Beautiful Khao Sok National Park

We headed out of Khao Lak in the morning after a great English breakfast at Walker’s Inn. We heard a bus was due to arrive so we went to the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited. Allegedly, the buses run every hour, but we saw no evidence of that! After 3 hour, we did manage to snag a bus and arrived in Khao Sok 90 minutes later. The town is quite small, with a few restaurants, 2 mini marts and several bungalows. We stayed at Palm View which turned our to be an excellent choice. Palm View is run by Mama, Papa and their son, Kong who immediately welcomed us as family. Their rooms were clean and spread apart – and the food was outstanding. Mama makes it all so we sometimes waited a little longer than we were used to- but it was worth it! They also helped us book a 2 day/1 night stay in the Park on the lake which was amazing. We were picked up in the morning, drove 1 hour to the Pier and park entrance. Then boarded a long tail boat and took another 45 minutes ride to the floating bungalows on the lake. The view is breathtaking, with towering karst mountains, lush green jungle and beautiful blue water. I was pleased to see there were no resorts, very few boats and for the first time, pure, untouched land the way it must have been for hundreds of years.

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Our floating bungalow was very simple and in a general state of disrepair but it was still awesome. On arrival, we were shown to our room, then ushered to eat lunch before jumping in the lake for a swim. Our group- there were 7 of us staying the night, took a long tail about 15 minutes to the edge of the jungle where we hiked to the cave. The jungle hike was about an hour until we reached the mountain side and a small entrance to the cave. I thought there was no way anyone was going to get me in there but after peeking my head in and finding a much more open space, I braved it and with everyone else, headed through the cave with my head torch! I’m so glad I did- we hiked/swam about 30 minutes to the back of the cave then turned around. The water was sometimes 2m deep but never a dull moment as when our eyes adjusted, there was quite a lot to see.

We headed back for some more R&R before dinner which primarily entailed chatting with our new friends over a few Chang beers. We slept surpringly well in our little bungalow but were up at 6:30am per our guide to see some morning wildlife. We saw monkeys, a gibbon and a deer but they were pretty far away. The morning mist blanketing the mountains was beautiful and we took about 60 pictures in an attempt to capture it- none of course could do it justice. We packed up our stuff then headed by boat for another jungle hike to the View Point. We were dropped off at the edge of the jungle and climbed for about an hour to the view point overlooking part of the lake- the view was okay but I enjoyed the walk and the swim at the end more. On the other side, we arrived at another floating house and jumped in the water to cool off. After a quick lunch of fried rice, we were off to the pier once more and heading back to town.

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DSC00775We returned to Palm View and Mama’s delicious food, my fav- Kuay Tiew Rat Na. Met the guys in the town for a beer then headed to bed. The bus journey from Khao Sok to Phuket airport was even worse than the previous one but it was cheap! Arrived in Phuket in time for a sunset dinner at the beach. Next stop: Singapore

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Dolphin Queen Liveaboard – Similan Islands, Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock

In the end we took a double cabin on the Dolphin Queen – a boat run by Similan Diving Safari’s in Khao Lak. This is one of only two lower budget range boats I could find that does 4 night itineraries that include both sites in the Similans and north to Richelieu Rock – our main objectives for this dive trip (the other boat I found, the Andaman run by Sea Dragon, was full for our date ranges).

For $150-$175 per night on this liveaboard dive boat, you get a very nice standard of living. The cabins are pretty small in this price range as you would expect, but we had a double room to ourselves (they also have 4 bunk cabins) and it was air conditioned and suitable for a very comfortable night’s sleep. With a maximum of 22 guests, the boat still didn’t feel cramped as people could spread out across 3 decks (dive deck/cabins, main living/eating deck and top sun deck). The were 3 toilet/shower rooms which were kept clean and provided warm fresh-water showers, for which we rarely had to wait in line.

