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February 3, 2006

Out of Touch

We've been on the National Park island of Koh Taratao for the last week, enjoying unparalelled tranquillity, and completely cut off from mobile phones, internet, and email. Yesterday, we took the ferry to Koh Lipe, where I'm writing this over an expensive satellite connection, so I'll have to wait until we return to the mainland next week to fill in the details of all the incredible wildlife we've seen and what's been happening.

February 8, 2006

Bangkok to Koh Taratao

We've just arrived back in Bangkok after a fantastic trip down south to Taratao National Marine Park. We took the sleeper train down to Hat Yai - which courteously stopped as it was leaving Bangkok to wait for a girl running along the platform late. Eventually, the never-ending suburbs of Bangkok gave way to lazy, one street villages with dogs lying in the shade. The sun went down, silhouetting palm trees against the pink sky, and in the morning we looked out to see limestone karst, thick with bamboo forests, as the train made it's way on a single-track line through the jungle.

We were the only westerners getting off the train in Hat Yai, possibly because of recent violence in the south, and a passing pick-up truck, the back of it full of soldiers with machine guns, reminded us of the tensions in the area. After a quick lunch we took a minibus to the port of Pak Bara, from where the ferry left to the islands.

We were both a little disappointed to see how full of tourists the boat was - scruffy backpackers dressed in their near identical outfits, a girl with a child, and some old people including one man with a fan in the brim of his hat. The fantastic wildlife, however, began as soon as we were getting close to Koh Taratao, first with the appearance of a dolphin, and then the splash of a ray jumping out of the water. When the ferry stopped in deep water off Taratao, only six of us transferred into the small, rolling longtail boat that would take us to the island and the National Park headquarters - all the other passengers were heading to the rowdier island of Koh Lipe.

February 9, 2006

Taratao National Park

Although I've been to Thailand on several trips, this is the first time I've made it to one of the country's 100+ national parks. Taratao National Marine Park covers 51 islands but only three of them have any kind of accomodation or facilities. Koh Taratao is the largest of these, with bungalows and tents to rent or you can pitch your own. There isn't much nightlife, no internet or mobile coverage, and only six hours of electricity a day, but it felt really liberating to get away from all of that and get back to nature.

The island's an important site for turtle breeding, and although we were too late in the year to see any, it's still packed full of wildlife. It's also the best island in the park for hiking through the jungle, with several full day treks and four restaurants scattered around.

The sand was so soft it squeeked beneath our feet as we walked along the beach on the first evening. Crab-eating Macaque monkeys watched us from the edge of the forest, waiting to feast on the big crabs that would come out at sunset.

We soon found ourselves getting into a natural rhythm of wakening at sunrise and going to bed after dinner - something that never happens in Northern Europe. On our first early morning walk we stood below a tree with about forty monkeys in it as they jumped to other branches and ran into the safety of the forest then we continued along to the river and were amazed to spot a 1.5 metre monitor lizard run for cover.

Awed by so much wildlife I then managed to lock myself in the bungalow whilst Carita was at the beach. The lock had failed on the door and it took some time for anyone to hear my cries for help and come to my assistance.

Revitalised by my new found freedom, we spent the following day walking to the waterfall near Ao San beach. The last hour or two was through dense jungle and climbing over boulders as we followed the river towards it's source, but it was worth it. Finally we emerged at a waterfall cascading into idyllic rock pools, and as we were alone we stripped off and took a swim to cool down. The fish nibbled at our skin, making me more than a little anxious about being naked in the water with them, but it was one of the most fantastic places I've ever been.

Lunch with the Monitor Lizards

After several fruitless walks back to the river to see if we could spot the monitor lizard again, we were finishing off our lunch one day just after the restaurant had closed when we had some unexpected company.

A massive, two metre long, grey monitor lizard came wallowing in from the trees, went around the back of the building, and walked into the bin room. I went off to grab my camera, and whilst Carita was standing watching it a passing ranger shouted to tell her that there was another one coming up behind her.

It seemed that all the animals in the jungle knew when the restaurant closed and soon it was full of monitor lizards and monkeys, with hornbills sitting around in the trees watching the feast. A couple of the restaurant staff came over but seemed particularly concerned about the komodo-like lizards and beat a hasty retreat.

We slowly crept around, close to a large male monkey, to get a good shot of all the action. As I pressed the shutter, however, it instantly looked up surprised and leapt at me, screaming angrily and showing it's teeth, thinking that I was after it's food. With less than a metre from being monkey food myself I dodged away and we ran around the corner from it, but realised too late that we were now surrounded by hungry, large monitor lizards and a pack of monkeys. Suddenly feeling like the hunted, we had to stop and take a few deep breaths to compose ourselves before carefully moving between the animals and out of danger.

We stood watching all the beasts munching their way through the rubbish for over an hour, feeling very lucky to be able to watch such powerful, wild animals so closely. Eventually, a warden came over to the restaurant and we warned him about the huge monitor lizard in the building. He just laughed and said, "I know. They come every day."

Koh Lipe

On our last day in Taratao the sky turned dark and it began to rain. Carita and I had just returned from a long walk to Ao Taloh Wow on the other side of the island so we went for a swim while the tropical storm poured down. There was a sudden boom as we walked out of the water as lightning struck a cliff 200 metres away and instinctively we both ducked for cover.

Although the storm only lasted an hour or so it was bad enough that the ferry from the mainland to Koh Lipe couldn't go any further and put all the passengers off on Taratao. That evening we had our first taste of what Ko Lipe would be like.

We hadn't realised it until then but most of the people who visited Taratao were either peaceful and chilled or they couldn't stand the place and would catch the first ferry off the island. Suddenly, the tranquillity which we'd taken for granted was shattered as stressed out people shouted and complained all around us. Why was there no ice? Why was there no power? Why did they have to sacrifice their first born to the monkey god?

