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Thailand: Contrasts between Phuket and Langkawi

By Noah D. last modified Apr 02, 2017 07:01 PM
The once-remote areas of Thailand are facing a marked increase in tourism in recent years. Long-time cruiser of the area S/V Dreamcatcher relates their experience in March 2017.

Published: 2017-04-02 19:01:30
Countries: Thailand

Kata Beach: Paradise Lost?

We started our cruising season in Nai Harn Bay after a lively overnight run from Langkawi and after 4 days motored up the west coast of Phuket to drop the hook into the wide accommodating Patong Beach one Saturday morning. It is a great Bay – sandy bottom, good holding, no obstructions: what more could a cruiser ask for? We were a little bewildered as to why we were the only sailboat there (except a couple of other charter vessels).

We were soon to find out that we were to become the rounding mark for a swam of noisy, intrusive personal watercraft. We tolerated this until they ceased at 1800 hours, which was when the boom-boom disco music started. Now, we don’t mind a bit of booty-shakin’ chords, but this was the wearing techno-rap that went on till well after midnight.

First thing Sunday, before the jet-ski onslaught started, we moved south to the “quieter,”  beautiful Kata Beach. Same thing: jet-ski hell. We decided to move again on the Monday morning, but we discovered the alternator had died and we had insufficient amps “in the bank” (genset not available). We were concerned that we might get the anchor/chain half way up and run out of juice. So, between the shenanigans of phone calls and dinghy/taxi trips to Boat Lagoon’s AME for the alternator repair, the fact is, we were anchored in Kata Beach for 5 days and nights.

In the 80’s and 90’s this broad sparkling bay was peppered with sailboats – eager participants to the Kings Cup and months of follow-on cruising. The beach was lined with plump dinghies. Now, there are only plump tourists and the bay is bereft of any form of elegant craft. The laughter of sailors, the Aussie accents, the good-natured banter of the Brits and Kiwis, the French and Germans – all gone. Only tourists from the Caucasus. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise to us, having lived in Asia for decades, spending at least a couple of months a year in Phuket, but it was overtly blatant this time around and we felt like aliens in what we regard as our own back yard.

We cannot begin to describe the angst, frustration and pure anger we felt towards the morons on the marauding jet-skis. Several times a day we saw ski riders deliberately target placid kayakers and stand-up paddlers, delighting in toppling them and speeding off, without considering the possible resulting injury. The jet-skis came at ramming speed toward Dreamcatcher, doing last-minute turns, creating waves that sent our 20-ton boat rocking violently with splats of sea water over the sides and through the hatches (from the rooster tail water exhausts).

We could not stand anything up in the boat in what should have been a calm anchorage – not a water bottle or anything that might spill or fall. Shouts of abuse and “stay away” fell on deaf ears and some came back for second and third swipes at us.

One sailboat arrived on the third day and we felt a little relieved that we might no longer be the centre of attention: alas, they weighed anchor after only two hours of assault and left us once again alone as the punching bag for the jet ski riders. The mid-to-late afternoon ones were worst, having had a skin-full of beer at lunchtime, they were reckless. Mostly male, mostly Russian.

The blame is twofold: firstly the idiots driving the jet-skis and secondly the vendors who rent them out. The latter clearly have no guidelines for their customers and appear to have no understanding that a jet-ski is a vessel and as such is bound by the COLREGs, the same as all other watercraft. They were clearly not advising renters to “stay clear of anchored or moored vessels by X meters.”  A bigger-picture blame would be the Phuket Beach governors who clearly don’t take an interest in what’s happening. In the week we were there we never saw a Thai Navy or coastal patrol vessel demonstrating any form of governance over the jet-ski crowd. Surprising, given jet-ski people were killed and injured only two weeks prior in the same bay.

On the brighter side, our dinghy sorties to the boat/longtail area of the beach (through the, scowling bathers!) were pleasant: the Thai paddle guys helped land and launch the dink, Villa Elisabeth had cold beer and hot Wi-Fi and the mini-mart was a few steps away. This became our afternoon routine – get email and cold drinks to take back and decompress at sundown in the cockpit.

After we got the alternator and offending fuse fixed, on the following Sunday we were able to  return to the more civilized Nai Harn Bay – not a personal watercraft in sight. Relief. Dinghy Dock. Sunsets Bar. Great Thai restaurant. Friends in Rawai. We are happy again.

What a pity much of Phuket has lost its sheen, at least for the cruiser/sailor. Its’ swamping with Russian tourists – most of whom, sadly, are novice travelers with little grace – and the jet-ski addiction will keep this little ship away from its west coast, likely forever.

