Feb 4, 2006

Thailand trip

Above: everyone should be familiar with this reef fish already

Trip FAQ

Here are some quick
answers to questions people might ask me.

Q: Where did you go?
A: Bangkok for 1 day of work, then a couple days on Ko Phi Phi for diving and hanging out, then a diving boat to the Similan Islands in the Indian Ocean for 5 days.

Above: approximate route

Q: How much do pirated DVDs cost in Thailand?
A: About US $2.50, as opposed to US $0.75 in mainland China.

Q: How much for scuba diving?
A: US $50 for a 2-tank local boat dive in Ko Phi Phi Lei. US $90 and upwards per day (even up to $200-300 if you want) for liveaboard trips.

Q: Any transvestites?
A: My Chinese friends are obsessed with seeing transvestites in Thailand. They'll tell me, “You're going to Thailand? You must go to see the transvestite shows. They're so beautiful.” Sorry, I've lived in San Francisco and seen enough nasty looking transvestites out on the street. In Phuket, I saw a few Thai kathoey from a distance, and even then it's painfully obvious. One of them looked like The Rock with make-up and long hair. I would much rather go diving and see some really cool giant barrel sponges and anemone fish.

Q: And the Thai massages?
A: I'm referring to normal massage, mind you, not the “massage” that Asian businessmen are looking for. Price for one hour: 200 BHT (US $5) in tourist towns, 300 BHT (US $7.60) on touristy beaches (like Hat Kamala), or 100 BHT (US $2.54) if you're in the know and can get the “Thai price”. I think my tissues are too delicate for the manhandling and kneading involved in a Thai massage, so I skipped it this trip.

Q: Do you recommend diving or snorkeling?
A: It seems that the best sites are at 80-100 ft. depth, sometimes with lots of currents, so scuba diving is the best option here. There are some good snorkeling spots, but you'll see tons more by diving. The marine life you see when you're diving is straight out of the movie Finding Nemo, with the exception of the sharks. Most of the species you'll see are the size of a man or smaller.

Q: Did you have any language problems?
A: I live in China, where English is almost non-existent. If you don't speak, read, and write Chinese, you'll be SOL for getting around, eating, or doing anything. Not so in Thailand. The Thais that I met in restaurants, shops, taxis, and diving for the most part had really great English skills. My pitiful Thai vocabulary came in useful a handful of times, usually for taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers, and bargaining. Traveling here with only English would be a lot easier than traveling in China.

Q: What is Bangkok like?
A: It has pollution like Beijing, but it's hotter and they speak Thai as opposed to Chinese.

Q: Did you witness any good scams?
A: I was expecting to get invited to purchase some “good quality cheap” gems, but I wasn't in Bangkok long enough to get approached. One of the taxi drivers told me of a scam that someone did to him in Patpong (a sleazy bar area in Bangkok). Apparently you and a buddy are sitting in a bar, a nice lady comes over to sit with you, orders some expensive booze, and then takes off. When you get up to leave you're stuck with a huge bill. In this taxi driver's case it was 5000 baht (US $127), a large sum given his income.

Q: Souvenirs?
A: A fifth of local Thai rum (US $5) and some various foods.

Q: Isn't Thailand the same as China? They're not that far from each other geographically.
A: A comparison of these two countries is like night and day. Here are some superficial observations:

  • In Thailand, there is no coughing and hacking and spitting of phlegm. Thais dispose of their rubbish properly; they don't throw their garbage on the ground, onto tables, or onto the beach. They put it in the rubbish bin, where it belongs.

  • Chinese make delicious-looking pastries. The problem is that most of the time they put in only about half the sugar that is needed, so the pastries taste like dog biscuits. Thais make delicous-tasting pastries. They put the correct amount of sugar into their sweets. In Thailand I ate jelly donuts that were better than any I've had in the US. They love sugar as much as I do. In Thailand, coffee must be taken with lots of sugar and milk. The default hot beverage there is coffee, not tea.

