Thursday, February 19, 2009

Similan Islands

Left by songtaew at 8am to go to the pier, where we were issued with snorkel masks and fins. Tea, coffee and fluorescent green pandan cakes were laid on, which we ate at a table opposite an Italian girl with Barbie-bouffant hair and a bright red lipstick pout (how long do you think that's going to last in the sea, eh?). An excessively chirpy lady on the tannoy offered seasickness pills and warned us not to try and catch any fish or turtles.

It's about an hour's journey by speedboat to the Similan Island group, about 70 kilometres offshore. The sea was pancake flat for the entire journey. We moored at Island 9 first (there are nine islands, and although they do apparently have names, they're usually referred to by their numbers) and one by one descended into crystal-clear (yes it's a cliché, but it really was!) azure water.

I like snorkelling – you get the impression of having the entire ocean to yourself. With your ears submerged you can't hear anything but the metallic tinkle of the water and the sound of your own Darth Vader breathing, and looking straight down you're not really aware of the other swimmers (until you kick each other), so you can pretend you're not sharing the water with 75 other tourists.

I did have a panic moment when I realised that I'd forgotten to check the eco-credentials of the tour company we were using, but swimming under the boats I saw that they were moored to a buoy tied to a rock, and not anchored on the coral as Lonely Planet sternly warns that “some unscrupulous operators” do.

And the fish! There were yellow-and-black striped fish, darting schools of silver-blue fish, electric blue fish like Dory in Finding Nemo. My personal favourite was a huge thing – must have been easily a metre – with a jade and indigo harlequin patterned body, and neon orange and pink fins and tail. It went around nibbling at the coral.

I'd got out of the water and was enjoying slices of watermelon and pineapple cookies when one of the guides called out that he'd seen a turtle. I grabbed the camera and snapped a few pictures, then jumped back in to have a swim with it.

Next stop was Island 8, for lunch and “lilleck” (Thais use the word “relax” a lot, especially considering how hard it is for them to pronounce). Honestly, I thought that having spent so much time on the squeaky-soft, white sand beaches of Samet, it'd be hard to impress me, but stepping off the boat in the Similans, it was like walking on cornflour.

Barbie laid out her sarong in the sun. The Korean ladies scurried up the beach under umbrellas, and positioned themselves in the shade (they were later seen swimming in full-length leggings, jackets and those peculiar ultra-wide silver sun visors only worn by Asian tourists).

Lunch was fantastic. I'm used to “lunch included” consisting of a wax paper parcel of fried rice, but here we had a veritable feast of massaman curry, stir-fried vegetables, fried red snapper, tom yum gung, and of course fruit to finish.

Afterwards I left Sara sunbathing on the beach, and headed for the “Viewpoint”. Our shoes having been taken away from us at the pier, this meant a barefoot scramble over steep granite rocks, along crude wooden plank bridges, and up a dusty jungle path which was crisscrossed by tree roots, all polished to a light sheen by thousands of feet. Then more rocks, more plank walkways, hang onto a rope to skirt an overhang whilst not slipping down the rounded slope, round a rock, and the view...

Another snorkel stop, at Island 7, and then we headed to our last stop of the afternoon, the caster-sugar beach of Island 4. I doodled hearts in the sand, humming Pat Boone to myself as I always do when I doodle hearts in the sand. I'd been trying to photograph my footprints at the tide line, when Barbie's boyfriend dashed up and said could I please take their photograph, because I looked so professional.

Reluctantly we allowed ourselves to be herded back onto the boat, and started back to the mainland. I half-dozed, until I was roused by a commotion on board. People were standing on the seats and craning their necks to look out of the speedboat. “Dolphin,” a guide told us, so we scrambled to look too. And so there were dolphins, frolicking about and occasionally leaping. I took a lot of photos of splashes, and two or three of dolphins.


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