Monday, 12 April 2010

Happenings 2010 Number 17

Thailand Revisited

2010 – A new year and a new decade - seems like only yesterday since the new millennium began! And on reflection, I can’t help but recall the wisdom and truth of the sobering old adage;

“Time’s a precious thing, and the Years teach much that the Days never knew”

We left you last at Happenings -16 as ‘Envy’ departed Langkawi, Malaysia mid December 2009 for a three months’ return visit to Phuket Island, Thailand.

It’s around 135 nautical miles (250 km) up to Phuket and we sailed it in four easy day-hops through southern Thailand’s numerous inshore islands, anchoring each afternoon in shallow sheltered bays. During the passage Envy’s water lock exhaust (‘pong box’) cracked and sprung a leak which we discovered by chance just as the bilge was about to flood the engine room floor with seawater, and managed to effect temporary repairs under way.

After ‘Clearing’ Thai Customs and Immigration we purchased a new ‘pong box’ and moved to a more sheltered anchorage at nearby Panwa Bali Beach. But all of a sudden things went terribly wrong. The following day, a week before Christmas, while trying to fit the new ‘pong box’ at anchor, Bruce accidentally broke off a thru-hull ball valve beneath an un-braced strainer in the engine room and sea water was flooding into the boat like a Kiwi geyser. Pretty scary stuff!

Broken thru-hull strainer valve
Fortunately our long-term cruising friends, Trevor and Joan Long, (‘Been-a-Long’) were anchored beside us and, as I sat there like the little Dutch boy covering the hole with my hands, Audrey summoned Trevor’s help and, after what seemed like hours, we managed to smother the opening with quick drying marine putty, after which Bruce dived under the hull and jammed a wooden bung into the inlet hole. The heartbeat rate was fairly racing there for a while - I’ll give you the drum!

New red 'pong box' and strainer bracket
We were able to motor-sail in strong headwinds to Boat Lagoon Marina, midway up Phuket’s east coast, where “Envy” was hauled out into a cradle on the hardstand, and where this and several other repair and installation jobs were arranged with local professionals over the following few weeks.

Fortunately we had both Air Conditioning and our electric Engel Fridge/Freezer to provide some respite to the horrors of living in a boat on the hard in tropical heat, accessed only by a ladder.

Meanwhile we hired a Suzuki Jeep for three weeks and joined 28 yachtie friends for a Beach BBQ lunch on Christmas Day at the foreshore of a National Park overlooking the turquoise waters of pretty Nai Yang Bay on the NW side of Phuket. So all was not lost, and we thoroughly enjoyed a Christmas with a difference plus all the excitement of Secret Santa with gift wrapped ‘Treasures from the Bilge’.  A telephone call home by both of us to our respective celebrating families added to that special feeling of Christmas.

Christmas Day BBQ and Secret Santa

Once Christmas was over it was ‘full on’ with an array of boatyard professionals working on ‘Envy’ including marine engineers, stainless steel fabricators, and various tradesmen doing new canvass work, fibreglass repairs, a carpenter making teak shelving, marine electrician, a yacht rigger and hull antifouling painters and polishers who, together with yours truly, spent one month to the day getting the boat back into shape.

Meanwhile our rented Suzuki jeep was put to good use as we made the most of non-work days to explore further afield. We treated ourselves to an outing on New Year’s Day driving 80km north to visit, lunch and indulge both culture and scenery of the small inland provincial town of Phang Nga, (”Fang Nar”) from which Phang Nga Bay, the area’s famous aquatic playground derives its name.

Bruce and and new Thai friend!
The generally flat topography is dotted with steep karst limestone outcrops, like giant needles rising several hundred feet above the ground, for which the province and its namesake bay are most famous. This small town is also somewhat unique in that it stretches for nearly four kilometres along either side of the main road, but mostly only one block deep, and with a jumbled up mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings all together – most unusual for a smallish town.

Other motoring outings took us sightseeing along Phuket’s scenic west coast, with its bays of clear sparkling water and splendid white sand. Nov-March is the tourist ‘high season’ here with the prevailing dry NE monsoon providing (cooler) hot days with almost no rain.

Beach BBQs - always delightful
Green Prawns - always good value

What a joyous feeling to splash back into the water off ‘the hard’ in mid January, and even better still to finally depart the marina a few days later and be back at sea swinging on the anchor once more.

Australia Day was a real hoot; Australian flags, decorations and ‘boxing kangaroos’ fluttering in the gentle breeze in southern Phuket’s popular Nai Harn Bay as more than twenty Aussie yachts, including some newer arrivals we’d not met before, gathered on a large catamaran to celebrate the day in true style with a BBQ on board, with all things ‘Aussie’ including singing and bush verse. A great fun day – the stuff memories are made of.
Australia Day with 28 'True Blue' yachties
We wasted little time getting back into cruising mode and set our sights on sailing up Phuket’s scenic west coast, comprising bay after bay of excellent white sandy beaches and endless high-rise holiday accommodation, patronised predominantly by older central and northern Europeans, especially Scandinavians, who lounge about in their thousands on plastic deck chairs, many women topless, as they fry their milky-white arctic skins under the tropical sun.

Sun worshippers -  Patong Beach

Pad Thai Noodles with Seafood - a favourite at $2

So we sat at anchor out front of the sandy beaches of Nai Harn, Kata, Patong, Surin, Bang Tao and Nai Yang, spending time with friends, swimming and reading, eating ashore at cheap beach cafes (whose meal prices were about one quarter of Oz costs), and catching up with our ‘Happenings’ reports and emails.

