From Ko Rok Nok, the nature of the cruise changed as we sailed ever closer to Phuket. The reefs here are increasingly subject to tourist pressure; those close to Phuket are almost completely destroyed. On the other hand, the scenery also became more and more dramatic, with the islands becoming ever more vertical until in every direction we saw limestone cliffs up to 1,00 feet high, riddled with caves, rising directly from the water.
One of these islands is Ko Muk. It has a 250-foot-long twisting tunnel, pitch black once you get around the first bend, which goes through caves with stalactites dripping off the ceiling into a hong–the Thai term for a giant cave in which the roof has collapsed, leaving a circular amphitheater with sheer cliffs rising to the sky on all sides. We saw dozens of these formations as we progressed farther north. Because of its dramatic entry tunnel, Ko Muk is a huge attraction. We found strings of tourists in life jackets, roped together, swimming through the tunnel led by tour guides with headlights. We continued northward from Ko Muk to a secluded anchorage for the night.
Next stop was Ko Phiphi Don, a tourist Mecca where the coral has been utterly destroyed. It was one of the islands that was swept clean in the 2004 tsunami, with great loss of life. We also visited neighboring Ko Pharya Nak, which has a huge cave from which swallows’ nests are collected for bird’s nest soup. The harvesters live inside the cave itself. Immediately to the south is another dramatic hong, called Hong Pileh, which is only accessible by dinghy. We spent the night anchored off the northern end of Ko Phiphi Don, away from the principal tourist areas. There was a fishing village on stilts ashore, backed by dramatic cliffs. Yet another great photo opportunity!
We were now truly sailing into the land of the hongs, with more tunnels and more caves, and ever more dramatic cliffs, islands and scenery, most with not a sign of human habitation. Here and there we found small sandy beaches framed by vertical rock walls with black, white and red stripes. Words and photos cannot capture the drama of Thai geography–like the lionfish, you have to see it to believe it. In most places it was impossible to scale the cliffs to explore ashore. On the one island where we were able to wander, we found an abandoned rubber tree plantation and collected delicious ripe mangoes off the ground. The giant red ants were fierce.
And so we made our way to Sunsail’s Phuket base, where we were welcomed by base manager Ian Hewett and enjoyed a delicious Thai curry in a local open-sided restaurant before catching an early flight home. Our abiding memories are of a cruising area that we now think of as the Virgin Islands on steroids. As in the Virgins, you can sail in protected waters sprinkled with islands, or head offshore on open-water passages. The scenery, however, is more dramatic, the water warmer, the reefs more vibrant, the fish more astonishing, the poisonous varieties more numerous, the heat more intense, the fruits and vegetables more exotic, the local cuisine spicier…
It’s altogether too much to take in during one short cruise. We’ll have to go back.