Cruise Log - THAILAND

14 March 2006

I can't believe we've been in Thailand three months. Old hands in yachtie terms. Maybe half the fleet of 120(?) that left Australia in 2005 has already left for the Mediterranean. The rest have flown home, toured Phang Nga Bay or parked at one of the beaches or marinas for a large chunk of time and will be staying until next season before continuing west.

 We have been lucky, having lots of visits from our family, which has meant we have covered a lot of ground around the waters of Phuket and on the mainland of Thailand. Enough to have our "favourite" moorings and "must see" spots - as well as a sort of route around the islands.

I started this email as soon as we got to Thailand and have been adding to it between visitors. So it's a bit late but, if you are interested, you'll get a picture of our unfolding impressions.....

20 December 2006

 After checking out of Malaysia a week ago, our first stop in Thailand was Koh Lipe (Lipe Island), only a couple of miles away from the northern tip of Langkawi. That first day was a tourist brochure stunner - and hot. We just sat up to our necks in clear warm water over sand until beer o’clock and then sauntered into a beach bar for a cold Chang beer before dinner.

Koh Lipe

 We are quickly learning that beach bars, or “resorts” (a bar with a couple of bungalows attached) seem to be an institution on most of the Thai islands here. The five or six resorts on the tiny salt – white beach at Koh Lipe are particularly gorgeous. “Primitif,” Swiss family Robinson – style bungalows, on nearly straight driftwood stilts and with cute steps and curly knarled handrails also fashioned from driftwood. Arty types have created lamps out of flotsam – I liked the ones that were the tops of dinghy fenders, painted white and cut in zig zags with a string of shells hanging from each zig and zag. They make a lovely soft light.

Click here for some pix of various beach bars/resorts and typical clever detailing.

 At the bar we went to under the trees, we sat on beach mats on the sand, with a smooth driftwood log at our backs and tables six inches off the ground. Soft reggae music played and candles supplemented the arty lamps. The actual “bar” was under a thatched roof with logs on end and cushions as bar stools.

We could have chosen instead one with hammocks in the trees or another with a monkey tethered out front (The Jumping Monkey Bar). I have to tell you that though we have loved the food just about everywhere we have been, The Family Restaurant at Koh Lipe ramped that up several notches with incredible finesse and presentation. We ate tempura squid, papaya salad, green beef curry, spiced steamed fish and Phad Thai. And they made each of them perfectly.

Strolling along the beach later, we realised each place is beautifully but simply lit. (Are you getting the impression this is our kind of place?) My all time favourite was the restaurant that had its half dozen tables just at high water mark so the guests could paddle while they ate by candlelight. Perfect calm moonlit night for it. We decided there and then we love Thailand.

And lucky we did because the next day the weather turned to shit (ish) – well not perfect anyway – and we didn’t get off the boat at the next couple of anchorages. We did appreciate the vertical islands shooting straight out of the sea with misty cloud hiding their summits though. The scenery gets A+ for drama.

Our second Thailand experience - gaspingly astonishing - was the hong at Koh Muk. A hong is a cave where, some time in ancient history, the roof has collapsed and disappeared, leaving a “room” in the middle of an island. You can only get in via water.  

Koh Muk

I couldn't get a picture of inside the hong at Ko Muk because we had to swim in, but this is the anchorage.

Anchored at the side of an island near a small cave mouth, we jumped over the side and swam into the mouth of the cave, clutching our dolphin torches with arms extended. Bats, stalagtites and oyster covered rocks overhead, then along 80 metres of pitch black tunnel. Spooky animal-like roarings came at us in the dark, presumably the surging of the sea inside other channels in the cave. We dog paddled on in the blackness until we emerged into a pool of green water and sand beach, surrounded by soaring 100m jungle covered cliffs inside the hong. A dramatic wake up first thing in the morning.

An early start and the short distances between islands meant we could do that and yet be at Koh Lanta by early afternoon in time to explore its tiny township of Sala dan and walk back along the beach inspecting all the resorts, bars and restaurants for one with “best fit” for a few oldies. We found it at a thatched bar with bamboo tables and chairs, playing reggae and blues and staffed by a couple of cool Thai dudes with dreds.

