Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Picture-perfect Phang-Nga Bay

Between Phuket Island and the Thailand mainland lies Phang Nga Bay, an extensive section of which is Marine National Park. It is an exceptionally beautiful area, with karst mountain island structures, limestone cliffs with caves, collapsed-roof cave systems (which form “hongs”, Thai for “room”) and archaeological sites.

It is a shallow bay with over 40 islands and many mangrove species. We read (Wikipedia) that just 10 000 years ago, when sea levels were lower, one could walk from Phuket to Krabi…. but now you get around on this section of the Andaman Sea by boat.

So, of course, if you a) have a boat and b) have time on your hands and c) are in Phuket… well, it’s a no-brainer, really! We have been in and out of the bay often, shared it with family and friends who have loved it, but now it was time for a tour, seeing old favourites and venturing into less travelled territories. This was our route:
Here is a (mostly) pictorial account of this very picturesque bay, as we enjoyed it. (Stop numbers are given for the route. One or two stops are not pictured here, where they have been covered in previous blogs.)

Ko Phanak (stops 2,6)
Convoluted lagoon in the north: a great place for a sundowner dinghy ride.
We have often put in stories and photos of the wonderful Phanak hongs and caves; another feature, as on many of the islands, is cliffs that have been eroded away at the base, leaving wonderful shady overhangs with huge stalactites still dripping slowly as they grow.
The view north from Phanak, whilst cooling off under the boat.
Now it was time to head north, further into the bay.

Ko Daeng (stop 3)

Given that the bay was walkable not so long ago, it is of course very shallow. This has implications for boats, if the crew do not want to become landlubbers, inadvertently! So, the further north you venture, the shallower it becomes and the slower you go. There are some channels but in the end, you must simply be cautious… and read and interpret the tide tables carefully, watch the depth and be sceptical of the navigation charts.
Heading north to Ko Daeng.
Anchored under stunning Ko Daeng cliffs.
From our anchorage, our dinghy ferried us around in our explorations...
Up tributaries in the mangroves: only at high tide, or risk getting stranded!
To tiny beaches (where there always seems to be salvage…)
… a fallen tree to shelter us from the rain.
Sights and sounds of the bay: 
Quiet solitude in a misty cool dawn.
But early fishermen on their longtails shatter the silence. The magnificent Ko Daeng cliffs are shaped like a parabola: and Ketoro appeared to be anchored at the focal point of the reflected sound waves!
It is not long before the cool will give way to fierce heat.
Sunrise, looking towards one of the most famous islands, James Bond Island: a needle-shaped limestone rock in the sea, featured in "The Man with the Golden Gun".

Ko Thalu and Ko Thalu Nok / Raya (stop 4)
A short distance further north, we found Ko Thalu, a rock island with a tunnel cave through the base.
 A quiet place, far from tourists, a fishing couple uses it to check what they have in their net.

These fishing nets have disconcertingly small holes, one result being that many tiny, dead fish are tossed back into the sea… and an even worse result being the impact this must surely have on fishing in the bay in general.

Further east, Ko Thalu Nok also has a tunnel through the base; this is big enough to allow dozens of kayaks to navigate it simultaneously – as a consequence many tour boats go there, and the sounds of Phang Nga Bay are different there!

Ko Khai (stop 5)
This beautiful little rock island has a lovely tiny beach with a view
And stunning overhanging structures with stalactites
which, on clambering up,
proves to be a marvellous balcony
that leads to stalactite falls and rocks in beautiful hues.
We left Ko Khai to head to

Ko Naka (stop 7)

It was time to see friends again, and what better way than a “braai” on the beach? (For our non-SA friends: this is a BBQ!)
On a blisteringly hot day, Ketoro rafted up against another catamaran
 And we alternated eating with soaking in the water.

So…Did we tell you that the bay is shallow in many areas!? Getting to and from shore at low tides in the dinghy is tricky…
but not with our “Ketoro Depthometer” – a stick from Chagos that lives in our dinghy for just such opportunities to show its worth! This was Irene’s Chagos “salvage”, and it stands proud alongside Rolf’s Richards Bay plank and other Phang Nga Bay planks now at home on the boat…

Ko Ku Du (stop 8)

A favourite anchorage between two islands, there are two tiny beaches and a beautiful lagoon, and sheer beauty to enjoy on every face of the island in a dinghy “circumnavigation”.

