For snorkerling (as they sometimes write it in Thailand)
21.02.2015 - 21.02.2015 34 °C
To snorkel or not to snorkel? You have to weigh up the odds, is it worth the 90 minute shoulder to shoulder journey in a bouncing, deafening speedboat with 38 strangers, fiercely defending your 15 inches of bum space against those with wider bottoms and/or more stuff? It is if the snorkelling is great, but how do you know? You take the risk, that's what you do, so we did.
Seastar speedboats at Namkhem pier
We booked the trip, after consulting the weather forecasts to choose our day, at a little tour operator in the village paying less that 70% of the brochure price. Tip here, NEVER book in advance over the internet! It was only about a 15 minute transfer but by the time we'd found and collected other travellers, it took much longer. Once at the pier, we were given coffee and cakes, a briefing about where we were going and those who needed them were fitted for masks and fins. Then we waited... It really was a get up early and wait, hurry up and wait morning, after a 6.00am start, we were still hanging around waiting to load the boat for our 9.00am 'departure' at 9.30am. Finally the people we'd been waiting for showed up, all the way from Phuket.
Li'l Monkey ready to snorkel (but waiting for late arrivals from Phuket)
Our original intention had been to visit the Similan Islands but we were warned that although it's very beautiful there and the snorkelling is good, they can be extremely crowded, so we did a bit of research and decided upon the Surin Islands which are lesser known and nearer anyway. It's still the 90 minute high speed boat ride away, which is fun and exhilarating for about 10 minutes, but rapidly becomes hot and boring. You can't talk to your neighbour, even screaming directly into their ear they can't hear you so after a little while everyone leans back and closes their eyes, heads rocking with the motion of the boat.
Keith & Diane on the speedboat
At our first snorkelling spot there was a mad scramble to don fins and masks and hurl our hot bods into the water. We weren't disappointed, the water was crystal clear and it was good to see so much coral regrowth. The tsunami damaged the reefs badly and the warming of the waters over the years following killed much of the coral, but over the last two or three years, the water has been cooler and the coral is coming back, flashes of blue, purple and orange are appearing amongst all the pale, dead formations. And the fish, so many of them, tiny Nemos in their sea anemone homes, pretty striped angel fish, big multi coloured iridescent parrot fish and so many more. There are no pictures, we've given up trying to take the perfect underwater tropical fish shot, would you believe the little blighters refuse to pose and keep swimming away so all you get is a photograph of a tail?
Longtail boat cutting through the crystal clear waters surrounding the Surin Islands
The Surins are protected and part of a National Marine Park. There are no permanent buildings and very strict rules about where boats can stop and which beaches can be used. You can stay overnight but you have to rent a tiny bivouac tent to sleep in which isn't really suitable for those of an age to relish their creature comforts. We were taken to the park headquarters for a picnic buffet lunch under the trees. We'd read dire things about the food here and weren't expecting much but as we tucked into our barbecued chicken drumsticks, stir fried squid with noodles and bean sprouts, chicken with pak choi, stir fried mixed vegetables and steamed rice we thought that maybe they'd got a new chef! With fruit for dessert and coffee with tiny custard doughnuts we were well stuffed and ready for a relaxing swim and potter around on another one of those picture postcard perfect beaches we've come to expect.
Army style tents for rent from the National Marine Park
Next on the itinerary was a visit to a Moken village. Moken were originally sea gypsies moving from island to island building temporary shelters and making a simple living from the sea. They have their own language, spoken only, not written and are renowned for their ability to focus clearly underwater without masks. This particular tribe have settled on the island and have been living there in their stilt houses for many years. We were planning to opt out of this part of the trip as both of us are never very comfortable with this intrusion into people's lives as though they are some kind of living exhibit, but since our speedboat was picking us up there as we were being taken over by longtail, we didn't have much choice. We strolled through the village on the beach, along a well worn path, trying not to look inside the pretty bamboo 'tree houses' built on stilts, nor to notice the young woman washing herself and her hair kneeling on the floor using a tap and a plastic bowl. The houses here do not have any mains water but they do have satellite dishes and small solar panels on their palm leaf roofs.
Traditional Moken dugout canoes and, ahem, satellite dishes!
In the afternoon we had two more 40 minute snorkel stops in different spots. We didn't meet any other speedboats at any of our stops, very different from The Similans apparently. At one spot we were told that the water was 30 feet deep but you could see to the bottom easily, turquoise blue with shafts of sunlight shining all the way down. There was lots of space to spread out, no fin bumping, not even by the man with such huge long fins that engendered many jokes about the size of his fins relative to other things! It can be eerily quiet and peaceful, apart from the sound of parrot fish or trigger fish chomping on the coral. It's easy getting off the boat into the water, you can just jump but getting back in was more difficult. To avoid damaging the coral, the boat crew didn't drop the steps down fully into the water, so to get on to the bottom rung, which was bouncing up and down in the tides, with mask and snorkel on and fins in one hand, you had to be able to get one foot up through the water to above waist height and lift yourself up from that. I couldn't do it and neither could most of the others so, the seemingly small, slight, crewmen, simply grabbed an arm and hauled us aboard.
Diane with large Surin rocks, and tiny, weeny Surin hermit crab!
The journey back was equally noisy but, with everyone tired, salt encrusted and wet, we just wedged ourselves in amongst the towels, bags and snorkel gear and tried to wish the time away. On our return, the guy who'd been our tour guide thanked us and laughingly indicated a tip box. Many tipped, some didn't, but we felt they'd earned it, they were attentive, helpful and very professional... we'd already marvelled at the ability of the boatmen to turn the craft 'on a sixpence'. As we left, we were given the opportunity to buy the ubiquitous photo souvenir, a plate with us in the middle extolling the virtues of two places we'd not visited and 'snorkerling'. We bought it anyway!
Fishing boats at Namkhem pier
It was another mini bus ride home, but despite our late start, we'd had all the snorkel time we'd been promised so it was nearly 7.00pm when we returned. The hotel manager greeted us, 'We were worried, you're so late!'
Never was a hot shower and a seriously long G&T so appreciated...