Sailing Thailand and Malaysia: The Andaman Sea Coast
With growing interest in boat charters out of Thailand and Malaysia, it was time I returned to experience sailing a catamaran in this region. I felt compelled to do a low-season trip to find out for myself the nature of the weather this time of year and how suitable it is for a sailing holiday.
Some 14 million people are expected to visit Phuket in 2014. The majority of international tourists come from the Northern Hemisphere, visiting during the peak period of December to May when the offshore breeze keeps the skies clear and the cruising grounds sheltered.
In contrast, I chose to visit in September, during the low season, when there were less crowds but a chance of rain. I wanted to see the place and sail these waters at what is perceived as a less perfect time for holidaymaking, and report on what it was really like. Our itinerary would take us to Lankawi, Malaysia and return, on a 16 day sail that we would normally recommend as a two-week, one-way charter.
A low-season yacht charter in Southeast Asia
From May to November, the wind blows from the Indian Ocean and the clouds back up against the high hinterland. This is the south-west monsoon season, when inland the rain falls in buckets. On the Thai and Malaysian islands of the Andaman Sea however, at least in our experience, rain was infrequent, and what did fall was mostly of a short duration in early evening. Daytime was on the most part dry, even sunny, and we only had showers on three of our 16 days on charter. There was thin high cloud cover much of the time, but on board that was a welcome relief from the sun.
Perhaps we got lucky with the weather. But in talking to the locals, nobody suggested this was exceptional for the time of year, and we did sail in a variety of conditions. It was supposed to be the wettest month of the year, and if the expedition's aim was to discover rain in southern Thailand, we did our best and failed. But the monsoon was never far away. At nightfall we would witness the most wonderful of tropical sunsets to the west, while behind us on the mainland an equally brilliant display of electrical storms was playing out.
Phuket would have to be one of the most enchanting destinations I have sailed. It was quite magical to sail among the Andaman Sea's mystic islands, so many eroded at the waterline such that you might expect them to topple, their towering peaks covered in rainforest broken by cliffs of colourful limestone. The landscapes in Phang Nga Bay, between Phuket and the mainland are a picture, like something created for a movie set rather than real life. On first impression we sensed we had been transported into another realm, a scene that filled us with anticipation of a great adventure ahead.
While we found the limestone islets of Phang Nga Bay quite spectacular, the water was not at its best this time of year. Rain in the hills washes down the rivers, bringing with it all manner of silt and debris. The flotsam and jetsam was of some concern to us, with pieces sizable enough to require a vigilant watch at all time. There was a mix of organic and inorganic rubbish; somewhat disappointing!
In fairness to the locals, you don't see litter on the beaches, and as it floats ashore it is quickly removed from sight. I would imagine that early in the dry season this process would be complete, and there would be a lot less of this stuff in the water for sailors to worry about. A vigil is still needed however, due to the many fishing buoys dotting most regions we navigated. The elevated fly bridge of the Lagoon 450 catamaran was ideal for spotting objects to be avoided.
The river silt makes the Phang Nga Bay water green, and so while we were there it was not suitable for snorkelling. But judging by the number of shrimp pots we saw, there is an upside to the high nutrient levels. We enjoyed bartering with a local fisherman for a bucket of succulent tiger prawns that we got for around $20.
Doing business Thai-style
Like travelling in Asia generally,. when chartering a boat in Thailand it is important to go with the flow and accept those aspects of life that we Westerners may not understand or appreciate. Such as why rubble was left piled up on the beachfront at many of the places we visited. We soon learned it was an unplanned outcome of the 2004 tsunami.
There are memorials to the devastating tsunami on many of the islands, and still evidence of the destruction it caused. But most of these demolition sites are more recent, and man-made. In the aftermath of the tsunami came a wave of unregulated resort development. I was told that Mafia types took control of much of the foreshore, claiming the beaches and hastily building replacements for the destroyed resorts. They unilaterally imposed fees on all forms of public access that had previously been free, casting aside the indigenous people and their culture, displacing them with rampant, unregulated redevelopment.
