Thursday, 19 April 2007

Happenings 2007 Number 10

Thailand Glimpses &

India’s Andaman Islands

We’d been told that India’s Andaman Islands, isolated in the Bay of Bengal some 400+ nautical miles N/W from Phuket, enjoyed a reputation for world-class beaches, coral and fishing, so with our ‘Rally’ cruising companions ‘Court Jester’ and ‘Jaraman’, we decided to see for ourselves.

Getting entry Visas in our Passports via post from the Indian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur was a week-long exercise that took a very, very frustrating 34 days as we waited their return in Langkawi, and which messed up our plan to spend New Year’s Eve in Thailand where, at Phuket’s Patong Beach, an awesome spectacle unfolds as thousands of balloon candles are released to slowly float skywards commemorating those lost in the 2004 Tsunami. Incidentally, the Passports/Visas finally returned on 8th January and, chomping at the bit, we cleared Customs ‘Out’ of Malaysia that same day.

Meanwhile, for those of you who wonder about the effects to this hard hit region, allow me a few words about that terrible event, partially quoting here from a Tsunami article I read. “It arrived unstoppable and unannounced just after 10:00 a.m. on Boxing Day when a series of ocean surges thrashed the west coasts of Malaysia and Thailand. About an hour earlier, one of the largest ocean-floor earthquakes ever recorded, off Sumatra’s N/W coast, shunted up over a thousand kilometres of fault line, dislodging billions of cubic tons of seawater at the surface”.

“This displaced energy sent a swift silent pulse through the deeper water that, at sea, went completely unnoticed, moving faster than a commercial aircraft. Approaching the coastline the swell crests slowed, drawing in unprecedented water volumes from the tidal shores; the ocean waters receded hundreds of metres out, then a few minutes later the boiling sea returned and just kept on coming and, within an hour miles and miles of ocean advanced ashore, getting deeper and more powerful as it spilled over the land.”

There were varying amounts of Tsunami destruction along the west coasts of Malaysia, Thailand and in the Andamans, but most of the structural damage has now been repaired, the remaining evidence being some scarred beaches where severe sand and soil erosion has left huge trees with their artistic skeletal root systems lying dead at the water’s edge. At least one entire Marina complex was washed off the top of its piles with all the boats still tied to their mooring fingers - a huge swirling, crushing ‘washing machine’ effect, with many boats lost as the three successive tidal waves raged their powerful havoc surging in and out through the narrow marina Foreshore Tsunami damage – Andaman Island entrance.

The following two seasons, 2005/6 saw mostly empty resorts and deserted beaches throughout Thailand and Malaysia’s affected areas, but the magnetism of Phuket’s superb beaches and Phang Nga (pronounced Fang Nar) Bay’s fame and appeal as a world-class holiday destination - with its more than 100 islands and spectacular karst outcrops - has seen tourist numbers booming back again this year, most of whom come from Europe.

Thailand’s southern Islands lie only a short distance north of Langkawi, Malaysia, so our first stop was a visit to Koh Lipe, the only inhabited island in the Butang group, a casual 25 nm sail away. Lipe Island is inexpensive and very scenic with clear water and white sand beaches, in perpetual holiday mode, since it is a popular haven for Backpackers and has a reasonably rare, large Sea Gypsy village, where these fishermen and their families live their entire lives on the water. The anchorage was deep at 70ft (23 mtrs) with little swinging room between the boats, so we stayed only overnight, keen to make up lost time.

Timing our month’s visit to the Andaman Islands during January/February, while the N/E monsoon season still prevailed was paramount, so we spent just two weeks cruising southern Thailand, with short overnight stops at Rok Nok (island), and Maya Bay at Phi Phi Le (island) enroute to Phuket. Maya Bay was the location for the 1999 blockbuster cult film “The Beach” and is a spectacularly scenic lagoon, surrounded by soaring limestone cliffs, and harbours three sandy beaches. Scores of passenger ferries and fast noisy speed-boats start arriving around 10am ever day and disgorge tourists in their thousands until around 4pm when it finally quietens down for the night. Peace - perfect peace at last!

