Friday, January 18, 2008

Kayaking under the Bridge on the River Kwai

Kanchanaburi, Thailand, is home to many fine recreational opportunities, not the least of which includes kayaking.

I visited there a few years back with a group of friends, and found it was pretty easy to find a kayak outfitter who was willing to take me and my friends up the Kwai Noi River for a relaxing afternoon float trip. We passed right under the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

Outside of Kanchanaburi town is Erawan Falls. It is a national park, with the main attraction being the seven-tier waterfall, which is a short trek. Another place worth visiting is Mueang Sing historical park, which is an ancient Khmer ruins.

One of the best ways to get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok is by train. On another visit, I went by excursion train on a Saturday morning. At a rail intersection called Catfish Junction outside Bangkok, the train splits up, and one section goes down to the beach in Prachuap Kiri Khan, while the rest of the train continues on the Kanchanaburi.

Stops along the way include Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom, which at 127 meters is the highest chedi in the world.

The train that continues on to Kanchanaburi actually crosses the famous bridge, and proceeds down the Death Railway, offering some more fantastic views of the river, and resorts along the way. The terminus is Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi, which is a small waterfall and park.

On the way back on the train, there is another stop in Kanchanaburi town, with time for a visit to the War Cemetery, containing the gaves of many allied soldiers who died during World War II.

If you stay in Kanchanaburi, there are plenty of cheap guesthouses and restaurants serving banana pancakes.

(Photo credits: Permanent Scatterbrained, Yeowatzup)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Snorkeling the Surin Islands

In April 2007, I had a chance to visit the Surin Islands, the first time in a long time I had embarked on any type of adventure travel in Thailand.

This trip would mark my second flight to Phuket, the first being in November 2004, for a kayaking trip with John Gray.

This time around, I flew from Bangkok to Phuket on Thai Air Asia, and the check-in at the airport and the flight were all without any mishaps.

Arriving on a mid-morning flight, at Phuket, I was met by a driver, provided by a tour agency I had contacted over the Internet. From the airport, I and my friend would be put up for the night at a hotel in Khao Lak.

About 90 minutes from the airport, Khao Lak was one of the areas of Phuket that was especially hard hit by the 2004 tsunami, but there wasn't any evidence of it. The area seemed quite well developed, with plenty of hotels, resorts, guesthouses and shops.

The hotel I was staying in, Tony Lodge, is a small boutique hotel, wedged between a couple of others. The website is a pretty accurate depiction of the place, as it offers no scenic view to speak of. But the rooms are comfortable and well-appointed. The beach is across the highway and down a lane, perhaps a 15-minute walk, or the advertised five minutes if you hire a motorbike.

We did visit the beach, and I had a chance to show my friend a bit about how to use the snorkeling gear.

Pretty soon though, it was time for sleep and an early morning call to be taken to Kuraburi pier by van, which was provided in the tour-package price.

This is when the sheer distance and scale of the Phuket area dawned on me. To get from area to area around Phuket, you have to have transport, and on Phuket, transport is going to be a hassle and it's going to be expensive.

After about a two-hour ride in the van, we reached Kuraburi. Here is where I discovered I had a problem with the booking agency I hired. I had actually hired a company that then booked with another company that was doing the actual package. I should have been dealing with them direct, instead of this intermediary. Due to the miscommunication, I was not going to be given a bungalow on Surin Island as requested, but I would have to sleep in a tent, at least one night.

Now, I've been in Thailand long enough to know that I should not show anger. Strong displays of emotion are not polite in any society, but in Thailand it is the height of rudeness. But the breakfast of dry toast and instant coffee had left me a bit grumpy, so it didn't take much to upset me.

Luckily, one of the workers at the desk didn't do the usual routine of shutting down and becoming unresponsive. Instead, she wanted me to stop being angry and said she would take care of the problem.

As we boarded a speedboat, and hit the open water, my negative emotions subsided with the fresh sea air and the sight of the clear, blue waters of the Andaman Sea.

Mu Ko Surin is a national marine park of Thailand. It is open for tourists from November to May, so we were getting there just at the end of the season.

