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Sailing Phang Nga Bay, Phuket, Thailand

The sails flap as we thread our way slowly  between the sheer limestone karsts of Phang Nga Bay, our wake the only disturbance in the pea-green expanse. The chatters of the swooping swallows echo against the imposing cliffs. We are in heaven.

The limestone cliffs of Phang Nga Bay are calcium carbonate, which is generally white. Over millions of years, the skeletons from a constant rain of marine organisms, plus the chemical precipitation of yet more calcium carbonate build thick layers of sediment. Eventually, the heat and pressure of their own weight turn these strata, hundreds of metres thick, to stone. A variety of geological forces have then fractured the limestone beds and pushed up the 40 steep-sided islands that provide the exotic scenery for which this shallow bay is noted. Mineral oxides from various sources paint the vari-coloured streaks that characterise the cliffs of Phang Nga Bay.

Boat Lagoon, Phuket

Our excitement builds as we fly over the islands around Phuket, wondering which of them we will be exploring. Sunsail collect us and swoop us off to the base. The yacht club is expansive and luxurious with pool, masseuse and sauna, shops and restaurant. Garret who sets the scene by being friendly, knowledgeable and tanned, introduces us to “Olmi”, an Oceanis 320 sloop with Electric windlass, Bimini, CD player plus a hand held GPS and a very sexy rubber dinghy. Spacious and dry. (all important as our first charter didn’t have any of these)

He takes us through the basics of the boat and suggests we relax until tomorrow.  The heat is palpable and drives us into  the air-conditioned restaurant for a snack – prawn and club sandwiches. The pool is warm but still better than anywhere else and we wallow until it is time for dinner at a nearby restaurant – whole deep fried grouper, prawn curry (mai pet as recommended by our friendly hostess). Back on the boat, the heat is stifling and we opt to sleep on deck for any breeze that might spring up.  Mozzies chomp us undeterred by the Tabard.  The respite is a  gentle rain during the night.

We plan to leave early but there are still some provisions missing (milk, bread, charcoal) plus, a late request for a case of Singha. We enjoy a delicious breakfast at the bakery – turkey and cranberry on freshly baked bread, waiting for Garett. After a perfunctory briefing, just going over a possible route with very little detail, we depart – finally. 

The Boat lagoon was Phuket’s first marina complex, and has been fully operational since 1994. This circular, 180-berth lagoon was originally a tidal flat at the head of a shallow, meandering two-mile creek, Klong Tha Rua.

Klong tha Rua was once the main port of the island, long before Phuket town was built by the predominantly Chinese tin miners who arrived over 100 years ago. Phuket-based entrepreneur and pleasure-boat enthusiast, Khun Kanit Yongsakul, started the project by damming the stream and digging the basin to a depth of five metres before reopening the entrance.

Koh Phanak

A guide takes us out to sea through the narrow channel and then returns in his dinghy that we have towed. We still can’t really leave as Garett has to bring extra fuel. This lazy island style could get a bit annoying! We motor north heading towards Koh Phanak. Garett eventually catches us up and we load the large drum of fuel. Free at last! The wind agrees and we hoist sails for the first time. We hit a misty rainy patch as we near Koh Phanak and we have to use the GPS to confirm our anchorage for the night.

Koh Ping Kan - James Bond Island

As we near Koh Phing Kan (better known as James Bond Island where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed), the peace is broken by the first long-tails ferrying tourists from Phuket. We anchor away at Koh Dang Yai and dinghy across, tying up against the jetty. 

A lovely, but eery and sinister mountain path takes us to the bay where we are greeted by the famous monolith. We are lucky to be able to take pictures without tourists crowding the view, and leave before it gets too busy, to a deserted island nearby. 

The beach consists of thousands of crushed shells and we lie in the warm water shaded by mangroves fascinated by the mudskippers that hop out of the water and bask on rocks and branches. We putter through a mangrove swamp, enjoying the stillness. On the way back to the yacht we  run out of fuel and I have to row very hard to counter the strong current/tide. Another swim is required before we set off for the eastern side of Ko Yao Noi fortified by ham and tomato sandwiches and Singha. The wind comes up and we have a delightful sail all the way.

