Cruising Notes


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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in Thailand


Too late in the season to cross the Indian Ocean this year, our pace has slowed to a leisurely cruise in the Andaman Sea amongst the islands off the west coast of Thailand.  We find ourselves in the hot season, the build up to the rains of the south west monsoon, so our experience of Thailand is an intense and relentless heat.   The boat absorbs the sun like a storage heater, while the metal keel sits in a bath of hot water (sea temperatures are above 30 degrees) so we are thoroughly cooked. 


                                                      Sailing amongst the islands Langkawi

This was the time that Nick (Liz’s son ) and Danny joined us for a holiday.  Looking for sunny days on the beach, they soon learned that this was a sun to avoid!  They arrived on Langkawi, our last port in Malaysia to sail with us to Phuket (Thailand).  Langkawi is a sprawling mountainous island where monkeys live in the forests and sea eagles patrol the bays.  We anchored off Pulau Dayang Bunting, one of many high, wooded islands in the Langkawi archipelago, and went for a swim in a fresh water lake.  As we made our way back to the dinghy at dusk we were accompanied by a clan of monkeys.  Earlier we had faced off a couple of aggressive males, but now at low tide they all ignored us, busily absorbed in their beachcombing.  We next anchored in Telaga Harbour and saw the result of the tsunami;  pontoons washed away and some wrecked yachts ashore, one completely broken in half, but no one was hurt.  This harbour was a very recent development, and now they must start all over again.  On the north coast, we went to the top of Mount Mat Cincang in the cable car for great views of the island, and of Ko Tarutao, the first of the Thai islands on our route to Phuket.


                                                             Wrecked yacht Telaga

We  decided to sail the 120 miles from Langkawi to Phuket in day hops from island to island to experience some wild and remote anchorages and do some snorkelling before hitting the tourist spots.   We had these places pretty much to ourselves as this is not the best sailing season.  We are in between the N/E monsoon and the S/W monsoon (the one which brings the rain) and so have unpredictable, light winds.  We did, however, get a final blast from the N/E monsoon on our first day, which blew 25 knots straight from the anchorage we wanted to go to on Ko Tarutoa.  We tried tacking, but as the daylight faded, we gave up the fight and anchored off the nearest beach.  Turns out this is one where turtles lay their eggs between Jan and March, when they come up onto the beach at high tide on the night of the full moon.  Well, it was still just March, high tide was at midnight, and the moon was full, so Nick and Danny spent half the night on the beach, watching for turtles.  None came, possibly because they got bored and made a nice bonfire to pass the time!


                                                         Fishing boats anchored Ko Phetra

Apart from that wind on the first day, we had to drive.  It was very tedious trundling along  at 4 knots under the blazing sun, and pretty stressful for Nick and Danny, cowering in whatever scrap of shade they could find, emerging now and then to throw buckets of sea water over each other.   But they never gave up on the fishing, making swift forays out into the sun to check their lines, and even occasionally, to land a fish.  The scenery was good though.  The Andaman Sea is dotted with ‘karsts’, which are stark limestone pinnacles emerging from the sea.   Some of them are quite big islands and we spent a night anchored in the lee of Ko Phetra, the great rock face towering over 1000 feet above us in the moonlight.   This is one of the islands where sea swifts build their nests, hidden in limestone caves or high up in rock crevices.  The nest is a translucent cup made of hardened saliva, ingredient of that famous delicacy, bird’s nest soup;  the brave souls who harvest the nests can make a fortune.   We saw the swifts flying around, (apparently they build a second nest if theirs is stolen, even a third!) and noted huts of the guards who protect the sites.  At our next anchorage, the low lying Ko Rok Nok, (Ko is Thai for island) we found clear sparkling water, amazing coral and loads of pretty fish and spent the afternoon snorkelling.  But we paid for our perfect afternoon as that night a squall blew up.  Nick and Danny always sleep in the cockpit to keep cool, but wild wind and rain drove them inside,  then a lumpy swell found its way around the island and rolled us  for the rest of the night.  But we made an early start to get to Phi Phi Don.


                                                                  Ko Rok Nok

Phi Phi Don is a high limestone island lying close to Phi Phi Lee (where ‘The Beach’ was filmed).   Phi Phi Lee is all towering karsts with caves and narrow inlets, and is uninhabited except for the men who risk all to gather birds’ nests.  Phi Phi Don by contrast is a well developed,  popular tourist destination and this is one of the places in Thailand that was badly hit by the tsunami.  The island is the usual dramatic peaks and cliffs, but a low strip of sand lies across the middle and here the waves washed everything away.  Where there were once hundreds of lush green palms shading shops and chalets, bars and restaurants, now is a wasteland of sand and rubble.  A digger was working day and night scooping rubble into trucks which dumped it onto waiting barges.  Local people continue to sell necklaces and t-shirts and offer massage, looking rather forlorn as they operate out of their smashed up premises, trying to maintain some business.  All very sad.  There are quite a few tourists ( backpackers) looking a bit subdued as they stroll past the wreckage.  Some were helping by digging debris out of the blocked drainage system, and diving on the reefs to remove rubbish from the coral.