As the boat approached the island, the helpful Kuraburi Greenview staffer informed me that she'd straightened out the mess with the bungalow after all. What a relief! I really didn't want to sleep in a tent, and deal with a shared latrine and shower house.

The accommodation at this national park is more rustic than I'd seen in previous trips, and I can readily say that if you go to Koh Surin, make sure you get a bungalow, unless you are used to sleeping in tents and dealing with a dark, pit toilet and crude shower huts.

Checked in, and everything as much to my satisfaction as I could expect, we were served a light lunch, communal style at the park canteen. Here, we would meet our guides for the three-day, two-night package, and they would attend to all our needs, serving our meals and making sure we got on the boat for snorkeling.

That afternoon, we hit some snorkeling spots not far from the dock. It was just the right amount of snorkeling, with some great views of colorful coral and fish.

After an evening meal, it was time for bed, and then up again around 6.30 or 7am for breakfast.

After a morning snorkel, there was a visit to a Moken (sea gypsy) community. I felt like an intruder, as if we tourists were sullying a traditional way of life. There was a school and medical clinic at the settlement.

During an afternoon snorkeling session, one of the guides caught a sea turtle. I had earlier seen it, thinking I was just looking a rock. But something about it looked different, and then the rock moved and swam away at high speed. I was amazed the guide had captured the creature, which probably measured about 18 inches long and 10 inches wide.

On another dive, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a large eel.

The second evening, there was some time before dinner, so I grabbed one of the park's kayaks, available for an hour's rental for 100 or 200 baht. My friend and I rode double, and we paddled around the mouth of bay and along the back side of the island in a narrow inlet betwen the main island and another. We did perhaps an hour or two of paddling - nothing spectacular, but a great way to pass the time.

The next morning we got to go for one more snorkel. We visited a second campsite on the island, not far from where we'd paddled the kayak the day before. And then we visited another deep bay with some decent coral. I spent a lot of time diving down as deep as I could stand and then resurfacing, and kept doing so until it was time to leave.

That afternoon, the speedboat from the mainland brought a fresh load of tourists, and we caught the boat back to the mainland.

Once returned, and changed out of swimshorts and wet clothes, we caught the van back to Phuket, for a long late afternoon and evening of driving, from van, back to Tony Lodge, where we met the original tour agency's driver, and then a long drive back to Phuket airport.

All in all, a great trip, tainted some by the aggravation of the miscommunication about the bungalow reservation.

Would I do it over again, I would deal with the primary tour agency direct. This is Kuraburi Greenview. In addition to Surin Island, they also run tours to the Similan Islands.

Kuraburi can also be reached via Krabi, which is also served by an airport.

(Photo credit: Darlene is Evil via Flickr)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Celebrate Loy Krathong every day on Pang-nga Bay

Though Thailand's Loy Krathong festival is only held during the full moon in November, there's a way to celebrate the water-borne rite anytime. With John Gray's Sea Canoe, visitors to the caves in Pang Nga Bay set their Loy Krathong boats afloat each night of the year.

To celebrate Loy Krathong, adherents launch small round boats, or krathongs, decorated with banana leaves and flowers. They pray for sins of the previous year to be washed away and for good luck in the next year. Even more traditionally, they pray to the water spirits, asking for forgiveness for any harm that was caused to water during the year. Additionally, absolution is asked for any acts that might harm water during the course of the next year.

It's as if Gray, a sincere environmentalist, is working to help the whole world, or at least a small corner of it, be granted forgiveness for polluting and wasting a precious natural resource.

He's helping in other ways, too.

"It's become a sweetheart thing, too," Gray told a group of around 20 people who took his Hong by Starlight tour on November 27, 2004. He explained that couples often launch their krathongs together, hoping for a good relationship for the next year. "So you married couples, you'll never fight again," Gray said to the laughter of the group.

The trip coincidentally took place one day after the traditional Loy Krathong, and an almost full moon was on the rise after a day of touring through four caves or hongs, Thai for room. But there was one last stop – the floating of krathongs. Some on the tour had floated krathongs the night before, so they were in for an extra helping of absolvement and good fortune.