It helped that the boat was extremely well organised and well run – the dive groups were split into two teams to go gear up and get in the water seperately, and a thorough briefing on boarding meant that after the first couple of dives the whole process was efficient and automatic – and normally my tank was being refilled by the time I had my wetsuit halfway off.

The staff, dive instructors and crew all seemed very competent, were friendly and engaging and the whole group was alot of fun.

As far as the diving itself is concerned, it was a great experience (although I think we already beat any of those dives with our second dive at Bunaken). Over the four days we did 14 dives in a 4-4-4-2 pattern – wake up at 0630, first dive between 0700-0730, breakfast, second dive around 11am, lunch, third dive around 3pm, dinner around 6pm, night dive around 7pm. The dive sites were well chosen, the briefings were through and the instructors/divemasters did a great job keeping everyone safe and pointing out the interesting marine life.

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View from the top of Sail Rock

The highlights of our diving were – fish volumes on richelieu and some of the other reefs, a huge school of barracuda we saw at the end of one of the dives (and a second time at the start of a dive at richelieu), a cool anenome crab on a night dive, a huge brown grouper, turtles, lots of different types of moray eel, and a harlequin shrimp eating a starfish (with one big starfish leg sticking out of its mouth), seahorse, Kuhl’s rays etc…

We also did a couple of shore visits on the Similans during surface intervals which were excellent – especially Donald Duck Bay and the hike up to Sail Rock.

The food was really excellent and served frequently and in large volumes which kept us all going through the long days of diving.

The only disappointment of the trip was the amount of bleached/dead coral in shallow water (although not as bad as around Phuket/Phi-Phi/Lanta) and hearing about how much better all these dive sites used to be and how much more frequent sightings of Whale Sharks and Manta’s used to be just a few years ago (no sightings on our trip).

Overall the trip was great value for what we got to do and I would definitely recommend the Dolphin Queen as a lower budget option than the high-end or luxury liveaboards.

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Khao Lak and the Similan Islands

We snagged a 4 night liveaboard dive trip today and headed up to Khao Lak to get on board. Looks like a great boat.. We just set off and we’re very excites about the diving to come in the next few days.. Probably won’t have internet or phone access until 22nd Jan!

Snorkelling with Black-Tip Reef Sharks!

We’re staying on long beach on Phi Phi island. It’s absolutely beautiful here, a quiet away from the town a couple of km away. There is pretty good off-beach snorkeling. Exceptional in fact, because they have some resident black-tip reef sharks – we found them this morning! A mother and a baby.. At one point the mother came within 2-3m of us.. A really great experience (and not at all scary, they are only 1-1.2m long and very timid). Photos to follow when we have a good internet connection.

We’re loving Phi Phi but we need to move on if we’re going to fit in a liveaboard trip to the similan islands.

Diving from Ko Lanta

Whilst there aren’t any dive sites on the island of Ko Lanta itself, there are some world-class dive sites nearby – in particular it’s the closest diving base for Hin Daeng and Hin Muang in the far south – around 50km further south. As these dive sites are rated some of the highest in the world for sightings of whale sharks, and also frequently attract manta rays, we decided that we had to take the opportunity to dive them while here.

We looked around at various dive shops – prices vary from around 3100 to 4000 THB for the “local” dive sites of Ko Ha/Ko Bida (still 1.5hrs away on a big boat), and 3800 THB to 5500 THB for Hin Daeng/Hin Muang – the larger variation here also depending on whether a speedboat is offered, whicj reduces the travel time to around 1.5 hrs. Eventually we decided to do two days diving with the largest dive operator on the island – Lanta Diver – mainly because they saved us 1000 THB each vs the dive shop that was on our doorstep on Long Beach, plus they have two big boats and dive on Hin Daeng a number of times a week.