Corruption kept the incumbent authorities on the payroll, and the situation was only brought under control when the army took over. Think what you will of the military coup, but what existed before it was simply not working. Military governments are not particularly skilled in the art of consultation and diplomacy, but they get action. The new Thai regime closed the illegal resorts and sent in the bulldozers. Large tracts of foreshore land were cleared, and the sea gypsies returned to live in their cherished squalor, right alongside the tourist resorts that remain.
It remains to be seen what will fill the many prime beachfront spaces that are currently cleared land. It seemed the government was happy for them to be left for nature to reclaim. Not a bad solution as we saw it.
Today the Andaman Sea islands of Thailand are predominantly zoned national parks, as are many of the main beaches on Phuket. When sailing here you will meet the "ranger"; the resident caretaker who makes his living from a commision on access fees. Be prepared to pay to use what most of us would consider a municipal facility.
As applied on their national park islands, the Thai user-pay method is simple but effective. The toilets are always clean, and so are the beaches. The ranger is the guy who rakes the plastic from the beach before you arrive, and who ensures tourists and wildlife don't ruin each others' day. He deserves to be paid, no problem with that. However it gets a bit much at times, and you may start to wonder just how different the current business methods of the Junta are from those the mafia formerly applied!
I have to admit that to avoid some of these charges, we would sail on to the next bay as the ranger stations are easy to spot. This is a practical choice on your own charter boat: the authorities make plenty from the day-trip boats that are licensed to land tourist groups. At places a little distant from the day trippers, we were not approached for payment.
Leaving Phuket and exploring Phang Nga Bay
We collected our boat at Yacht Haven Marina, on the northeastern side of Phuket. in the passage that separates the island from the mainland. My advice is to allow time on arrival to settle onto your boat while still in the marina. Low-season rates certainly take the pressure off an immediate departure, and it's a nice space to ease slowly into your charter. In our case, with the air conditioning on the Lagoon 450, I had to ask myself, "remind me why we need to go anywhere? This is great!"
The charter office is located on the cliff road above the marina. There is a good restaurant for breakfast and lunch located right at the marina itself, with food at local prices that we can highly recommend. Dinner restaurants are further afield, but we got to know an excellent taxi driver who spoke English and gave us set rates to get to and from airports, shops and activities (for me to pass on to clients). While we were on the Phuket marina, a boardwalk and other new facilities were under construction, to be completed sometime 2015.
Setting off on our journey to Lankawi and return, Koh Hong was our first day stop, an easy sailing distance from our departure point. The limestone formations here are impressive, and it's well worth the time taken to paddle around the hongs (sea caves) in the kayak or dinghy. There are restrictions on the use of outboards in the caves themselves, but it is possible to motor right up to them and navigate with paddles from there.
Runoff from the mountain rains making the water here uninviting for swimming, we decided not to hang around in Phang Nga Bay, and set a course to the south. We didn't have to go far for the water quality to improve, and also to get away from all the tourist boat traffic in the Phuket vicinity. One hour's motor to the southeast we came to the large Island of Ko Yao Noi.
On Ao Muang Bay in the northeast of Ko Yao Noi, a most pleasant resort offers reasonably-priced food of good quality. We were welcome to use the spa and swimming pool, and even played some volleyball. A dredged channel is maintained at the northern end of the bay for dinghy access on all tides. Here we could see the green water from the north streaming with the blue from the south; signs of better things to come.
Wildlife encounters in the Koh Dam Group
From Ko Yao Noi it's just 12 miles to the town of Krabi on the mainland. That did not interest us as we had not long left the marina on Phuket and were being drawn to the picturesque islands. So on we sailed through a series of small islands, the most noteworthy being Koh Pak Bia and Koh Hong (not to be confused with the island of the same name in Phang Nga Bay). These day-stop islands are good for a snorkel and a swim. But we wanted to make further progress, so carried on after a quick inspection.