Mudskippers are fish that often spend more time on land than in water. In fact, a mudskipper will drown if it’s never able to leave the water. Like other fish, mudskippers breathe by means of gills, but in addition they absorb oxygen through their skin and the linings of their mouths and throats. They are able to move over land by using their pectoral fins to pull themselves forward or by performing a series of skips or jumps.

The large, bulging eyes at the top of a mudskipper’s head resemble a frog’s eyes rather than a fish’s. The eyes are mobile and retractable. Each eye can move independently of the other one and has a wide field of view. The fish have a sac filled with water beneath their eyes. This sac is known as a dermal cup. When they are on land, the fish pull in their eyes periodically to moisten the eyes with the water in the sac. They look as though they are blinking.

Sabai Corner, Koh Yao Noi

We aim for Sabai corner, home to a highly recommended restaurant.

It is hard to judge how far down Koh Yao Noi we are, and eventually decide to take a chance on a bay that feels right according to the chart, and we can see a big white building on a cliff that looks like it could be a restaurant. Clouds are building, and as we anchor, it starts raining gently. The tide is going out, as we dash across in the dinghy. Half way to the shore, I realise that I have not put the anchor light on, nor do we have a torch. Based on our experience in South Molle, I decide to turn back rather than search around trying to locate our yacht in the dark later. The tide is moving out rapidly as we return to shore, and we bump and scrape over the coral and rocks. We hope we are in the right place, as we will now be stuck until the tide turns. The rain increases as we head left towards the building we had seen from the sea. The odd cow and tilled field speaks of some inhabitants, but we see no-one  foolish enough to be out and about. This certainly does not look like a place with a great restaurant. We trudge on through the mud wondering whether we shouldn’t call it quits – we have no idea how  close we are to the white building and we certainly aren’t having fun any more. Luckily a farmer is out and about and, with some miming, he points us in the direction that we have come.

By this time it is just pissing down. Our drymacs are no use at all. Water creeps through the seams and the zips. We are beyond caring. We pass our dinghy, now high and not so dry,  and just a little further on we find a rustic wooden structure nestled amongst the trees – a dry, cosy haven with outdoor seating, roller blinds, dogs, a few guests and a beaming proprietor. He presses towels upon us and waves away our apologies for the puddles we are making. We read magazines and drink mugs of steaming hot coffee until our fish curry and sweet and sour prawns arrive. The warmth of the welcome, coffee and food work their magic and we start feeling human again. It is hard to leave this cosiness and even though we are still wet, we are at least warm. However, I do not  want to miss the turning tide, so we pay our bill (210 Baht) with many  kop khun krap’ all around.  Just in time, as the tide is coming in rapidly. The dinghy has filled up with rain water and we have to bail before we can drag it out. Several chattering fishermen, kindred souls, wave as they drain their longtails with the same idea. Wonderful to get back to our warm, dry boat. Hot coffee and then a light but cool sleep.

Koh Hong

Bathing in the warm sea is one of the pleasures of sailing in Thailand. Then sitting on the deck on a cool, misty day savouring scrumptious eggs, tomatoes and shallots followed by toast with Rose’s Marmalade.

Not a breath of wind as we set off for Koh Hong which turns out to be a slice of paradise. 

A hong is a roofless chamber in the interior of a karst. “Hong” is the Thai word for room. The island gets it’s name from eroded group of caves in the centre of the island, harboring a large lagoon with only a small passage to the open sea. During high tide, long-tail boats and Kayaks are able to cross the passage into the lake, where you find crystal clear water only about one meter deep.

Our anchor splashes down, and we dinghy ashore, breaking the silence . We appear to be the only ones there. It is breathtaking. We snorkel amongst tame black striped fish, parrot fish, clown fish and electric blue fish, angel fish; warm enough to spend hours. Very, very hard to drag ourselves away…. and maybe we shouldn’t have 😳

Update: Things have changed substantially since we were there. Googling Koh Hong results in pages of tours; there are Park fees to be paid; and although it will still be as beautiful as ever, you won’t have the place to yourselves.