On Thursday we went to Ko Ha, and despite a 40 minute late pickup from our hotel (apparently unusual for them as it was an exceptionally busy day) and 38 divers packed onto this boat, it was actually a very well organised and stress-free experience. They stuck to the 4 divers per instructor/DM, who looked after us extremely well with the most thorough briefings I’ve ever had before diving, plus post-dive fish ident de-briefing. They split the 38 divers into two groups for setting up and then again for getting in the water – so there were never too many people on the dive deck at once – and there was plenty of space on the upper deck for everyone else to chill out and wait their turn.

The diving at Ko Ha was excellent, and fairly shallow resulting in 1 hr dives (max allowed). Whilst we weren’t very lucky with the visibility (~10m), the reefs and walls were superb. It seemed like there were moray eels in every hole, titan triggerfish digging in the sand, lionfish, scorpion fish, and many more. We weren’t lucky enough to see the black-tip reef sharks which also live in the area, but hopefully there will be other chances to see those on Phi Phi in a few days.

This morning we had a very early start (6.30am pickup, on time today) for the long ride out to Hin Daeng. They serve a good sausage/bacon/egg breakfast so between that and setting up, the first 1.5hrs goes by quickly. Between a some napping/reading and another thorough briefing, we are there already. The first dive on Hin Daeng was a little challenging. The currents were stronger than anything we’ve dived in before, and the effect of this was to prevent divers from spreading out to other parts of the site as we had to stay in the most sheltered parts. So it was very busy and challenging to manage swimming into current in some spots and drift in others, whilst avoiding other divers. Ascending on the buoy line was bizarre, with visibility dropping to less than 5m in a big cloud of plankton containing lots of baby jellyfish (which i didnt notice until i started getting stung around my lips). With about 15 divers hanging onto this line and trying to make a safety stop, it was quite an experience! But definitely good experience of diving in current, which we need to build on before we go to Indonesia.

Hin Daeng was much better, visibility still wasn’t ideal but it was improved, and the current was much lighter in the areas that we dived, as there is more shelter provided by the pinnacle, which actually breaks the surface in 3 places, whereas Hin Muang is fully submerged.

The numbers of fish both on and off the reef was very impressive – we’ll list some names with the pictures to follow. No whale shark or manta rays this time, but maybe next time in the similan islands we’ll get lucky!

Our plan now is to head to Phi Phi in the next couple of days to find some good off-beach snorkelling, stay there a couple of nights, then continue on up to Khao Lak.

Liking Koh Lanta!

So we only just arrived this afternoon on the ferry from Railey, but aready we’ve decided we like it here and will stay a few days, or even a week. We’ve got a bungalow for 880 baht that is better than any accommodation we’ve had since we left bangkok, and the price will drop to 600 baht (£12/$18) from tomorrow which is even just under our budget. We’re a stones throw from a huge beach, which whilst it isn’t in as stunning a landscape setting as Railey, it’s uncrowded and very pleasant with nicer water than at Railey.

We’re comparing some dive shops to figure out if we can afford one or two days diving whilst we’re here.

Railey – a vacation paradise but not for backpackers

Approaching Railey by longtail boat was like discovering the lost world. Karst cliffs tower from the water, overhanging with stalactites, all draped in vivid green jungle. Caves visible everywhere and the suggestion of hidden valleys beyond the first line of cliffs gives the place a mysterious feel.

However when you arrive you realise that the place has definitely been found – by lots of 4 and 5 star resorts covering every square foot of the flat land on the peninsular. The resorts generally look very nice – so it’s not the end of the world if you can afford to stay in one of those. But if like us you stay in the cheapest room in Railay, it really only leaves the beach and a few bars and restaurants to hang out on.

After our night in Ton Sai and deciding that the location wasnt really for us, and we weren’t really feeling up for climbing (very sore from dragging our packs around recently), we found the cheapest room we could on Railey and moved over – to the Princess Budget Wing (formerly yaya resort) – for which we paid 1000 baht per night – poor value by Thai standards and well over our budget (should be 600-700). The only redeeming feature of this accommodation is its location – the only budget option that’s within 5-10 minutes walk of Phra Nang beach. For that money you don’t even get a hot shower, the fan was extremely noisy to run, the rooms are packed so close together that you can hear everything that goes on in the whole block – and to make matters worse there must be a nightclub nearby that plays music until 4am and many noisy russians staying here who felt the need to shout/talk/throw up late into the night. The room was at least reasonably bug-free – not completely sealed but in an area where mosquitos arent such a big issue – we only got a couple in the room during the two days – so no mosquito net needed (and none was provided). I’d probably consider staying here again if I was backpacking in low season when there would be very few guests and I could get the room for 300 baht or less.

