Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Days in the Similans

Initially we were in two minds as to whether we should make the trip further north-west to see this small group of islands. The forecast strong easterly winds which we'd hoped to sail there with, eased off and became light northerlies. Rene was hoping to sail everywhere in an effort to conserve diesel but we bit the bullet and motored the whole 47 miles from the airport anchorage on Phuket across to the Similan island group. The trip was easy. Anima is motoring really well and having no problems. Rene stayed on deck, adjusting our course occasionally and keeping a lookout for fishing vessels/traps/etc. I remained inside (hiding from the sun) and managed to complete (almost) two units for my TESOL course.
Beautiful Similans - Anima is anchored far right.
Upon arriving I took the helm and Rene went to the bow to hook the mooring line. He collected the thick line and pulled up a massive yellow buoy. As we swung around to lie with the current, I decided that we were too far out and we let go to move to another free mooring. This buoy was red and the line more suitable to our size, but minutes after turning off the engine, a large dive boat came and collected the mooring just metres from ours. The two boats swung close together and after a strange discussion with one of their crew, we decided to move again, it would have been dangerous to stay so close, let alone the complete lack of privacy (tourists were taking photos of us from the top deck).

Our third attempt at mooring was the best by far. It's away from all of the others which are frequented by large dive boats and is in about 5 metres. We swam around the boat in amazingly clear water. The national park guys saw us pretty quickly. Charging 900 baht for our 2 day visit, which turned out to be 5 days after purchasing the ticket. Below us sat strange sculptures secured to the seabed. We think they are to ward of bad spirits – this spot certainly has a positive vibe! We found out later, from a British diver who helpfully interjected while we fruitlessly quizzed some friendly local Eco-tourism students, that the seabed sculptures are a memento for the '04 tsunami whilst also providing something interesting to look at.
Tsunami mementos secured to the sea under our boat.
Wow. I am so so glad that we decided to come here - It's gorgeous!! Ironically, it's the first place we've come to (since Indonesia and our favourite islands such as Lady Musgrave, Lizard and Great Keppel along the QLD coast) that is perhaps comparable! Of course everywhere is different and has its own positives/negatives. The Similans main positive is its incredibly clear water. So clear that it is akin to looking through blue/aqua tinted glass. So clear that swimming here is pretty sensational.
Clear water! Yeah!!!
Happy Days
Rock-hopping view.
It began with an attempt at doing yoga on the boat (a lost cause when there's any motion. Which there always seems to be). Rene couldn't wait to get in the water and jumped off within minutes of eating breakfast. He towed the dinghy (with me sitting in it) toward the large boulder-covered coastline of the small island we are next to. Rock hopping was fun as always! The water is just so clear that I could watch fish swimming around the rocks when 10 metres above the water. After some rock-hopping Rene was eager to be towed along (with me driving the dinghy and him holding a rope in the water). I took photos of the beautiful rocks while he frolicked about in the water. We stopped by a beach and swam with schools of unafraid fish. Boat-loads of tourists soon pushed us on and we continued to explore by dinghy around the whole island. 

Towing Rene around with the dinghy. Can you see him?
Large swells rolled in from the Indian ocean and created strange overfalls which sometimes seemed about to suck us down into the rocks. Watching boulders pass by below in the clear water is a new experience. We kept exploring and discovered a small beach after navigating a particularly interesting area of overfalls. Rene checked it out and then waded in with the dinghy and me to the beach, positioning it carefully through the rocks and avoiding the swell surge by seconds! What a lovely, secluded spot! The jungle sprawls down the mountainside and nestles in over clusters of large granite boulders, providing shade and intimacy with nature. The usual empty water bottles, old buoys, rope and Styrofoam were washed up above the waterline and someone had helpfully left a cache of new drinking water bottles tucked into one of the thick tree branches, presumably for stranded fishermen.

A beautiful little secluded bay - just for us!
These are often more common than shells on beaches here.
On the way back to Anima I towed Rene again and he saw brilliant blue fish darting about near the drop-off. Later that afternoon we swam again, this time just off Anima. The only other boats were a long way away so we shrugged off our togs for a skinny dip. Within a minute of floating free, I spied a dive boat making fast towards us. We both giggled so much (I kept taking water in my snorkel) and I only just clipped my bikini top on as the boat came past, so close that the people on board could take photos of us, wave and shout encouragement! Ah, fun times.