Ko Yao Noi: Ao Muang Paradise Beach Resort (stop 10)

Meeting up with friends on their boat one evening, we decided it was time for a meal on shore and the use of a resort pool. (Life is tough). So off we went to a larger island, Ko Yao Noi.

Venturing on shore, we found cold beer, delicious food and a lovely cold pool… And then we found that the tide was out and our dinghies were high and dry!
Did we mention the resort loungers? They were an exceptionally comfortable place from which to watch the waters slowly rise until we could go home again!

Khlong Marui / Khlong Pak Lao (stop 11)

It was time to venture further north than we had been before, to explore the khlongs.

There is an extensive wetland area of mangroves in the north of the bay. The khlongs are “rivers” that wind their way through the mangroves and form ‘less-shallow’ channels. As we went slowly forward in the channels, we put a track on our chartplotter to help us find the same route out again when we returned… and in some cases to know where NOT to go when we returned, those being the places where depth dropped dramatically, associated with a robust gears-rapidly-to-reverse strategy and a skull-and-crossbones icon being placed on that position!
Sunset on Khlong Marui
We anchored as deep into the surprisingly broad Khlong Marui as we dared, and dinghied down a tributary, Khlong Pak Lao. The only other people about were a few fishermen in their longtails, who we saw scoot down the more narrow waterways and simply disappear from view into their homes hidden amongst the low mangrove trees.
Khlong Pak Lao meanders between lovely tall islands and then we forayed down much smaller tributaries off this khlong to find some wonderful places…
Old information poster at ancient cave entrance.
 A cave with now-faint wall murals and paintings gives evidence of habitation here 3000 years ago.
 Another tiny tributary gurgled through a stunning 200m tunnel waterway through a mountain...
Stalactites and "rock falls" were again plentiful and very lovely.
It is not apparent from the photos, but the water up here is awfully muddy and definitely not to be jumped into. The heat was absolutely intense and there is no respite: not from the water around the boat, nor from boat water: this is limited as our tank is fairly small and we could not run the water-maker in the khlong water; it is too dirty and will clog the filters.

We were surprised at the strength of the tidal race: we were here at springs and the depth difference was about 2.8m; while on anchor the log showed a speed of 3 knots! With a good holding anchor, we did not worry but still there was a lack of sleep…. Because of all the noises made by various parts and lines of the boat that we could not identify that were rattling and resonating and challenging our interpretation skills!
It was an incredibly uncomfortable few days -but we would not have missed it for the world. A different, quiet, remote, interesting part of the bay of which we have great memories.

Ko Chong Lat and Ko Khlui (stops 12, 13)

Heading back south, down into the bay, there is a lovely anchorage at Chong Lat Island that is surrounded by tall land masses and hence protected in all weather conditions. Around the shallow curved edge on one side sits a row of small wooden houses that appear to be fish farms, and other than that there are lovely rocks soaring out of the water with steep sides… and rushing tidal water that churns up the mud many metres below to give swirling mud-patterns around the boat.
The waters just south of here hold many dangerous areas for yachts, with rocks just below the surface, but these are marked with posts, and of course such irregular underwater surfaces provide good fishing grounds… or they must do, if the number of fishing couples in longtails is anything to go by.
These fishermen were incredibly friendly, shouting greetings, (selling us their most delicious prawns, of course)…. And one team sat quietly at night, their flashing anchor light in tandem with ours, and listened to our classical music touching the quiet. When we switched off, they left… but returned the following night!
Net repair on the tiny beach near us.
A home drives past.
Leaving the area.
Krabi (stops 15, 16)
 Railay in the Krabi area is exceptionally lovely.

A bay framed on three sides by steep cliffs, with white beach and clear sea, it is only accessible by boat... so longtails are the preferred form of transport and give a very typical Thai picture!
Some of the upmarket resorts provide their own boat transfer service, and those coming in on the east side have a problem at low tides....
Bet they never told the guests they would be transferred to shore by tractor-and-trailer!

Krabi is famous for its rock-climbing: these cliffs must be a climber’s dream, and several organisations appear to give excellent service to novices while experts are spoiled for choice in individual climbs.

As well as the beach/swim/climb/kayak fun, there are plenty of places to eat, get massages, and have your hair braided: not all of them of such rustic appearance (and with healthy huge plants growing on the roof)!