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Enjoying the sunset on the end of Phra Nang Beach

Phra Nang beach is stunning – the most incredible beach I have ever visited. Framed by karst cliffs with an immense overhang at the southern end (including a sacred cave at the base), the sand is bright white, fine and soft, backed by trees instead of hotel buildings (although the Rayadavee resort is hidden in those trees somewhere). The water is warm and great to swim in, food and drink is available cheaply from longtail boat vendors. The beach is big enough and remote enough from most places that it never fills up completely – by sunset (and you get some great sunsets here) the north end of the beach is practically deserted. For beach-laying and a bit of swimming it really does live up to the brochure image.

But, and it seems like sadly there will always be a but, the disappointment here was the snorkelling. Perhaps the poor visibility was only temporary (alot of plankton or something in the water, it must have included some animal that delivers a light sting occasionally – annoying but not damaging), but the bleaching of the coral looked distinctly irreversible. I had read about it, but wasnt really prepared for how sad it would be to see 95% of all the coral dead and broken, and abandoned by most other marine life. We swam out along the south side of the two islands that sit offshore from the beach, through the gap, then back along the north side. The north side was in slightly better condition, but we were only in around 2m of water so I couldn’t tell if it had survived better at depth – i had no idea how far out we’d need to go to find a drop-off, but there must be one there as our ferry on departure passed within 150 yards or so of the island. We saw a few fish (incl an angel fish) a sea cucumber, some crabs, sea spider and stef even saw a sea snake.. These stood out in the relatively dead surroundings, unlike what you’d expect on a healthy reef. Caused by sea temperatures rising too high, it’s difficult to know if this damage is human-influenced or not, and it certainly seems like there isn’t much we can do to stop it in the short term.

Ton Sai – climber’s paradise but not ours!

We spent one night at Ton Sai before moving over to Railey. The landscape in this area is trully spectacular with the jungle-clad karst cliffs dropping straight into the sea. It provides the best winter season climbing in the world, and with early-january the highest of the peak season, the place was packed with hundreds of climbers. When we arrived, everywhere was full and we thought thay we wouldn’t even be able to get a room. Eventually after just hanging around long enough, a bamboo bungalow at basecamp tonsai (“kasbah” bungalow) became available. The accommodation on ton sai is very basic, but that’s the reason we went there first, because it has the only cheap accommodation during peak season. We paid 700 baht (£14/$21)- top end for the thailand backpacker market- for our bungalow. The facilities are more like camping, but with a better mattress and plumbed water – you get a cold water shower and bucket-flushed toilet in an out-house style bathroom. Plus you get electricity between 6pm and the early hours of the morning, most useful for running the fan to cool down enough to get to sleep.

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The beach to Ton Sai

However, unlike camping, the ability to seal your environment against mosquito’s and bugs is missing. There are many gaps/air holes in the construction so it’s free wandering area for all the creepy crawlies. When we woke up, we had the company of a 4-inch diameter spider – luckily not in bed with us thanks to the supplied mosquito net – but it’s the biggest spider i’ve seen in the wild and i’d rather not have that crawling into my luggage (i’ll need to check my boots carefully before i wear them next!). The mosquito net itself was a bit worn with a few holes and took a bit of effort to make sure we were sealed in (with the offending bugs on the outside, not the inside). I think in the end i picked up the majority of the bites i’ve had so far whilst/before/after showering. To top it all off, the space available was not enough to unpack/organise our stuff, with no table to keep things off the ground, and no chairs even to sit outside on.

