's air conditioning failed and we baked and steamed for the last 5 hours. Will I ever learn?

At one point, police and army officials borded the train and started searching through all the unaccounted for baggage and all the baggage owned by asian-looking passengers. We never knew what they were up to but someone guessed it was related to drug smuggling.

I sat next to a jolly Swedish photographer guy who had spent many months in Lao. He travelled from city to city teaching Lao kids for free about photography, leaving behind inexpensive cameras, black and white film, and simple development equipment. He also did this for "troubled youth" at home, and was planning on bringing some of his Swedish photography students to Lao on a multi-month field trip. I think some of his work was funded by grants but mostly he seemed to donate his time and equipment. He described how he would visit a Lao city for many days, frequenting the same restaurants and places, until he began to get "under the skin" of the locals. At this point he would bring out the camera, show them the equipment, and begin to ask if it was ok for him to take photos of them. Compare this with the photo experience I had on my Chiang Mai trek on 3/24; I really hate photographing strangers; I definitely prefer this guy's technique.

That night I stayed in a noisy cubicle room on Khao San road in Bangkok and collected my stored luggage for the south (mask, snorkel, add'l maps).

3/27/99

I booked a sleeper train for a trip to Surat Thani in the south, followed by a bus to the west (Andaman sea) coast of southern Thailand. I then set out to sell many of the books, maps, and other goods I would no longer need (at this point, thanks to my illness, I ruled out going to Malaysia and Singapore). After visiting many bookstores, I worked out that my books sell in the stores for 1700B, but they would only buy them for 500B—nice profit margin!

Over the course of my trip, I made liberal use of the Thai postal system to send back trinkets I bought and stuff I shouldn't have taken. All of my packages arrived intact in California ahead of schedule. I spent a total of about $80.00 on shipping; definitely worth it compared to carrying the stuff.

I wandered through a strange back-alley area near Khao San with tiny houses, restaurants, laundries, and a mosque, from which prayers spewed forth and echoed around the alleys. Some of the restaurants had ripped off signs and tables from a nearby McDonalds, which gave an extra surreal look to the place.

I went to visit Leonard Cohen again for a 30 minute lunch and ended up spending about 1:20 total on the road getting to and from his place! Bangkok traffic is stifling, and also very unpredictable.

At 5pm or so I boarded the sleeper train. Because of my late booking they had only fan-cooled (not air con) sleeper trains, but after my previous experience this seemed like a feature. They separately price upper and lower berths as well. The lower berths have a window and the upper ones do not. I could only get an upper berth. For the first few hours of the trip, the traincar looked like a normal one, with pairs of facing seats and no beds. At the auspicious time, they unlatched and swung down the upper berth bed, and they recombobulated the lower berth seats into a bed. On the train were thin mattresses and pillows with clean sheets and pillowcases. They also pulled down a sort of screen door over the (completely open) lower berth windows to prevent ashes from the myriad fires along the train track from burning sleeping passengers. Despite what I had heard, the upper and lower berths were exactly the same length, which fortunately was one inch longer than me. The lower berths were a bit wider though.

Before bedtime, a large staff of food hockers and train officials came by and offered meals worth 25 B for about 120 B (same as the prices in the food car if you attempt to go there yourself). Later, when we were tired in bed, they came by to collect the tab and insisted the meals actually cost 170 B. Apparently this is typical—I heard endless stories of food-related fraud on the trains, even against Thais. I'd advise bringing your own dinner and breakfast.

The sitting part of the journey was quite nice. The wind through the (open) windows cooled the car nicely, and the space was amenable to conversation. As soon as they converted the space, things changed. Each berth, upper and lower, had its own curtain to block the view from the aisle, and as soon as the lower berth folks started to draw their curtains and go to sleep, the rest of the train car (including the upper berth) transformed into a smelly sauna. The oscillating fans on the top were completely insufficient since there was no fresh or cool air to blow. Boy, can I pick 'em.

Most people didn't bother locking their gear too much, but one guy across from me brought a thick chain and some padlocks with which he secured his bags to immovable objects in the train. He said he had learned to do this while travelling for months in India and he could not help it!

