Our journey from Penang was determined by visa issues. My Irish passport only allowed for a fifteen day Thai visa if we entered the country by land, so we took a quick flight from Georgetown to Phuket (thus securing a 30 day visa), where we stayed in a hostel for a few days to organise the next phase of our trip. Again we have had to forward-plan more than we would like, this time because of the Chinese New Year and the large numbers of tourists this generates in Thailand. Transport and accommodation need to be pre-booked. We didn’t venture beyond Phuket town, but it is clear that here also restoration in the city centre is gentrifying crumbling buildings for the benefit of the young trendy Thai middle class and tourism.
Among the coffee houses and art galleries, you come across printshops and even a blacksmiths, forging scythes. I used to work on that Heidleberg printing press.
We took the three hour morning ferry to Koh Lanta and booked in to the Metallic hotel on Long Beach. Our room was clean, comfortable and quiet, but the hostel atmosphere was transformed by the hostel manager, Son, whose humour, gregariousness and energy ensured people chatted, socialised and got on. Needless to say I entered in to the sociable spirit and enjoyed a late night of banter and drinking games with a younger generation. More memorably, Son joined me for a few beers on our last evening where we talked late into the night about life the universe and everything else. Fun times.
Although we spent a few days on the beach, it was scuba diving that had brought us to the island. Diving unites people with a common passion and we were soon sharing ‘did you see…’ conversations with Polish, Canadian and Dutch divers of different ages and backgrounds. This is not a diving blog, though as diving is part of the adventure it is bound to get a mention. So I will just describe one day’s diving in Hin Huang and Hin Dueng. They are beautiful dives, with gorgeous colourful coral and abundant sea life. It’s about three hours offshore, and like much of the diving in the Andaman Sea, these dives centre on coral growing on massive limestone outcrops that usually jut high in to the sky with abundant life below. In the case of threes two dive sites, the rock formations are below the waves.The fish and coral compete in variety and vibrancy, and with visibility of around twenty metres, it is simply stunning.
On this particular dive we were lucky enough to see Manta Rays, circling the reef on three occasions. With a wingspan of around 5 metres, these majestic animals cruise through the ocean, simultaneously graceful, otherworldly and powerful. As we were using Nitrox rather than air, Anne and I, and our dive guide Rachel, had the reef to ourselves at about 20 metres for the final Manta appearance, while the other divers looked down from above on their 5 metre safety stop. Magical.
I don’t do underwater photography, preferring instead to focus on the brief experience of visiting another world. So thanks to Hanna and Monica for sharing these beautiful pictures of the dive.
From Koh Lanta, we headed down to Koh Lipe, again by ferry for some more beach and diving. Lipe is reminiscent of Phi Phi in the days before the tsunami, with no significant roads, some chaotic development and some extensive resorts but with camping and huts in the palm groves remaining on the quieter beaches. We picked a small boutique hotel for the few days we were there, yes we’re getting old.
There was a rather odd sight on the idyllic Sunset Beach, as the waves lapped the shore one afternoon. Two middle aged Chinese couples went swimming in the water for a couple of minutes, then jumped into some kayaks for a similar time. They stood out because they were all wearing bright inflatable children’s polka dot armbands. And they had a professional photographer, with all the gear, taking pictures from the shore, whilst another sent up a drone to circle them and video their intrepid actions in the bay. Then they left. I can’t help feeling that if you want to look dashing and adventurous you need to lose the polka dot armbands…
We again had some good diving on Lipe, one drift dive with the fastest current we have ever experienced – we were flying! Luckily our guide had qualified in Komodo, where the currents are notorious, so we were in capable hands. It’s also good for us to gain experience and nice to see my air consumption is getting close to Anne’s.
We’re now on a ferry back to Phuket where we get picked up tomorrow for a diving liveaboard in the Similan Islands. Hmm, sensing a theme here!
It’s now about three months since Anne finished work, and we headed up to Loch Awe, where I like to think this adventure began. It truly is the time of our lives, but of course we miss family and friends. Luckily Oona is heading out to catch up with us in April, probably in the Philippines. Anyone else on the road in SEAsia, let us know – it’s no longer a ‘lonely planet’, if it ever was one.
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