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Our accommodation bungalow on Ton Sai which was..well, adventurous

So, the accommodation wasnt great and not great value by Thai standards, but we probably could have made it work if the place otherwise was absolute paradise. But it really wasnt, not for us. The water at the beach didnt look good, and the day we arrived there was some drain leaking out with sewage stench floating around the place (they seemed to have it fixed by the next day, but the smell still lingered). When we waded back around the headland from Railey that evening, the water at that end of the beach was brown and foamy – looking distinctly polluted. Almost noone swam at ton sai, understandable with such a beautiful beach as Railey just next door. Even more tragic was the rotting garbage all over the place – mainly in the area behind the first row of businesses just behind the beach. It’s obvious that noone cleans up here, and that the local business owners who run their cafe, food stalla and shops don’t feel sufficiently invested to protect their environment and not dump their waste anywhere there is space for it. For these two reasons, we wouldn’t go back to Ton Sai – I can see in the next few years the environment there degrading and it will become less and less tolerable.

That said, the jungle is nice further back from the shore, and there are some nice cafe’s and restaurants down by the beach. And the climbing looks incredible, even just to watch. Tom – we thought of you – it would be heaven for you here. 700 bolted routes plus many other climbing options such as deep water soloing. You could climb every day for years here without doing the same climb twice. And bars filled with climbers drinking 50 baht ($1.50) beers talking climbing all evening.

But this isn’t really our scene, so we moved on, hauling our 20kg packs over the headland (really tough, but good training for Nepal!) to move in to the cheapest room we could find in Railey.

Goodbye Bangkok, on the train heading south

2 days in Bangkok was enough, and now we’re eager to get to the beaches in the south, to find out if all those perfect postcard pictures of Railey are real after all.

It’s an 8.5 hr, 1000km train journey followed by a 3+ hr bus ride, but i’m already feeling better for having left Bangkok behind. The cramped, hectic, polluted views are replaced by open countryside with sharp karst mountains which hint at the wonderful coastal scenery to come. I want to smell fresh sea breezes not the confusing mixture of street food aromas mixed with rotting garbage and cat piss!

I can see that Bangkok has its attractions for party-goers, and we even found some interest and a nice time spending the afternoon at the Grand Palace, but we decided that whilst it was a good experience to visit, Bangkok isn’t the place for us.

I think the places around the south will be much more to our liking, and we have nearly 3 weeks to drift around between Railey, Phi Phi, Khao Lak, Khao Sok National Park and Koh Lanta. We’ll get a few dives in on the similan islands, perhaps some trekking, and alot of relaxing and time spent trying to make our money go as far as possible! A $20-per-day budget each is OK here, but you really need to be careful and calculate every purchase, as just one evening at a bar or eating in a proper restaurant would blow it. So, i am hoping to find a beer at some point in the next few days, but i have a rule that it has to cost less than 50 baht (£1) – normally wouldnt be too much of an issue here (to put it into perpective, our accommodation tonight will cost 350 baht -£7/$10 for a room for both of us) but i’m expecting it to be a challenge on peak season in the tourist areas.

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Having a drink at the top of the tallest building in Thailand

Our one treat while in Bangkok, on our last evening here, is to come up to the 83rd floor bar of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel for a drink (the only alcohol we’ve afforded since we got here). By coincidence this hotel, the 4th tallest all-hotel structure in the world, is only 200 yds from where we’re staying. So we’re enjoying looking down on the little buildings below, trying to figure out which one is our hotel.

The visibility is obviously terrible and reinforces our views about how bad the pollution is here. Our lungs will appreciate some fresh sea air when we get to the southern coast tomorrow.

After our drink here we’ll be off to find some dinner for a sixth of the price of our cocktails!

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Arrived in Bangkok

Our hotel is in a market area called Pratunam. We didn’t get any sleep on the flight so we’re just going to go out to get some street food then get an early night!

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