 Chicken Island (Ko Khwan Dam) (stop 17)

Friends from Phuket came to visit. It was JJ’s birthday, so we sailed from Krabi to the “Chicken Island”...
Walked the sand spit between the two (which is too deep at high tides and a completely exposed beach at low tide).
 And beer for boys was served on the hammocks under the boat!
 Turns out the Chicken islands play host to thousands of bats: which we did not see during the day, hiding in the myriad trees on the densely-covered sides of the island, but they all returned home in the morning, for us to enjoy the spectacle.

Back in Ao Chalong, Phuket (stop 19)

When we first arrived in Thailand, 2 ½ years ago, we came into Ao (Bay) Chalong in Phuket, and it will be from here that we clear out in February to return across the Indian Ocean.

Good friends were on their boat here, so it was catch-up time again: always a pleasure when yachties’ plans overlap. Chalong Bay has seen us a few times, and it showed us a very good face: wonderful new dinghy dock (never mind that it is a failed marina for big boats...), plenty of mooring buoys (so we don’t need to drop anchor and have our chain eroded away by the tin in the water here: this was a tin mining area.)
Mostly, it is a real pleasure to see the Big Buddha on the hill, this time peeking through clouds and seemingly with halo!

 Footnote: other sights and sounds of Phang Nga Bay

Of course, Phang Nga Bay is so lovely, and cruising around here is so easy, that… as well as endless longtails and ferries with tourists, there are many charter boats: yachts that have been chartered for a week or so by groups of friends who have enormous fun in an easy cruising environment. Many of the skippers of these boats are no doubt experienced sailors, but the tales we hear of their lapses and sometimes incompetence are astounding; … and we have witnessed several.

For example: anchored in a big, muddy, open bay, a boat came in late afternoon and anchored alongside us; the anchoring process took a surprisingly short time before celebrations and swimming commenced. Conditions were very gentle. Later that night, we were aware that they had gone very quiet, and used the torch to find them. Nope. Gone. We were surprised that people would move anchorage in the dark. But then we heard bedlam way off from us and realised (obviously only just after they had) that they had dragged anchor and were heading out of the bay, backing onto a small island. They started their engines and came back in, this time anchoring alongside us in the dark: a concern. We listened to the chain going out: very little – maybe 10-15m. We watched to see them set the anchor: no. We knew it would be a long and worrying night for us… but the wind and tide would carry them away from us, so all was well. The next morning? They were not where they had started…

And for example…  A friend who is employed by a charter company to maintain the fleet describes one of the most common problems as being blocked heads (toilets). Well, one morning in Krabi we assumed this must have been the problem on board the charter boat alongside us as we watched a man hold the handles of the steps, hang his bottom over the edge (thighs parallel to sea)... and go. Definitely no pictures of this one: save you the spectacle…

And then: this boat dropped anchor with full mainsail up, near us in the channel between the two steep islands of Ko Ku Du (stop 8). The whole crew then jumped into their dinghy and set off to tour the island, leaving the yacht and its hoisted sail.
No, really, he IS anchored behind us!
We watched the unattended boat sail around its anchor.... and were grateful for calm weather and space between us!

Home is now in Yacht Haven Marina (stop 21), where we will leave the boat to make a grand trip… to see grandbabies for Christmas! (Oh, and also their parents….)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Phuket: enjoying the contrasts

October saw us go from working on Ketoro-on-the-hardstand (whilst we were apartment-dwellers), to working on our home whilst she was tied up in the marina, to free-as-a-bird cruisers when we finally said enough! … and set out into Phang Nga Bay to enjoy its incredible beauty and peace.

It was a month of many contrasts that also saw us juxtaposing work and thorough enjoyment of some new Phuket experiences. For example, we heard of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival and decided to investigate…

