Okay, I will admit that I am a bit of a spoiled cookie. Mr G travels extensively for business, and racks up some pretty bodacious frequent flyer points on Aeroplan. So, for most long hauls to Asia or Europe, we buck up the Biz Class points and happily ensconce ourselves in the unparalleled lie flat pods on Air Canada's big beautiful birds.
But this trip, for our youngest daughter and me, planned on short notice? Not so much luck on getting the seats on the Aeroplan partners to make it all the way to Thailand...
Plan B: Doing a bit of surfing on the usual suspect air and hotel internet sites, I found a decent fare on Cathay Pacific that had some easy routing from Vancouver to Phuket, with only one plane change in Hong Kong. Woohoo! - Bangkok not revisited ;^)
Knowing that we would be flying in "the back of the bus" and expecting the worst in terms of comfort, I planned an overnight at an airport hotel in Hong Kong as a way to break the trip on the way to Thailand and to rest up after what I figured would be a long, uncomfortable flight. As it ends up, the trip on Cathay (13.5 hours gate to gate = 4 movies + a nap ;^) was so easy that we could have gone straight through without the overnight and not been too worse for wear.
We stayed at the Novotel Citygate Hotel near Hong Kong Airport. This was our second stay at this property and I can happily recommend it - free shuttle to and from HKG airport (about 10 minutes away), very quiet and nicely appointed rooms, good food and beverage in the hotel at reasonable prices (props to the little restaurant off the main lobby by the front windows), and there is a mall attached (if you are into the Asian shopping mania kind of thing - me, not so much...)
The long haul on Cathay, for this seasoned traveler (and ex-Flight Attendant) was as good as it gets in Economy - very comfortable and ergonomic seats - the new kind that recline within their own shell, so there is no infringement on, or from, folks seated in front or behind. It was the roomiest and most comfortable Economy seat that I have ever sat in, and added bonus - there was a 2-4-2 configuration in the back of the bus, and so with just two of us traveling, we had window and aisle seats that offered a modicum of privacy and a happy absence of overflowing and/or obnoxious seatmates (btdt on both counts). Added bonuses were the biggest menu of movies, games, tv and music that I have ever seen on any flight, in any class (I figured something around a hundred movies in the library - all on demand), edible meals (included), decent baggage allowance (ditto), and free bar. Seriously, it was better than Biz Class on a quite a few flights I have been on (Tokyo to San Fran on United, on a geriatric aircraft, to name one).
The second leg of the journey - Hong Kong to Phuket (3.5 hours), was on Dragonair, the local subsidiary of Cathay. I can't rave about the flight as it paled in comparison to the long haul the day previous, but it was efficient and got us to Phuket in time to enjoy a day at the beach.
As our plan was to start our trip by diving from the liveaboard 'The Junk', we had to get ourselves to Phuket to get to the boat. As I understand it, all of the many liveaboard dive boats that do the Andaman Sea itineraries of Thailand leave out of Phuket. Phuket is not the ideal place for those in search of pristine, deserted, quaint Thai beaches of lore. Instead, it is the center of all that has become ubiquitous with messy, drunken, lowest common denominator beach holiday destinations. It is a shame - such a physically lovely place, now overrun with an assortment of tatty, sunbleached, boozed up, sex-seeking tourists in shabby resort towns rife with heavy vehicle traffic.
For our last stay in Thailand, in 2007, I fortunately stumbled upon the Indigo Pearl resort when looking for accomodations close to the airport. This gem is pretty much off the beaten track, close to a quiet beach town (Nai Yang). We really loved the place, and so were happy to return on this trip, for one night on the way in to meet the boat, and for one night before flying home at the end of the trip. It is definitely a bit of a splurge, and there are numerous other more budget-minded options on the island of Phuket, but if you can plan it so you arrive in the morning coming in and departing in the late afternoon when leaving (the Concierge will keep your bags for you if needed), you get pretty good value for your stay - beautiful grounds, pools, bars and restaurants to enjoy. Also note the prices quoted are per room and not per person, and include a fantastic buffet breakfast/brunch. Also note that their van will pick transport you to/and from the Phuket Airport (about 10 minutes) for pretty much the same price as a local con, er, cab. Contact the resort in advance to set it up.