The Perfect morning and the Box Jellyfish
We awoke at dawn today with the plan of going ashore to do yoga/kung fu. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to get any yoga done on the boat. It's always so rolly! The wind was up a little bit from the north west and Anima was having a hard time trying to decide whether to face the wind or the current. We took our dinghy to the leeward side of the island and were the first footprints on the sand. To escape the sun, I suggested we walk across the island to the western side where it would be shady. Along the forest track we came upon a sign for the lookout, only a 330m walk. 'Let's go!'. The track led us steeply up through dense jungle. The path was moist but firm mud and knotted ropes helped our progress up the more challenging inclines. Slow-moving, hungry, gigantic mosquitoes began their attack and my skin became tattooed with shadows of their deaths. A jovial Thai family was already near the top. We overtook them for the last part of the path which goes inside some rocks and up a particularly steep bank to arrive on top of a large boulder. Views of the sea and surrounding islands greeted our sweaty selves. The older members of the family had to be cajoled by a happy young man to continue to the top. They laughed a lot and it was a big accomplishment for two of them (slightly older) to make it.
Sailbirds atop the lookout on Ko Miang. Anima is down there, above and to the right of Rene's head.
 We eventually made it to the western beach. I did the standing poses for Ashtanga (getting covered in sand) and Rene did Kung Fu stretches but couldn't calm his mind. We are both a bit out of practice.

A walk through the shaded area was relaxing and we filled out a questionnaire for tourist development on the island before having a swim and snorkel and then heading back to the boat. Coffee and banana pancakes never tasted so good! But beyond the taste, I realised that I miss the ritual of this special breakfast. To us, pancakes are a breakfast to be shared with family and friends. A long, drawn out ritual of sharing, enjoying rich foods and talking about everything/anything. Our flights are booked for returning home. We leave Malaysia in August this year. Before then we have some more cruising to do but also more boat work as we prepare Anima to go on the market. Owning and living on Anima has been an amazing, life-changing experience. Through this I've finally figured out what I want in my life. It's not just travel, it's family that makes me happy. The time for another chapter to begin approaches. 
Enjoying the clear waters here.
We snorkelled around the boulders that afternoon. With clear water and blue skies, I began to relax. I started to feel safe in the water and thought to myself, 'you can just enjoy it Cerae, there are no dangers here!'. My new found water relaxation lasted all of 30 seconds. I looked up (my version of snorkelling is to constantly scan the water around me for jellyfish) and there. Right where I was about to swim, was a box jellyfish. Yep. The most deadly of them all! I quickly swam backwards and Rene, not understanding my shouts and gestures swam directly toward the stinger! Luckily he managed to avoid getting stung and saw it too – confirming my prognosis that it was a box jelly of about 40cm long. I didn't swim again after that. Preferring to chill out on some boulders. To watch the sunset with red wine and freshly baked bread. 
Orange sunset sundowners.
 Sail Rock
A storm greeted us this morning bringing wind and a hint of rain. We are both absorbed in the book 'Four Corners' by Kira Salik . It's a true story about the author's solo journeys into dangerous places in search of herself. When a large dive boat took up the tiny dinghy mooring just metres from us, I decided it was time to move on and check out the other anchorage here, on the north of Ko Similan. My jellyfish scare yesterday has unfortunately damaged my confidence in the water again. I really should have bought a full-body stinger suit while we were in QLD, I might then enjoy myself in the water!

The coral here is all very dead-looking. I'm not sure why, has it been bleached by the sun? Damaged by fishing? Smashed in the 2004 tsunami? Crushed by boats' anchors?

There are plenty of colourful fish to see but I realised that the joy for me when snorkelling, is to see the coral gardens, not the fish. Rene is loving it though. He is almost becoming part-fish for the amount of time he spends beneath the surface. The clear water is what he loves, amazing that it's so rare. When you imagine cruising, you picture yachts at anchor off idyllic atolls in perfectly clear water. We've only had that a few times. Perhaps it's more like this vision in the Pacific?

Rene snorkels over some semi-living reef.
We went ashore in the afternoon and climbed up through picturesque large boulders and tropical forest to reach 'Sail Rock', a lookout of sorts. Throughout the day, we'd seen hundreds of tourists taking turns to get photographed with their arms in the air standing on the edge of this rock. We timed our arrival to be there with minimal other foreigners and instead found some locals sitting up on the rock. They were a group of university students who were all studying tourism (or Eco tourism, environmental management and sustainable tourism – areas I find incredibly interesting and important – why didn't I study this at uni?). We'd completed a questionnaire the day before with one of the girls but this afternoon on Sail Rock we mainly chatted to A (not sure how to spell his name but it sounded like the letter 'A'), Billy and their lecturer. Not having travelled here with a tour-guide, we overwhelmed these students with questions about tourism in Thailand. How do they regulate the protection zones for fishing? What has happened to the coral? Are there any turtles here? What's it like living in a country that has so much tourism? Is tourism having a negative effect on the environment? Etc. They answered as much as they could with limited English and I tried (failed) to learn some Thai words for things like sunset. After the overwhelming capitalism of Patong Beach and a number of other high-tourism areas we'd been to, it was extremely refreshing to engage in natural conversation with locals, without having a commercial relationship. It is something we'd been missing from our previous trip to northern Thailand in 2003. 
Chatting to locals atop Sail Rock on Ko Similan
I'm not sure how informed these students are but they told us that the coral used to be flourishing, alive and well only 2 years ago, even more so 10 years ago. Now it's dead. They blamed global warming. I wonder if this is true?

