16 January, 2013

Thailand: Similan Islands (Wednesday - Part 1)

We were to be picked up from our hotel at about 7:20am for a snorkeling trip to the Similan Islands, which are about 25 miles off the coast of Khao Lak, in the Andaman Sea. As such, we'd arranged for an early breakfast at the hotel. We arrived in the dining area around 6:45am, and we were greeted by Markus. Or maybe we were greeted by Bruno. I can't remember which. But what I do remember is that it was unclear from the menu whether we were allowed to order whatever we wanted, or if we could on choose a single item, each, from the menu. Melissa ordered first, and she asked for the bacon and eggs. Then she paused, and asked if she could also have a fruit plate. Whichever one of them took our order said "Okay" and left the table. We deduced that we must only be allowed to order a single item from the menu, and that he decided that she had ordered for both of us. It seemed weird that he didn't even look at me, but we were already expecting weird from them, so this was not a surprise.

Coffee arrived, and was very good. Then our eggs and bacon, and the fruit plate arrived, and both were very good. We shared, and reflected that perhaps it was for the best that we didn't eat a ton of food before going out on a boat all day, where there would not be much in the way of a bathroom facility. The time got to be around 7:20am and our ride had not arrived, which made me start to wonder how we could possibly really know that we were confirmed. When it came to 7:30am, I really began to wonder, and Markus suggested that we call the number on the voucher (what voucher? we have no voucher?). I went back to the room and found an email that had a telephone number and called, I was put on an extended hold by the man who answered, saying he would check the list to see if they were coming to pick me up. While I was on hold, Melissa came running back to the room, informing me that the driver had arrived. Upon coming back out, the driver asks to see my voucher. Seriously. Nobody said anything about vouchers. I had to go back to the room and get the laptop and show him the confirmation email, but it all turned out to be unnecessary because the guy who had put me on hold called the driver to confirm that we were waiting. Apparently, that counted as a voucher substitute.

We got into a van that looked as if it could hold between 10-12 people, and then we proceeded to pick up 9 other people. Initially, I thought they were all Germans, but they turned out to be a mix of Swedish and either German or Dutch. I learned on this trip that I think everyone is German. I couldn't even tell you what direction we went to get to the pier. Maybe it was north. Maybe it was south. Whatever the case, we apparently went to the "Khao Lak Jetty" for our departure.

When we arrived about a half hour later, there was a sign-in process with the agency that runs the actual trip on the boat. It seems that there are many different booking agencies that collect participants and then funnel them into one place that does the meat and potatoes end of the business. It makes sense, as it leaves it to someone else's hands to manage websites, collect money, disseminate information, and market the tours in a variety of different languages.

The area where we would wait was inside a small building that had an open front, with many tables inside, coffee (which we didn't drink), and the rather odd offering of white bread with a toaster and various jellies and butter. We had already eaten, so we didn't touch any of it. But it was the kind of white bread that makes Wonder look wholesome, so I am not sure we would have touched it anyway, unless we were beyond desperate. Shortly after we arrived, other groups of people started arriving in other vans. It was clear this would not be a small crowd heading out. In fact, it turned out to be enough people to fill two speedboats, each with between 20-30 people aboard. Among those others who arrived, and most notable, were a group of 8-10 French guys, all of whom appeared to be in their early twenties. And all of whom were completely insufferable. Loud, rowdy, macho, obnoxious, and a generally unpleasant spectacle for all. Each of them, with nary an exception, was sporting the aftermath of severe sunburn and molting, which was not surprising, because they were certainly far too cool to actually use sunblock. With only a couple of exceptions, they were all carrying more weight than healthy twenty-something guys should carry, and one could clearly envision what they'll resemble in ten or twenty years' time. I would say "Don't even get me started" but, clearly, I am already on a roll. Let me just tell you one more thing, and then I'll stop. One of the guys had shaved the pattern of a cross out of his lawn of chest hair, in a wide, four-inch (10 centimeter) swath. If they have the concept of frat-boys in France, these guys were it. Regarding all events of the day, it was evident that this Franco-People-Watching would be one of the highlights, like bad reality television.

