Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Similan Islands - 08° 40’ 32” N 97° 38’ 49” E


'Donald Duck Bay' Ko Similan
Picture the perfect tropical island with palm trees, white, white sand, turquoise water, green foliage and interesting rock formations.  This is the Similan Islands.  Stunningly postcard perfect.  And Popeye floating serenely on clear water, as if suspended by magic above coral outcrops, teaming with colourful schools of all varieties of fish.

That is, until 10am.

At that time, speedboats start pouring in from the mainland. Boat after boat after boat, disgorging passengers onto the beach in a scene that would do a wartime beach landing proud.  For six hours, we observed this onslaught of day-glo-lifejacket-wearing daytrippers cluttering up a perfectly good stretch of sand, many with selfie sticks wielded like dueling swords.  From this lagoon, where we are moored off Ko Similan, there is a short hiking trail up to a lookout point on the rocky outcrop that shelters the lagoon from northeast weather.  Although we cannot see the whole trail from the water, we can see the precarious few metres of lookout and the queue of visitors at the stairs just below, patiently waiting their 20 minutes for a quick view from the rock top.   

The same beach ... after 10 am.
It's the opposite of a deserted island
Once the visitors had taken their look, they seem to all go back to the beach, where they have less than an hour to have a quick splash in the surf, to take a photo of themselves, a loved one and the 47,893 other people in the background then pull out their mobile phones and wonder why they can’t seem to get reception 32 nautical miles offshore.  Suddenly, a horn (or whistle, or honk or some other signal that they have been warned to listen for) sounds and, reminiscent of the retreat at Dunkirk, the boats load up and take all the people away leaving us alone with the dive boats and a deserted beach.

The Similan Islands are an island chain approximately 65 nautical miles NW of Kata Beach in the Andaman Sea.  A marine National Park since the early 1980s, they boast the clearest water due to the depth of the water that surrounds them.  They are considered one of the world’s top dive locations.  Similan is derived from a Malay word meaning nine – as there are nine main islands.  They are referred to by their number (from south to north) despite having ‘proper’ names.

From the lookout over Ko Similan

Christmas Day
Adrienne enjoying a thoughtful moment

The first two nights we picked up a mooring in southern bay of Ko Bangu (Island #9), the most northern island of the group.  Jumping off the back of the boat we submerged into a fish tank filled with schools of colourful tropical fish.  The corals were pretty but not stunning, likely due to a combination of tsunami damage and high human use. The water was so beautifully clear and warm, we could (and did) stay in for hours actively looking at what was beneath us (clear all the way down to the bottom 12 metres below) or just floating and relaxing on the surface.

We swam, snorkeled and kayaked … that is, until the Park Rangers came and told us it was forbidden to kayak and fined us for doing so.  The $20 fine was deemed worth it for the great fun we had had but we dutifully lashed it once again to the foredeck and went back to snorkeling!

Our Parks tickets have kayaks - no irony there...
Our kayaking fine

We popped across the channel and picked up a mooring in Donald Duck Bay on Ko Similan (#8), named for a rock formation with a remarkable resemblance to the cartoon character.   Because of the depth of the water around the island chain, there are limited places to anchor so Parks have put in moorings and all these are busy. 

We, however got into the rhythm of the day. Snorkeling. clambouring along the rocks and building sandmen on the beach before and after the hoards.  Floating around the boat, lazing on the boat while watching the boats come in.
   
Snorkling!
Swimming!

And again noted a few patterns of tourist behaviour. 
  • Bright pink is the preferred swimsuit colour.
  • Photo shoots of girlfriends and wives pouting in skimpy bikinis (for the Russians) and jumping in flowing floral frocks with big floppy hats (for the Asians).
  • Snorkeling in a life jacket – perfect for those weak swimmers and fabulous for visibility – not dissimilar to the schools of colourful fish they are peering at through their masks.  This was especially amusing when these non-swimmers would try to reclaim dry land and there was even the tiniest bit of surf and would end up in 30 centimetres of water on their backs, turtled and sputtering (but completely safe).
Ray cooked a magnificent “SouthEast Asian Turkey” on the barbeque, complete with stuffing made from Adrienne’s homemade bread to mark Christmas Day.  We saw out the last of the Yuletide with a centerpiece of candles in the cockpit and “Let It Snow” playing quietly on our portable speaker, as we toasted the evening with the finest boxed wine that Tesco had to offer.  

T'was a memorable Christmas, indeed.

Ray at the helm

On Boxing Day we headed about 5nm south to Ko Miang (#4).  The snorkeling here was fabulous, the ubiquitous brightly-coloured fish and fabulous coral outcrops, the sand magnificently fine and white and the water almost unnaturally turquoise. And by 3:30pm, we had only another sailing boat and a single dive boat for company.

Sunset at Ko Miang

The weather has settled into glorious sunny days and light winds from the NE.  We headed out over a beautifully calm and sparkling ocean back to Phuket so Ray could catch his flight.

Our tips for visiting The Similan Islands by yacht:
  • Just go.  It is busy but it is gorgeous.  And thanks Craig for saying “just go’!
  • The Parks moorings are orange or yellow with a black stripe.  The yellow ones tend to be in deeper water and are for larger boats.  The dive operators put down their own moorings so pick up a Parks one if you can.
  • Arrive after 3:30pm and you should have your choice of moorings.
  • Ko Similan (Donald Duck Bay) is the most sheltered ... but the busiest.  If the weather is right, we would suggest mooring in Ko Miang or Ko Bangu.  The snorkeling is better in these bays too.
  • It is 500 baht per person per day and 100 baht per boat per day.  Parks will come to the boat and collect the fee and provide a ticket.  We paid for just one day of the five we were there.  The Parks boat passed by us on the other days and simply waved. 
  • Do not kayak or you will be fined!

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