18 January, 2013

Thailand: Surin Islands - More Risks! (Friday)

Friday morning, once again, we were for an early rise, and a quick breakfast, as we'd be picked up by a van to go snorkeling again. This was a different travel group, and to a different set of islands, the Surin Islands. These were the much awaited islands with the great tales of the most amazing snorkeling ever. The Surin Islands are quite a bit farther away than Similan Islands were. As such, the drive to even get to the point of entering the water was longer. We headed north. I believe we rode for 60-90 minutes in the van. There were a few stops in Khao Lak to pick up more people. Was it the Swedes? Germans? I cannot recall anymore. I know we rode in a van with Swedes who we (I) thought were Germans, and later we discovered we were wrong. Yes. It is coming back to me. This was the Swedes. The ride was long. And not particularly comfortable or enjoyable. And, as usual, riding in a vehicle in Thailand always feels like it might end in a fiery crash, since people will try to execute passing moves that seem perilous, at best. One would (like to) think that having a van full of tourists would be recipe for some degree of caution. But I just don't think the drivers perceive "risk" in the same way as I do. But I am also open to the possibility that I have an over-developed sense of danger.

After much riding, we finally arrived at the location from which we would launch. I have very little recollection of this. No, wait. It's coming back to me. It was another open-air place, and it was much quieter. There were nasty bathrooms around the back. There were some light snacks. This group seemed to have far more older tourists. People older than us, that is. I mean, at this point, I am probably nearly an older tourist myself. These were even older than us. There were no loud obnoxious French dudes. That was a saving grace. Although,  I will foreshadow by noting that, by the end of the day, I had been secretly fantasizing about how it would have been apropos for the French dudes to have been on this trip, rather than the one to the Similan Islands two days prior.

Eventually, it was time to go. We boarded the boat, and began to ride. It was a nice ride. It was clear it was going to be a longer ride, which we knew, but very clearly so, since it took us quite some time to even make our way completely out of the channels from which we launched and into the truly wide-open ocean. The ride was a little choppy, but it was a beautiful day. A few times we hit little bumps that caused water to come flying into the boat and some of the passengers got soaked. But heck, we're about to go snorkeling, so why should it be such a big deal to get wet.

It was like a 90 minute ride. That is a long time to ride in a speedboat, dancing around on the water. It's a long, long time to be sitting facing sideways without good back support. Our muscles were aching by the time we arrived at the destination. But we were there, so yippee. All is well.

Into the water we went, and we snorkeled.

And I've got to say...

It wasn't the best snorkeling I have ever done. It wasn't terrible. The coral was a bit healthier than what we saw at the Similan Islands. But this was no Hawaii. This was no Belize. And it has to make one wonder if it was ever that great? Or is the quality of the snorkeling in the Andaman being overly hyped to drive tourism. The story they tell now is that the tsunami messed things up. Perhaps that's true. My efforts to research this online didn't yield a whole lot of insight.

I got as much as I could out of it. We spent about an hour in the water, and then we returned to the boat, and went to a second location. Same deal. Fair quality snorkeling. I definitely saw some good stuff - there was no shortage of sea life. But I wasn't overwhelmed with the experience. Perhaps it says something about my mindset at that point on the trip. I don't know. I am inclined to believe it was a little bit of both.

After the second snorkel site, we went to one of the islands for lunch. And this was a real treat that we hadn't expected. There was a large shelter built of wood, with picnic tables inside. And we were served fresh Thai meal prepared for us, consisting of whole fish, a very spicy red curry (I mean *very* spicy), and a rice dish, and maybe one or two other things. And this food was fantastic. While we were dining, we had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with a young Swedish guy who was leading a tour group of Swedish people. He was fluent in English (of course), and we chatted a lot, and learned about him. He was nice, and it was a highlight of the trip.

We then, I believe, went to one more snorkeling site, which was (if it even happened?) not memorable enough for me to say anything other than the fact that I think we went to one more site. I don't even think I stayed in the water the full time on that last time because I was even starting to get cold. I imagine that the sunburn I was nursing probably played a factor in feeling cold in the water. But I also imagine that not seeing things that were amazing enough to warrant shivering also played a factor.