  • In Thailand, street merchants and touts leave you alone after you say mai ao krap (no thanks), whereas in China they persist unless you beat them off with a stick.

  • muay thai vs. Chinese gongfu or wushu

  • Some Thai food may be a bit spicy for Westerners, but their use hot of peppers compliments and accentuates the flavors of their cooking. In China, a lot of times the spices, especially ma la style, tend to overpower the cooking.

Q: What do Thais think of China?
A: Sometimes I would say to the locals, in Thai, “I live in China”. Without fail, they were indifferent and then add that they don't like China. I also noticed that the money exchange rate of Chinese yuan to Thai baht was extremely unfavorable. 20% overhead as opposed to 1% overhead for exchanging USD. Chinese have very limited access to US currency, and as such, any Chinese tourists visiting Thailand are going to get totally screwed on their currency exchanges. There seem to be some governmental issues at play here. It would appear that the Thai government is discouraging mainland Chinese tourism.

Q: Are there any dangerous animals when diving?
A: Yes. Banded seasnakes, 20 times more venomous than the most poisonous land snakes (saw 2 of them). Scorpionfish, whose spines can send a man writhing in pain for hours. Lionfish, whose feathery fins can sting for hours. Stone fish, which if you touch their dorsal spine can cause the most intense pain possible and even loss of the affected appendage eventually. Schools of 3 ft. long chevron barracuda that could rip a man to shreds. Animals with nematocysts, like fire coral, jellyfish, and anemone, can all sting you good. Even 30-inch long titan triggerfish which will attack a man in defense of their territory.

Above: a 30-inch long titan triggerfish like this will not hesitate to bite your ass if you go near its nest.

Q: Other diving dangers?
A: Oblivious zodiac boats zipping around on the surface, going to pick up their divers could take your head off if you surface in front of them. You could also get carried out to sea by a current and not be seen by the dive boat captain, so carry an orange safety sausage. Other than that the main risk is probably DCS. It's in one's interest to not get injured on a liveaboard, since the only thing they could do is give you oxygen and drive six hours back to land.

Q: Other peculiarities about Thailand?
A: Yes. Apparently, laws of physics and common sense no longer apply. I've seen plenty of newly arrived European tourists scooting around on motorbikes, sans helmet and safety gear, sometimes with a toddler sitting in their lap, also without safety gear.

Similan liveaboard

The best part of my Thailand trip was a 5-day boat trip in the Indian Ocean to the Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock in the Surin Islands. The dive sites are at least a half day boat ride for the Similans, and even farther for the Surin Islands, so these liveaboard trips are quite popular. I've heard that the Burma Banks is another good trip, but it's 7-10 days total. I initially thought that perhaps doing 4 dives per day for several days would get tiresome, but the quality of the diving was so great that is was always exciting to get in the water at the next dive site.

On the first evening, a driver from the dive shop met me and some other divers that had signed up down in Patong beach and drove us an hour north to Khao Lak, which is where a number of Similan dive operations are based. We had to settle our bills at the shop and borrow any equipment we needed. Around 7 PM or so we were all shuttled to a small multiuse navy/civilian marina, guarded by a lone soldier with an M16 rifle. Our group of divers gave a friendly nod to the guard and walked towards our vessel, a 66-foot, single 350 hp engine, converted fishing boat named the MV Huntsa. We surrendered our shoes and flip-flops to the boat crew for the remainder of the trip. We climbed aboard a ship berthed next to ours, then over to our own.

The boat and the people

Above: our boat, as seen swimming toward it after a dive

The boat reminded me of a smaller version of the ship The Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Like the ship in the movie, it is a bit old, maybe 2o or so years, very retro-style, but with all the basic amenities and will get you from A to B safely. On the boat, the lower deck contains the cooking galley, two 4-ft by 4-ft heads that also function as shower rooms. It also has the bridge with its 2 bunks for the captain and his assistant, and the dive platform in the back. The upper deck has a long table with seats for 12 people, who can gather around it like apostles at the last supper. There's also a small TV and a whiteboard, and one of the dive masters (DM) brought a stero system.