About a half-hour passed, and the time had finally come to round everyone up and head to the boats. We had surmised that the two different color pieces of yarn that were given to people when they signed in would determine which boat we boarded. And it was clear that the Frenchies had the lime-green yarn just like we did. There would truly be no escaping them. One of the tour guides led everyone over to a station under a tree where they were handing out masks and snorkels, and providing some basic instructions. We didn't require this gear, because we had our own gear, including wet suits. The wet suits, in this climate, are primarily for sun protection, since the water was so warm. It is much easier to snorkel when you don't need to worry about the vast majority of the surface area of your body being burned. In hindsight, as you'll later hear, I wish we owned full-length wetsuits instead of the three-quarter length shorties that we currently have. Why bother exposing any skin at all? As the guide explained some of the instructions, most of the Frenchies were goofing off, and one of them was playing the role of English-to-French translator, though I would venture to guess that there were a total of perhaps 300-400 cerebral neurons firing in response to this information, from among the entire collection of them.

After the gear was dispensed, we started walking toward the dock, which was about 200 meters from the parking lot where we stood. I took that opportunity to ask the tour guide about how much time we would have to snorkel at the Similan Islands. We had been told earlier that it would be 45 minutes at one island and 45 minutes at another island, plus two other stops for lunch and beach. That was a little bit of a disappointment to me, because I had asked for details before booking, and it sounded like it would be possible to have upwards of 2-3 hours in the water. The guide could tell that we were relatively "serious" about the snorkeling, and he shared with us some more information. He said "The snorkeling at Similan is not good. No coral. Not many fish. Not good snorkeling. Good diving. Good snorkeling? Surin Islands? Similan Islands? Bad snorkeling. Good diving."

Um... great. So we are all getting on board a boat, having paid about $80 a head, to do some bad snorkeling on a dead reef? I thought it a bit weird that he elected to tell the two most serious snorkelers in the group that they should expect a lousy experience. I think he was trying to be helpful, but it could have created quite a letdown. I decided that I was not going to be let down by it, because what could we do? We were going to Similan Islands. And it was going to be whatever it was going to be. I'll say more about that in my other blog.

We all boarded the boat, and the 45-60 minute ride to Similan Islands was underway. The Frenchies had spread themselves out either near the bow of the boat, for more sun poisoning, or on the floor of the covered deck, while the rest of us sat on the benches along the sides and back of the boat. The ride was peaceful, but sitting facing sideways while a speedboat powers along can grow tiring after a little while, and it was a relief to finally arrive at the destination.

When we arrived, I am pretty sure that we were two of the first people in the water, of course, because I could not wait to get in there. I am not sure I have mentioned this earlier, but snorkeling is pretty much my favorite activity in the entire world, and I never cease to be amazed at the experience in the water. Being someone with a busy mind, it is a wonder to have discovered one activity where I find myself completely in the moment. As soon as we hit the water, and I looked down, I realized that it was a good thing that I had not become overly distraught about the warnings of poor snorkeling. The scene was good. Lots of fish, and plenty to see. The water was very clear, for the most part. We were close enough to the island that we could go right into the shallower water, where you are much closer to the fish, or stay in the deeper area where it was quickly 20-40 feet. The sea life at Similan was not that much different from what I have seen in Hawaii. Many of the same fish, though there were a few notable additions and subtractions from the bunch. Mostly in the form of different species from within broad categories that are similar between the two places. This primarily manifests as different color patterns on your butterflyfish, wrasses, parrotfish, surgeonfish, damselfish. While it was incredibly stimulating to see those new variations that I had never encountered before, it was equally interesting to see those that were exactly the same. A Bird Wrasse in the Andaman is the same as a Bird Wrasse in the Hawaiian Pacific. There are clearly some stories of evolution and adaptation there.