3/28/99

Arriving at around 8am, wet and smelly from a night of non-sleeping, I rushed to find my 4 hour connecting bus to the west coast. Fortunately, most of the others on the bus seemed to be in the same condition, some of them having been on buses from neighboring countries for hours or tens of hours. In retrospect, I probably should have taken a bus all the way from Bangkok: although they are less spacious, and the aircon never works, you save so many hours not having to go through Surat Thani that it's worth it.

Most of the passengers were headed to the tourist beaches of Phuket, which are like Oahu for Hawaii: they're the main, expensive, 100% tourist resort areas of southern Thailand and are nearly devoid of native culture.

I was headed to Khao Lak, a relatively unspoiled beach area north of there. I got off in a little, very hot town called Khok Kloi, and somehow managed to get myself on the right bus and then motorcycle to get to my guesthouse in Khao Lak. In this area, like the northeast, few people spoke any English so I had to readjust to attempting to speak my broken Thai.

I arrived at a tiny place called Poseidon Bungalows, situated 2 kilos from the main road at the edge of a huge rubber tree plantation. There were ten thatch huts hidden under the native trees (unlike most resorts, they didn't chop down trees to make way for concrete aircon bungalows), two beautiful beaches with smooth rocks and beige sand, an estuary leading inland which the occasional Thai family used to get their longtail boats to and from sea, and absolutely nothing else for miles in each direction. Except for the staff house and a small restaurant (also tastefully done in thatch, hanging over one of the beaches) where the food, surprisingly enough, was really good and not any more overpriced than less isolated places in Khao Lak. After Bangkok and my train, bus, and motorcyle rides, I had indeed found paradise. Even though it was scorching in Khok Kloi, a wonderful sea breeze kept the whole area cool. The blue water was the temperature of a warm bath. Occasionally it would sprinkle or sometimes even rain torrentially for a few minutes. You could just ignore it, or, if you were cold, go into the sea!

After a very long, nice nap, I had some lunch. A kitten had just shown up on the premises a few days earlier and kept the guests occupied by sitting in our lap and purring. After Bangkok this place seemed too good to be true.

Later the guesthouse proprietor drove me into town and we booked a 2-day PADI Open Water scuba diving course. I had taken the PADI Open Water classroom part in California already, but decided to do the ocean part in the Andaman rather than the 35 degree Monterey Bay! I was surprised to find that no dive company in the area takes credit cards, even for a 5,500 baht course, and there were no ATM machines to be found. This is because there are no land telephone lines anywhere in the area! There was one resort on Khao Lak beach which cashed traveler's checks, and I made good use of them.

3/29/99

8am-2pm did my dive training. I joined two Germans who had just done the classroom part, on a watermelon-styled beach table right next to the shore. Given the location and the bikini-clad teacher, I really have no idea how they concentrated during their course :) Anyway, we went out on a longtail boat to a reef where we did the required exercises.

While we were underwater exploring the huge reef, the two Thai folks who drove the boat started fishing (gotta love Thailand safety!). To fish, they dropped weighted fishing lines into the water, tied the lines to their big toe, and waited for a tug. One of them was pulling up a fish every two minutes or so.

After the course, but before my ride back to Poseidon, I checked out the main Khao Lak beach. The populated part of the beach is about half a mile long, and there are only about 12 operations total: some big resorts and some guesthouses. This seemed to me to be just the right amount of capitalism.

There were a series of family-run hut restaurants along the beach that served really good food and fruit drinks for reasonable prices. I had a noodle-seafood dish one day and a really amazing prawn in tamararind sauce dish the next day. Fruit and fruit shakes in this place are also surreal, even better than the north.

Unfortunately, this paradise is on its way out. In fact, it's on its way to becoming another Patong Beach, Phuket. The guesthouses are slowly being replaced with luxury resorts and new resorts are arriving as fast as they can cut down the trees. The hut restaurant owners are actually squatters, and the monster resort that owns their land is about to knock them down, pave the area, and install concrete aircon bungalows.

The local dive shops have been circulating a petition for signatures to stop the destruction of the restaurants. The dive shops, run by foreigners, originated the petition at the town's request because they are the only ones with laser printers. But once they printed the things, nobody—not even the restaurant owners—wanted to post them in their stores because, well, that's not the Thai way. That would be rocking the boat! Instead the dive shops are receiving scorn for intefering! I also noticed large shanties next to each construction site. I suppose there is also pressure from local construction workers not to slow down "development."