An interesting anomaly relating to the 2004 Tsunami is that Phuket’s Surin Beach had barely a 2 metre surf wave while similar beaches either side of it and indeed all beaches up and down the west coast suffered huge waves causing extensive damage and much loss of life.

Having been right up to the Myanmar (Burmese) border in previous seasons, this is as far north as we went before returning southwards back into Phang Nga Bay for a month cruising there.

To the east of Phuket is picturesque Phang Nga Bay with its many sheer-sided sea mountains of karst limestone that rise vertically out of the bay, providing stunning scenery, occasionally used for motion picture locations.

Karst Limestone Outcrops - Phang Nga Bay

There are numerous quiet Bays like this

These great sailing grounds are home to many individual fishermen who net the shallow waters of the northern bay and regularly stop by in their small ‘long-tail’ boats to offer fresh green prawns, fish and crabs, often finding a willing prawn buyer in us. One young fisherman – who spoke little English - took me to his village, Laemsak, and then on his motorbike for 13km to the supermarket.

We ran out of petrol enroute and a passing friend, on his motorbike, “foot” pushed us three km to get fuel. Upon return to Laemsak village the tide was out, so he summoned several locals to drag his boat through the mud to the water, and I paid him generously for his kindness.

200 metre push along mud into the water
Fisherman loading their pots

Heading out to set the pots
 Three unchartered small rivers drain into northern Phang Nga Bay and the good ship ‘Envy’ carefully explored one of them, the Marui River, for a few miles upstream, eyes glued to the Depth Sounder as we cautiously zigzagged our way searching for navigable depths in the mangrove lined channels of murky brown water.

We anchored beside a mid-stream ‘postage stamp’ sized rocky outcrop where “Wilma’s Place”, a recently abandoned food kiosk nestled on the rocks in the middle of nowhere, piqued our imagination as to the commercial feasibility of its location in the first place – there’s no habitation within sight! At dusk ‘Envy’ hosted the entire local mosquito population, but fortunately 4 smoking ‘mozzie’ coils held them in check. One night was enough to whet our explorer’s appetites – we departed the next day!

Audrey and I have again enjoyed this part of the world, pretty much planning our travels to avoid previously visited haunts in favour of discovering places new to us. We particularly enjoyed our first visit to the Krabi area in the Bay’s northeast, which is both pretty and touristy, and boasts some of the most spectacular karst limestone of the area.

Abandoned 'Wilmas' Restaurant

Eroded Limestone cliffs - Krabi Coast
Our next interesting stop was at Ko Yao Yai (South Yao Island) where Bruce, ever the explorer, went ashore to check out Ban Lam Lan, a tiny isolated Muslim fishing village where very few westerners would venture. Everyone was just so friendly and wanted to know all about this ‘Farang’ (foreigner), so, aided by my Thai-English phrase book, there was much laughter and ‘carrying-on’.

Ban Lam Lan Muslin Village
Local Storekeeper with my Phrase book

Enroute back to Langkawi we again visited the “Emerald Cave” on Muk Island, the must-see highlight of the region. The entrance is an 80-metre pitch dark winding passageway, with just enough headroom and width for a small dinghy to paddle in, and the reverberating sound of booming seawater resonating in ones ears likened it to a spooky ‘Disneyland’ ride.

This dark passageway leads to a completely enclosed circular, cathedral-like Hong (room), with a diameter of 60 metres, open to the sky. The high, sheer walls are draped in lush foliage above a tiny patch of silica sand beach and an ethereal glow makes it seem as if you were encased inside an emerald, looking out. It’s an awesome experience, never to be forgotten!

Inside the Emerald Cave Hong
The main fishing village on the relatively small island of Ko Muk, which was swept away by the tsunami, has been rebuilt with foreign aid. The 130 new dwellings are a vast improvement over their modest pre-tsunami homes. The complex sits on concrete pillars over tidal mudflats that are exposed at low tide; all houses are inter-connected with walkways and incorporate a septic waste system which few enjoyed previously. Not the most salubrious location but at least there’s no grass to mow!

Rebuilt housing - Koh Muk fishing village

School children on Koh Muk

There is a tourist resort at the bottom end of Koh Muk, with a restaurant nestled into the headland, providing wonderful elevated views overlooking the beach and bay; it has long been a favourite of ours so we made a point of savouring it one last time to enjoy ‘Sundowners’ at sunset followed by an excellent seafood dinner.

Million dollar view - and a one dollar floor!

Sundowners at Sunset from the same position

And a great farewell to Thailand

Having accumulatively spent several months during our Thai cruising these past three years, there is not much of Thailand’s popular cruising grounds – from Malaysia to Myanmar - that’s accessible and/or of interest to us - which we’ve now not seen.

Our 90 day visa to Thailand expired mid March when we departed Phuket and made a leisurely return to ‘home base’ in Langkawi over the following 10 days.

‘Envy’ now lies in Rebak Marina being prepared for our participation in ‘The Rally to the East’ at the end of April, destination North Borneo.

We have made the decision to abort our Philippines cruising plans and sail ‘Envy” back to OZ a couple of years earlier, and hopefully to arrive in Brisbane by the end of this year; it’s far more difficult returning southwards and we need to wait for more appropriate seasonal conditions later in the year.

We are still researching the most favourable route, either backtracking through Indonesia or returning over the top of Papua New Guinea. We’ll keep you posted.

Bruce and Audrey
April 2010