A Taste of the East Page 2

You know you are in for a different kind of cruising experience when a) the guide book says: “Do not go ashore onto either of the Koh Liang islands. They are sites for the collection of swallow’s nests to make bird’s nest soup. They are patrolled by local Thais armed with automatic weapons;” and b) the charter base manager (ours was Andy Middleton, who runs the Sunsail base in Langkawi, Malaysia)
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There is a considerable amount of protected water around the island of Langkawi. However, instead of exploring this area, we opted the next morning to head out into the Andaman Sea. Our destination was the Butang island group, some 20 miles distant. Already, with peaks as high as 2,300 feet, they were clearly visible on the horizon.

We found a spectacular anchorage tucked in among some rocky islets with not another boat in sight. In fact, during our entire charter we only once shared an anchorage with another boat, and we rarely saw any non-native boats at sea. We’d been told the Butangs are the place to go snorkeling, so the minute the anchor was set, we donned fins and face masks and jumped in the water. What we found was the healthiest and most beautiful reef we have ever seen, teeming with Pacific and Indian Ocean fish. In contrast to almost every Caribbean reef we have explored, there was little or no visible damage—a truly stunning sight that has forever ruined us for snorkeling elsewhere.

The reef colors in the Andaman Sea are much more vibrant than in the Caribbean (the bright blue coral and anemones look like someone spilled a can of paint), the fish are wonderful (we loved the clown fish), and giant clams with Technicolor lips are everywhere. There’s also a wide array of fascinating poisonous creatures, including box jellyfish, sea snakes and numerous fish with nasty spines. The lionfish have to be seen to be believed. The water is several degrees warmer than in the Caribbean, so we stayed in for hours at a time without getting chilly.

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Low tide uncovered empty yellow sand beaches on all sides, interspersed with rocky headlands. The vegetation ashore was equatorial jungle. There was also the ever-present backdrop of islands rising steeply 2,000 feet out of the sea, and the constant passage of the colorful local “long-tail” fishing boats, many of which have now been pressed into tourist service.

All the photo opportunities! And yet the following morning we found the batteries were dead in all our cameras, and without an inverter on board we had no means of recharging them. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this area is also home to a massive tourist industry that is slowly spreading its tentacles out from Phuket. So we headed to a “porn resort” (which turned out to be pretty tame) seven miles away on a neighboring island to find shorepower, anchoring off for the night while recharging our batteries. The young members of our crew appreciated the opportunity to hit the beach and have a beer.

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Unfortunately, they also found a local fruit called durian. Pippin, Paul and Jonah have been studying in Indonesia where they acquired a taste for this “delicacy,” which has such a disgusting smell that it is banned in many public places in this part of the world, including the airport at Langkawi. As soon as they brought it back to the boat, it was duly confined to a downwind area on deck.

Another day and another open-water passage in light winds and seas to Ko Rok Nok, a couple of islands surrounded by relatively deep water. These islands are just far enough offshore to be out of reach of the speedboats emanating from Phuket. As a result they have so far escaped the onslaught of tourist boats we saw during the rest of our cruise.

The snorkeling here was the best yet. We followed a large moray eel (the first we have seen in the open), tracked a giant puffer fish, watched a huge iridescent-blue jellyfish capture a large crab, came across hundreds of parrot fish in a feeding frenzy and saw a host of other wonderful sights. Once again, the lionfish stole the show.

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