(We've since discovered that reggae is the universal music. Everyone loves it - backpackers, five stars and yachties alike - so every third bar on the sand sports Bob Marley posters or green, red and yellow flags draped on the bamboo siding,)

The other thing that is available at every second beachfront bar is Thai massage. Apart from whatever therapeutic benefits there are for the massagee, everyone else on the beach shares the experience because the lounges are, without fail, on view right where everyone walks.

The last two nights were spent at Koh Phi Phi Don. Billed as "one of the three most beautiful islands in the world" we don't know what the others are, but this one is pretty darn good. Phi Phi was one of the places badly devasted by the tsunami. From a tourist’s viewpoint, the place is fully peak seasonally operational, though with clearing up and lots of building still underway. If there weren't hundreds of postcard photos of the tsunami damage for sale, you could almost miss that it happened.  

Maya Bay  Maya Bay at Ko Phi Phi Le

As we approach Phuket Island from a few miles off we can see skyscrapers, ports, cruise ships and all the signs of a big city. Clearly we are in for more education about what Thailand has to offer.

Kit is flying over from Shanghai for Christmas and a couple of weeks of R&R and I am anxious to get to the shops and try to source a loin of pork.

18 January 2006

We’ve been in the Phuket area for almost a month now and are on our first visa run down to Langkawi. In truth this isn’t a real “visa run” as Phuketians know it. That is a bus and ferry trip over the Burmese border and back and you see signs all around Phuket advertising “Visa Run. B1000” or “Executive Visa Run – All included – B1500” etc Those visa runs are apparently a monthly nuisance for all the expats who have made Phuket their home. And there are plenty of them. Mostly ugly old fat guys with Thai wives and new babies. But quite a few ugly old fat women on yachts as well. So as you can see, we fit right in.

Our visa run will be a leisurely trip (120 nm in 10 days or a fortnight) via the Thai islands south to Langkawi, where we will pick up duty free stuff and cruise for a week or so before heading back to Phuket in time to pick up Tim and Ren on 8 February.

As a matter of fact we checked out of Thailand a couple of days ago but headed north from Chalong Bay around to the west coast of Phuket to Kata Beach, Patong Beach, Nai Harn and Phi Phi Island, where we are trying out our new kayak. The Thai authorities apparently don’t mind how long you stay in Thai waters after you check out – as long as you provide them with 3 photocopies of everything before you do. Considering that there are 12 pages of paper on check in and another 12 on check out, that this must be done every 29 days and that there are no filing cabinets and no evidence of any data entry taking place in the office, we reckon there is money to be made either in renting warehouses or in selling shredders to the immigration, customs and port authorities in Phuket. Anyone want to join us in an investment?

Apart from that, investing in real estate seems to be the big goer, with expats apparently developing and buying land and condos at an incredible rate. For British retirees, Thailand is apparently the new Spain (or so we deduced from a conversation overheard in a coffee shop between a small time developer and his prospective builder) – sunny and you can have a good lifestyle in a smart home for very little money.

Using our own powers of observation we’d say he’s dead on the money – and not just for British retirees either – we’re all at it! I think there is already a two tier society where relatively rich whities own all the sea front/seaview land, kit out their condos with lots of bamboo and terra cotta urns, cheaply employ Thai boat boys, gardeners and domestics, have their washing done cheaply by Thais, eat food prepared cheaply by Thai cooks, but shop in western malls for western goods at western prices where Thais can’t afford to shop. Philip says it is an example of the rich injecting money into the economy and services and goods being supplied in response to demand. I reckon it’s a recipe for ill will.

We know we’re in our cruising comfort zone when we stop taking so many photos (and stop sending you long emails with dates for headings). We’ve been there, done that and taken photos before so now we can just relax. Do some filing or sewing or varnishing, or tax preparation etc – the stuff  that’s not as important as experiencing the moment that you’ll only have once as you cruise through. [14/3....famous last words!]

We have reached the comfort zone with Thailand already. In some ways it’s just like the cruising we’re used to in Australia. The natural beauty is different from but equal to Australia (though on the brink of being terribly blighted by tourism); the cruising grounds pack a lot of interest into a definable area (120nm from Langkawi to Phuket), making 1-15nm trips the order of the day; and you have a specific season when the wind direction and weather makes the island anchorages ideal. I think we have already decided we will stay here for the wet season as we can’t yet bear the thought of having to make distance to, say, Lumut in the Malacca Straits or, further afield, to eastern Malaysia..

