I’m a little worried that after the big bombshell of the last blog post, people are going to be bored with this slightly less eventful one. I suppose movie-scene proposals can’t happen everyday, however…
Some Thais Lie.
After an eventful couple of days in Koh Phi Phi, we certainly needed some downtime, but it was not to be (which seems to be the theme of this trip…when will we relax on the beach with margaritas, I say?!). We were looking very much forward to our next activity– diving in the Similan Islands, reportedly some of the best diving in the world (our friendly local dive master Shawn from our time in Singapore insists it’s the best in the world). We had booked the dive tour a few days earlier, not really knowing what was in store for Koh Phi Phi, but let’s be honest, it’s not like us to relax and do nothing anyway.
Booking the dive tour had been a bit of a drama in an of itself. We had first committed to buying a very expensive package from a Scandanaavian fellow, but canceled at the last minute because it really blew our budget and managed to find a much cheaper one from a Thai lady with a lot of spunk. She, in true Thai fashion trying to make a sale, said that they’d pick us up anywhere in Phuket. Well, the boat reportedly left from a place a bit north of Phuket called Thaplamu, so we decided that we’d stay that night in Mai Khao, a small, remote beach about half an hour south of Thaplamu. We thought we’d be doing them a favor, instead of driving us two hours from Karon Beach where we booked the tour, they could pick us up much closer to the pier. (For those that don’t know – Phuket is actually huge. I thought it was just a city, but it’s actually a province and takes hours to cross).
Once we got off the boat from Koh Phi Phi, we decided that we’d try to take the local bus to Mai Khao, since the tourist mini-bus transportation wanted to charge us an exorbitant $30. We’re pro-stars at taking the local buses now, so why not save a few bucks (or 25?). Upon arriving at the bus station, we were told by a friendly Tuk-tuk driver that the last bus to Mai Khao had already left, even though the bus operator told us to walk down the street to find it. Unfortunately we were a bit naive, so we got on a bus to go back to Karon, since we knew where it was going and it was a safe bet. As we were sitting waiting for the bus to leave, Kenna said, “no, it doesn’t make sense that one bus is still running while the other one isn’t, and let’s consider the source”. So I quickly went in search of the Mai Khao bus while Kenna waited with the bags on the other bus, and sure enough, it was just leaving. I ran after the driver and we managed to get on. The damn Tuk-tuk driver had lied!
We sat on this bus for about an hour, while I followed along on my iPhone GPS, not to repeat the mistake last time we took on of these buses and missing our stop. We started getting nervous about the ride when we were the only ones left on the bus, the roads around us started becoming very rural while the GPS started showing no roads… so this was not good. It was 6 p.m to boot, and it was starting to get dark. Finally, the GPS approached somewhere close to where we needed to go, and luckily we saw a road sign for “Mai Khao Seaside Bungalows”, our destination for the night. Unfortunately, it looked like it was about a 5 km hike, the sun was setting, the bus driver was weary and didn’t speak English, and finally booted us off the bus. This was interesting. We were in the middle of butt-puck Thailand, in the dark, with a shady clue of where we needed to be. We started walking, and walked, and walked. A truck full of Thai men offered to give us a ride, but we declined….there were about 10 of them sitting in the back. The walk got really uncomfortable when we came across a huge construction area, with a shanty Thai workman housing set-up playing loud music and men walking around in towels came into view….and people laughed at us as we walked by with our big bags. Kenna was starting to get a little panicky at that point…but as always, we of course survived the journey to write this blog.
The Beautiful Seaside Bamboo Bungalows
Finally, after a half-hour walk along a sketchy road, we arrived to find the cutest little bamboo beach huts, even cuter than the ones we had in Au Tung Ne Pan Noi a few years ago, albeit much more rustic: these were about the size of a double bed, with about a foot to spare on one side to store a bag. They were right on the beach, and being so remote, the beach had beautiful white sand and clear blue water and no one in sight. This was nice. (side note: we only found out how lovely it was in the morning when the sun came up…I actually wish we had spent some more time here).
We called the dive shop, as per the plan, to let them know where to pick us up the following morning. They were not happy that we were so far out – they expected us to be down in Karon beach where we booked it. WTF? We told the lady we would likely NOT be in Karon after Phi Phi to her reply of “no problem – we pick you up anywhere on Phuket island.” They tell you what you want to hear at the time. We ended up paying a large extra fee for getting picked up there which was total hogwash – we were paying big bucks for this dive trip and we were 6 minutes off the main highway, in the exact direction they needed to go. Again, you win some, you lose some.
We quickly got over our frustration and spent the night eating at the bungalow’s small little restaurant – they had one thing on the menu, a delicious Massaman curry. I spent the night chatting with a bunch of Brits and Canadians – again, it would have been great to stay here a bit longer.
