We checked into Thailand at Ao Chalong Bay on Phuket Island on the 20th February with a two month tourist visa in hand and not a clue where to go next. Having missed the window to the Red Sea by little more than a couple of weeks we were still trying to come to the terms of spending a whole year cruising here in Asia and what we would do with that time! After checking in we headed north towards the Burmese border and once out of the touristy areas we got to see some of rural Thailand where small fishing villages built on stilts still line the bays. The people living here are referred to as “Sea Gypsies” and play an important role in the fabric of Thai people.
For centuries the “Gypsies” have been the initial contact and buffer for the Kingdom in dealing with foreigners arriving by sea. Villages appear all long the coast line tucked in to protect them from the strong monsoon winds and assist their communal fishing activities. Most structures are small bungalow huts made from Bamboo with thatched reed walls and if prosperous capped by tin roofs. . Self sufficiency seems to be a theme as most live among live stock of chickens, ducks and the occasional cow. Fishing is the center of their lives and mostly done with gill nets and fish traps.
The traps are made of local saplings bent into a curved doghouse structure with a few banana leaves or reeds to cover the top. It acts as a little hut that fish enter to seek shelter and can not exit once past the opening in the front. Long lines of nylon cord are secured to the traps and tied to a float. The floats can be as simple as a few old water bottles or elaborate 6 foot poles of bamboo with flags of varying colors. These floats are found scattered just about everywhere and make for difficult navigation in the clear light of day and almost impossible for us to avoid at night, thus we stuck to making day passages and keeping a very good watch.
After sailing up the coast we headed out to the National Park islands of the Surin’s and Similan’s where we found some of the best snorkeling and diving we’d seen in a long time. With pristine reef and an abundance of tropical fish we spent weeks kayaking around with our snorkels finding new dive spots and great beaches. The national park charges a small fee which gave us unlimited use of the many mooring buoys which meant we didn’t have to drop the anchor once!! After running out of food we headed back to the famous party town of Patong on Phuket island to restock the fridge at the Carrefour supermarket and then headed east around the island into Phang Nga bay.
The islands of Phang Nga have been made famous as scenes in such movies as ‘The Beach’ and James Bonds “the man with the golden gun’. With towering limestone cliffs pitted with caves and gulley and the unique Emerald green waters and white sandy beaches every island is picture perfect. We spent our time exploring the hongs (bays inside the cliffs hidden from the outside) and watching monkeys scale the cliff faces until once again it was time to head back to civilization.
Since 1927 Thailand has been ruled by its longest reigning monarch ‘His Majesty Bhumibal Adulyadej’, still as popular today as when he first came to power eighty two years ago. The king’s influence can be seen throughout the country with his pictures lining most street corners and we even had to stand for a five minute ‘ode to the king’, including pictures of his life and his favourite music, before sitting down to watch a movie at the local cinema in Phuket. It’s obvious he’s extremely popular and it’s really nice to see a country of people who seem to genuinely adore their monarch.
The Thai people are kind and extremely friendly but obviously affected by the thousands of tourists who flock here each year to squat under umbrella laden beaches ordering cheap drinks and massages. We often felt like we were invading the local’s privacy as maybe one too many tourist has rubbed them up the wrong way. Or maybe it’s just the fact that so many white western males come here to date and often marry the local women making tough competition for the local guys and giving some areas a pretty seedy feel!
The Thai food has been a real treat. Most restaurants offering a menu the size of a small novel including everything from Curries, Local salads, noodle and rice dishes, an array of fresh seafood and even the more popular western dishes. The food is always fresh and very reasonably priced; we could buy a kilo of fresh prawns for the equivalent of US$ 6-10. Traditionally the Thai’s use ‘a lot’ of Garlic and hot peppers in their dishes which takes a lot of getting used to but still doesn’t hide the delicious flavors…It’s worth visiting Thailand just for the food!!