Most things are available here – though you have to hunt around in lots of stores to find them. We think we’ve got them pegged now though. One of the few things that is hard to get everywhere in SE Asia, including here, is dairy, other than in pissy little sizes. We’ve managed to find kilo blocks of Australian or NZ cheddar cheese (a lifesaver for us rats) at Makro in Bali, Penang and Phuket. So we do a big stock up every couple of months. We now drink certain brands of low fat UHT milk so no longer have to find and store fresh. Yoghurt and marg. is available. As is sliced wholemeal bread so we can still have cheese sandwiches for lunch! Australian steak is also available frozen at about half the price per kilo of Australia and lamb is also sometimes available though I forget where. In Malaysia the supermarkets don’t sell pork (or have it quarantined at a special counter served by non Muslims) but in Thailand it is everywhere, as I found when I went looking for the pork roast for Christmas**. And there’s a particular sort of “devon” we’ve found only in Thailand, which is laced with fresh chillies – try that on your school sandwiches with tomato sauce.

(**I was able to buy the pork roast in a supermarket but extra crackling was nowhere to be found until we spied a pork stall on the side of the road one day. Buying extra crackling was no problem, as they cut it off the meat here, but scoring it was. I ended up standing by the side of the road next to the stall owner, wielding the butcher's knife doing it myself on her chopping block.)

Of course most of this is academic as we usually eat dinner ashore at one of the little bure restaurants on most beaches on most islands. $10 per couple, including multiple beers, is a relatively dear meal – we’re paying (low end) tourist prices at that. I’ve just been through a period of wanting to cook on the boat but that’s just about worn off now so we’ll be eating out at Koh Lanta tonight.)

Not only is boat stuff like antifouling, Sikkaflex, paints, anodes etc available, but at a third less than the price in Australia. Slipping is expensive (about the same as Australia) but labour is cheap (from $10/day for unskilled upwards) so I might get out of having to do under boat work (yay!). Jotun antifoulings (PA10, vinyguard etc), limited International antifouling and a couple of local brands are the only ones available though (so maybe we’ll be changing from Altex to Jotun with a coat of Vinyguard in between).. You have to be careful about what you buy – in Malaysia it’s sold in 5 litre cans, in Thailand it’s US gallons; in Thailand it has TBT in it, in Malaysia it doesn’t.

As you might have guessed, we have been examining options for slipping and look like doing it at Satun, a town in Thailand adjacent to Langkawi. Have a look at their website at They don’t do many pleasure craft and the yachty gossip hasn’t gotten on to it yet but we have been very pleased with their professionalism so far. [27 January - see slipping info later in this epistle]

Every country we’ve been to they drive on the left, just like Australia. Unlike in Bali, in Phuket the drivers are not ratbags and drive quite slowly (also a lot of them are on bikes so you’ve got the advantage if you’re in a car.) We’ve hired a car a few times here and I feel quite comfortable to drive. Finding your way on maps though is another story. Mapping seems to be yet another “do it yourself” enterprise in Phuket.

The weather seems to be 28 degrees centigrade all the time, maybe dropping a little in the middle of the night but I’d be surprised if it gets below 25. It’s a lovely temperature most of the time – but a bit hot in bed at first. I have a wet face washer which I take to bed with me or we use our fan (when the power nazi deems the batteries are fully charged). The water temperature is about the same. Not quite bathwater but no sensation of cold. Just the way I like it. The sun, on the other hand, is fierce, if you make the mistake of going out into it.

Back to our visa run to Langkawi.....

Since 2 am this morning, anchored at Koh Lipe, we have been up and down keeping an eye on a large (80-100 ton) ferry that threatens to smack into us every now and then. The mooring ahead of us was taken by a smaller ferry (with a piece of string as mooring line). He later tied another ferry to his stern. And that guy tied this big one to his stern. So we have a 100 metre daisy chain of three ferries snaking alongside of us.

The anchorage is deep and small and we didn’t fancy re-anchoring. So Philip motored around on anchor to move our chain a bit so we lay further away and went back to bed. As there's no wind, we should sit in the same spot.

