Thailand Island Hopping

Written by on April 6, 2013 in Asia, General with 1 Comment

I used 10,000 United miles to fly on Thai Airways from Vientiane through Bangkok to Phuket, which were miles well spent.  There was no way I was going to do back-to-back overnight buses or trains to get there. My friend Marc, who I’d met diving in Dahab back in September, had decided to join me for the first part of my diving/island hopping adventure, and timed his flight perfectly to arrive just before me.  We hopped in a taxi and headed towards Khao Lak, a small beach town north of Phuket, where we met up with Mark and Darlene at the Happy House, a restaurant next to the dive shop that also had decent rooms with a/c for rent.  I LOVE meeting people that are spontaneous and open enough to change their plans on a moment’s notice, and I was really happy that they were joining us for the next week or so.

I had booked a 6 day/5 night, 18 dive liveaboard cruise to the Similan and Surin Islands, and thought I’d be going by myself.  All of a sudden, I was bunking with 3 friends, which was awesome! The Similan Islands are comprised of nine granite islands that are postcard perfect images of paradise, covered in tropical jungle with white sand as soft as flour.

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The next morning we checked in with the dive shop and got kitted up with our equipment before grabbing lunch at a yummy Italian place next door.  At 4p we met the cast of characters that we’d be diving with for the next 5 days on a liveaboard dive boat headed out to the Similan and Surin islands in the Andaman Sea.  The Similans are supposed to have the best diving in Thailand, so what better place to start island hopping?  Here was our home for the next 5 nights.

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We all boarded and got to know each other as the boat cruised overnight to the Similans so that we were anchored and ready to get in the water for our first dive of the day at a very early 630am.  The diving was great – visibility was 30+ meters and the underwater landscape was super cool.  Unfortunately, global warming has hurt the area as a few years ago the water temperatures reached 31 degrees Celsius, killing all the coral in a single day.  There are signs of life again, but it’ll take years for it to be back to what it used to be.  Still, when there are cute little box fish like this to look at, and the gigantic boulders under the water, it’s still a great place to dive.

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Our schedule was pretty regimented, with 4 dives a day and meals or snacks in between.  I think I gained 5 pounds throughout the week as they just kept feeding us!  On the first day in between dives, we had the option of going onshore to a couple of the islands, which I jumped at the chance to do.  Most of the islands are uninhabited, so it was amazing to be able to spend even an hour checking out these little slivers of paradise in the Andaman Sea.

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The sand was seriously as soft as super fine flour.

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We stopped at another one of the Similans and climbed up to the top of one to catch this sunset.  LOVE how blue the water is in the shallow areas 🙂

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We repeated the same schedule on the 2nd day, but now were far out enough to dive the most famous dive sites – Koh Bon, Koh Taichai and Richielieu Rock.  None of the sites disappointed, with lots of sea life and a few cool swim throughs.  Without a doubt, the greatest dive of this trip was at Koh Bon, where we spent over 20 glorious minutes with a manta ray that had a wingspan of at least 5 meters / 18 feet across.  It was beautiful!

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It was massive and majestic and awesome!  Hopefully the guy swimming behind it gives you some idea of scale.  The manta would just glide effortlessly through the water and just when we thought he was swimming away, he’d circle back around as if it was checking us out.  Experiences like this are so rare and so fantastic – this is why I intend to visit the best dives sites in Asia over the next 5 months.  For experiences just like this one.

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Mark and Darlene’s post-manta sighting celebration during our safety stop…

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After the manta sighting, nothing else could come close.  Although it was quite cool to go walk around Koh Tachai in between dives.

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The 4 dives a day was taking it’s toll on me, and my ear started hurting, so I skipped the night dive.  It was a full moon that night, and I thought of all the 20-somethings I’d met up north that were probably partying there asses off on Koh Pha Ngan that night.  We were all in bed asleep by 10!

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The next day we did a couple dives even further out near the Surin Islands, which were honestly not so special.  That afternoon, however, we made a stop at a village inhabited by sea gypsies otherwise known as Moken.  Apparently two to three thousand of these nomadic sea gypsies were forced to settle on this island, Phuket and Koh Lanta.  They are without country – they aren’t Thai or Burmese, so don’t have a passport.  They live very simple lives, which was cool to witness.  That said, we did see a few satellite dishes, which I’m sure came as part of the bargain when they forced to live there.