Phuket has several different communities (amongst whom: Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim; Thai, Burmese, Indian, Malay, Chinese and expat) that appear to exist mostly-companionably alongside one other, allowing one another space and freedom for individual expression.
 The large Chinese community recently (for nine evenings in October, the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar) held their annual Vegetarian Festival, with accompanying sacred rituals which are said to bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe the rites: hold to a vegetarian or vegan diet for spiritual cleansing and merit-making, and pray regularly to certain gods. Chinese shrines and temples were homes to these sacred rituals, food markets, prayer, fire-walking and body-piercing.
 Boat Lagoon Marina is close to a large and beautiful Chinese Temple so we decided to investigate; early one morning we, on motorbike, joined (inadvertently) the procession of trucks and cars carrying the devotees part-way to Phuket town, then got a good spot to view the proceedings from where they started their walk to Sapan Hin, their final destination.
 This festival commemorates a travelling company of Chinese opera singers in the first half of the 1800s who got terribly ill soon after arriving in the jungles of Kathu on Phuket Island, but astonishingly all recovered after honouring two of their emperor gods through prayer and observing a vegetarian diet.
 Most procession participants dressed in white; many carried shrines, flags, and joss sticks, but the most stunning part for observers was to see the extensive body piercings of the entranced devotees ("Ma Song"), dressed in particular clothing to indicate that the gods have entered them during the festival. They are said to manifest supernatural powers, and perform self-torture (as we understand it) in order to shift evil from others onto themselves, and to bring the community good luck. They demonstrated that through their beliefs they can withstand body hardship and are spared pain. The man above has a long pole piercing both cheeks and supporting a Chinese lantern on each side.
To our eyes, it was all quite incredible, albeit gruesome. All manner of implements were used: one man put the tall handlebar of his children's scooter through his cheek, one had a large fan-palm frond on either side of his face, piercing his cheeks; one guy was pierced by two curved-handle walking-stick type umbrellas. This was on top of the usual knives, swords, skewers etc. We saw almost no blood.
 Throughout the festival, fireworks and drums are a constant backdrop, especially during ceremonies; the louder the better, because the noise drives away evil spirits. Street scenes are bedlam: crowds of participants being waved across intersections, others going about their daily business as best they could, dealing with traffic jams, crackers, smoke, dragons.
 All wonderful for observers, and no doubt a bonus for those on the tourist bus stuck in the traffic below!
After the procession, it was back at 9am, a cup of coffee and back to work on the boat: just another ordinary day for us!

October also saw Ketoro’s re-launch into the sea (well, the filthy muck that is the marina water in Boat Lagoon). This marina, dredged out of a mangrove swamp, is generally very shallow and all yachting activity must wait for high tide. For our non-yachtie friends: monohulls (yachts with single hull) have very deep drafts (very deep keels) and so cannot enter or leave the marina except at very high tides. The catamarans like us have shallower drafts so, although we still can only leave the marina at high tides, the actual water depth required is somewhat less.

But we have other issues, like our broad beams. (Yes, Irene’s beam IS becoming broader with all the convivial local food court meals with friends, but we are referring to Ketoro’s beam here!) So, here is the picture of our launch:
 The sides of the launching slip slope inwards, so we can only be put into the water when it is near the top of the slip; the tidal range here can be more than 2m. A nerve-wracking exercise, the launch:  there are few centimetres to spare, and one is very concerned at the thought of scratches on freshly painted and polished, gleaming hulls…

The deed was done (successfully); all the furnishings, dive gear, locker storage items that had been stored at a friend’s home were brought back to the boat, we moved back on board, further work was completed on it, and, with the tides dropping each day, committed to leave the marina while we still could do so.
But of course we had to prepare for the change from a life with access to transport and shops (at a marina, easy bike hire) and unlimited fresh water and electricity, to one for which the boat had to provide all that we could need: it was shopping time! It was occasionally difficult to figure out which was our bike…
Most importantly, there was still fun to be had whilst tied to land… and it was Halloween! So Ketoro saw her first Halloween celebration when Melisa, her friend and their children came to “trick or treat” us on board.

 It was time to leave this marina which has now seen Ketoro three times taken out of the water for working on, since our arrival in 2010. It is a great base to do boat work, with all the contractors and chandleries at hand; it is well placed to access the rest of the island, and a walk around the hard-stand provides endless interest, not least for the fact that some workers bring their pets to work…
 Thai people love birds, and they, in their decorative cages, are often seen carried by men-on-motorbikes to and from work. They sing beautifully on the hardstand, providing a wonderful contrast to the angle-grinders, hammering and general noise that is a boatyard. And it appears that they do not mind sitting in their cage in the sun at lunchtime, while their owners take lunch in the shade of a boat!

Well, after a time of feeling caged by all the work that was demanded by the boat, we have now fuelled up…
 And are dancing at anchor in magnificent Phang Nga Bay, sometimes (like here) alone in a spectacular spot, feeling that there is nobody else in the world. We revel in the contrast with the previous 6 weeks…
 … but look forward to the days of springs high tide when friends on monohulls can escape the marina and come and play in the bay!