Koh Dam

-The storm lashes us, the rain stinging our eyes. Visibility is non existent as the yacht bounces wildly in the churned up seas. The compass swings around haphazardly. The hand held GPS has taken in water and has stopped working   I just hoped that I am headed away from the islands…

The weather had changed after we left Koh Hong. Initially we motored , then the wind picked up and we sailed along briskly. We saw the squall fast approaching, stowed all sails and motored to try to get into the lee of some islands for protection. 3/4 of the way there, the horizon disappeared and the storm hit us. Initially I held the same compass bearing but, making little progress, I turned away from the islands for sea room and ran before the storm.

We know squalls don’t last long, but when you are in one, time is interminable. Also, how do you know it’s a squall until its over?

I throttle back as the wind is driving the boat forward at speed and I am concerned about the location of some small islands last seen on our port bow and I am pretty much disoriented. This is our third charter and to say we are still green would be an understatement.

And just as suddenly, it’s gone, leaving us dripping and dazed. The mist lifts revealing the feared islands – now on our starboard bow and closer than when the squall hit! We turn back towards Koh Dam, open the GPS and dry it and our clothes in the sun.

We drop anchor between a coral reef and a long white beach. The tranquility is astounding, we have this serene bay all to ourselves. G&T’s and canapés on the deck with the stunning sunset and calm after the storm; followed by penne coated in mince, shallots and corn and a bottle of red. Very mellow.

Koh Phi Phi Don

Crisp cool morning, crunchy toast with cheese and marmalade – quite civilised, sipping coffee discussing our plans for the day.

Today is our 4th anniversary, so a romantic dinner on Phi Phi sounds like just the thing. Leisurely up anchor and a slow motor sail South Westwards. Nikki, pottering below deck, pops up with pancakes as we sail down the eastern coast of Phi Phi, dolphins dancing all around us, wishing us Happy Anniversary!

We thread our way through the choice assorted craft that litter Ton Sai Bay looking for a space out of the way and with enough swing room. Ferries and long-tails roar across continuously.  It is hot and busy as we stroll around the town, island-style clothing stores alternating with dive shops; and a broad choice of restaurants. We wander down to the eastern point of the island. Heaven – we find a second-hand book shop – an oasis for people who have run out of things to read. Loaded up, we have banana daquiris at “Carlito’s Way, then spend the afternoon lazing on the deck reading.

As dusk falls, we “dress up” for supper and set off for shore in a slight drizzle.. We nearly get caught on the coral as the tide is on its way out. We just make it and tug the dinghy high to avoid the tide coming in later. Aargh! I have left my wallet on the yacht! Back through the now steady rain. The dinghy motor chooses to play up, so I remove it and check the split pin which is fine. By now it is dark and raining, lightly but continuously. We put our dinner clothes and towels into a waterproof bag and motor back to shore in our cozzies using a better route, this time avoiding being snagged on the coral. 

The night is alive with people of all nationalities and there is a buzz in the air. It takes us a while to find the “Oasis”, heartily recommended by Tracey and Sandie. It looks very basic, but turns out to be delicious . Almost the more insalubrious in appearance, the better the food!  Tom Yum soup and Crab salad to start followed by Green Chicken curry and Penang prawn curry (365 Baht – R52 including 2 quarts of Singha beer) Our 2nd anniversary in the Bahamas cost R700!   

We walk around people-watching and buy post cards (remember those!) and a pretty red sundress, sit on the beach listening to a surprisingly good singer before heading home for a good night’s sleep, the hub-hub a distant murmur.

We enjoyed our evening with the frenzied crowds but actually its not our kind of place. We hanker for the isolation of Koh Hong. Influenced by this and the distance back to Boat Lagoon, we decide to head for the southern tip of Koh Yao Yai. This would take us half way home and afford us the chance to relax, read, swim and generally take it easy. 

