Sunday, July 11, 2010

First month in Thailand

Siam. A Kingdom. Romantic words conjuring exotic images. Warm and caring people with an intriguing language and script, fascinating and exotic architectural influences and temples. All of these thoughts come to mind on approaching Thailand. Turns out, it is all here! The romantic name for the original land is still used by several organisations, there is still wide-spread reverence for the King (although there was political upheaval in Bangkok and the north of the country for some time) and the Thai are indeed a nation of generally attractive and welcoming people. Wat Chalong (Wat means Temple) provides hours of interested exploring to the tourist whilst simultaneously being used by local Buddhists.

This first month in Thailand has alternately delighted, distressed, restored, exhausted, fascinated, depressed and enraged us as we have done, seen, eaten and experienced an amazing variety of things.

We have been based on and around Phuket Island, on the west coast of Thailand. This island is starting to feel like home: generally using motorbikes/scooters (2-up) we have covered much of the area either in sight-seeing or provisioning trips or general errands (others said we looked like locals one shopping day: Irene’s backpack fully stuffed with shopping including 2 fold-up stools, the legs off which protruded out the top, another huge carry-bag of goods between us, and a boxed fan at Rolf’s feet!) Shopping is invariably a fascinating experience on this island which is busy and vibrant, offering almost any retail or services required (albeit often in buildings that would be on the condemned list in many countries): there are many small supermarkets which are a cut above the haphazard “spaza” shops found in the Seychelles and Maldives and Madagascar, while there are also absolutely huge stores in which one can get anything. Really!! These stores range from one called “Super Cheap” (a huge ramshackle structure covering several acres that houses hundreds of individual merchants and traders in a chaos that lacks any structure or organisation, and with safety issues that are indescribable…. but which has a food court where you can get tasty little pork kebabs for 16 US cents); to a vast Tesco (as one would expect) to Central Festival (very up-market). At every store, the fresh fruit and vegetables on offer are of wonderful quality and beautifully presented (we counted 18 varieties of mushrooms in one display!!). Also wonderful are the sights of local people going about their day...

Generally eating at local venues, we are always happy with the taste and price of the food (local food for about 30-50 Baht, i.e. SA R7-12): the lovely couple below fed us royally at their roadside café, while there are any number of hawkers on bike-trolleys from whom you can buy fruit or a small meal, and there appear to be food venues every hundred metres on every road! Apparently, few locals have kitchens in their homes, as they generally eat on the street and not at home.

The east side of Phuket is non-touristy area, with Phuket town centering the network of incredibly busy and built-up roads. Phuket old town shows off some of the original Sino-Portuguese architecture from the first settlers involved in tin mining. The west side of the island is for the tourists: Patong Beach / Town is the original tourist centre while up and down the coast there is almost no break between the beaches and resort centres, all exploding with the growth in tourism over the last decade. A view over some of the bays on the west coast to whet your appetite…

One of the first things you notice, with alarm, is the electrical reticulation on the island. The electrical cables snake through the sky and on top of buildings and sometimes along the ground in a chaotic mess. The plug sockets are the ones we, in SA, associate with bathroom electrics: i.e. no earthing facility and no switch and of very light construction. With none of the sockets having switches the blue flash jumping from plug to socket as you insert the former, is a reassurance that this socket truly is live and will do its job….! This photo was taken outside the path up to a resort on the beachfront road of Patong. We were delighted to see their support of the Soccer World Cup and hoped that many went to watch the games: when we attended the TV presentation of two SA games at a near-by resort we were the only people there!

In Phuket, we have stayed in two of the four main harbours: Ao Chalong (Ao means bay; here, we anchor and use the dinghy to get to shore) and Boat Lagoon Marina (where we were tied up on a pontoon). Before setting off on our sailing escapade I had a few pictures in my head of what our harbours would look like and offer (apart from the glorious experience of simply arriving at an island/beach/river and simply anchoring there because you can), but I never imagined the range of experience we would have simply in our “home bases”! The sea may be calm/rolly/choppy and clean or polluted, and at a harbour anchorage there are a range of different facilities to tie up your dinghy (onto a rusting steel structure that is the working mechanism of the pontoon or the frame of an industrial size jetty/onto a hook in a barnacled concrete wall/onto a local fishing boat where the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate). So far, we have never been at a harbour which had a proper dinghy jetty.