                                                           Kata Beach Ko Phuket

As it happens, we were anchored in the bay at Phi Phi Don when a tsunami warning came in the early hours of Monday, 28 March.  Fortunately, it was a false alarm, as the entire crew of Tokomaru slept peacefully while all the boats around us (ferries, fishing boats, etc) upped their anchors and went out into deeper water.  This would have made quite a commotion but we heard nothing, and were surprised to see a completely different arrangement of boats when we looked out in the morning;  they had all came back and re-anchored, and we didn’t hear that either.   Ashore, night revellers had moved to higher ground.  So at least people were alerted in time, well, most people!  


                                                             Longtail fisherman

Nick and Danny by now had only 4 days left and were badly in need of some holiday comforts:  air-conditioning, nice long showers, clean clothes, a good night’s sleep and a fun night out!   So they opted for a fast ferry ride from Phi Phi Don to Phuket, where we caught up with them in time to say our goodbyes before they went home.  We spent a week restocking essential supplies of petrol, water, gin, beer, etc. and then looked around us.  There is little sign on Phuket island of the tsunami devastation; huge efforts have been made to clear up the mess and screen off the damage in an attempt to keep the tourists coming.  There is a lot of anger about the media coverage which implied that the whole of Phuket was a no-go zone, while in truth, 99% of the island was unaffected.  The worst hit area we saw was on the mainland at Khao Lak where waves had swept far inland, over and beyond the main road which we were driving along;  a sobering thought.  Banners were everywhere declaiming the recovery process, be it boat building or road mending or temporary housing.  There is much to be done.

 Having spent several months in Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand certainly felt different, a whole new culture and language to get to grips with.  We were soon appreciating the flamboyant temples, the little red and yellow spirit houses, markets full of orchids and fruit, a wonderful spicy cuisine and of course the renowned cheerful energy of the Thai people.  The scene on the water was equally colourful where the boats have garlands and lengths of cloth draped around the prow (something to do with spirits) and the larger fishing boats look like a fairground, brightly painted and strung with lights.   The obvious thing to do was to visit Bangkok but we couldn’t imagine sight-seeing in a city in the heat.  Instead, we sailed up the east side of Phuket, parked in a marina, hired a car and drove off into the hilly jungles of Khao Sok national park.  We stayed four nights in a big airy wooden lodge overlooking the river Sok, with rugged limestone peaks (those ‘karsts’ again) rising out of the trees and covered in mist in the mornings.  At night the temperature dropped to a comfortable 26 degrees, shutters wide open to the cool night air.  It rained a lot and our lodge stayed dry while the dripping foliage outside grew ever more luxuriant.  Jungle noises intensified with the rain, cicadas like circular saws rising to ear splitting crescendos, a full orchestra of frogs, the river babbling faster over the stones.   The steep ravines make for waterfalls aplenty, and it was cool enough to enjoy some hiking, protected from the sun by the dense canopy above.  We slithered happily along muddy tracks, taking care to avoid the leeches.  Most memorable was the whooping call of gibbons, a wonderful sound echoing across the valley in the mornings.




                         Water monitor                                                         Longtail engine

Khao Sok national park includes the Cheow Lan Lake, an artificial lake created by the Rajprakha Dam in 1986.  We explored the lake in a ‘long-tail’, a typical SE Asian boat which is powered by a car engine with a 2 meter long propeller shaft which sticks out horizontally so the propeller throws up a great arc of spray.  They are very noisy indeed, but they slice through the water at exhilarating speed.  Our guide, now 28, was 5 years old when the valley was flooded; his home, his school, his temple, his village lay beneath us, 100 feet down.   He told us how his people lost vast acres of farmland and were poorly compensated.   Now their choices are to work in rubber plantations or in the tourist industry.  But he seemed happy enough with his life.  The lake is spectacular, enclosed by mountains with karsts rising from the surface, forming rocky peaks and islands.  First we sped over the lake to deliver supplies to some raft huts (Nick and I squeezed amongst the sweet potatoes) and then we went swimming in cool green water.

   emerald hong 

                    Emerald Hong Ko Muk                                           Art's river view Lodge

We sailed (drove) back to Langkawi, occasional rain making things a little cooler.  With the wind  beginning to settle from the west,  we anchored on the other side of the islands.  This time we went ashore on the east side of  Ko Tarutao, watched Hornbills flying in and out of the trees and caught a glimpse of the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo!   There were few yachts, just fishermen in their long tails, and the men who guard the birds nests.  The anchorages were a bit spooky, with the cliffs seeming to loom closer in the moonless dark.  Fisher folk came to tie up under rocky ledges for the night and light fires to cook, while now and then the torches of guards would flicker over the dark rock face.


                                Orchid                                                               three wise monkeys

We are now in Langkawi again and Malaysia seems rather sedate with its graceful mosques and quiet streets.  Still feeling overheated, next week we are setting off inland to the Cameron Highlands in the north of Malaysia, optimistically packing warm jumpers and socks.  After that we hope to feel sufficiently cooled to face some sight-seeing and we’ll go to Cambodia for 10 days.  Then Nick’s going to Hong Kong while I potter about on Tokomaru, tidying up before leaving the boat.  We will spend July, August and September in England.   So, that’s it for now.  Best wishes from Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008