The next day we sailed up to Ao Chalong (bay) at the bottom of Phuket Island, where we cleared ‘In’ to Thailand, and enjoyed the culinary tastes of Thai food at the inexpensive shoreline restaurants of this very touristy village. Here we caught up with our Pacific cruising friends off ‘Crystal Blues’ at the Lighthouse Restaurant, who shared their local cruising experience with us.

Much to Chalong’s credit however is its open-air Sunday market – by far the biggest and best we’ve yet seen, with a simply superb array of the fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, seafood and poultry at very reasonable prices; it’s so popular and jam-packed full, with barely standing room around some stalls and crowded laneways, seemed like a pick-pocket’s paradise to us – though we’re not aware of any cases.

‘Envy’ then enjoyed visiting a few of Phang Nga Bay’s more popular islands with their sheer cliffs towering above caves, caverns and open ‘hongs’ (enclosed roofless hollows) with their walls of interstitial limestone, that are a feature of this geologically karst area. It was a great experience to dinghy into these large ‘open rooms’ through a cave-like entrance and marvel at nature’s handicraft within.

Each morning local fishermen would come by the boat to sell us freshly caught prawns and fish, so we ate several meals of beautiful big prawns, but gone are the days of bargain price seafood in this touristy area.

But we were keen to depart for distant shores so after quick one day visits to Koh (island) Yao Yai, Koh Hong, Koh Roi, Koh Chong Lat and Koh Wa Yai, we returned to Chalong Bay to top up diesel and water, clear Customs ‘Out’, and in company with fellow Australians ‘Court Jester’ and ‘Jaraman’ we departed Phuket’s Nai Harn Bay on 24 January bound for Koh Miang in the Similan Islands group some 60 nm distant, where we overnighted, being the first leg of our 420nm Andaman Sea crossing.

We departed the Similans next morning for the non-stop 3 day passage to the Andamans, running wing-to-wing before a light N/E breeze which freshened to 20kts throughout the night, giving us good sailing. Next morning we had dolphins at the bow and lots of startled Flying Fish doing their 100 mtr dashes, but no seabirds whatsoever. There were also many areas of tidal races and overfalls where strong surface currents converge in a whirlpool effect making the sea mildly rough and very confused.

Then just after daybreak on our fourth morning out from Koh Miang, having sighted only one ship enroute, the hazy hills of South Andaman Island climbed up over the horizon to reveal the solitary beam of the Port Blair Lighthouse, beckoning us onwards to our next cultural adventure – a step back in time - welcome to Port Blair, principal town and entry port of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Andamans are very bureaucratic and even the simplest thing requires reams of paperwork with multiple carbon-paper copies. We were lucky to have taken only two days to ‘clear in’, some yachts take up to a week, and India allows only a 30 day visit. Security is a big issue here. All visiting yachts are inspected by the Navy when clearing in, have to submit their planned cruising itinerary for approval, and are required to report their location twice daily. We were occasionally overflown by naval coastguard helicopters verifying our locations.

This is not a general tourist destination, with few tourists and fewer yachts, and the Nicobar Islands to their south are closed to all but a few Indian nationals, supposedly to protect the culture and lifestyle of some primitive hunter–gatherer tribes said to still exist there in relative isolation.

The Andamans comprise literally hundreds of uninhabited islands, most of which are quite hilly and heavily wooded, with some magnificently pristine beaches, a live volcano and supposedly some of the best diving and fishing in the world, though on this latter score we were sadly disappointed. The Andamans were badly hit by the Tsunami, with many deaths in some parts. The maritime landscape was mostly hazy during our month-long visit which somewhat took the shine off it all (if you’ll forgive the pun), but being ashore opened up a whole new world full of fascinating experiences.