It is rainy and overcast and the sea is rough beyond the sheltered bay and we are not really in the mood to tackle it. Eventually, fortified with pancakes, eggs and ham, we set off at 10:30. The sea is quite churned up but with no wind, so we motor under the towering cliff of Phi Phi Le and set course, stopping to refill the fuel tank from the drum that we had loaded.

Koh Yao Yai

The sailing guide is quite clear:

“A visit ashore is an interesting experience, but please note that the people are Muslim and women should cover up, and alcoholic beverages are not available (neither should they be taken ashore).”

We have just settled in when a longtail putters up from the village with 3 young Thai fishermen holding up a large crab. We try to find out how many baht they want for it but they have less English than we have Thai. We are not getting anywhere until one makes a drinking motion. After showing them bottled water, coffee, coke, tonic to no avail, we are just about to give up, when Nikki suggests we show them a beer, which I think they will find insulting. The crab looks so good though; what can we lose?

At the sight of the Singha their eyes light up and they hold up 3 fingers which seems very reasonable for a crab, especially this size. We duly pass over 3 Singhas, and receive 3 crabs in return! They then hold up a coconut and 2 fingers, which seems a bit excessive but we have scored on the crabs, so are not too dismayed. But, as you have probably already worked out, we get 2 coconuts for our 2 Singhas. This is a very simple bartering system  1 item = 1 beer. We throw in an extra beer so that they will each have 2 and, smiling and waving, they take a very long, circuitous route back to their island.

We lie on the foredeck with couple of quiet  G&T’s while the BBQ does its thing and then armed with a pair of pliers raided from the tool kit and mayo infused with garlic, we plough through all 3. Not a morsel wasted. Messy but delicious.

Our excuse is that is that we have insufficient space in our fridge and don’t want everything smelling like seafood so we can’t keep them. We wash the deck down and plunge into the sea to clean ourselves as well as refresh, as the evening is hot and sticky.

We dinghy ashore to escape the boat as it is rocking quite unpleasantly from side to side. The beach is pebbly and patrolled by a troupe of monkeys. Not very comfy or safe so we return to our corkscrew boat. The tide is dropping rapidly and we keep a wary eye on the depth gauge and the time until we are sure that the tide has turned.

We sleep fitfully, our bodies tensing to compensate for the movement of the boat.

Koh Khai Nok

Not a great night’s sleep and Nikki’s back aches. We set off for the lovely island of Koh Khai Nok, an hour’s sail away. Anchoring just off the reef, it is strongly reminiscent of the Bahamas. We stay aboard and cook breakfast then laze around reading,  a school of dolphins frolicking around the boat. A continuous stream of boats brings day trippers ashore. Some skippers spot the dolphins and shoot over, the dolphins vanish, (there are no doubt lots of pictures of turbulent water), then the pod reappears as the tourists move away.

Eventually we go ashore to see what the attraction is. A blindingly hot, pristine beach with crystal clear water. The tourists are all having lunch and the beach is clear. The attendants want to charge us 150 Baht to sit on a deck chair with umbrella – with no shade, this is a commodity.

We choose to go snorkelling instead – the water warmer than bath water.  Stunning fish, totally unfazed by our presence, dart between us – see-through fish with bits of bright colour, Pikey looking fish. Could be our “crazy fish”. There is a crazy fish in these waters that leaps out of the water and “runs” for long distances on its tail – we have decided that it is evolving to become a land fish. Although we could stay forever, the sun is beating down, so we reluctantly retreat to our shady boat. What a pleasure to swim directly off the transom, nicely cool after our “bath”. The dolphins return, even closer this time. A leisurely sail to Koh Rang Yai.

Koh Rang Yai

Koh Rang Yai is a privately owned island with resort facilities and a pearl farm. The day trippers are all leaving as we anchor and go ashore. Beautiful and still with densely planted palm trees and green lawns. The restaurant looks very appealing and the manager makes a special arrangement to accommodate us if we pre-order for 7pm.

On the way back we notice a neighbouring yacht flying the SA flag. Liz and Clive are British but educated at UCT. They have been cruising for 2 years having just come down from the UAE via the Maldives on their 42ft ketch. We have G&Ts, shooting the breeze before dashing back to our boat to get our shower/dinner things. On the way to the island, we drop off the remains of our case of tonic for them.