The resort continues to be kept in beautiful shape, and as an avid gardener, I was impressed by how much the beautiful landscaping and gardens have matured in just a few years. An added bonus was that we were upgraded to one of the suites from the least expensive room I had booked for our first stay - it was absolutely gorgeous. The breakfast buffet (included when you book through Indigo's Pearl's website) remains the best I have enjoyed in any restaurant or hotel, and the beach eateries just outside the resort still offer up awesome, authentic and cheap Thai food and beer under the stars and flying paper lanterns. The Pearl has a couple of "adult only" pools. Sweetness.
There is a dive shop on site of the Indigo Pearl, run by a German couple, and looks to be the real deal. They advertise a high speed boat that is capable of getting divers down to the Phi Phi islands for three tanks, and back, all in one excursion day. That's a fair distance - bring the scopalamine ;^) They also offer day trips out to the Similans as well as several local sites that the very personable owner boasted to be as good as the Similans. Unfortunately our travel schedule did not allow us to try them out on this trip.
I reviewed the resort in a previous trip report, so I won't rehash all the details, which remain accurate. For pix and more info about the Indigo Pearl, please follow this link: 2007 Indigo Pearl Resort Review.
Part Two - The Junk Liveaboard Experience
The Junk Under Sail
It was a no-brainer deciding which boat to go on for this return trip to Thailand. Our family had such a great time on The Junk over Christmas of 2007 that it was the natural choice to revisit. We booked our spots pretty late in the day (so sadly no advanced booking discount for us), and we were fortunate that there were enough other divers already booked that when we were added, they had more than the minimum number to go. This is definitely a consideration when booking a liveaboard in Thailand - it is my understanding that trips can be cancelled if there are not enough passengers booked. I feel quite confident that when this happens, places are found for divers on other boats (of which there are a flotilla), but it could be very disappointing to plan for The Junk and end up on something with less character or quality, so I would ask for confirmation that the trip is going to go before I put down my money. On both bookings with The Junk I found Frank (the owner) and his office staff to be timely and professional correspondents.
Another important piece of info: It was explained to me that the Andaman Sea liveaboards only run from the end of October to the beginning of May - the rest of the year, the sea conditions are too rough to dive off the west coast of Thailand. The Junk runs a "Southern Island" itinerary in the off-season, which includes sites around Phi Phi, as well as Anemone Rock, Shark Point, Hin Daeng, and others - all of which are mighty fine diving in my experience, and other than Richelieu Rock, arguably better than the Similans/Surins itinerary that is run in high season. The crew tells me that they can get to the good sites most of the time, but ocean conditions are definitely a bit more of a concern in these months, as well as weather. Thailand in its wet season (June to October) might be a double whammy - heavy rains which splooge up visibility and rough seas...
The Junk driver picked us up at the Indigo Pearl at the appointed hour (which was late in the afternoon) and drove us down to Patong Beach (about 1.5 hours drive), where the boat is moored in the harbour. Our bags were whisked off by the crew, loaded onto the panga and shunted out to the Junk. Ditto us. We were the last passengers to arrive, and we enjoyed the welcoming committee of crew (many of whom were the same folks as our last outing) and the six other passengers with whom we would share the boat with for the next six days. Since there was such a light load, Keith (the in-charge Cruise Director) kindly offered to split up P3 and I into our own private cabins - we had booked a double cabin to share. It was great having the extra room to boom and no doubt she appreciated not having her mama nag her about picking up her stuff so I wouldn't trip over it.
After a throrough boat briefing, the anchor was pulled and the crew lit the ceremonial whack of firecrackers, which is traditional for Chinese junks as they head out to sea, and we were off with a bang. Dinner was served, dive gear unpacked and assembled, and then off to sleep for the overnight navigation to the Similan Islands.
There is quite a bit more detail about the boat which I shared in the 2007 report, and which I don't plan to repeat here - please follow this link to read more about the boat, food and amenities: The Junk on The Junk.