With the help of their guides, everyone made a krathong to float, with a cutting of a banana log, banana leaves, joss sticks, candles and flowers supplied. Surprisingly, there were a few Thais who had to be instructed in the art of krathong making as well.

A pony-tailed 59-year-old former surfer and rugby player with a background that ranges from epidemiology to documentary filmmaking, Gray began the night-time canoe tours around 2001.

He's been Thailand since 1989. He came here after spending time in Hawaii, where he started a sea-canoe touring business and helped lobby for laws to protect the environment.

"Then I thought I'd move to Asia and try to change things," he said to the knowing laughter of my friend and I as we rode in the van to his pier from our guesthouse. He’d picked us up that morning.

He started a sea-canoe business in Phuket and hoped to spread franchises throughout the island, providing environmentally responsible business opportunities to the locals. Instead, more than a dozen crass imitators were spawned, all operating on his turf in Pang-nga Bay. So many operators were offering day trips, he decided to switch to after-dark operations.

His Hong by Starlight actually begins during the day, and it was 10:20am when Gray fetched the writers from their hotel. The times the trips start vary, depending on the tides.

By around 12:30pm, Gray's 15-metre, diesel-powered trawler had made its way from the pier to the inaugural paddle of the day. Along the way, the guests ate a lunch of spring rolls, fried noodles, green salad and chilled fruit. Always looking to spread his environmental views, Gray noted that no shrimp would be found on his menu, because shrimp farms destroy mangroves.

Gray lectured about how the odd-shaped limestone formations, or karst, came into being over the course of millions of years. He talked about the delicate environment of the mangrove lagoons within the karst hongs, and urged his tour group to be respectful.

Keeping quiet was strongly urged, as Gray showed a drawing of a person with a zipped lip. Soft talking among the guides and their passengers was okay, but "if they can hear you talking in the next boat, you're talking too loud", Gray said.

The group was split into pairs and given a guide – a canoe paddler. Slip-resistant steps made it easy to get from the escort boat into the specially made canoes – long, narrow boats big and stable enough to comfortably hold three people. The canoes are made of heavy, rubberised fabric, similar to the construction of river rafts. To make them even more of a hybrid, they are powered by the double-bladed paddle used for kayaks.

The first stop was Princess Cave, named for Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who once toured the cave with Gray's company. It was a technically difficult start to the day, requiring the passengers of the canoes to lie flat on their backs as the low-slung boats slipped under low-hanging, oyster-encrusted rocks.

Gray had warned everyone to not touch the oyster rocks. Extremely sharp, they'll "cut through to the bone" if you press your hand against them. Navigating through this treacherous passage was a task best left to the guides, who needed no assistance to manoeuvre the canoes.

Through the cave, the way opened up to the sky and the group got its first taste of a mangrove hong, a water-filled lagoon surrounded by the hollowed out walls of the limestone rock. After about 20 minutes, they turned around and went back through the cave.

"Another 10 minutes, this will be empty," said Sompong "Pong" Hamvong, my guide.

Gray's tours are scheduled to take advantage of the tides. The water must be high enough to allow the boats easy passage, but not so high as to keep them from slipping under the low entrance of the caves.

The next stop was Diamond Cave, so named for a sparkling stalactite formation inside it. Here is where Gray’s competition was encountered. At least two other tour groups were present and the inside of the cave resembled a theme-park ride, with dozens of rubber canoes passing to-and-fro in the dark.

The other tour groups hadn't been admonished to zip their lips, or if they had, the words had been ignored. One foreign tourist was oohing and aahing loudly as he looked around, and was unmindful of the angry stares and the "shhh's" directed his way. That group departed quickly, though, leaving Gray's group alone.

On the way out, Gray pointed out an overhanging branch, high up on the hong walls. There used to be a white-bellied sea eagle that sat there every day, he said, until too many noisy tour groups started coming to Diamond Cave.

Gray continues to try and do his part, though. During the day, he set out paddling solo in an ocean kayak, which he would fill with garbage found along the way. At least two loads of trash were picked up during his solitary voyages.