The students were critical of the hundreds of sticks which have been wedged up under the rocks by tourists. They explained that tour guides make up stories about it having a spiritual significance or simply encourage their customers to add to the sticks so that they feel involved, more than simply an observer. It isn't natural. It isn't traditional. It has been artificially created for foreigners who find it humorous that the sticks are 'holding up' the rocks (as one American we spoke to explained). 
Tourist sticks.
 Island #9
We are relaxing into a slow kind of existence. I slip between feeling at peace and feeling guilty for not doing enough.

We visit Willow for morning tea and I like their perspective on our plans of selling Anima. They said we have learnt so much about yachts, cruising, weather etc. etc. that we will come back to it much more informed than when we began.

In an effort to escape the swell (which constantly rocks us side to side) we move half a mile to island #9 where there are half a dozen moorings set within a small boulder-fringed bay. We snorkel here and the coral is a little less dead, though nothing like the gardens we saw through Indonesia and Queensland. From his free-diving, Rene sees that the coral is covered in algae – the plot thickens.
Coral not doing so well but still plenty of fish.
As the sun starts to 'go to bed' (as Thai students put it) we take the dinghy toward the boulders, looking for the perfect jetty-esque one to safely climb onto – none of them can beat our 'jetty-rock' that we found at the previous anchorage, but some of them seem OK. Our first attempt is pretty funny. The strategy is to motor towards the boulder, throwing the anchor out at just the right moment, then quickly climb up the rock and bring a stern line. Push the dinghy out so it doesn't hit the rock and tie the stern line to anything available. We successfully pull this off without a scratch on the dinghy, and Rene cracks open our shared beer can as we wander towards the edge of the boulder, expecting to be able to continue our adventure. Instead we greet a sheer drop-off to water. The next boulder is 3 metres away! The dinghy process is reversed and then repeated on a different rock. Some great exploring to do here. Wedged in amongst the large rocks are the ubiquitous plastic water bottles. Hundreds of them. There is sadly a lot of rubbish out here in the ocean. Too much. Willow had told us how they witnessed (three times) the large dive boats (which rely upon the natural beauty of this place) throwing plastic bag-fulls of rubbish off their boats into the sea as they approached the harbour. I have trouble understanding these boat operators' lack of concern. Recently I read an article about how some university students in America have discovered a fungus (from the Amazon jungle) which eats plastic. I hope someone can successfully turn this into a weapon in the war against trash! 
Rock-hopping in the Similans at dusk.
Willow had also told us of how, in the Surins (a similar group of islands north of the Similans) their mooring had broken at 3am and they had only narrowly avoided being stuck on the coral. All night I imagine our mooring breaking, misinterpreting Rene's assessment. He had dived down and inspected it : “It's good enough for at least one night” meant to me “it will barely hold one night”. The moorings here are constructed thus: a thick rope is tied through a hole in a large piece of coral, insulated with a plastic sheath so as to stop coral chafing. This is not always very successfully achieved however, as the plastic tube isn't always long enough and slips down the rope, allowing it to chafe. We've seen a few old moorings that must have broken as we snorkel, as well as a few red and yellow buoys washed onto the beach or rocks, identical to the ones we tie to! So Rene always inspects the line now before we settle in.
Anima secured to our favourite mooring here.
Last day here
Rene snorkelled for hours taking photos and videos of the colourful fish. He even spied a turtle! The first sighting (from memory) since Australia. I'm so relieved that there is at least one turtle still alive up here. I hope it eats that Box jellyfish for me.

We sailed slowly back down to Ko Miang in the afternoon of our last day here in the Similans. I was impatient to get there as the wind and a small swell was coming in from the north west, meaning that there would only be one area protected. The last 20 minutes felt like a race, with dive boats and us competing for a mooring. We made it – just – and collected our mooring from a few days earlier. Strangely, it felt like coming 'home' to 'our mooring'. Jumping in for one last swim, Rene scraped the growth off our depth sounder and wind vane paddle. A large swarm of tropical fish – parrots, angels, triggers, coralfish and others - gathered behind, eating all of the scraps of coral and weed as soon as it was cut free.

Our last night here was a fitful sleep as we rolled about with the swell. We left at first light, motoring out of this peaceful pocket of beautiful islands as the sun crept above the clouds.

Almost week has passed since we left for the Similans. It is the furthest north and west that we will sail, this time. We're both glad that we decided to visit these beautiful islands. Such a magic spot. I hope that the tourism students do have some input into sustainably managing tourism here. There are already problems with the coral dying and with too many people zooming in and out each day, leaving rubbish in their wake. I hope that the Similans will only improve so that the next time we visit, we will be even more amazed. 

Similan Islands 2012

1 comment:

  1. Woww!!! nice trip. If you can’t decide for your next trip…Phuket is the best choice for you!!
    I love here Surin Beach Phuket This hotel is very nice clean and the people are friendly. VERY nice hotel with helpful staff.
    And I really love white sand, crystal clear waters at Surin Beach too.
    Thank again.