Our destination that day was the Koh Dam Group of islands, which are joined by a long shallow reef and lie just south of Krabi. The main attraction here was a troop of monkeys that live on the eastern side of Koh Dam Hok. As expected, we were greeted by the ranger, who explained that the monkeys had headed for the hills after a day of entertaining tourists. We negotiated with him to return next morning without paying twice! It was worth coming back, and the monkeys provided great selfie moments with the kids. Until recently there had been a restaurant here, and that helped explains the animals' tolerance of humans. The military had taken care of that facility, and the monkeys were now having to adapt to living a more natural existence.
The adjoining island to the north, known as Chicken Head Island for its shaped headland, can be visited without a ranger fee, and it still has a restaurant. By now we were noting a certain randomness to what has been removed and what hasn't, and to where you pay for access and where you don't. We concluded that where a resort or restaurant exists, there is no park fee.
Stopping over in the popular Phi Phi islands
From the Koh Dam Group it's just a short sail to Ko Phi Phi Don, the largest of the popular Phi Phi Islands. There is plenty of tourist development here, but we found the resorts to be of a high standard and welcoming to visitors off passing boats. Phi Phi gave us some of our best snorkelling on the trip, especially in the north. There is a beautiful coral outcrop a mile out to sea, which must be amazing to explore in the right weather.
Despite the tourist development, even in Phi Phi it's not hard to get away to a nice, exclusive spot on your charter yacht. The day boats didn't seem to be taking tourists to the best places, fortunately for us. Their business plan involves visiting Maya Bay ("The Beach" for the name of the movie shot there), and Monkey Beach (Ao Ling). We found beaches just around the corner from these hotspots that were just as good to visit, and pretty much ignored by the tourism industry. Naturally though, as tourist ourselves we wanted to see some of the better-known places, and a night anchored in the bay on Koh Phi Phi Don's northeast provided the "normal" tourist experience.
Our venture into resort territory took us to a beachfront restaurant during cocktail happy hour. Rather than discounted drinks, the deal turned out to be two-for-one. In the confusion that followed, this turned into four drinks each for the price of two - a bit much! But we decided it best to just go along and quit while we were ahead, as we jokingly figured out that to carry on objecting would just result in more drinks being delivered. As it turned out, it soon became apparent that the cocktails were sweet juice with a missing ingredient - the alcohol.
Happy hour on Koh Phi Phi Don led to our least enjoyed and most expensive meal on the trip, but the entertainment made up for it. Fire dancers performed on the beach, with the constant beat of house music bellowing out into the bay. It was worth the visit, but a relief to be sailing on and leaving it all behind.
Surprisingly, we found English not widely spoken on the Phi Phi or any of the Islands. But we got by and our basic orders were understood. Phi Phi has cash machines, and credit cards are accepted in the resorts. However in the smaller restaurants, which are usually the best places to eat, we found it preferable to pay by cash.
The next day took us to the main town on Phi Phi Don, to get some provisions. The town is a scaled down version to Patong Ba on Phuket, but not as imposing and with a smaller selection of knock-off products. The shopping here was good, and once we bought what we needed we headed round the corner to a quiet bay, dining ashore on excellent Thai cuisine at reasonable prices.
From Ko Phi Phi Leh to Malaysian waters
The next day we headed off early to Maya Bay (The Beach) on Ko Phi Phi Leh. But early proved to be not early enough: by 10am the beach was covered in day trippers. From what we could see of it through the masses, the place was no better than, nor different to, countless other beaches we had enjoyed along the way to Langkawi.
So to our next stop at Ko Lanta, an island close to the mainland. To be honest, if riding elephants were not on the kids list of things to do we would probably not have proceeded into the discoloured waters close to the mainland coast. But we were glad we did, after taking a ride in some basic open air transport, with a fun hour spent on the back of these gentle giants. Then a bush walk to a waterfall and back to elephant camp with its pet zoo of venomous snakes - all species apparently possible to chance upon in the Thai jungle.