Next for the group was the Bat Cave, so named for its colony of insect bats. The theme-park scene was much the same here, but after five minutes Gray's group had the place to itself. The other companies were finished for the day. Gray’s had just begun.

In the Bat Cave hong, the group watched as the water receded, exposing the mud flats. Slowly, strange finned creatures emerged. They were mudskippers, fish that can operate on land for short periods of time.

"Say hello to your ancestors," Gray told the group. More and more of the mudskippers emerged, some fighting for their small piece of the muddy turf. Depending on the strength of your telephoto lens, they looked like cute, little bickering critters or fierce, prehistoric throwbacks, engaged in a battle to the death.

There was also fiddler crabs and at least one mangrove snake. After 20 minutes or so had passed, the group was paddling out of the hong, lest they become part of the muddy habitat themselves – at least until the tide rose again.

Other wildlife spotted during the day included crab-eating macaques, who were spied swinging from the trees high above the hong. There were also brahminy kites – white-headed eagle-like raptors. At least a dozen or so trailed behind the trawler as Gray's staff baited them with pieces of raw chicken that were thrown into the water.

The next-to-last stop was at Hong Island, a small bay where the group could engage in some "self-paddling", finally getting to try their hand at canoeing themselves, and exploring the surroundings, all under the watchful eye of Gray.

After a sumptuous feast of rich, filling brown rice, tempura-fried vegetables and fish, cashew chicken and other dishes, the boat returned to the Bat Cave.

With the krathongs made along the way, the group headed back into the cave. Urged to be extra quiet inside the hong, the kratongs were set afire and put afloat.

Along with the glow of the kratongs, there were two forms of bioluminescents. In the air were fireflies, with their tails aglow in a mating ritual. And in the water were plankton that became luminescent when disturbed by the paddles or by the hands of the group members. It was if nature itself was joining in the loy krathong ceremony, working overtime to bless the participants and absolve them of any sins committed against the environment.

A good start toward that end was the retrieval of the krathongs, which some guests kept with them as a reminder of the message Gray shared with them.

The Hong by Starlight tour was Bt3,450 per person (November 2004) and included transport to and from hotel, meals, snacks and strong filtered coffee. A change of clothes is suggested, as participants will get wet. A changing room is available. Dry bags are provided for cameras and other items, but John Gray's Sea Canoe is not responsible if there is any loss or damage to such valuables.

John Gray's Sea Canoe
124 Soi 1 Yaowaraj Road
Talad Yai, Phuket
(076) 254 505-7

Comment: On December 26, 2004, one month after my trip with John Gray's Sea Canoe, a tsunami struck Phuket and the Indian Ocean region, causing more than 120,000 deaths. John Gray was among the survivors, though. Please read his account of that fateful morning.

A Bangkokian's view of the tsunami

As a favor to a former publisher who was hungry for a personal account of the tsunami that struck southern Thailand on December 26, 2004, I wrote the following for The Daily Register of Harrisburg, Illinois, the first paper I worked for out of college:

The way Thailand has pulled together to help those in need after the December 26 tsunami reminded me of Harrisburg's efforts to send aid to the victims of the Mississippi River flood of 1993.

There might not have been a warning or any way to stop what happened, but what really matters is how people reacted.

From the tsunami disaster, the stories I could relate to most were those of survival, or the "what if's", tales from folks who took a different turn or were sleeping on a different floor and missed the waves. I had been in Phuket doing some canoeing just a month before, so I felt as if I had avoided the disaster as well.

It took awhile for these feelings to crystallize, though.

A massive earthquake struck the Indian Ocean region the morning after Christmas Day, but I didn't find out about it until 12 hours had passed since the first waves of the tsunami spawned by that quake hit the shores of southern Thailand.

Isolated in my Sunday morning routine of a big breakfast, catching some movies and shopping, I didn't feel the earth shake.

But the Internet news reports I became obsessed about reading said the magnitude 9 earthquake that shook the seabed near Sumatra, Indonesia, made buildings sway in Bangkok and Singapore.

Really, it was more than 24 hours after the disaster until I could fully absorb the enormity of what had happened.