Passage Home

Instead of our usual 20 hour overnight run from Phuket to Langkawi, we had decided to dawdle south to Dreamcatcher’s new home. We have berthed her in Penang for two years now, but on pulling in to Royal Langkawi Yacht Club (RLYC) we made a snap decision to move the boat there permanently.

There were a combination of factors: a longer berth made it possible to move the dinghy off the fore-deck and on to the davits, a shift away from Penang’s growing construction dust (there is a new made-made island development just outside Straits Quay Marina), and unlimited in-out access from the berth depth-wise. We were always nervous about touching the bottom on entry/exit at SQM. We’ve been in and out at RLYC over the past decade and always found it a bit wanting in quality. That’s all changed now with extended and upgraded docks and a fresh look with some great F&B outlets. So, Dreamcatcher is now “permanently” at home in Langkawi. "Permanent" being an oxymoron when it comes to anything boat.

The morning we planned to leave Nai Harn in Phuket for Phi Phi Island, it was blowing a steady 20 knots and gusting up to 27 knots. We deferred our departure to the next day.  Winds were then steady at 15-18 knots and the gusts not severe, nevertheless we had a very uncomfortable drive on the first few hours to Phi Phi: course 98 degrees, wind from 90 degrees with a steep chop between the Phuket islands.

We arrived 5 hours later during the half day tour changeover and needed a traffic light to get through the high-speed day tripper boats crossing from Phi Phi Le, four miles to the south.  We targeted the anchor way-point suggested in the cruising guide, just for kicks, and gave up nearly half a mile from it.

Sadly, Phi Phi’s Ton Sai Bay is littered with work boats and defunct ferries and crisscrossed by a network of moorings and day tripper boats. An awful contrast to the pristine sail-boat anchorage that I recall from decades ago. The Tsunami has left is mark but it seems to us the tsunami of unfettered tourism has caused nearly as much devastation to the peace and beauty of this stunning island. Odd that the authorities have banned the spread of deck-chairs along Thai beaches, but have allowed the Phi Phi anchorage to become such a jungle. We eventually found a spot to drop the hook and tolerated the local speed boats’ wakes until things quietened down around 1700. We left at dawn and will likely never return.

Our track took us down the west coast of Koh Lanta: calm, lush, lovely. We stayed about a mile offshore and took in the coastal vistas, little huts and beaches along the way. We’ll be back later in the year and spend a couple of weeks plying its coast and cluster of islands.

We aimed for Koh Muk and arrived mid afternoon. The famous Emerald Cave entrance was clogged with tour boats and long-tails. Hundreds of squealing tourists in life jackets splashed in the water. We made a quick decision to not even to try and see the cave at this point, and we meandered half a mile north and found our nirvana: a high-sided tropical cove with a white sandy beach. No other boats. It was startlingly lovely, made lovelier by soaring eagles and the full moon and the closest thing we’ve found to the South Pacific yet. We extended our one night stay to two days, kayaked, swam, ate and drank. It was lovely, and we didn’t want to leave. We’ll tackle the Emerald Cave next trip on an early morning sortie before the day trippers arrive.

After another dawn departure, we passaged south past the pretty Koh Kradan and vowed to stop there on our next trip. The day was bright and mostly windless, which allowed us to focus on the fish-traps along the way, as well as the scenery. What has been small land markings on the charts blossomed into dozens of tall, lumpy islands: some stark, some rounder – so many in view. We’d missed all these in the past as our passage to/from Phuket covered this territory at night, spent dodging the myriad of squid and fishing boats. We felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland and somewhat regretful at having missed this startling daytime seascape this last decade of getting to Phuket. We will, in the future, be meandering between Langkawi and Phuket and focusing on the journey rather than the destination!

Our six-hour scenic passage found us dropping the hook on the mid-west coast of Koh Tarutao – blue water and a long white sandy beach without a sign of life. Tarutao and all surrounding islands are part of Thailand’s huge national marine park and is mostly devoid of any occupants, bar a few local subsistence fishermen. We were delighted when some dolphins and a turtle surfaced. Other than that, it was a peaceful night at anchor after the swell died down, followed by another dawn departure, this time for Langkawi and our new berth.

Once tied up, we enjoyed beers and Charlie’s Bar’s great chicken burger at RLYC, and spent a lovely day/night with friends in Langkawi. We departed for Penang via ferry, to say a formal farewell to our SQM marina manager and pals and see the friends we’d made there over the past two years.

So, another chapter – Langkawi – starts for the Dreamcatcher!

Glen, s/v Dreamcatcher

--

PS: There is a frozen food/meat product in Malaysia called “Sailors.” We’ve always liked their products but now we love them even more. The company is under new ownership of some Langkawi-based super foodies and real professionals who are also boat owners/cruisers. Great sausages and pies!

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