Glorious, long, fresh-water alfresco showers with plush dressing rooms. Nikki wears her new dress and looks lovely. We enjoy a cocktail at the pool deck. Dinner takes quite a while and we are both quite land sick. The green curry and garlic chicken are fine and it is nice to sit at a table with white table cloths and be served, but the meal is not up to our normal experience and is quite pricey. The restaurant is open on all sides and the mozzies eat us up. The wooden furniture is also  quite hard which is really not helpful for Nikki’s sore back.

We return to the boat in darkness and set the alarm for 6am as we need to get to Boat Lagoon to catch the rising tide. It rains throughout the night but it still manages to be hot and sticky. It is a real pleasure to have a steady craft though. The anchor scrapes as we swing around with the tide. It is unsettling and I am up much of the night, checking.

Boat Lagoon

Just as we both succumb to our exhaustion and fall into a deep sleep, the alarm sounds and we up-anchor for the final time. The guiding poles that lead you up the river are easy to locate. Nikki radios the base to let them know we are en-route. The depth at the entrance is only 2m. This soon becomes a luxury as it begins to drop to 1.5m in some places which is the full depth of our keel. The bottom is sludgy and I push the throttle hard to shove through the cloying mud. We need to keep our speed up otherwise we will be stuck for another 4 hours. In the lagoon area the depth is even more iffy. At one point we have to get past a huge cruiser yacht right in the middle of the channel. I am just getting the mutters about his selfishness when I realised he is stuck. We get stuck too as we try to squeeze past –  0.9m!  I manage to reverse and power past him nearly side-swiping him in the process. After all that angst, we manage to dock smoothly at Sunsail’s base.

We then begin the arduous task of cleaning the boat. We contemplate paying the 800 Baht to get it cleaned, but decide the boat isn’t that messy and that fee would would pay for quite a few meals instead.

Nikki washes up and packs while I scrub the decks. A long shower follows at the base and a fresh sandwich at the bakery. We complete the evaluation forms, settle the outstanding balance with Sunsail and have our logbooks stamped.

Pearl Village (now Indigo Pearl)

Sunsail suggests 2 hotels for a spoil – one up-market and one less so – and arranges for a taxi to take us to both so we can choose. The first is supposedly the fancier but we think is a bit of a dump and at 1500 Baht per night very pricey. The second one, Pearl Village turns out to be stunning and at 2400 baht per night we decide is worth well it. A beautiful room with all the mod cons and view of the pool and water feature. We are exhausted and lie around reading and  watching “A Bug’s Life’ on the movie channel and have a nap.

We go for a stroll around the exquisite grounds. Down towards the beach, we pass a tragic elephant chained by one foot, and although we should know better we can’t help buying him a pineapple, which he demolishes, skin, spiky head and all.  This, combined with the smelly food stalls, strays and massage services are really not the ambiance we are looking for. We retreat to the hotel pool and spend the afternoon reading, trying various cocktails, eating pizza and salad and generally being spoilt by “Short” who seems to have pointed himself as our personal factotum. We swim lengths of the pool exhausting ourselves. Happy hour ensues and we try a few more cocktails. 

Preparation for dinner starts with a long, soaking bubble bath. Then drinks in the open-air restaurant downstairs while watching a Polynesian show. 

The path to the restaurant, takes us through a palm-lined garden to an ornate entrance leading to a wooden bridge over a peaceful lake with gorgeous water lilies and then to the most beautiful structure with glass and reed blinds and highly polished floors

We have to leave our shoes at the door – quite odd dining formally, barefoot. We choose a set menu 1200 Baht for 2. Quite delicious – soup, prawns, panang beef curry, chicken and cashews with my favourite – dried chilies, Chinese broccoli and soya and crab cakes An odd rice and bean sweet dessert. Stroll back to our room very content and happy.

So nice to wake up at a leisurely 8am. We check out (5100 Baht) and take a taxi to the airport for our flight to Bangkok connecting to Chiang Mai for the next leg of our Thai adventure.

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