Above: upper deck of the boat, looking towards the bow

Towards the bow of the upper deck there's a 4-person cabin, and the stern has a small platform out in the sun where 2 or 3 people can lounge on chairs. Before taking off, the head DM for the trip, a mid 20's German with about 3,000 logged dives, gave us a boat and dive procedure briefing. Also accompanying him on this trip were a Belgian DM and a freelancing Swedish DM. The latter two could both speak some Thai, especially so for the Swede, who was previously an active muay thai boxer. In addition we had 12 passengers, all from various European countries and America. Two of the passengers, the girlfriends of a couple divers, just went along for the trip.

Above: cabin with two bunks

The first night we shoved off around 8 PM or so, accompanied by an exploding string of firecrackers that hung from the bow. In fact, each of the boats in the harbor lit off strings of firecrackers upon departure. The Thais believe that the ocean contains malevolent spirits and the loud noise will scare them off and ensure a safe journey. Apart from one diver with an ear infection, we returned after 5 days without incident, so the firecrackers worked. The other rule that Thai captains impose is that no shoes can be worn on the boat.

During the night the captain headed to the Similans over relatively calm seas. We got there after 6 hours or so. Most people didn't sleep well at all the first night due to the engine noise and waves as we were traveling. I'm sure that someone must have blown chunks during the night, but no one admitted it. Of course no one asked either.

A typical diving day
The next day, and the subsequent days, the schedule was like this: at 7 AM or so, the DM would announce on the squawk box “wake up, time to get up”. People would stagger out of their cabins at various speeds and do any morning routines they had. There was some toast and jam, along with tea or coffee on the upper deck. At 7:30 AM the DM had everybody get around the table for the first dive briefing. At 8 AM, everybody is already geared up and in the water for the first dive. At 9 AM or a little after, everyone is back into the boat. The Thai cook will have prepared some sausages, ham, scrambled eggs with vegetables, etc. for breakfast. The dive crew refills the tanks with the onboard compressors. At 11:30 AM, dive briefing number 2, then 12 noon – 1 PM dive number 2. Then afterwards, a nice Thai lunch, usually some homestyle Thai dishes. At 4 PM, briefing 3, 4-5 PM dive 3. Maybe a small snack at this point, and then at around 7 PM, the last dive of the day. Afterwards dinner. In the time between dives, most people are just lounging about in the sun, looking through books to identify marine life they saw, logging dives, eating cookies, and some were even smoking. The one rule was that you couldn't drink alcohol during the day, unless you wanted to forfeit the rest of the day's dives. There was always some food around if you were hungry, and a cooler full of ice and soda. The most important thing was to drink a lot of fluids. This is apparently an important way to avoid decompression sickness (DCS). I was drinking several cups of sports drink mixture throughout the day, along with lots of water.

Above: beach of one of the islands we could go to between dives

Between some dives, our boat's dinghy, a zodiac boat, would be available to take us to a nearby island for a couple hours.

Above: baby sea turtle at Thai navy operation

Through some connections of the dive crew, we were able to go to an island where the Thai navy was running a sea turtle breeding program, and we were able to see a bunch of baby sea turtles. Other times we went to other pristine and nearly deserted islands.

Above: dinghy taking off after leaving us on an island

Night time was pretty relaxed since everyone was sort of tired. At this time most everyone just drank beer, some people smoked (tobacco), or played cards and other games. I'm of the opinion that smoking and diving don't mix. Some smokers had the side effect of reduced bottom time and having to buddy breath during the safety stop.

