Welcome to Paradise…
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick & some downloads)
We thought we were done with islands. We had done beaches, and we had even done a bit of snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, but when the workers in the jungle bungalows told us we had to go to the Surin Islands, we were convinced. They were guys that really knew Thailand, in particular the great snorkelling spots, and we knew we’d probably regret not going. The speedboats there were going to be expensive, and we had to pay a national park entrance fee, but once there, we were told we could camp on the beach. As Cheryl Fernández Versini would say, it sounded “Reet oop mai streeet.”
Looking on the map we realised that the Surin islands, although within Thai territory, were right next to the Myiek archipelago that we had passed on the boat to get to the south of Myanmar. The ones that we had really wanted to visit but were off limits. This nailed it for us. We were going.
We arrived to water that didn’t even look real. I want to say it looked like water from a swimming pool, but it was even more turquoise than that, if that’s even possible. After we got off the speedboat on one side of the island, we got a longtail boat to the other side, where we had been told there would be less “day trippers.” With only a couple of bungalows and lots of tents, staying here wasn’t ideal for everyone. Luckily Nick and I love camping.
Our first afternoon would be one of the craziest. A couple of hours after arriving and choosing our tent (the tents for rent were so spacious and breezy, we still didn’t use the one we had carried around for 3 months!) we headed out on a boat to go snorkelling. The area here is vast, so each trip takes you to several different spots. The spot this first day was Sakut. According to a Korean guy on the trip, he had seen sharks here many times before. Nothing like starting big.
Mask fixed, I lowered myself carefully into the water. I took a deep intake of breath, closed my eyes (force of habit) and tentatively lowered my mask under the water, face towards the sea bed. Head submerged, I opened my eyes and immediately took in a sharp intake of breath. The sea was deeper here than in Phi Phi, but you could see literally to the bottom of the ocean. It was like being on the set of The Little Mermaid, but less safe and certainly somewhat overwhelming. There was an entire world down there, carrying on, oblivious to us humans. Calming myself and taking a few deep, slow mouth-breaths, Nick and I, curious more than brave, headed towards the bay where the Korean had said he’d seen sharks. I had always maintained that the things I was afraid most of in the world were crocodiles and sharks. But hey-ho, here I was heading straight towards their territory.
I’m not a strong swimmer. In fact, I should fess up, I’m actually really shocking. My 8 year old niece could leave me in the
dust spray. Those water baby classes didn’t reach my household and my first memory of swimming was my parents sending me to classes at around the age of 11. I was fast, but got puffed out after a width or two. Here I was in the big bad ocean – no life jacket, no flippers and completely out of my depth. I should have been petrified, but I took Nick’s tips of using a slow breast stroke, and much to my delight, head down and my hips up, I discovered the science of salt water and buoyancy.
I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’m not sure what exactly I expected. It should have been thinner, more friendly looking, more like the ones in the aquarium…less…shark like. Just up ahead of me was a black-tipped shark and it was FAT. Maybe it had had its fill of human for the day.
I had been so distracted with the swimming, that when I saw it, I was completely taken off guard. I quickly looked around, but I had out-swum Nick. I had to share the news. Lifting my head out of the water, I called to him in a mix of panic and pure exhilaration.
I did the pointy signal that means little on land, but on a snorkel site means, “Get your head under water – you are not going to believe this!” I quickly resubmerged my head, but it had gone. Looking in every direction, it was a strange feeling to know it was somewhere still near us, but we had no clue as to where.
From then on, I became intent on seeing more sharks, and I did, although no other shark was a match for that first one. We loved that snorkel so much, that what we had intended on being a one or two night stop over turned into 5 days, where each day was a new snorkel site with treasures untold to discover.