We went in at low tide, so had to walk in from about 500 meters from shore, which I’m sure looked much different at high tide.

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This girl was so beautiful.  Especially in Myanmar, which I haven’t been to, it is common to cover children’s faces (and some women do it too) with a powder derived from a tree pulp which helps cool and refresh the skin while also protecting it from the sun.  Isn’t she precious?

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We did 2 more dives on our last day, including a shipwreck that was surrounded by tons of fish and had a few super cool eels tucked away in various nooks and crannies on the wreck.

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We then headed back to shore, said our goodbyes to our new friends from the boat, and arranged to share a taxi to Patong Beach in Phuket with Mark and Darlene.  I had heard what a seedy train wreck of a town Patong has become, however I wanted to see it for myself.  The nightlife was supposed to be decent and we were going to get there for a Friday night.  Well , I can confirm that it was a giant train wreck, as were 99% of the people I saw wandering around the popular Bangla Road.  Sooooo trashy!  This guy was pretty fabulous, but otherwise, we couldn’t walk a foot in any direction without getting accosted by people trying to sell us tickets to a ping pong show.  It took me about two seconds to figure out what that even meant!  We took a pass.

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And we were exhausted by 11, so didn’t manage to really see the nightlife, although I’d honestly seen enough.

Mark and Darlene only had a few days left on their vacation before they had to fly home to Seattle, so we decided to all go check out Koh Phi Phi together.  Phi Phi is another one of those places that I heard had been spoiled, especially after the movie “The Beach” was filmed there.  However, I couldn’t come to Thailand a second time and NOT go to Phi Phi.  Unfortunately, like Phuket, it definitely lived up to its reputation.  That said, the natural beauty of the island itself…not all the bars, restaurants, markets, touristy shops, that made up the maze of streets running through the middle…was breathtakingly beautiful.  I’m really glad we came here so I could finally see it.

We had heard that it was difficult to find accommodation, so booked an A/C room with 4 twin beds for our first night.  We’d all been sharing such a small room on the boat, this was like luxury.  Well, we were a little too close to the beach that had all the nightclubs on it, so we heard thumping bass into the wee hours of the morning.  Funnily enough, the bar right outside our hotel was called the Ibiza Bar…and started getting me excited about the month I plan to spend there in August 🙂

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I’m pretty sure fire dancing is popular on many Thai beaches and this was no exception.  Check out the guy below lighting his cigarette with the limbo bar! Impressive!!  They also had several people carrying the most adorable monkeys on their shoulders.  I was done for when the owner caught me eyeing the precious gibbon and in under a second he had the litte guy around my neck.  I definitely do not support this type of behavior, but he was soooo cute.  And he kept trying to steal my hat!  So…I had my own gibbon experience, smack in the middle of Phi Phi.

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My personal favorite fire dancer was the guy below who lit his cigarette from the limbo bar as he shimmied underneath.

 

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I’m really happy that we decided to dive Phi Phi.  The next morning we went to the national park and dived at sites called Bida Nok and Mushroom Rock.  At least 50% of the price we paid for diving was worth the boat ride alone.  The scenery was absolutely spectacular above water.  And it was pretty good under the water too.  Visibility was 20+ meters and there was very little current, which made them cake walk dives compared to the strong currents we’d been dealing with in the Similans.

Our surface interval was spent in a bay just across from Maya Beach, which is where several of the main beach scenes were filmed for “The Beach”.  I’d heard that it was  a nightmare to visit as it’s usually crawling with so many tourists you can’t even see any sand.  Luckily, we got there pretty early, so there were only a couple boats and not so many people on the sand, so I could get a better idea of how sweet it was before being discovered by the masses.

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Then we saw 2 massive boats arrive from Phuket who dumped at least 100 snorkelers into the water, making me even happier we were seeing it from a dive boat instead of actually taking a tour to specifically go there.