There were a few changes in crew - Mitch, the previous Cruise Director, has retired and so the previously laconic Keith has been promoted to top dog, with Mona, a Swedish DM, as second in command. The Assistant Cook, Na, from our last trip has been promoted to Chief Cook. She produced a wonderful variety of tasty dishes to choose from - both Thai and western. The fiesty Bosun, Chin, despite having a nasty chest cold when we boarded, still amused the guests with his unique wake up call each morning.
Keith giving a briefing
On this trip, we dove some of the same sites we dove in 2007, and some new ones (for us). In the summer of 2010, Thailand suffered a major coral bleaching event that decimated some previously gorgeous shallow reefs. The crew went out of their way (literally) to avoid these sites as they try to recover, and managed to drop us onto reefs that still looked healthy and most of which were teeming with life. Even with careful plannning, we were still witness to some areas that are pretty much wiped out. So very sad.
Following is the line up of the sites we dove, with my quick notes and some images from the trip. I have noted the lens used on each dive. All underwater images were taken with a Nikon D300. Most topside images were taken with a Canon G10.
I did the best I could making critter identifications - information gleaned from the Indo Pacific Coral Reef Guide (Allen & Steene), which is not nearly as comprehensive as the Humann Tropical Pacific series - which sadly I don't yet own. I'm not thrilled with some of the shots I will be sharing (this was a trip more about spending time/keeping an eye on P3, than about burying my head in the camera, so several shots were pretty rushed), but I have included them anyhoo to try to demonstrate the amazing fish variety in Thailand.
Day One - Similan Islands
Dive 1 - Morning Glory - Similan Island #5 (the Similans are numbered rather than named). Check out dive.
There is always at least one dive on a trip when my camera malfunctions. Well, this was the dive... I have no pix to share, but my notes are:
Notes: 105mm macro lens. Vivid Pink Anenome (coloration possibly due to coral bleaching?), Blue Spotted Ray, Western Clown Anemonefish, Clark's Anemonefish. Fooking camera fubars...
Dive 2 - West of Sweden - Similan Island #7
Notes: 105mm macro lens. Nudibranchs, Fire Dartfish, Giant White Frogfish, Blue-spotted Jawfish. Rocky - huge boulders. Some current. Very rocky site with little in the way of coral formations.
Fire Dartfish - Nemateleotris magnifica
I've been trying to get a decent shot of one of these reculsive little fish for a long time.
Like a jawfish, they retreat into their den (a hole in the sand) at the slightest movement.
The long dorsal fine folds down along their back when they retreat.
Giant White Frogfish - Antennarius commersoni
I did not know that there were Giant Frogfish in Thailand - I've only ever seen them in Indonesia.
Not a great shot - confounding to expose properly
Notes: 28-105mm lens (RIP) Mellow afternoon dive on a fringing reef, some coral bleaching evident, very fishy - numerous butterflyfish varieties, coral grouper, anemonefish, ginormous moray, batfish
Pink Anemonefish - Amphiprion perideraion
Cresent Tail Bigeye - Priacanthus hamrur
Undulated Moray Eel - Gymnothorax undulatus
Teira Batfish - Platax Teira
Land Dive - Sail Rock - Similan #8
Between the third dive and the night dive, a land excursion to Similan #8 (Sail Rock) was offered. It is a bit of a strenuous climb, but the gorgeous views make it worth the work.
Dive 4 - Similan #8 - A night dive was offered at Ao Guak, which we did not do. Three dives a day on air is about all this old batfish can handle ;^)
Day Two - Similans, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai
Dive 5 - The Pinnacles - Similan Island #9
Notes: 28-105mm lens. I remembered this site from our last trip as a strenuous current dive, and the more things change, the more they remain the same ;^) It was a real huffer and puffer as we went down to 90 feet, looking for Leopard Sharks (and sadly, we were skunked this time on this site). Still, all that finning into the wind (the current swirls around the large pinnacles) coughed up a nice reef octopus, some western clown anemonefish, a couple of turtles, and a pair of eels.