The following morning, after a week on the island, we boarded the crowded ferry to Koh Lipe. A French guy with pink beads in his goatee beard told me how he hoped the next island would have, "More enjoy!", rather than a lack of electricity. I tried to point out that it was a national park but he seemed adamant that they should be generating power from oil, or leaves, or possibly a small nuclear power plant.

We arrived in Koh Lipe and checked out the optimistically named Porn Resort for a room. It was scruffy and run-down, like most of the places on the island, and we eventually settled for the Pattaya Song Resort, run by two big, scary, ladyboys, and booked into a concrete bungalow in a building site. Lipe was hard to handle after Taratao. Although it's technically in the national park it's been destroyed by illegal development over the last four years and has something of a lawless, mafia controlled feel to it - a young girl working in a shop had a revolver casually lying next to her behind the counter! The main part of the island consists of a crescent of white sand, but a continuous line of bars, restaurants and bungalows have been built along it's entire length, ruining it completely. Apparently, the national park is unable to do anything to stop the development - they need the government to step in, but the government doesn't.

We spent two nights there, trying to adapt to the sounds of wasted backpackers, but in the end we gave up and escaped on a longtail boat to Koh Adang. Why come to a tropical island just to get pissed and sit watching Sky News in a restaurant?

February 14, 2006

Longtails

The longtail crossing to Koh Adang was wet and rough, with waves breaking across the bows, soaking both of us, but I was in my element - being on a boat and escaping from Koh Lipe.

Longtails are traditional small, wooden boats, often about ten metres long, with high ends and a partially flat bottom, made famous by the chase scene in the Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. They feel quite unstable when you first get into one, but having seen them now in rough seas they seem really seaworthy and are used across Thailand by most of the inshore fishermen, as well as for ferrying people between nearby islands. They're powered by the most bizarre outboards ever - 100hp truck style engines mounted on a five metre long driveshaft the driver holds onto, steering like a tiller, even lifting the propeller out of the water and turning it 360 degrees over the top of the boat to maneuver out of shallow water.

February 15, 2006

Sharks of Koh Adang

We were lucky enough to get the very last tent on Koh Lipe - all the other accomodation was booked by three hundred Thais who were visiting the otherwise uninhabited island for the weekend. Maybe lucky isn't the best word; the tent seemed to be a remnant of World War II, full of holes and of the ancient triangular school of tent architecture, with a central pole at each end to hold it up. I wished I'd brought my own tent on the trip, but we had a beautiful pitch at the top of a tropical, white sandy beach, our nearest neighbours were almost out of sight, and Carita set to work sowing up the assortment of holes in the tent.

One of the reasons we'd come to Koh Adang was to go snorkelling on it's coral reefs, which we'd heard were terrific, so once we'd pitched the tent we dived straight in. The sealife was amazing, with brightly coloured parrotfish, angelfish, and triggerfish everywhere, and it felt wonderful to be swimming over coral reefs again, floating weightlessly with so much action going on below us. We watched a huge, black pufferfish swim away and hide beneath a rock from us, and the water was so warm it felt like we'd never get cold.

We swam out to deeper water where the coral began to shelve, hoping to see something bigger, and suddenly the dark shape of a shark appeared about ten metres away. Powerfully and effortlessly, it slid through the water with hardly any force at all. We didn't feel frightened, just in awe of this majestic creature, though we were a bit on edge. A black-tipped reef shark, less than two metres long, it just swam over to check us out before disappearing back out of view. This experience was worth the entire trip by itself. Even still, we spent quite a bit of time checking behind us on the rest of our swim, just in case it reappeared!

It was really windy that night, and we were woken regularly by the gusts and lay wondering if the fragile tent would be blown away to Malaysia. The following day the huge party of Thais left and we moved to a bamboo sheltered tent. This was really lovely - a cross between a tent and a bamboo hut, shaded from the sun and built on a raised wooden platform off the ground.

Koh Adang has a couple of good treks, one of which is a near vertical 500m climb up a cliff face, which passes through bamboo forest and emerges out to a stunning view across to Koh Lipe. At one point whilst walking I heard a loud squeek from the undergrowth and spotted a rare mousedeer running for cover. The other notable forest trek takes you to Pirates Waterfall, and whilst returning from this walk at dusk a large, black snake slithered across the rocks next to us, and out of our way. We decided to watch our step after that.

On our last morning in Koh Adang we awoke to the sounds of a cockerel and looked out through the mesh door of the tent to see the sun rising behind the Malaysian island of Langkawi. We're convinced we're going to return with camping gear on our next trip to Thailand and spend a lot more time staying in the national parks as we had such great experiences and got close to so much wildlife.

February 18, 2006

Out of Paradise

Catching a longtail a bit later than we should have to take us to the fast ferry to the mainland, I couldn't really care if we missed it or not. The longtail driver seemed to share my feelings whilst, very chilled, he slowly loaded dive tanks onto the boat and detoured to pick up more passengers - who anxiously checked and re-checked their watches and questioned his short cuts across rocky outcrops and dry sandbars. The fast ferry left thirty minutes late as it turned out anyway, it probably always did, and soon Koh Adang was just a memory.

After a two hour trip of endurance squeezed into a tiny minivan with a dozen other backpackers and their luggage, we arrived back in Hat Yai and caught the evening sleeper north. Sinking into the luxury of a bed again, I was soon unconscious, and woke as we rattled into the vibrant, tropical megacity of Bangkok.

The shock of being dropped right into the hustling hordes soon wore off and it quickly felt more like coming home. We had lots to do in the following days preparing for our trip to Laos; I had my camera serviced, treated myself to a lovely new lens, booked tickets, and checked out the visa situation.