We’d moved to a quieter part of town and checked into a place called the White Hotel, which was actually really nice.  No thumping music anymore, although since it was Mark’s birthday and we started the bar hopping early.   Even though we thought we wanted to make a big night of it, we ended up having a pretty quiet one as we were spent from the diving and day drinking.

On our last morning in Phi Phi, we hiked up to the top of the island, where the view below didn’t disappoint.  So gorgeous! If only the whole place looked like this!

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Marc and I said our goodbyes to Mark and Darlene, one of the coolest couples I’ve met on my entire trip, and promised to catch up back in the States when I’m home…hopefully for my big 40!!!   For those of you interested in joining, mark your calendars and save the date!  Thanksgiving weekend in Vegas Baby!!! 🙂

We caught the 2 hour ferry to the much larger and quieter island, Koh Lanta.  Funnily enough, we met a guy on the ferry hawking accommodation and he happened to have rooms at the very spot that a friend had recommended to me months ago.  So, we hopped in a taxi to the Blue Andaman Resort, our new home for the next 3 nights.  $30/night, AC, cable TV (which we never turned on) and right smack on the west-facing beach, a perfect place for watching the sunset.  This was more like it!

I’d heard that Lanta was much more low key, and it was. It’s a perfect island for slowing down the pace, topping up your tan, drinking beer and watching sunsets.

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I think we got really lucky with this one as the next couple days weren’t so awesome.  Can you believe this was the same sunset literally a few minutes later?!?

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We did not get so lucky with the WAY overpriced dive trip we took from Lanta.  $150 to dive Him Maeng and Hin Daeng, which were supposed to rival Similans diving and attract some larger stuff (like mantas and whale sharks).  We saw no such thing, and those two dives were about the same caliber as our two worst dives we did in the Similans, at least when it comes to coral and variety of fish we saw.  Oh well…it helped save us some money later on when we opted out of diving in Koh Lipe, where I know we would have been even more disappointed as we heard reports back that visibility was less than 5 meters.

After a few days of relaxation, we headed to the port around 9am to catch our 10a ferry to Koh Lipe, but was delayed a few hours.  The ferry was LONG and not so comfortable…and kinda pricey at $50pp.  I had prepared myself for a 5 hour ferry.  Not a 3 hour delay and then a 7 hour ferry.  At least they had beer on the boat!  To be honest, I’d still much prefer travel by ferry to bus/train/car travel any day of the week.  We finally pulled into Koh Lipe just as the sun was setting over the hill.

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Lipe is a beautiful little island in the southernmost part of Thailand, only 25 kms from Malaysia.  It does not have any paved roads.  You can walk around the whole island pretty easily, and it takes laid back to a whole new level.  But, I think the word is out, as accommodation was not cheap as a simple room with a fan was $30 and with A/C almost double that.  But, the A/C was soooo worth it as it was HOT during the day!

We dropped our bags and headed out to one of the restaurants by the water.  There were 4 or 5 that actually had tables in the sand about 10 meters from the water.  The kind of place where you go point at your fish or your massive tiger prawns and then they barbecue them up for less than $10!  Delicious!!!

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At some point I was looking at going to the Maldives and saw that the big hotels charge about $600 for dinner for two for a similar experience.  Whatever!  Just go to Lipe 🙂

Similar to other Thai islands/beaches, a couple of the bars had fire dancers out front, spinning poi or a large baton with fire on either end.  The bars had low tables with mats over the sand, similar to Bedouin style in Dahab.  The place actually reminded me a little bit of Dahab, as we were staying on Pattaya Beach, which is crescent shaped beach about 1 kilometer long.

Since we’d decided not to dive, we slept in and had a very lazy day as I had a ton of internet stuff to catch up on and found out I might have to fly home for an interview with the folks at the unemployment office, so had a lot of bookings to do.  We went to the beach in the afternoon, and to Sunset Beach for the sunset.  Really didn’t have to think much about anything at all, other than where to go for our next meal or beer and how long to stay on one side before turning over to tan the other side.  Roughing it, for sure 😉

At this point, I really thought I was going to have to return to the US for an interview, so we sped up our travel plans and headed off to Malaysia.  Adios Thailand!

 

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  1. Herb Glatter says:

    fabulous trip, few will experience what you have – bravo!

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