Arriving at my newspaper office on Monday afternoon, I was laughing and joking with colleagues, noting that the quake had wiped out the daily feature page that is on the back of the front section. It had been replaced at the last minute on Sunday night with photos of the disaster.

Soon it became apparent that the tsunami was nothing to laugh about. Thousands of people were dead -- a good many of them tourists on their holidays.

Raucous, joyous occasions across the country were cancelled and replaced with muted memorial gatherings and disaster-relief benefits.

I got in touch with my friends in Phuket, where the disaster in Thailand was the worst. Among them was John Gray, who runs the canoe operation I went with.

A former resident of Hawaii and accustomed to sea changes, he felt the quake was able to save his workers and clients because he knew what was coming. But thousands of others weren't so fortunate. Phuket is cleaning up, and the tourism authorities hope travellers won't stay away for too long.

Another friend was in Phuket's Patong Beach, which was hit hard by the tidal waves. You might have seen the footage on CNN, of waves overwhelming utility poles and washing through two-story hotels there.

My friend had just missed the waves by taking a wrong turn on his motorcycle. He found his favorite restaurant an empty shell, the whereabouts of its staff unknown. Rather than let his grief overcome him, he decided to work through it by visiting the local hospitals, going from room to room and talking with the injured. Eventually, the sadness and horror of the disaster caught up with him, but by then he was able to come to Bangkok and share his stories. So now I share them with you.

(Photo credit: N1 via Flickr)

The Big One: Tsunami strikes Phuket

On December 26, 2004, a tsunami hit Phuket, Thailand and the Indian Ocean region. More than 120,000 deaths were reported. Among the survivors was John Gray, founder of John Gray's Sea Canoe, who recounts that fateful morning.

The tremors started at 07:58am. The long, low frequency shakes lasted for two minutes. It wasn’t the shattering, sharp jolt one expects from a California quake, but the feeling was ominous. The length and frequency said this quake was a long way off, and very strong. I also knew from my Phang Nga Bay geology research that any active fault-lines were to the west of Phuket, in the Indian Ocean. The tremors lasted long enough to put a bowl of water on the floor to verify the shakes. Sure enough, the water was rippling.

Once the tremors stopped, I mentioned tsunami, but the novelty of an earthquake – successfully survived – was euphoric. Everybody laughed while I talked about the ‘Big One’. We still knew nothing about the quake and its direction, only that it was a long way off.

There hasn’t be a significant tsunami since 1883, when the Indonesian island of Krakatoa exploded. It was volcanic in origin and generations past. Official reports say 36,000, but we know that perhaps 500,000 died in the unnamed coastal villages of a century past. If there was a tsunami, Hawaii’s history says that lack of awareness not only adds to the danger, it is the danger.

On the Internet, I immediately went to the U.S. Geological Service. Only 15 minutes after the shake, there it was – 8.3 tremor off the west coast of Sumatra. This was a Biggie. It grew to 9.0 – massive – and an aftershock was 7.3.

The Indian Ocean doesn’t have a warning system, so my next stop was Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Their words were prophetic but typically bureaucratic. An “Event” occurred in the Indian Ocean west of Sumatra, but would have no impact upon the Pacific Basin. Thanks for the news, guys.

Maybe Australia. This “event” could impact Western Australia. I e-mailed the Australia Meteorology Bureau at exactly 9:00am:

Any info on this morning's Sumatra quake and possible tsunami generation? If any tsunami were generated I need to know fast?

The response took 24 minutes. Not bad, but not good enough.

Dear Ling Yai,

We have received an advice from the Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. They opine that a tsunami threat does not exist for the Pacific. However, they do not discount the possibility of a tsunami near the epicenter, which was off the west coast of Northern Sumatra.
We have no further information.

A few minutes later, the wave hit.

My response was not as polite.


I read the same advisory from Hawaii. By now you have the news on the devastating tsunami here in Thailand and SE Asia. As a 20-year Hawaii resident and Chairman, Coastal resources Committee of the Hawaii Marine Master plan from 1986-90, I am well acquainted with the Pacific Basin Long-range alert system. Now that the Barn Door is open and hundreds have lost their lives, maybe it's time for one in the Indian Ocean. From even before I came to Thailand I was well aware of the Sumatra/Andaman fault line and it's potential for generating tsunami's. If a simple-minded Big Monkey can see the future - and now the result, It’s time to develop a similar international system for the Indian Ocean. Very frustrating for me to see today's fatalities - all due to lack of warning and education.