If we do hit, hopefully our stabiliser arm will punch one of his windows in. It’s might vs right over here. (Whoops! I just realised he doesn't have any glass in his windows. There goes that bit of mean retaliation).

But I’m wide awake and thinking.

23 January

Somewhere along the way south we decided that, with the timing of our visitors in February and March, it would be best for us to slip on this run. So our time in Langkawi will be just a couple of days checking into Malaysia, collecting stuff for the slip, shopping for duty free, checking out of Malaysia before heading across to mainland Thailand to Satun to check in to Thailand, slip for a few days and possibly check out from Thailand and in and out again at Langkawi to maximise our 29 day visa time.

27 January - Satun Slipway

We're up. When I look out I can see big red and blue Thai fishing boats on blocks from every window. And did I say we've reached our comfort zone in Thailand? Scratch that. We've taken a lot of pictures in the last couple of days.

The adventure started, trying to follow waypoints to 3 decimal places on a mud map drawn by some yachty in aeons past through a serpentine channel to get to the river. The whole estuary is shallow - much of it exposed at low water springs. Following the waypoints wouldn't have been too bad, except that there were fishing stakes - fences of bamboo about 3 metres high - across our path and we had to decide which way to go around them. In the end we employed that old sailor's technique for navigating in shallow water - we followed another boat.

Boating in the shallows of Moreton Bay and the Broadwater turned out to be good experience and we fortunately had calm weather and had timed it so we had 4 hours of rising tide to get in. Thank heavens for computer based navigation - we have saved our track to follow when we come out.

There are several slipways and travel lifts in Malaysia and Thailand. Because Lifeline is planked timber with chines we prefer to haul out at a slipway. The slipways here don't have cradles like we are used to, where the boat is gripped from the sides by four uprights that wind in. Instead they use flat trolleys. The boat is propped underneath to make it sit upright and then it is attached to the trolley with downwards pressure. The trolley is then hauled up the ramp with the boat attached - just like a cradle in Australia. One of the things they do here is have "a team of divers" place the props between the cradle and your boat, because this has to be done while the boat is still floating. I had heard about this and was looking forward to seeing it.

The cradle is submerged when you go onto it. So instead of driving into the space between the four uprights, you are apparently driving onto nothing at all - except you can feel the boat "ground". A man directs from the front, standing between the rails. Meanwhile the two divers, with no masks or snorkels, wedge props between the cradle and the boat and attach a humungous chain to the cradle on either side. The chain has a huge square hook on it which the divers heave up and hook onto the caprail. The hooks and chains are then tightened down with an enormous turnbuckle.

A friend who hauled out at another slipway said the "team of divers" used hookahs hitched up to spray paint air compressors. When the boss wanted them to surface, he gave their hoses a bit of a squeeze. (Guaranteed to get their attention!)

When we were up, we were shifted sideways along one of three secondary railways. This yard is big. They could take maybe 40 boats at a time. At 30 tons, we were among the smallest, except for a community of three French yachts in one corner.

And then......the piece de resistance.....when we were in place they propped the keel, jacked the whole boat up with what looked like a car jack's big brother......and removed the trolley, leaving us propped on half a dozen tree trunk props! Amazing.

While we went off to spend a couple of hours with the harbour master, immigration and customs, the bottom was pressure washed and the barnacles scraped.

Because it's Chinese New Year right now, quite a lot of the staff are off, so there are only about forty on duty!

On the second day the metal shoe and rudder was ground and several sections of seams were scraped out and caulked. The boat next door, on the other hand, has a cast of thousands and in one day had every seam scraped out, the front third stbd side planks removed (to reveal rotten ribs) and new ribs chainsawed delicately from a 4' x 15' x 5" plank.

slipway Chainsaw carpentry

At eight in the morning a siren sounds to start work. At 12 noon another siren to down tools for an hour for lunch. And 5pm is the knock off siren. Before eight you go over to the on site cafe for coffee and whatever's on for breakfast.

At beer o'clock we have our workers up for a beer or coke from the esky. This is the most sustained interraction we have had with Thais who are not in the tourist industry so we are only now starting to learn a very few Thai words. Apart from Philip startling a few Thais we pass in the street by "wei"ing (bowing head with hands in prayer style) with his "sawasdee" (hello), we have not got past hello and thank you.