Dive specifics
The water temperature at all the sites was about 82 F. For each dive, there were generally 3 groups of 4 divers + 1 DM, and fortunately I got to go in the group of 3 other people with DM certification. So we had long bottom times since no one was wasting his air. We did the majority of the dives as multi-level at 100 ft., 60 ft., then to 40 ft., with the total bottom time at about 1 hour. For this trip, we had tons of bottom time. On a couple of dives where there was really strong current and thermoclines, everyone had to fight against getting swept away so we had only about 45 minutes of bottom time there. Most of the cool scenery and species were at 70-100 ft. Occasionally you could even see things on your safety stop, like a sea snake swimming to the surface or a school of baracuda in the distance.

On a couple dives, in particular at Richelieu Rock, we encountered some Japanese divers from some other less responsible dive boats. The dive professionals from Thailand I met have a big problem with these type of tourists since they are totally oblivious to marine conservation. It's understandable since their country drives a huge whaling and shark fin industry. With regard to diving, the problem is that these people wear reef gloves and carry 2 ft. long metal sticks. Why carry a metal stick? Apparently it's a “tank banger” or a “support stick for photography” so they can maintain buoyancy in the reef when taking a shot. My response is, if you need a tank banger, use a surgical tube and a machine washer around your tank. If you need to make contact with the reef in order to photograph something, then you have poor buoyancy control. Work on your buoyancy and then try photography again when you've got it worked out.

Favorite dives
I'll not describe every one of the dives I did, just the best few.

Similan Islands, Sharkfin Reef: saw a solitary bumpnosed parrotfish 5 ft. or so long.

Simlan Islands, Elephant Rock:
this site contains many deep, narrow underwater canyons and swim throughs, like a space landscape. It's decorated with sea fans and other corals. Strong currents made it tiring. Swimming around through all the rock formations was really fun. We even saw a small black tip shark in a cave.

Ko Bon, West Ridge: saw a 12 ft. manta ray in the distance. Any dive where you can see a manta is an awesome dive.

Richelieu Rock:this is the most famous site, and most dive boats do two morning dives here and then take off. Fortunately for us, our boat spent the whole day at Richelieu. You could think of it as the Manhattan of the Andaman Sea. It has great numbers of countless types of species. It's an underwater rock formation in the middle of the empty open ocean, right along the the Burmese marine border, with tons and tons of nearly any and all Andaman Sea marine species. During a single dive at Richelieu, I was able to see: a large octopus mimicking hard corals on reef floor, several really cool small blue and yellow nudibranch, porcupine fish, mantis shrimp, a blue cleaner wrasse going inside the mouth of a grouper, a hawksbill turtle (at 70-80 ft), a big lionfish, 3 or 4 large scorpionfish, several moray eel, and ghost pipefishes, among others.

Above: octopus at Richelieu Rock mimicking the texture and color of a hard coral

Above: ghost pipefish

Boonsung wreck: this is the remains of a tin mining barge, off the coast near Khao Lak. This was another excellent place to see tons of marine life, in particular, a school of 20 or so lionfish, just hanging about.

Above: part of a school of lionfish (about 1 ft. long each)

I'm very pleased with this particular dive boat. The other divers were laid-back and made the trip more enjoyable, nobody got sick or injured themselves causing us to turn back early, the food was tasty, and there were no boat or equipment problems. I was able to dive in a small group of people equivalent to or better than I am, so we never had people running out of air, we only ran out of no-decompression time.

Based on what I've heard, the one dive operation you definitely need to stay away from is South Siam Divers. They have a vessel that operates only around the Similans, and then another that goes out to Richelieu. Both will have tons of inexperienced and inconsiderate divers, like those with the metal sticks, and I doubt that they would be very fun.

Other travels in Thailand

I stayed in Bangkok just one day, only long enough to finish my job-related responsibilities, and took off that very night by plane to Phuket. I already live in a polluted, dirty, noisy Asian city, so there's no need to spend any more time in one on vacation.