Ling Yai

Between e-mails, I called three hotels to watch for receding waters. On Sunday morning after Christmas, I was unable to contact any managers so I called my guide staff together, told them to watch for rapidly receding waters and sent them out to pick up our guests. I told my escort boat captain to move from the pier to deep waters.

Reports soon came from Patong and Bang Tao. My Patong transfer guide saw the wave hit. I told him to get over the hill. My Bang Tao transfer guide reported he couldn’t reach the hotel for the devastation.

I reminded everybody to look for receding waters and go to Ao Po, on Phuket’s East Coast. I soon got a phone call that waters in Ao Po were dropping fast. My wife told them to evacuate immediately. They got our guests off the pier office with grace and speed, and warned the waterfront shopkeepers to run up the hill. Our escort boat shook from the tsunami but survived. Nobody in Ao Po was hurt. If the tsunami wrapped around to the northeast corner of Phuket, it was a biggie. My prediction of hundreds dead immediately changed to thousands.

I was surprised that the wave wrapped around Sumatra’s North Point with such strength. Sri Lanka and India were in the direct line of fire, but Phuket was a 70-degree turn for any defocused waves. Thousands died – we will never know how many – but the blessing was that the tsunami was seriously depleted in relation to the full strength version that hit Sri Lanka.

Any low-lying area was serious trouble. Patong took a strong hit, and we’ve all seen the videos of rivers rushing down the sois. From the geography it was obvious that the further north the wave went, the stronger it was. Bang Tao simply exploded. Shops behind the hotels have pick-up trucks in their showrooms. Laguna wasn’t as bad because the beach is a bit higher and the hotels are setback from the beaches (a trend started by environmental planning).

At J.W. Marriott, the alert food and beverage manager was on the beach. He didn’t understand the ocean’s drop, but he did have the presence to evacuate the beach, saving everybody in front of the hotel. Just further north, 30 beachgoers died at a luxury hotel without a similar warning. Worst hit was the fairly new resort of Khao Lak, set right on the beach.

My survey from Khao Lak to Kata Noi was predictable. Any hotel set up ten meters or more on a cliff, bluff or mountainside escaped devastation. Windows were broken and guests were terrified, but disaster passed below.

It was simply the luck of the draw. Millionaires in low-lying beachfront villas were swamped, backpackers in off-the-beach bungalows unaffected.

Thailand will bounce back fairly soon.

Hotels cleaned out their lobbies are already for check-in.

We ran a sea canoe daytrip for 20 people on December 28 -- only 40 hours after the tsunami. Pa Nga Bay was calm and beautiful. A lizard swam the still waters at the base of majestic cliffs.

On December 30 I took an overnight trip with Hawaii people who grew up with tsunamis. We know the Big One can be devastating and deadly, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

It’s time to recover. The best assistance Thailand can get is tourism support.

I was amazed at how professional the police, military and disaster services were. Thousands of Thais performed as professional who would make Hawaii Civil Defense system jealous. With no tsunamis for generations, the Indian Ocean basin may have slept through the warning signs, but Thailand can be proud of our very professional reaction to this terrible time.

What is over is over. Thailand is not Sri Lanka. Water is clean, rescue and clean-up well organized. 200 metes behind the beach, life goes on. Need drinking water? The big department stores and a thousand local shops can sell you some. Restaurants are already back in business. The clean up will be a matter of weeks.

What the Kingdom really needs now is for those who loved us the first time around to return and give their support.

Knowing Thai people, we will welcome you with open arms.

(Photo credit: Electrostico via Flickr)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kayaking at Koh Kood

Along with swimming gear and sunblock, make sure you bring a hearty appetite for seafood if you stay at Klong Chao Resort on Koh Kood (or Koot or Kut).

