I’ve done this trip before, but it’s nothing like the other ones.
Island tours have become ubiquitous with every visit to Phuket. If you arrange for a private taxi transfer at the airport, the drivers will most certainly stop you halfway where local travel agents desperately dangle attractive boat trip packages. If your airport transfer is managed by your resort, then your accommodation will undoubtedly throw in a complimentary boat trip to the various islands. Either way, there’s no escape. Curiously, this time, I was given a choice. The alternative however, on-screen, didn’t look too attractive. It consisted of an hour’s elephant ride, a chance to nearly touch baby elephants, and Flying Haruman, which most of us admittedly read it as some show of sorts. The boat trip consisted of the usual yadayada – Phi Phi, Maya Bay, James Bond island, snorkeling, swimming in crystal clear waters… Even when we were in Thailand, and it was explained to us that the Flying Haruman was actually a series of zipline treks on the face of a rainforest-covered hill, it still didn’t seem all that enticing.
The last time I did this, it was with Justin and Inez (and Nadia, Ima, Lina and all the guests aboard that we made friends with) in countless big boats sailing in an armada towards Phi Phi. For all the beauty of the idyllic Andaman and Phang Nga bay, it was overrun by far too many bodies. You tend to feel the pain – commercialism at its severe extreme, ravaging the natural environment that capitalism is trying to make a buck out of in the process. It’s a familiar sense of pain, and dread whenever I visit beach destinations like Phuket and Bali – you wish it was left alone, never discovered, and if saving the beach meant one less place to visit, so be it.
As expected of a five-star resort, our boat was private, and even the launching marina was a tad more exclusive than those out of the island’s main harbor. I’ll admit, I was a tad disappointed when I saw how small our boat was.I don’t have strong legs, sea legs that is, and its size, or lack of, worried me. Downing a sea-sick tablet, and with nothing else besides faith in the two Honda propellers and the crew’s skill, I hang on.
The line between calm and rough waters were never this apparent. Once out of the circuitous route within the mangroves, the only protection we had were outcrops of small islands which kept the sea smooth but even those were limited in numbers. It felt like a long silence as we crossed the threshold, for the view ahead straight into nothing but the ocean, was a vision of hell – knolls higher than our craft, an unending block of wind that felt like a million slaps on the face, and nothing but white water. I’ve been in dragon boat and canoe polo long enough to know that white water can’t be good. The ride quality of the next fifty minutes could be akin to riding on a bull who wants you off its back. It was fun the first ten minutes or so, then it became too much to bear. The boat’s captain’s face revealed a much more present fear – he steered the craft adjacent to the waves, keeping it masterfully atop the crest of each wave. If he faltered, and landed the boat on the trough, the boat wouldn’t last a minute with the unrelenting four to five metre swells. The further we were out to sea, as we approached Phi Phi, the higher the swells were, the more apparent that approaching Maya Bay was just not possible. In the open sea, a four metre swell would translate into eight metre waves crashing onto the iconic beach of Maya Bay – not quite a tsunami, but severe enough to be a storm surge, a full fledged tidal wave powered by the southwest monsoon. This isn’t uncommon, I’m told. In fact, it’s sooo common that day tour agents often use it to scam tourists, charging a reasonable amount of money, taking them out to sea to first-hand experience the swells near Phi Phi, and then taking them straight back to Phuket without a refund of some sort. Tourists would think it reasonable, and let the matter rest, even if they’ve just parted with no less than SGD 80 without seeing all the promised Maya Bay visit, snorkeling and swimming, et cetera. So, the next time you find yourself in Maya Bay, consider yourself very lucky.
We circle around Phi Phi Ley, where Maya Bay’s at, and dock at a beach-less lagoon on the east coast, traditionally, the calmer but less interesting side of the Phi Phi islands. No matter if I’m in Maya Bay or this beach-less lagoon, you feel a sense of magic around, and I don’t mean it because it was used as a set in the Hollywood film, The Beach when Leonardo DiCaprio was still cute. The most magical thing about it all is that the water’s fresh. You see the opening into the sea outside, right there, and yet, when you swallow the water, it’s completely drinkable without a hint of salt or whatsoever. The offset however, is that the water’s less dense, and it’s harder to swim than in seawater. We’re given all of twenty minutes before moving on.
We sail from Phi Phi Ley to the west side of Phi Phi Don for first, bird’s nest looking and fish feeding.
Then, some macaque feeding.
Finally, some snorkeling. Pity about the dead coral reefs, though.
“Charlie”, the boat’s liaison and only speaker of English among the three-man crew, tells us that from here on out, the bruise-bumping, vomit-inducing, turbulence-type ride quality is no more. It wouldn’t be a smooth sailing ride, that’s for sure, and the waves will still, from time to time, drench everybody in the shelter, but it wouldn’t be the terror that was previously, mostly because we were sheltered within the Phang Nga bay area. With the Thai mainland to the north and east, more specifically, Krabi, along with Phi Phi to the south and the islands of Phuket, Yao and Yao Yai to the west, and literally dotted with hundreds of rock outcrops, Phang Nga bay breaks up most of the severe wind-induced waves. Unfortunately, it actually enhances seismic-induced waves’ intensities, as seen by the doomsday situation in Phi Phi Don on December 26, 2004 when the tsunami hit the island from the north, circled around, and pounded the island from the south, ensuring total annihilation of whoever was on the island at the time. Ironically, Phang Nga’s rocky outcrops made it a realistic replacement for Ha Long Bay for the film, Tomorrow Never Dies.
The next stop was lunch at Ko Panyi. Used as the Thailand pit stop for The Amazing Race’s 19th season, and featured in Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations travel-documentary, it is also known as the Muslim Village. It began as a settlement for nomadic Malay fishermen from modern day Indonesia, and is today, a self-sustaining town much like Brunei’s Banda Ayer. Due to overfishing, the village actually became nonviable until tourism was introduced, and Ko Panyi found a use as a lunch pit stop for visitors visiting the various islands in the region. The food, in many ways, were not as romanticized as Anthony Bourdain describes them to be. In fact, it was bordering on mediocre, generic, not good, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anybody wanting a taste of Thailand.
En route back to Phuket, we were brought to Ko Nakha Yai, which is an island off the east coast of Phuket. While it’s not as picturesque as Maya Bay in Phi Phi Ley or Phuket’s west coast, Andaman sea-facing beaches such as Patong, Kamala, Karon, Surin and the rest, nor as exciting, it is quieter and that should count for something, right? There wasn’t much to do, although it was highly recommended we try the cocktails served in a fruit. The Pina Colada served in a fully ripe coconut, and torched a tad, is said to be the best Pina Colada in the world, and having tried it, I can tell you that it is the best Pina Colada in the world. Nothing comes quite as close, and it’s a pit stop worth stopping by for.
My Pina Colada.
After a long day, it was time to return back to the marina, and back to the resort because the day’s activities hadn’t ended yet – we had a barbecue seafood dinner, and as someone who lurves his barbecues, I was looking forward to it. But first, a well deserved rest in the comforts of my own suite.