Port Blair is a quaint, dirty, crowded and friendly Indian town that looks as though it has been ripped out of the colonial 1930’s and dropped into the 21st century. Both vehicular and pedestrian traffic is chaotic, mangy dogs and goats scrounge food amongst filthy rubbish that litters the narrow streets and (holy Hindu) cattle rule supreme as they stroll along and across the busy roads oblivious to traffic and people alike.

There’s no way you’ll buy a beef steak anywhere in the Andamans! However, food was cheap, especially eggs and green vegetables at the market, but finding unsweetened ‘normal’ bread was a challenge; clothing was also very inexpensive and 1000 Rupees (A$ 32) seemed to stretch forever.

The market centre of Port Blair is known as Aberdeen Bazaar, a bustling kaleidoscope of movement, colour, smells, sights and sounds, where women in bright saris contrast paupers in rags and blend in with the colourful small shophouses whose wares spill out upon the narrow broken footpaths, upon which tradesmen sit cross-legged bent over their work. New Indian-made 1950’s Austin taxis and three-wheel Tuk Tuk’s, all painted in their ‘hornet livery’ of black and gold, race busily around adding further ambience to the cluttered street-scene. Whilst the fishing and coral were below expectations, we thoroughly enjoyed the people and their culture.

Back in his heyday we think ‘Slim’ Dusty must have visited the Andamans. In his immortal classic he complains having ‘trudged 50 flaming miles to a pub with no beer’ – well, we sailed 400 miles to a pub with no beer! We were astounded when lunching at Port Blair’s flashy up-market Bay Island Hotel to learn they had run out of beer, and subsequently discovered that the entire country was ‘dry’ since the supply ship from Mumbai (Bombay) was long overdue. Thankfully we three yachts all carried sufficient ‘ship’s stores’ to be unaffected by this otherwise most serious dilemma.

So we set off to discover the islands. Our 3 boat flotilla loitered slowly southwards to explore the spectacular beaches of the Cinque Islands, 35 nm from Port Blair, stopping over along the way at Chiriyatapu with its heavily eroded timber foreshores (which we named Tsunami Bay), then on to Rutland Island’s Wood-Mason Bay with its turquoise anchorage and wide sandy beach where we all took our deck chairs ashore to luxuriate in its splendour, enjoying another beach BBQ of prawns, freshly caught fish and hot home-baked bread, while playing Petanque on the beach with our steel boules.

A couple of days were spent at very picturesque anchorages at South Cinque and Middle Cinque Islands where you could watch the anchor hitting the sand in this ‘Gin clear’ water, then go ashore and see spotted deer and monitor lizards. Meanwhile John off ‘Jaraman’ speared a nice big Parrot Fish which necessitated another beach BBQ ashore.

With much to see in our short month, we kept moving and headed back northwards to Havelock Island which some travel mags claim has the 7th best beach in the world, with tropical shade down to the beach, along which a mahout walks his elephant each afternoon.

Next day we visited the main village on Havelock Island, about 7km inland from our anchorage. It was only a few hundred metres long with small modest shops, crudely built, lining the narrow bitumen strip, but plenty of commercial activity by the locals and the 20 or so back-packers, mostly young Israeli girls who have somehow discovered this remote location. While here we were all visited on our yachts by the Police looking for Martin, a German backpacker missing for some weeks; he was the ‘talk of the island’, with locals suggesting foul play and a drugs connection? (Weeks later we heard he was still missing).

Overnight stops were made at John Lawrence Island where different Police approached us still looking for mysterious Martin, then on to Henry Lawrence Island (have no idea who the Lawrence’s were) where Bruce celebrated his 63rd birthday catching a large Spotted Trevally trolling the nearby reef at our creek-mouth anchorage. No fish beats freshly caught and cooked fish – it was superb eating!