We've just finished day three and I'm tired and emotional and just want to be away. Like always seems to happen to us on the slip, about this point we reach a stage where everything is half done and we begin to panic that it won't all be done on time. Added to that, though, is the language problem - people come and go and do things but we're not sure who they are or why they've gone.

What new adventure is in store for us today?

12 February

When it was all over, we were pretty happy with the level of skill of the caulkers and carpenters especially. Now that we know what to expect and what they can do, we will probably go back there. Just the experience of being there almost made it worthwhile.

We are anchored at Nai Harn Beach. Tim has gone over to the tailor for his second fitting for his suits and Ren to try on her Thai silk dress and maybe get her nails done at one of the on-beach masseurs and beauticians. When they get back to the boat we are off to Phi Phi Le to nab our favourite mooring after the longtails have all left and enjoy the clear water and fish.

Last time we were there we were sporting a 3" wide band of green growth 2" long all around our waterline. The fish loved it. We could hear them yanking it off and munching on the barnacles. And after two days we still had the grass but only half a centimetre long all around. This time we're sleek in red antifouling.

28 February

As we didn't have enough time to go anywhere in the boat in the short time we had with Lynne and Ian, we hired a car and drove around the island. Instead of skulking around our usual style of cheap haunts, we got to see the inside of some very beautiful and elegant resorts with a only a couple of shots of elixir du drain on the side. And air conditioning. (Have I told you yet I love it?). You know a joint is really swanky when they have air conditioning AND open sided buildings and wide open doors.

Ian wondered where the electricity comes from. Not Phuket apparently - every highway and street is a mess of towering electricity poles, thick black cables and in the back streets, tangles of wires slung up haphazardly by amateur electricians - all bringing in electricity from somewhere else.


15 March

It's now three months since we first arrived. As we haven't been to Langkawi to fill up with water and since we've been on visitors' rations, we have been buying drinking water in bottles. Piped drinking water is available in Phuket but all the Thais tell you not to drink it (and they don't). (We haven't been too fussy anywhere we've been but I have noticed the water I put in the tubs as spare for washing grows things.)

What a pain in the neck on a boat. And what garbage pollution this must create. Every day you generate several 2 litre bottles that have to be disposed of.

We took Mum to the airport yesterday after her two week holiday  - a week at Boat Lagoon marina, five days in PhangNga Bay and a few days shopping in Phuket based at the marina again.

Phuket is a sort of shopping heaven though some might say for the shopkeepers instead of the customers when you take into account the touts, bargaining and heat. Miles of cheap souvenirs but also many western style furniture shops and supermarkets. And a million "restaurants" and food stalls. Each evening after about 4 pm food markets spring up and food stalls dot the sides of the main streets. Everyone eats out. Or you see the Thais grabbing something as they ride home from work on their motorbikes.

Cars and large motorbikes have high import duties here and the most popular mode of transport is the 125cc motorscooter. Whole families hop aboard. Schoolkids, girls riding sidesaddle. You even see tots perched between Mum's legs and holding the handlebars or sitting in a specially made cane seat that fits over the saddle.

Mobile food stalls usually consist of a motorbike with a small sidecar/box trailer arrangement on the side with an awning over the top. You see enterprises that weld them up. In fact awnings/tents/sunshades over a welded frame are big business. Here at Boat Lagoon marina, for instance, the majority of boats on the hard stand have a huge tall framed tent over them. This is for shade rather than dust prevention.

Shade is essential. The direct sun is searing - we can only be in it for minutes at a time. If I were a Thai, I'd much rather be a boat boy, playing with water, than a labourer. They work for hours in the heat and sunlight. I still haven't got used to seeing women mixing concrete in a tub with a hoe. Of course there is readymix concrete available as well (I saw it in a "Homepro" shop catalogue along with the air conditioners and outdoor furniture) though I think it is aimed at westerners and large developers.

We see the workers being driven to and from work in the back of utes, often a dozen people, men and women. While they work they wear a T-shirt over their heads (with their face looking out the sleeve or neck hole) and a wide brimmed hat on top of that.

T-shirts also seem to be official safety gear. When we were on the slip, the men working on grinding the paint off the bottom of the boats wore a folded towel over their nose and mouth with the T-shirt and hat on top.