Western Clown Anemonefish - Amphiprion ocellaris
Loggerhead turtle - Caretta caretta
Common Reef Octopus - Octopus cyanea
Pair of Collare Butterflyfish - Chaetodon collare
Dive 6 - Koh Bon
Koh Bon (Bon Island - Koh is island in the Thai language) is a signature dive for boats that ply the Andaman Sea. Divers are dumped into the drink in droves, all in the hope of seeing Manta Rays, which are spotted here fairly frequently. On our previous trip, we did spot a couple of these gentle giants in murky waters. On this trip, the viz was quite a bit better, but the mantas did not come to play.
Notes: 10-17mm lens. Minimal current. No mantas - wished I had the 105mm macro for the Elegant Firefish, which I had never seen before. Ditto a beautiful flabellina nudi. Napoleon Wrasse, huge barracuda, some nice soft leather corals at the beginning of the dive.
P3 off the Wall at Koh Bon
Napoleon Wrasse - Cheilinus undulatus & faithful followers.
Note the reef damage - likely caused by the tsunamis in 2006
P3 & Bigass Barracuda
Dive 7 - Koh Tachai - Twin Peaks
I remembered this dive as the crazy Christmas morning current dive from our previous trip. This time, the site was quite a bit more benign, and it was heartwarming to see some healthy corals, including some beautiful sea fans, below 50 feet. It was on this dive that we saw the only Leopard Shark from our entire trip to Thailand. On the previous trip, we spotted several, both in the Similans, and around Phi Phi Island. Whether their disappearance is due to warmer than usual water or shark fishery, it's hard to prove, but my money is on shark finning.
The Leopard Shark shots below are a bit of a story. Mona, our DM, eagle-eyed it from above (it was at about 90 feet, resting on the bottom, away from the tall rock formations that make up the dive site) and gestured that I should go down there and take my chances. These are skittish, bottom-dwelling sharks, and to get close you have to approach them from the front or front quarter, very slowly. So I was all by my lonesome with the shark lined up. I had burned about 5 minutes making my stealthy approach, and finally took a shot, when from out of the blue a guy, sporting a neon shortie with matching mask, fins and snorkel, swooped in with his instamatic - right in front of me. Well hrrrrrmmmmppppph. He of course startled the shark, it lifted off, and did a quick circle in front of me, and then it was outtathere - down to deeper waters where fish-chasing newbies are scared to go.
Notes: 10-17mm lens. Schooling surgeonfish, Leopard Shark, big sea fans, soft corals, scorpionfish. Dove this one direct from the Junk (almost all other dives were from the panga).
Schooling Surgeonfish under The Junk
Ready For My Close Up
Leopard Shark - Stegostoma fasciatum
We Have Lift Off
Dive 8 - Koh Tachai - Night dive. Did not do.
Day Three - Richelieu Rock, Surin Islands
Dive 9 - Richelieu Rock
At last - this is why we came. Richelieu Rock is an underwater seamount out in the middle of the Andaman Sea, between the Similan Islands and the Surin Islands. It is a legendary site, for good reason - lots of schooling fish action, beautiful soft coral gardens, an amazing diversity of animal life, and the occasional flyby whaleshark. One of my all-time favourite sites, and if I could find a boat that parks here for a week, I'd be in heaven.
We were lucky enough to be offered three dives at Richelieu Rock - it is a large site, and it is pretty much impossible to tour the whole thing on one dive.
Notes: 105mm macro lens. Gorgeous - two yellow sea horses, harlequin ghost pipefish (of which I got a very lousy shot), many varieties of anemonefish, tassled scorpionfish pair, yellow and black tiny cowrie, needle shrimp. Loads of surge. Saw three cuttles engaged in what looked to be mating behaviour from above on the safety stop. Large school of barracuda.
A pair of well-camouflaged Tassled Scorpionfish - Scorpaenopsis oxycephala
Tiger Cowrie - Cuspivola tigris
Dive 10 - Richelieu Rock
Notes: 28-105mm lens. Beautiful soft coral gardens, anemone gardens, harlequin shrimp pair under ledge, glassy sweepers, schooling fish, several morays - including a zebra (no shot), schooling barracuda. Raining.
The Business End of a Titan Triggerfish - Balistoides viriescens
Four Spot Fusiliers
Notes: 10-17mm lens. Huge school of fusiliers at the beginning of the dive. Beautiful soft corals. P3 finally got the G10 out of the bag and into the water. Sunny - gorgeous light. Chevron barracuda, glassy sweepers, pulsing fish. Moderate current. Beautiful dive.