Relaxed on the beach at Poseidon for another amazing sunset.

3/30/99

8am-2pm finished my dive certification with a German dive instructor named 'Guy' who must have been 6'10". I'll bet he had a fun time finding a body suit. We went out with another paying dive group to a neato wreck a mile or two off shore. While doing my instruction I saw two leapord sharks and enormous schools of very cool, colorful fish. Not bad!

Now I was ready to do the thing I had wanted to do since November 1998—dive in the Similan islands, a national park island group several hours off shore. I looked at the options and decided to splurge for a 3-day trip on the absolutely most expensive option available: the Scuba Cat, an enormous catamaran dive platform with a sundeck and aircon cabins! After figuring out how to get 18,450 B in cash ($500 for boat, equipment, and food, still a bargain by world standards), I booked this trip.

3/31/99

A Poseidon person drove me to the pier where I met a transfer boat to take us out to the Similans (the Scuba Cat is so enormous that it just stays out there). The Scuba Cat's transfer boat was bigger than the main (only) boat for most of the other Similan dive operations! Meeting the other passengers, it took me a bit to recalibrate to the air-con first-class traveling set. To them, there was simply no place to go other than Phuket's tourist beaches, but I think I managed to get through to some of them that there wasn't a whole lot of Thai culture there. There were even two silicon valley types on the boat. One of them told me all about the "Thai massage" he got, where they included the bubble bath for free. Wouldn't you know it, he was in sales.

Our transfer boat passed by huge fishing boats that operate in pairs, dragging enormous fishing nets through the water and catching everything in their path. After three or four hours, we reached the national park (where the fishing boats are supposedly not allowed). Only long-tail boats, many spewing black smoke from their engines-on-a-stick, occupied these waters.

We arrived at the Scuba Cat.

http://www.scubacat.com/mvsctechnical.htm

An enormous catamaran with two engines, a huge freshwater supply, aircon cabins, a kitchen, indoor and outdoor eating area, TV/VCR, stereo, three bathrooms with shower and flush sit toilet, shade and nonshade sundeck, and electric compressors, tanks and equipment for up to 25 divers, this was definitely not roughing it. We had only about 12 divers so it was very comfortable indeed. There was always some place quiet and cool to go. The cook served American breakfasts and excellent Thai lunches and dinners. A majority of the passengers were native German speakers but most people could speak enough English for interesting conversation.

The divemasters followed a practiced and regimented procedure to file us off the transfer boat, past the shoe box (no shoes allowed on the Scuba Cat!), to room assignment, and to get our gear. I think all the other divers were advanced open water divers. I had not even done a single dive without an instructor, so I found the first dive (one hour after we stepped on board) to be overwhelming. The three divemasters did not seem to be used to inexperienced divers (which is strange because they offer dive instruction on the Scuba Cat), and coupled with the fact that they assigned me a dive buddy who didn't care about the buddy system and kept swimming away from me, it was a very frustrating first dive. But eventually I got the procedure, and my dive buddy, under control and I could actually start looking at the fish and coral for more than 10% of the time.

The Scuba Cat offered an unbelievable schedule of 5 dives per day (one night dive). Before each dive the divemasters gave a detailed briefing of depths, features to look for, and safety hazards. We dived in buddy teams but for the general route we followed our divemasters. Between each dive, as the boat motored to the next island, there was just enough time to eat, have a nice nap on the sundeck, and gear up again. What a life!

The ship was entirely crewed by teenage Thais, the same demographic who drives the tuk tuks in Bangkok. This scared me a bit, but things seemed to work out. I had almost managed to convince myself that this boat must be well-maintained with up-to-date spare parts and procedures when I passed by the engine room and heard a crew member going at some part on their grinding wheel. Oh well, Thai business as usual. One of the crew members was deaf, and although he didn't use an international sign language, he could use signs and expressions to get his point across with amazing detail. It was very cool.

There were three divemasters, a German whose name I never caught, a Scotsman (I think) named Richard, and an American dive instructor named Rich. The German guy, though strict and inflexible on the rules, seemed to be enjoying himself much more than the other two. Rich and Richard never seemed to be happy. I think maybe they were burnt out since it was late in the season. It's hard to imagine getting tired of diving in the Similans but I guess it's possible.