Like all the resorts on this remote island in the Koh Chang archipeligo in the Gulf of Thailand off Trat Provice, Klong Chao operates a package deal. For a trip I took with a friend in March 2004, the deal I chose was a three-day, two-night package for 3,800 baht per person. For that price, we were picked up at the bus station in Trat, taken to the island by speedboat, put up in a cozy bungalow, fed sumptuous meals and taken snorkeling and sightseeing.

Klong Chao is situated on a small creek of the same name. Other resorts along this stretch at the time included Koh Kood Shambala, Klong Chao Beach Resort and Peter Pan.

My reason for choosing this resort was because I could find English-language information about it, which said the place had kayaks available. So along with getting in some snorkeling, I could satisfy my kayaking jones. It's ironic that the resort was featured on an English-language website, as none of the staff speak much English, except for Arthit, his brother, Sukree (whose name appears on the business cards) and a third brother whose name I didn't catch.

The boats available were the ubiquitous Tri-Yaks by Feelfree. They were a little beat up, with the straps for the backrests torn off. Presumably, the backrests had been used as handles in hoisting the boats down from the dock. Or, the backrests have simply been used as buttpads and been worn out. While I was staying there, one of the co-owners, Arthit, received three more new Tri-Yaks and was unpacking them one morning. I wonder how long the new ones will be in use before they start showing signs of wear?

The resorts are mainly geared to handle large numbers of Thai tourists. Indeed, the reason Arthit was unpacking three new kayaks was because he was expecting a group of 80 Thai holidaymakers, arriving the next day to celebrate the long weekend and the Makka Bucha Buddhist holiday.

The kayaks are fine for just lazing around on holiday and paddling short distances. I wouldn't recommend them for long trips. They are great for casual paddlers, as they are easy to board and are extremely stable. Although they are a one- or two-person kayak, it's not uncommon to see three Thai holidaymakers piled aboard, happily paddling away, but not really getting anywhere.

A speedboat tour and snorkeling tour of the nearby islands opened my eyes to the possibilities of kayak touring around the area. I guess it would be possible for seasoned ocean kayakers with good equipment to outfit themselves and spend a week or more exploring the waters, islands and coral reefs around Koh Chang, Koh Mak and Koh Kood. GPS navigation, maps and compass would be necessary, I would think, as well as fishing gear and/or groceries, a camp stove, tent and snorkeling gear.

The speedboat driver was a guy named Lek, who in the grand tradition of Thais with nicknames looks the opposite of his name, which means small. Actually a beefy guy, Lek is not only an expert speedboat driver and navigator of the local waters, he's a tireless snorkeler. At one point during our day, he stopped to dive for clams, taking 30 minutes or so to fill three bushel baskets full to fill our plates at the evening meal. Again and again, he dove to the bottom to pick up more clams. And this was after two snorkeling jaunts earlier with the tour group. He also unloaded a trap, hauling aboard a single squid which he left on the deck of the boat to dry out and change colors before our very eyes. Presumably, it was served up for the evening meal as well.

Another thing about Lek: He never shuts up. But I mean this with all possible kindness. All day long, Lek chattered away good naturedly. He even talked through his snorkeling tube!

Lek's clams were the highlight of the second night's meal. The first night, there was plate after plate of crab. Darn, why didn't I take my camera to dinner? Co-owner Arthit boasted that other resorts charge extra if you ask for a second plate of crab. He supplies them free.

The only thing that costs extra is if the guests want alcoholic beverages beyond the single Spy wine cooler (split between two guests and poured in a classy wine glass) and a blue vodka and crush-ice cocktail provided at the first night's meal. I drank some non-alcoholic lemon shakes, provided free as part of the all-you-can-eat, all-you-drink (coffee, water, sodas) package.

Aside from snorkeling, big meals and time for early evening kayaking, the resort's other activities included a trip upstream to a waterfall. It was just a trickle at the time of year I visited, but there was a refreshing pool to swim in. One evening, a long-tail boat was pressed into use for a trip upstream to view the fireflies. Sparse at first, more and more were revealed in the treetops, until it looked like Christmas. They were still hard to see because it was nearly full moon.