Day Four - Surin Islands, Koh Tachai, Koh Bon, Similan Islands
Dive 12 - Surin Islands - Hindok Mak
The Surin Islands are the most northerly dive location for the Junk. On our past trip, we generally liked the Surins - especially one dive in a gorgeous shallow fringing reef that we nicknamed 'The Aquarium'. My memory of the other sites is that they were rocky, and not all that pretty, especially lacklustre after diving at Richelieu Rock which explodes with colour and life.
According to the Junk crew, the Surins were especially hard hit by recent coral bleaching - I did not see any evidence of it myself, as we only did one dive there, in moderate current and poor visibility. The gang decided to head back down to Koh Tachai instead of doing any more dives in the Surins on this trip.
Notes: 28-105mm lens. Adventure dive (meaning not a regular site dived by The Junk). Quite a lot of current. Lots of anemonefish - one strange anemone with purple border. Spotted Boxfish - Ostracion meleagris - did not get a good shot, Titan Triggerfish, Napoleon Wrasse, Blue-ringed Angelfish, Triangular Butterflyfish, moray.
Blue-ringed Angelfish - Pomocanthus annularis
Clark's Anemonefish - Amphiprion clarkii - in a fancy carpet anemone
Back to Twin Peaks. This was one of the nicer dives we did on the itinerary, so we were happy to dive it again.
Notes: 28-105mm lens. Moderate current. Lots of reef fish varieties, pretty coral gardens. Strange little fish inhabiting a defunct mooring line.
Emporer Angelfish - Pomacanthus imperator
UFO (Unidentified Fishy Object)
Hanging out on an algae-covered old mooring line
Streaked Spinefoot - Siganus javus
Dive 14 - Koh Bon North
Dive 15 - Night Dive - The Pinnacles - did not dive.
Day Five - Similan Islands
Dive 16 - Songkran Reef - Similan #9
Well here we are, back in the Similans. The dive started on sand flats at about 60 feet, and then we worked our way up onto the fringing reef, which unfortunately has taken a pretty severe hit between coral bleaching and the tsunamis.
Notes: 10-17mm lens. Pretty fans and barrel sponges. Clouds of glassy sweepers. Fringing reef in shallows not in good shape.
Big Barrel Sponge & Glassy Sweepers
Dive 17 - Elephant Head - Rocky outcropping between Similan #7 & #8
This is probably the best-known dive site in the Similans - made noteworthy by its resident school of Oriental Sweetlips. Huge, boulder formations and the folds between them make up the site - it is pretty, though not particularly blessed with coral gardens. It hosts a nifty variety of animal life...
Notes: 28-105mm lens. Rockmover Wrasse, hingebeak shrimp, porcelain crab, lizardfish, oriental sweetlips. Big rocks with lots of swimthrus.
(Juvenile) Rockmover Wrasse - Novaculichthys taeniourus
Schooling Oriental Sweetlips - Plectorhinchus orientalis
A herd of hingebeak shrimp - Rhynchocinetes durbanensis
Pixie Hawkfish - Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus
Dive 18 - Sharkfin Reef North - Similan #3
Sadly, the last dive of the Junk trip.
Notes: 10-17mm lens. Big ledgy rock formations with some swimthrus. Lots of seafans. Baitfish, many tropicals, blue spotted ray.
Blue Spotted Stingray - Taeniura lymma
After the last dive, the crew put out some big soapy rinse bins and we gave the gear a wash and then hung it out to dry. As is customary, the sails were then hoisted (with lots of sweat equity contributed by the passengers), margaritas were poured all around, and we literally sailed into the sunset.
We had one more sleep on the boat before an early morning pickup in Patong Beach to be driven down to the ferry to Phi Phi Island. More about that in the second installment of this trip report (coming soon).
Despite some beat up reefs, it was a fantastic trip with a great crew, a fun group of divers, and many critter highlights. I would not hesitate recommending The Junk, and Andaman Sea diving, to any of my buds. It is not Indonesia - but it is a close second (with better food ;^), and much easier to get to...