Every minute of every day on this boat, there was a postcard view in every direction. It would have been a cool trip even if I didn't get off the boat. We dove in massive areas of shining turquoise water next to tiny, unspoilt islands with white sand, smooth limestone rocks, and a topping of green trees. The cool coral and fish was rarely deeper than 28m, usually more like 18m. Visibility was on the order of 30m!

For some of the dives I elected to snorkel instead and I saw nearly as much cool stuff. For anyone who comes to the area and doesn't want to or can't afford to dive, I would definitely recommend multi-day snorkeling trips. There were some 3-day snorkeling-only trips out of Khao Lak for around 4900 B ($135, http://www.similantour.nu/similan.html).

The diving itself was quite amazing. Corals were not quite as colorful and varied as I saw while snorkeling in Fiji last year, but there were zillions more fish. I saw some reef whitetip sharks, a black and white sea snake (nice and deadly, but not interested in me), lots of cool christmas tree worms, some amazingly large fan corals, some weirdo hammerhead-type fish (not sharks), and endless other species. They had some nice fish/coral ID books in the lounge but by now I've forgotten all the names :)

The sunsets in this area also defied belief.

The first night, I was feeling a bit off from the whirlwind introduction to diving, but that soon passed as I sat on the bow watching the sunset.

4/1/99

Did four dives and one snorkel today. Most excellent.

We were moored near another, smaller boat which was completely packed with 35 people! All the deck space was taken and we wondered where they would sleep. Longtail boats, captained by pitch-black rastafarian-looking southen Thais with dreadlocks, took the passengers between the boat and some other place, perhaps tents on the shore. Apparently the ship's normal dinghys were in for repair so they had to rent out the longtails!

4/2/99

Did some more dives. Today, as happens each year near the start of April in the Similans, there was a massive jellyfish bloom around all the islands we visited. Some of the spaces in which we dove contained tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of little inverted-teacup jellyfish with stinging tentacles between 2" and 8" long. They were quite beautiful, but as soon as you get close enough to see jellyfish details, you want to get away from them! They were little guys so the sting was not bad, but the cumulative effect was definitely not pleasant: try to imagine a multi-swimming-pool sized area completely packed with jellyfish, with perhaps one or two inches max space between each jellyfish. It also did not help that the dive boat provided only shorties (thin wetsuits cut off at the upper arm and upper thigh).

A normal and required part of the dive procedure is to make a 3 minute safety stop at 5 meters depth before surfacing. For some of our dives, the jellies completely occupied this depth, and so we had to wait there helpless for 3 minutes as the little dorks stung us left and right. Some of us gained back some pleasure by firing at the jellyfish with our spare second stage, which made a pleasant explosive sound in the water and sent a jelly soaring upwards with the bubbles, but ultimately it was impossible to avoid getting stung. Fortunately, the boat had a plentiful supply of vinegar, which deactivates the jelly's stingers.

I think there is a basic law of conservation of pests. In the Similans, there are no mosquitos, bees, horseflies or tuk tuk drivers, so nature provided the jellies to keep things balanced.

Obviously I'd recommend for people to dive in this area earlier to avoid the jellyfish bloom. I also went snorkeling and it was only moderately easier to avoid the jellys (they hang out on the surface too), so come earlier even for snorkling. The best months are December or January (the weather on land is better then too). Some people dive during the plankton and jellyfish blooms of March/April on purpose, because these blooms bring in more sharks and other larger sealife.

But I still think I did pretty well. Including certification, I had done 12 dives over the last five days and seen countless species I had never seen before.

We collected our shoes and supplies and boarded the four hour transfer boat back to shore. On the way back, we saw many flying fish, soaring a few inches above the water for tens of seconds to avoid being eaten.

While we were in the sunny Similans, it had been raining torrentially for many hours a day on the mainland. In fact, there have been unseasonable and inexplicable rains in Thailand all throughout April. Normally, April is the hottest month of the hot, dry season. Still, it was no big deal at Poseidon because there are always warm tropical waters nearby :)

4/3/99

Did absolutely nothing except walk/sleep on beaches and eat. It was wonderful.

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