At a marina, the effect of the tide is significant; the tidal range in Thailand is up to 2 metres. Boat Lagoon Marina is situated in the shallow flats of a mangrove swamp. It has a channel dredged to allow access through the mangroves, then the mangroves were further dredged to provide a marina at the end of the channel. You can only get through the channel at high tide and this process is done very slowly, keeping the seemingly endless winding line of marker poles on your port side, and watching the ever-decreasing numbers on the depth-sounder with disbelief and apprehension and with the knowledge that many boats have grounded here. Monohulls with deep keels have a particularly stressful time of it (some of the deeper keels can only access this marina at high tide, springs – a few days each month). The 2m tidal range is very evident: beautiful lagoon at high tide, exposed mud and rocks and boat keels on the mud at low tide. However, it was great to have electricity and water from the jetty, even though the water-cooled aircons could only be run a few hours around high tide. We had Ketoro hauled out of the water to be put “on the hard” for some boat work …. and were surprised by our sadness to see our home out of the water, like a beached whale!

Island explorations took place after leaving the marina; after our passage to Thailand, we had worked exceptionally hard on the boat and needed a holiday before a happy time with guests on board. Some of the smaller islands around Phuket are a real treat. Phang Nga Bay, east of Phuket, is famous for its limestone islands which soar up from the sea showing magnificent cliff sides greened with an amazing variety of trees and shrubs, home to many birds, including fish eagles.

These islands frequently have their bases undercut by the sea (giving them the shape of mushrooms), creating jutting stone roofs with stalactites forming a fringe around them; a shelter for the fishermen in their long-tail boats when the weather sets in. Looking closely at the base of these islands you find small crevices or caves: and these can, depending on tide, be entered on foot or in a dinghy/canoe. After cautiously navigating these dark tunnels you find yourself in an ancient cave with a 5-layer quartz waterfall, or come out of the blackness into a brilliant, picturesque hong. A hong is a cave where the roof collapsed centuries ago; thus it is entirely enclosed by the mountainous sides of the island and has developed its own plant, bird and insect eco system. (Apparently many of the hongs were first found by pilots during the Second World War.) Just rounding any corner on your dinghy provides a scene of astounding beauty.

Sailing these waters provides challenges in terms of dodging the many fishing nets and, as it turns out, these are also difficult to dodge whilst at anchor: one morning we started to pull up anchor but found a net wrapped around the anchor chain, with the ends of the net behind the boat. The young fishermen below came to the rescue and ended up cutting the line (certainly not an action we would have taken with the net of a local!) They were delighted to receive cigarettes and a plastic “oil skin” jacket for their troubles and we moved off to anchor under the majestic soaring limestone cliffs of Ko (means island) Hong.

This day ended very sadly. On returning to the boat from a dinghy-trip to the beautiful lagoon in the island (about 200m away), we found that she had been boarded, the locked sliding door had been pulled off its rail at one side but offered too small a space to enter, so one of the top hatches had been opened from the outside and we had been robbed. This was a devastating find, but although we had lost a lot they had not found all the computers, nor the satellite communication stuff, nor the wallets, passports etc. Of course, second- and third- back-ups had not been as up-to-date as they should have been (and a back-up hard drive was taken with the computer) so we have no Chagos photos except those on our blog. Not all Thai people are as caring and welcoming as we would wish, and it turns out those fishermen who shelter under the island overhangs are not always hiding from weather…

We are now in Malaysia with John and Wendy Kothe on board. So far, we have shared a lightning tour of Phuket island observing how things happen in this part of the world, many hours of “sailing”: they have had the lot…. Under full sail with no engines and motoring in some absolutely still conditions alternating with uncomfortable hours beating into the sea and 40 knot winds during an exuberant squall. We have gone snorkeling, done some successful tuna fishing (also caught a magnificent sailfish which Irene insisted should be freed by cutting the line….) and a day’s break at a pretty anchorage before arriving here yesterday.

Of course, we have looked after our stomachs with coffee at Patong and wonderful dinners on island beaches (one at a restaurant on Koh Phi Phi and the next day on our “own” beach, watching the sun set), We look forward to a whole lot of new experiences in the weekend we have here before setting off back to Thailand again.