The final stop on our trip, one which I had some hesitation about even doing, was a visit to what was referred to as the Mokun Sea Gypsy village on one of the islands. And yes, it is as bad as it sounds, if not worse. This was what one might refer to as a "lowlight" of the vacation. The Mokun, it seems, were an indigenous people of these islands who lived entirely in boats at one point in the past. They did not live on land at all, or not much. They were, as the name implies, wandering sea people. For whatever reasons, and you can probably imagine several, the Thai government decided to make a concerted effort to "civilize" these people (i.e. force them to change their ways). The Mokun were given land and shelters built on stilts on a beach, and there is constant government presence, in the form of monitors or medical people, who are on site in the village. There is a satellite dish. They've been introduced to modern technologies. They are now wearing Western clothing, instead of nothing, or the clothing that native people would have worn. And they no longer live on the sea. We were brought through this "spectacle" to observe, as if it's some really neat circus site to witness. The Thai people who were in our tour group, leading the tour, did not act or speak with respect about these people. It was clear that they were thought of as lesser beings. When we landed, there were children begging and selling these small wooden boats that they either did or did not make. There was a woman who was clearly a very vocal villager. She seemed like she was insane, but I don't think she was. I think she was just so radically different of a human from what we know, that her behavior appeared "abnormal." She was communicating with the Thai people in what seemed like a fairly aggressive, hostile fashion. But to the tourists, she was not unfriendly. Melissa had a camera, and the woman wanted to see herself in the camera view. She looked at herself and she was very excited because I imagine, of course, that seeing herself is not a thing she has the luxury of doing at the frequency that we do. She was kind to us. But she was clearly leery of the Thai people.

As we were waiting to re-board the boat, I watched the behavior of the Thai people, and there was almost a kind of feeling like the Thai ridicule this culture, and there was a look of hatred and resignation on the faces of the Mokun people. Their culture is being strangled. But the Thai would say that they are doing this for the survival and well-being of the Mokun. You know the story. It's awfully familiar.

After this somewhat stomach turning experience, we were finally onto our finally leg of the day (actually, second from final, but we certainly weren't thinking about the tedium of the van ride back from the docks). We boarded the boat and began our 60 kilometer ride back to the mainland.

When we started the ride, there was a little bit of chop on the water, but nothing much to speak of. As the minutes passed, that little bit of chop gradually increased. And it continued to increase from there. Looking back, the Surin Islands were slowly shrinking into nothingness. There was no land whatsoever in sight in front of us. And underneath us, the ocean was growing in intensity. We were at least 30 minutes off land, and it was more than choppy. People in boat were not happy. People in the boat were starting to get splashed with ever-increasing torrents of water, each time we hit some chop. Sitting sideways, as we were, was fatiguing, especially after the long day.

But it wasn't over. It continued to increase. The islands behind us were nearly invisible, and I had the thought, "How bad would it need to be before the captain would decide to turn back?" Because we were getting to the point that, if conditions continued to deteriorate, VERY BAD THINGS could happen. I am not sure I could venture a guess, but I would say that we were easily hitting 6-10 foot swells, possibly larger. And the swells were severe enough that the speed of the boat was reduced from what had probably been 30-40 knots down to maybe 10 knots. We seemed to be barely moving.

And it got worse. One passenger, a young woman, became very ill and her friends were tending to her. We were not feeling ill, fortunately, but I was concerned. I didn't allow myself to devolve into panic or fear or what have you. But I was focused on an action plan. I recognized a few facts. (1) The conditions are poor. But, (2) The captain has not turned back, and the Thai people who are the guides are not behaving as if this is an emergency. (3) No matter what happens, I have snorkeling gear and a wetsuit. If, for some reason, the boat turns over, the most important thing is to not get knocked unconscious, and to not lose the snorkel gear and wetsuit. Because, with that gear, even in poor conditions, I could survive and help others for a longer time than without it. So I had an action plan in place.

The conditions had reached what could be referred to as their nadir at what was probably the halfway point between the start and finish. My action plan was firmly in mind, but I was still feeling like it could devolve into panic if unchecked. I finally caught the eye of one of the Thai guides, and I said to him, "We okay?" And he laughed and smiled, and said "Yes!" Part of me thought, "Well that's what he'd say if we were completely fucked, too," but I opted to not go down that route of thinking, but instead take it as the essential, faith-based reassurance that we were, in fact, okay.

And sure enough, 35 unhappy people survived unharmed, the seas calmed as we finally began approaching land, and became completely calm once we reentered the channels from which we came. The captain received a round of applause (though probably not from the vomiting woman).

The only thing left was the van ride back to the hotel, which was absolutely interminable. All I wanted to do was lie on a bed, and it was not to happen for another 90 minutes. And, of course, we were the last ones dropped off, after all the Swedes. It got to the point that I wanted to scream. But I held it together, and eventually we did make it back alive.

I have to say, thinking back, one should never underestimate the sheer awe and power of the ocean. There's this sense of infinity, and there's an ominous feeling of not knowing the depth and not knowing what it will do next. The conditions were changing on us without really much indication as to why, and we had no idea which direction things would change. I suppose the seasoned captain knows the ocean and can read it. I had no choice to operate on the faith that we were in hands that didn't want to be responsible for the death of 35 international tourists. But, compared to air travel, this was far more unsettling. In an airplane, there's a certain illusion of stability, perhaps because the "air" itself does not come equipped with a "character" capable of seeming malevolence.

Okay. Enough of that talk.

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