In reality, you have to be very quiet and very quick to see any wildlife. As you walk the bush tracks you hear scurrying in the other direction; mostly it's the sound of harmless lizards. The wildlife perceived as a danger thinks the same of humans, and is very good at getting out of the way. What birdlife we observed was fascinating, with horn bills and eagles being the stars of the show. If we looked closely, we saw the occasional monkey high in the tree tops.
Old Lanta Town is very quaint. The seaside restaurants built on stilts over the water are genuine local eateries offering fresh produce cooked to create the best taste imaginable. This was good place to stop for provisioning and dispose of our boat's rubbish. After a bit of shopping, we headed off to clearer waters and spend the night on Koh Ngai Island. Nearby is Koh Kraden, where we explored the amazing cathedral cave, which is accessed through a 50m tunnel.
By this stage of the trip we were all showing the effects of too much sun, and there had not been a zephyr of wind for six days. We had been expecting cloud cover and a reliable onshore breeze, but so far it was not to be. Fortunately that would change the next day.
We passed yet more inviting resorts that we did not have time to sample, as we made for the Butang Group, the southern-most of Thailand's islands. This was the big leg of our trip, but as a steady 15-20 knot northwesterly built, we covered the 60 miles in around six hours. Here the Lagoon 450 really proved itself to us as a great all-round charter boat. With the wind on the beam or broader, this cat performs admirably under sail. Sitting high up with the whole crew in the flybridge or on the sundeck forward under clear skies and sailing at a good speed: what could be more enjoyable?
The Butang Group is a series of nature reserves ringed with sandy beaches and crystal-clear water. If you are into diving you will definitely want to spend time here. The populated island of Ko Lipe is a hive of activity. It is a small island with many resorts, shops and cheaper-style accommodation all mixed in with the housing for the local population. We found a difference about tourism here compared with the Phuket vicinity, in that this area attracts a more eco-friendly type of tourist. Ko Lipe was a charming place to spend an evening ashore.
Crossing into Malaysia and Langkawi
From Ko Lipe we were crossing the border into Malaysia, and I was starting to think about the fact we had not cleared customs out of Thailand. This was a return trip from Phuket and we had arranged to clear in and out of Thailand but this is a processed in place for people departing and does not suit a yacht charter holiday. I now understand what needs to be done and while totally acceptable is not necessarily legal, this is advice I will disperse verbally on request. In Ko Lipe we found customs officers checking all the local boats arriving with goods. Langkawi is a duty-free port and there is a clear effort to control smuggling into Thailand. I went to some lengths to explain our situation to Thai customs officers, but where we tourists were concerned, they simply did not care, it was fairly obvious who we were and what we were doing there.
The day before, as we had looked south to Langkawi, the skies had been beautifully clear. But now as we set sail for Malaysia, we could see clouds gathering around the high peaks of islands and mainland. With rain likely we revised our plan for the day to include some shore time, and headed straight for The Royal Langkawi Yacht Club.
This proud sailing institution provides excellent facilities, a world-class starting point for Langkawi charters. The kids were able to swim in the club's pool while we had a drink at the bar while looking out on the marina where our boat was moored. A courtesy car took us the five-minute ride into town for duty-free shopping to replenish our stores.
On our first night in Langkawi we ate in the yacht club restaurant, but next day we made sure to enquire about dining where the locals dine. That meal turned out to be the best food of the trip; fantastic in taste and texture, all fresh and costing just $90 for four adults and three children, included drinks.
We found Malaysia more orderly than Thailand, and we felt more relaxed here, especially during our ventures into town. English was widely spoken and the place generally more westernised.
It took a day for the threatening clouds to build to rain, and when it came it lasted for the next 36 hours. Showers off and on all day were followed by heavy downpours overnight before it began to clear around midday. By now our timeline to return the boat to Phuket did not allow us to stay longer Langkawi, so we circumnavigated its group of islands and set sail north for Phuket. By now I had come to the conclusion that booking a one-way charter would have been our better option. The wind that normally backed to the south of west persisted from the northwest, so we faced an on-the-wind voyage back to base.