Sleep in the bungalow was not good – it was so hot with no fan, and the mosquito net stopped any breeze coming from the windows in the hut. But it was quaint, and we woke up at sunrise to the most beautiful sky peeking through the open bamboo windows.
The Majestic Similan Islands
We arrived at the pier inThaplamu to utter chaos. Mini bus after mini bus was dropping off people…and everyone seemed to be doing something different: snorkelling, diving for 8 days, diving for 4 days, diving for one day, certification courses, etc. We had been promised that breakfast would be served here, but their version of breakfast must have meant tea and coffee. We were starving – our little bungalows’ restaurant hadn’t opened before we left, so we were stuck being hungry.
The dive boat that we were headed out to rests permanently on the Similan Islands, and it’s about a 90 minute speedboat ride out to meet it, bringing out food, fuel and water on its daily commute back with passengers. Luckily, a woman from Montreal sitting beside me heard my moaning about being hungry and commiserating with me, brought out a dragon fruit, but claiming not to have a knife to cut it. My trusty swiss-army knife came in handy, and we were all happy – God bless all the friendly Canadians we meet everywhere! We arrived to the big boat, and immediately went down for our first dive – thank goodness for that dragon fruit!
The first few dives we did were initially disappointing due to our dive master and fellow divers. Our DM was a bit over-concerned and kept us on a tight leash (which is usually the case with a new DM anyway – but this seemed a bit excessive) and these two crazy Hong Kong men who had no respect for personal space and would hover above or below you at any given moment. Things got more comfortable a few dives in with some shifting of groups, and we began to appreciate the enormous diversity and abundance of the coral of the Similans – definitely the best quality we’ve ever seen. Usually our dives focus on the types of fish we could see, but the Similans are a bit different – not a lot of uncommon fish we haven’t seen (but hey, we’ve pretty much seen it all at this point, to be fair…), but the coral is amazing. Huge sea fans, lots of soft coral, and a huge diversity of corals that we’d never seen before really made this place stand out for us. These dives were different than in the Great Barrier Reef, as these were guided (oddly, the dive masters were quite dismayed that they let us go unguided in Australia – it’s law in Thailand that all divers have to be guided).
On our night dive,
The second days’ dives took us to the same site as the night dive, and we got a look at the memorials in the daytime. The last dive was the best dive I’ve ever done: everywhere you went, you were passing over spectacular coral or sea fans, or passing through a massive school of very colourful fish or enormous tuna. And our dive master took us to one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen – a small cave that had a pocket of air in it, in which you could actually pull out your regulator and breathe the air inside. The air was kind of dank and old, but otherwise quite breathable. Unbelievable. I’ve racked my brains trying to figure out exactly how that phenomenon exists 20 meters under water… but no idea. As we swam away, you could see the air leaking out over the overhang of the rock and bubbling back to the surface above us. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
After a very uncomfortable ride back on the speedboat thanks to some rude Germans who wouldn’t give up their ample room to let us have a seat (we really have realized on this trip that Canadians are amazing and friendly and we are so lucky to live in such a wonderful country with wonderful people!), we had yet another gong show to contend with. We wanted to stay nearby Taplamu, as our plans were to go to nearby Phang-Nga the next day, but the dive shop expected us to go back to southern Phuket and Karon beach. AGAIN, even though we had told the Thai lady we booked with that we DID NOT WANT TO DO THIS. She had said “no problem! You go to Kaho Lak!” Our saviour came in the form of a Rastafarian man, none but the the company owner himself, riding in his brand new Toyota truck. He was hilarious. He had a colorful handmade Rastafarian hat, rasta seat covers, and Bob Marley blaring from the speakers, this guy was awesome. In addition to being the company owner, I think he was a dive master too, as he had a $2000 dive watch on his wrist…so from all his bling I’m guessing his company’s doing ok.
Another Interesting Bus Ride
We spent the night in nearby Khao Lak, and got up the next morning to head to Phang Nga on the public bus. After spending hours on Skype telling people the big news, we got instructions from the hotel reception on how to get to Phang Nga. Apparently you just wave down buses anywhere here, which we tried unsuccessfully for the better part of 2 hours, until success finally came. This bus took us to the bus terminal in another town, and we found our way on another bus to Phang Nga. A 4 hour commute costing 220 baht ($7), all to save 1000 baht ($30) on a taxi. We really have become true travellers pinching our nickles and pennies like this…and it’s funny, because neither Kenna nor I are cheap people in real life. In these countries, however, it becomes a game to not be the stupid “Farang” and try to do everything the way a local would. It’s fun!