One thing we saw, which I have only once ever seen elsewhere, and was quite a treat, was an octopus. We were snorkeling in water that was probably 12-15 feet deep. I suddenly noticed the head of the octopus, a pinkish-purple. The head was about six inches in diameter, and the legs extended out maybe a couple of feet. As it swam, its body was this bright color, but then it landed on a head of coral (which did, indeed, appear mostly dead - that much was correct, regarding the coral health), and its body almost instantaneously shifted color to a tannish-gray. Then, when it took to swimming again, the color shifted instantly back to the bright color. How did it do that? Here's a pretty good video that demonstrates pretty much the behavior we observed, in a very similar-looking octopus.

I tend to be a good judge of time, even lost in an activity like snorkeling. It was quite evident that they allowed us a bit longer than the originally promised 45 minutes. We had closer to an hour in the water at this first stop. I was nearly the last one out of the water, though they didn't have to send a search party after me.

The next stop was one of the islands for lunch. The suggested activity was to relax, play on the beach, and wait about 30-45 minutes for the lunch to be served. The alternative option was to do more snorkeling around this island. Of course, this was my choice. The conditions were not very good, but there were still interesting fish to be seen, and it was definitely worth doing it. I spent as much time as possible in the water, and lunch was being served when I came out. Melissa had been waiting in line, and she got food for me. They were serving a variety of Thai dishes in a buffet style. We were surprised, again, that the food was excellent. I would have been satisfied with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a snorkeling trip. They also had plenty of fruit. I went a little bit overboard with the watermelon, since I have what one might call "a watermelon problem."

The post-lunch lounging on beach (in the shade) provided yet more opportunity for watching "Les Idiots" playing in the water. Just thought I'd mention that. 

Back on the boat to the next snorkeling site. Sparing you the details, it was similar in quality to the first one, the major difference being that I think Melissa got out of the water a little earlier this time, so I was on my own for a portion of it. After our 40 minutes at this location, our final stop was at one more island where there was a "big rock" that people could hike up to, and take pictures. It was about a 15 minute hike. Of course, once again, the alternative was "more snorkeling" around the island, and I chose that alternative. This was a very good location, actually, and I was glad to have snorkeled this one last spot, because I saw some things that I had not seen elsewhere. For one, there was a group of 5-6 "sea creatures" that were either cuttlefish or squid, I am still not sure which. They were swimming in a horizontal line, spaced apart from one another by a few feet. Someone subsequently told me that they were probably cuttlefish, because that is the type of relatively intelligent behavior one would expect from them. I also saw a strange variant of a common Hawaiian fish, the Yellow Tang. This one was very similar, but had black splotchy markings on its yellow body. I had never seen one like that before. It's also possible it was just a strange mating variation, or juvenile that was changing color. Who knows? Anyone?

When I got out of the water, I noticed that I had a little bit of sunburn on my legs, probably from the sunscreen washing off after so much time in the water. I had reapplied it after lunch, but it's hard to really know if you're doing a good job or not. We both were trying to stay in the shade at this point. It was probably around 3pm, but the sun was still very hot. 

Finally, we were back on the boat for the ride home. It was more tiring, and even less comfortable to sit in a speedboat on the way home, because the sun had fatigued us, and the swimming around does get the muscles a little bit tired. We were looking forward to returning home and relaxing. I had opted not to change out of my wet suit, which meant that I was damp and a little bit chilled, in spite of the sun. I didn't even take off my reef shoes, which were squishy with water, and also making my feet cold. I am often very stupid like that, and I am not really sure why. We arrived back at the dock probably a little past 5pm, and had the ride back to our hotel, which involved the drop-off of several other parties before us. I just wanted to be done, tired. 

It was a great day, but there comes that point where one is fantasizing about being horizontal. Of course, the French guys spent the entire ride back horizontal on the floor of the boat - lucky them. I had to get in one more dig.

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