Phi Phi Don island
Part of this island was hit hard during the tsunami, but with the exception of a few missing high class resorts, everything is the same as it is listed in the Lonely Planet prior to the disaster. It's quite nice, no cars or anything. This is not the place to experience authentic Thai culture, but it was excellent to relax and enjoy.

It seems that now Ko Phi Phi Don is really geared towards the younger and backpacking crowd. There are bars and cheap restaurants if you want it, or even secluded beaches with nothing to do, if that's your scene. One bar has nightly muay thai fights between tourists. When I arrived here via ferry there was a shady guy at the pier asking, in Thai, if various backpackers wanted to buy marijuana from him. Maybe it's a Thai narc or someone just capitalizing on the young crowd.

Another highlight of Phi Phi Don (for me at least) were some used book stores, containing readings acquired from the traveling backpacker set. If only I'd had more room in my bags I could have dropped $100 there. China has a severe lack of good English reading material (due to 1. low English literacy, 2. censorship). In Phi Phi Don , without looking too hard I was able to find a specific couple of books I had wanted to read lately.

Phi Phi Lei island diving

Above: after a dive at Ko Phi Phi Lei, with Ko Phi Phi Don in the distance

I did a nice 2-tank day trip out of Ko Phi Phi Don to Ko Phi Phi Lei, only 20 minutes away by boat. The claim to fame for Ko Phi Phi Lei is that one of its beaches (Maya Bay) was used in the movie The Beach. It's a national park so you can only go here for a day trip. The dives we did were excellent to see marine life similar to that in the Similans, and also many giant barrel sponges, which you don't see in the Similans.

Patong Beach
This beach is essentially the Tijuana of Phuket. I had to spend about 3 hours here, gathering supplies for my liveaboard trip and waiting for the dive shop driver to pick me up for the drive up to Khao Lak where the liveaboard was berthed. In Patong, you'll see tons of older white guys with Thai hookers and escorts. The image burned in my mind is this: a 60 year old white guy sitting under an umbrella at an overpriced beachside cafe. He has 3 buttons of his shirt undone, showing curly white chest hairs. Among the chest hairs, a brand-new gold Buddha pendant hanging from a chain glitters in the sun. He sits there with a contented grin, scanning the periphery of the cafe, basking in others' imaginary jealousy of his prize. His 20 year old Thai hooker is at his side, staring into space and looking bored. She seems restless to just get her money from the guy, go back to the jewelry shop to get her commission for the pendant her john bought, and go home to take a shower.

Kamala beach

Above: longtail boats at Hat Kamala

Hat Kamala is one of the northern beaches of Phuket island. It lacks the crazy bars and indecency of Patong beach. It has one small main street, about 100 yards long, which contains four identical suit shops, each run by a different mid-20's Panjabi-MC-looking Indian-ethnicity Nepali from Burma now living in Thailand. The remainder of the street contains restaurants and convenience stores, many of them catering to German and Scandinavian tastes. The beach itself is quiet and nice. This was a decent place to just relax, enjoy the weather, and not be bothered by anyone.

I'm sure Thailand isn't really as great as my first impression of it was, but it's an excellent place to de-stress from China. I would recommend that anyone traveling to southern Thailand heighten their enjoyment by staying in China for several months ahead of time. China's Bladerunner-esque crowds, dirt, noise, and pollution, along with its perpetually gray, scorched sky, like The Matrix, will by comparison make Thailand's beaches and ocean seem like heaven on earth. Go at once, and don't worry about any post- 2005 tsunami damage, for the most part it's unnoticeable.

And now for some other photos of marine life we saw on the liveaboard. The underwater shots on this post are collected from different diving buddies on my boat.

Above: School of silversides. On one dive at Ko Phi Phi Lei, a swimthrough was full of thousands of them, and you could swim right through them.

Above: fried egg nudibranch at Richelieu Rock

Above: happy sea turtle off the stern of our boat


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