A fun activity would have been a moonlight kayak paddle, or early morning paddle, but I was taking it easy this time out.

I was tipped off to Koh Kood by a friend who stayed at a new resort there on a part of the island that had no phone, no lights and no motorcars. So I was dismayed to find phone service, 24-hour electricity and roads on the part of the island I visited. There were also karaoke machines, stereos and cable televisions, making for a less-than-quiet holiday at times. But with the kayaking, the snorkeling and the food, everything evened out.

Note: Klong Chao Resort can be contacted through any number of hotel booking firms. Do a search on Google and take your pick, or try to contact the resort direct.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Kayaking on Koh Chang

In December 2003, I had a chance to visit Koh Chang. Knowing nothing about the island, a friend had stayed at Chai Chet Bungalows, so I headed there. It proved to be an adequate choice, as they rent kayaks. The best deal for me was 12 hours for 400 baht. They also had 100-baht-an-hour rates, which is pretty expensive.

The boats were the ubiquitous Tri-Yaks from Feel Free. The guys at the bungalow kept trying to get me to sit in the very back position, not realizing the center seat is not for a third person but for a solo paddler. Thai people on holiday love to pile on to these little boats, but not me.

No matter. I went kayaking every day to my heart's content. Most of the hotels on the island had kayaks it seems, so it was a good place to go for a kayaking fix.

While I was there, a young couple from Seattle (one of whom hailed originally from Hopedale, Illinois) was there with their folding, inflatable Feathercraft - a great option that gives you total freedom to paddle whenever and wherever you want, as long as you can get to the water. Because they were so equipped, they were doing a lot of paddling, having boated over from White Sands Beach. They had paddled around Chai Chet Bay and the Klong Prao beach area for a few days, going "about as far as you can see out there". They were to move their operation to Lonely Beach and continue their exploration of the waters around Koh Chang.

I mainly stuck to Chai Chet Bay, exploring up Klong Prao as far as I could go. I also paddled way out into open water until I felt I could still turn back and make it. Coming back in, I bounced over the waves and imagined myself like the German submarine, the U-96 in Das Boot, when they are heading for the flotilla of American ships. The happy time. Politically and morally incorrect, but it kept me going.

Another day I paddled way out into open water and across to an island that I heard had some snorkeling. It was about an hour paddle and I was not disappointed. Indeed, there was snorkeling and there were snorkelers. There was even another pair of kayakers. But pretty soon I had the place to myself. The coral wasn't all that colorful, but a set of fins and a nice mask and snorkel loaned by a friend made going down and checking it all out a lot of fun.

For the last couple days of my visit to Koh Chang, my friend came to visit, and we did some more kayaking and snorkeling.

I found that staying in Chai Chet Bungalows wasn't perhaps the best. The staff seemed surly at first, but warmed up after I had stayed there a few days. Their English comprehension was limited - a bad sign for a resort that is seeing more and more foreign tourists. The 600 baht bungalows were very basic, with room for a bed and a small bathroom with squat toilet and cold, leaky shower hose. Made of concrete and tile, they were a bit sterile for my taste. There are a couple of other resorts on Chai Chet Bay, all about the same, though. There are some nicer resorts along Klong Prao beach, it looked like.

An idea for next time would be to ask for some extras when booking. If you want to do a lot of kayaking, ask that the kayak rentals be discounted or complimentary. Ask for a free breakfast, pickup at the ferry - anything. I asked for nothing and was offered nothing, so was nickled and dimed all the way for a ride to the hotel, for an hour's kayaking, for breakfast, for a cup of coffee, etc., etc., etc.

But I don't want to bitch too much. If anything, the rough edges around the tourist infrastructure were understable, as it was all new. Koh Chang has been having the hell developed out of it. Construction equipment clogs its narrow two-land blacktop. There's a ready mix plant on the island. A huge ferry brings more big trucks. There's garbage pickup as well as more garbage is coming in. An airport has been built in Trat by Bangkok Airways. So the quieter mode of tourism is giving way to bigger ways of doing things. Noise. Buses. Techno music. Crowds. Get there before all the quiet is gone.

Helpful link: