The back of my tongue erupted in flame and the heat of a thousand suns spread in my mouth like lava gushing from the depths of Hades. Tears ran down my cheeks as I gasped for air and groped for the nearest liquid—fortuitously a bottle of Singha beer, which I downed in three desperate glugs in a futile search for relief. It seemed my week of fiery (or so I’d thought) Thai cuisine had done nothing to inoculate me against the devastating effects of bu pad pong karee, curried crab, a usually benign dish that had, upon closer inspection, been all too liberally seasoned with the tiny but deadly pri ki nu (literally, mouse-shit peppers).
The waiter at least had the grace to look concerned, but the young women peeking out of the kitchen didn’t even try to conceal their giggles at the plight of the red-faced, wheezing farang (foreigner).
Such are the dangers of chartering in Thailand. Forget about the pirates of the Andaman Sea—they’re yesterday’s problem. If your main concern is a tiny chili the size of a fingernail clipping, you’re doing OK. Even then, after the initial flamethrower blast, the conflagration settled down to a smoldering afterburn that was strangely pleasant, as any chili-lover will attest. And it’s a good thing that the food is as exotic as the scenery, because you want all your senses firing on all cylinders when you go sailing in Thailand, such is the otherness of this part of the world.
The five of us—me, former sailing magazine editors Andrew and Paul, and my non-sailing friends Ralph and Bill—assembled in Phuket at the beginning of December last year, a good time to hit that part of Thailand, with the monsoon season just ended and the promise of a long stretch of beach weather ahead. Among a handful of other charter outfits, the Moorings has a good-sized fleet at the Ao Po Grand Marina, just outside Phuket, right at the mouth of the famed Phang Na Bay.
Not knowing what to expect in the way of shops and groceries, we’d had the base provision the boat and were glad of it, for the nearest supermarket is a 45-minute drive from the base. With the fridge and lockers bulging with beer and food, we were able to leave the marina immediately after the chart and boat briefing on our Moorings 4800 cat, Apakorn. Once clear of the shoals at the marina entrance, we had a decision to make: turn left toward the rocky, tree-topped limestone spires rising out of the green water of Phang Na Bay, or right, toward the equally beautiful Phi Phi islands?
Even in base manager Mark’s South African accent during our chart briefing, the names of these islands were redolent of Eastern exoticism—Koh Hong Bay, Phi Phi Don, Koh Lanta. Which to visit first, which would we not be able to visit? Decisions, decisions. We decided on a roughly anti-clockwise tour of this small, sheltered offshoot of the Andaman Sea, with lunch stops each day and overnights at some of Mark’s recommended anchorages.
As we were to find, distances between these islands are not great, and pilotage is mostly line-of-sight, with few navigation marks, and the various shoal areas are clearly marked in the cruising guide, which became my Bible for the week. There is never a dull moment in the Andaman Sea; distinctive wooden longtail boats flit across the water day and night, crews of one or two casting their nets seemingly at random. Others, packed with tourists, zoom between one or other of the islands or out to the many dive sites. In lieu of navigational hazards, which are mostly clearly visible, we were presented with repeated opportunities to hook a fishing net with one or both propellers, an ever-present (and potentially expensive) danger that thankfully never came to anything, though we had to slalom between them more than a few times. For someone used to dodging the lobster pots of the Northeast, it was not an issue.
Thailand has always been a magnet for the world’s itinerant youth, and the narrow streets of Koh Phi Phi Don bustled with fresh-faced youngsters from a score of countries, packing onto longtails to visit nearby Koh Phi Phi Leh, the setting of the well-known Leonardo de Caprio film The Beach. We were glad to leave the crowds behind and sail to our own little slice of unpopulated paradise on Koh Jum, where we walked barefoot along a mile of pristine white sand and washed green-curry chicken down with icy Chang beer at a beach eatery cobbled together from driftwood.
This was a recurring theme; Phuket and its waters are a huge tourist draw, but it is not difficult to find yourself one of only two or three boats in an anchorage, or even the sole occupant. Islands that are overrun with Chinese and Korean tourists during the day, selfie sticks waving overhead like antennae, clear out in the late afternoon as the longtails return their cargoes to the resorts and hotels on the mainland.
In early December, many of the small “resorts”—more like clusters of beach huts for the adventurous crowd—are empty, and the tiny, mostly Muslim, mostly fishing communities that service them are happy for any visitors that come their way. Their beachfront restaurants, with tables in the sand and their wares swimming in glass tanks, served up some of the freshest, tastiest seafood I’ve ever eaten, and at bargain basement prices. Even better news is that there are plenty of them.
The Andaman Sea actually stretches some 700 miles from Myanmar to the Straits of Malacca, separated from the Bay of Bengal by the Andaman islands, and our charter cruising ground was but a tiny part of this large expanse of coastline. It quickly became evident that there is only so much ground you can cover in a week, and that we would have to make difficult choices between many of the beautiful-looking anchorages and islands covered in the cruising guide. The route we chose was as good as any other, and reminded me of chartering in the Virgin Islands in that the waters were sheltered and the sailing was good—we had a couple of days with winds in the 20s, a few more in the teens, but the point is we sailed just about every day.
Had we more time I’d have liked to visit the offlying islands like the Similans, where the scuba diving is world renowned, and cruise further down the coast where tourism hasn’t left such an imprint and most farangs are backpackers and adventure tourists. Even so, we proved that it is possible to be far from the madding crowd even in such a pocket-sized cruising arena, and each day we experienced something new and exotic. Friendly people, great food, another great vista unveiling itself behind every island; pri ki nu notwithstanding, this taste of Thailand left our crew wanting more.
Peter Nielsen chartered out of Phuket with The Moorings (moorings.com)