There seems to be building and construction going on everywhere. At first we thought it was just expats building holiday villas, but there are whole estates of modern Thai homes as well.

I remember bragging earlier in this email about the lovely 28 degree temperatures we were having. But the temperatures have been gradually increasing since February until now we have a constant 29 - 33 degrees. The days are OK if you can stay out of the worst of it with fans and air conditioned cars and shops, but the nights are terrible. We are hoping it is just the build up to the wet season. People here refer to the wet season as "cool".

As well as the solid side curtains on the cockpit which we installed in Penang, we have now had solid awnings made for the front deck and the back of the cockpit. The next project will be a huge awning for the roof but we haven't worked out how to do it yet. We can feel the difference in temperature on the ceiling where the dinghy on the roof blocks the sun compared with where it is fully exposed.

We haven't yet succumbed to installing air conditioning as we've seen many boats here where the occupants never come outside, a trap too easy to fall into. And we could only use an air conditioner at a marina. Even so, I'M not ruling it out.

Since we first arrived at Ao Chalong and hired a car from one of the businesses nearby (Andaman Prima Embrace Business Co Ltd), we have struck up a relationship with its owner, and her half dozen employees.

Kitti and Pen, Joy, Lek, and Boy sit at desks in the office on the ground floor of Kitti's modern three storey shop house. We have seen them answer the phone and book cars for us and flights for Kit, but still have no clear idea what keeps them occupied from 9am in the morning until 9pm at night 7 days a week.

As well as the workers, walk on appearances are made by the three maltese/poodles in jackets and hats - different ones every day, including spotted pink ones with bee antennae - and Kitti's daughter and mother. Every now and then Mum throws scraps to the dogs out the back, to much growling and fighting.

It seems that most Thais have a "nickname" by which they are known, rather than by their formal, often long, registered name. I think they are given to them at birth but they seem to be able to change them at will. Kitti's  daughter is called Bashor, which Kitti told us means "minced pork", because Kitti likes to eat it.

Visiting them is always a delight. As soon as we shed our shoes and walk into the office we swap a bow (wei) and "sawasdee", they bring out ice cold glasses of water and anything they can do to help. (Now that I think about it, that's probably what the business is about - doing anything they can to help and charging a small agency fee to do it.)

  As dumb rich westerners we are spoiled and teased by them. They try to teach us Thai and laugh at the result. Sanuk, a sense of fun, really seems to be a concept that is part of the Thai culture.

When you ask people if something is available/possible/able to be done their answer is either "Can" or "Finished". Short and sweet. We've adopted it. "Philip, would you make me one of your nice cups of coffee?" "Can." "Have you got any sweet pastries to go with it?" "Finished."

That reminds me, lots of Thai businesses have great names and slogans: to the point, like a hairdresser called "Nice Haircut" (No thanks. I'm going to crappycuts down the road); or fanciful, like "Phuket Hospital - Caring People. Curing People". Not to mention "Believe. Cardiac Specialist." (As advertised on a billboard at the Ao Chalong roundabout.)

But the Thais don't have a mortgage on fancy names. One of my favourites is the shop in Langkawi called "Tasty and Healthy", a duty free grog shop. That's what I call a truth in advertising!!

It is a wierd thing to try and explain, but in a place where every second place is a shop of some sort, it can be very difficult to buy something. It seems to be the same for Thais, except they are more laid back if they can't get what they want. For a start there is no phone book or yellow pages or equivalent (apart from some small partisan directories to flog expensive western stuff). So you can't "let your fingers do the walking". So then you drive around searching for likely looking shops. The only maps available are tourist ones, which leave out lots of streets and (because of lack of town planning rules?) small sois (lanes) often look like someone's driveway and are not official and definitely not on the maps. So addresses are hard to find.  We are illiterate in Thai, so we don't even see most of the signs in the streets. So you have to go into the shops and examine the goods before you even know what sort of shop you are in. Then the shopkeeper, to be agreeable and possibly not to offend you because he can't understand what you are saying, sends you to some other non-existent place. If you should happen to be able to buy something, you must get a business card so you have some chance of passing the information to someone else. Otherwise you're reduced to trying to show someone where it lies on one of the aforesaid tourist maps.

********To be continued....

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