Some sailing and a lot of motoring to Phuket
We crossed back into Thai waters and motored along in the lee of Tarutao Island, a large forested national park that we decided had no real points of interest to us. Certainly none that would overcome the unfounded fears of our crew, who are from a country where the creepiest creature in the forest is a large cricket called a weta.
As we motored on into a light breeze, the clouds cleared and we made for the lovely sand-encircled island of Koh Bulon Leh. Here the resorts were all closed for the off season but the island has many paved walks. We enjoyed the off-season stroll through the village, where we were just about the only visitors, and where friendly locals offered us coconuts to quench our thirsts.
The forecast was for deteriorating weather, and as the day wore on Koh Bulon Leh's bay filled with fishing boats taking shelter overnight. Our plan was to leave early and snorkel at Koh Roc, the mid-point on our trip back to Phuket. The Koh Roc Islands are popular with eco-tourists and it was easy to see why. The island is simply spectacular. But by now the wind had freshened, and this was not the place for an overnight stop in a westerly.
We had a pleasant downwind sail in sunshine to Ko Ngai, which we had visited on the way south and where we planned to dine ashore. Then, only the third day of rain during the trip, it finally came. Heavy rain fell during the late afternoon, but only for an hour before clearing but by then we had dinner sorted on board. For a second time on the trip we missed the chance to dine at the small resorts of Ko Ngai, the type of places we had by now learned offered the best experience.
The next morning we made an early start, knowing we'd have to motor at least some of the way to Phi Phi. I was determined to trial the Lagoon 450 on the wind, and with 15-plus knots of steady breeze providing a long and a short board, this was my opportunity. Previously my catamaran charters had all been in Catanas, which have daggerboards and finer hulls for windward performance. So I was pleased when the elements gave me the chance to test this boat's sailing performance.
This was by no means a fair comparison, as the Lagoon does not claim to be a good on-the-wind sea boat. But with the upwind experience of the Lagoon under my belt, I have to say I would not like to be at sea in an unfavorable wind with not enough diesel. We persevered for six hours in very pleasant conditions, but making less than 20 miles in the right direction.
The low score I give the Lagoon sailing on the wind in a charter situation is more than made up for by the comfort it provides motoring into some big seas. It just bulldozes through the swells as if they are of no concern. The following day I cheated, motoring into the wind for a couple of hours to allow us a sail home on an achievable port tack.
Our last night was spend at Ko Nakha Yai, very close to Phuket. Unfortunately the island's resorts are on the other side of the island from where we were unable to anchor due to the westerly wind. We made the most of it, swimming and enjoying an interesting meal from what remained of our stores.
Completing our two-week Southeast Asian boat charter
The next morning we rode the flooding tide up the channel and back to base. We had returned a day early to allow time to survey the beaches on the eastern side of Phuket, which I had heard was popular with sailors in the alternate season.
Having concluded our return trip felt like a delivery trip, a little rushed, I would recommend a one-way Phuket to Langkawi, and based on our weather experience, at any time of year. This would require a minimum 10-day itinerary, or two weeks if you want to see more of Langkawi or Phuket. Alternatively the eastern side of Malaysia offers Tioman Islands charters, which at the time of year we sailed over on the west, would be taking place in the dry season.
Before setting out, I had wondered if sailing in the low season would leave us short of good anchorages and places to eat. But like the weather, that was not an issue. We always found suitable shelter at day's end, and these islands never close for business. At that time of year visitors miss much of the tourist madness such as goes on on the eastern side of Phuket. That's a loss we're very happy to trade for the tranquillity of the region's secluded Islands enjoyed in the off-season.
As far as the weather is concerned, I would take two September weeks in the balmy heat of Thailand anytime in exchange for the driving southerly gales of New Zealand, even if it involved more rain. Having researched this sailing region at that time of year, I recommend it as a winter escape for my fellow Antipodeans. It's a great time to go if you want to avoid the crowds, get some good sailing in, and enjoy a few bargains along the way.
Our trip was fantastic for all on board, but as always not long enough. So now we are planning to return. A future charter of one week out of Langkawi is high on our list of places to sail in the future.