The weather continues very hot and humid as it has for months - which is the dry season ‘norm’ here in the tropics- with a daily swimming ritual giving only temporary relief. Our cabin fans run all night long, the only aid to a good night’s sleep.

On St Valentine’s Day ‘Envy’ motored northward in windless conditions to tiny Middle Button Island, noted for its idyllic deserted beaches and stunning underwater life, and we thought it the best coral seen so far. But the anchorage was unprotected so we continued on to Guitar Island, which was not on our approved travel itinerary, but looked a better spot, and where we were deluged with a heavy tropical downpour that evening. Sure enough the following afternoon a boat approached us from which an army officer told us it was an out-of-bounds area, so next morning our flotilla moved on up to Rangat Bay.

We took two Tuk Tuk’s the 8km into Rangat town, another impoverished typical Indian village where we needed to replenish our Rupees and have lunch. We saw no other westerners here, and by the attention we attracted, seems tourists could be a rare commodity. The six of us walked up and down the main street checking it out but the rough dirt-floored cafes looked decidedly uninviting and since we then discovered there are no ATM’s outside Port Blair and the two tiny local Banks would not cash US dollars, our appetites quickly vanished.

Upon returning to the anchorage we were dismayed to see the low tide had left our dinghies stranded on the filthiest, soft mudflats imaginable littered with wood, metal and plastic trash; but a score of young locals came to our aid and, amid beaming smiles and peals of laughter, helped carry the dinghies, while sinking in slimy mud up to our knees, the slow 150 metres out to the waters edge. No cut feet – amazing!

It was time to start returning southwards so we sailed down the 15 nm to explore Homfray Strait, a 10 nm narrow passage separating Middle Andaman and Barantang Islands, and whose depths were not marked on any of our charts. The entrance started at a scary, shallow 4 metres deep - our draft is 2 mtrs, but we ever-so-slowly nosed onwards to happily discover it got deeper all the way, with the narrow waterway dwarfed by the towering jungle trees on either bank. However, we were baulked by overhead power lines 5nm in, so retraced our steps, only to later discover there is mast height clearance below them and we missed out on discovering the scenic north western Andamans, an area very rarely visited by other than the locals. Maybe next year.

We all continued to dawdle southwards with return stops at Henry Lawrence (more fish) and Havelock Islands, and the following day got enough breeze for a change to sail into Port Blair. Three days were spent here soaking up the culture, and a taste at last of Indian ‘Kingfisher’ beer; we took the 500 mtr ferry ride across to visit tiny Ross Island, the original British administrational settlement in the Andamans, and marvelled at the size and complexity of the original brick buildings, though now in ruins and partially overgrown.

Our last night in town found us at the old Cellular Prison in Port Blair where a Light and Sound Show traced the prisons history, again a huge complex (circa-1910) catering for long term prisoners from the mainland. We then walked the short distance back to and around Aberdeen Bazaar, the 8pm night-scape buzzing with light, colour and sound with all shops open and people everywhere blocking both footpaths and roadway, as busy as daytime, as the crowd went about their business, whatever that may be.

So our all too short visit was over, and the next morning saw the three yachts depart India’s Andaman Islands on February 24, sailing in 15kts of breeze at the start our the 346 nm return passage to Thailand’s North Similan Island. As usual the breeze faded away and we motored in fine and sunny skies for most of the 3 day passage back, sighting five ships during the 72 hour trip, averaging 4.9 knots.

Anchored in ‘Donald Duck’ Bay – there’s a large natural rock ashore whose profile is so like Donald D, complete with duck bill, hence the nickname – we dined ashore that evening in a beach restaurant, enjoying a good meal of prawns, fried rice and beer for A$5 p/head. We departed North Similan Island in total darkness just before 3am next morning for our final 68 nm run back to Phuket, where we cleared Customs back ‘in’ to Thailand the following morning, happy to be back, but full of great memories to recall of our Andaman’s cultural experience.