Our time in the sea was an eye-opener each and every time. Sometimes full of joy at finding Nemo, for example; or full of amazement at the octopus that Nick spotted, following its transendent appearance from plastic bag to rock, skin morphing into its surroundings like something from The XFiles; or the fear I felt when spotting what I thought were barracuda and realising I was one very strong current away from anybody. It’s really lucky we didn’t know just how dangerous some of the animals we encountered were until we left the island. With no internet, we were left to imagine what might be unfriendly, with absolutely no warning from any of the staff, or our boat captain, who didn’t seem that bothered. He, we guessed correctly, was a sea gypsy, from a group called The Moken. We were obviously amateurs in his eyes. I
legged it paddled it away from needle fish, thinking they looked aggressive, only to find out that they only harm humans “by accident”. They do this by diving out of the water at 30mph without looking, having speared the odd unsuspecting human at various points in the past: the aquatic version of the Indian driver.
Later a German girl was telling us all about “trigger fish” and how vicious they can be. Imagine my horror when she showed us a video of one of these beasts attacking a diver and I realised I had swam over that very fish! Luckily I had been late heading back to the boat and only gave it a cursory glance as I paddled furiously overhead.
But we also had so many magical moments. At one point Nick and I swam quite far away from the boat, where built-up coral full of big colourful fish gave way to deep mid-blue ocean. These parts tended to be full of schools of tiny fish, whirling around cylinders of themselves the depth of the ocean. Suddenly we happened upon another school of fish, only these were bright yellow and about 30cm long – bigger than all the other schools. There were hundreds of them, moving around like a synchronised swimming team. We spent half of that dive just swimming amongst them, watching them part as we went between them, or swimming directly above them as though we were part of their gang. Somehow I don’t think we made the grade, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much.
Maybe because they seemed to be being “bullied” by a couple of enormous metallic blue fish and they assumed we were some kind of protection. I still haven’t found out what fish these were, but Nick and I agreed this was definitely one of our highlights.
They say size isn’t important, but in the sea it is. Had we not been the size of sharks (we aren’t quite as fat, but with all the beer we’ve been drinking, we certainly aren’t far off) we never would have had my favourite deep sea encounter.
Our korean friend, Subin, new to swimming and waving her arms around, spluttering and panting was calling to me. It took me a few seconds to realise that, no, despite the fact that she had taken her life jacket off, she wasn’t drowning. Good. I had left my red swim suit at home.
I swam over to her quickly, hoping that whatever she had seen hadn’t floated away with the tidal wave from her frantically treading water. There, under her life jacket, were two of the tiniest fish I have ever seen. Black and yellow striped, they measured about a centimetre each in length. I put my head under the water and they immediately swam to my mask. They disappeared. I turned my head, they were right there, by my ear. Then in front of my mask. I had fun for a few minutes before swimming off to explore something new. But these guys were in it for the long haul. I swam on only to realise that these guys were swimming alongside my head. Whenever I stopped, they swam in front of my mask.
“Are you looking at me?”
I would like to think that these little guys just really valued the friendship we had made and were trying to do their bit for land/sea relations. Alas, no. These were the same ones an American guy we had been hanging out with had told us about. They had followed him in the same way, too. On googling back on the mainland, I found out these are called “Golden Trevally fish” and they normally display “piloting behaviour” accompanying sharks. They eat the bacteria off the sharks, and in return, the sharks act like some kind of protection. So, really we were just dirty bodyguards. I had to keep my mouth clamped round the mouth piece for fear of swallowing the sea water, and possibly the fish, but inside I was grinning from ear to ear.
HOW TO GET THERE:
– The speedboat goes from aThai town called Kuraburi – small town, dress conservative. Nice food markets daily. Bus goes there from Surathani to Phuket or Krabi (or vise versa).
– Tom & Am tours were just where the bus dropped us on the main road. They can book your boat and will even take you to the port and pick you up. Great English and super nice couple.
– If you want somewhere cheap to stay, they also have some very basic bungalows for 290THB (about £6 or 9 USD) per night. Take mozzie lotion as these are quite open to the elements! They do have nets for night time, though.
– 1700 THB for the return speed boat (about £36 or 54 USD)
– 500THB for the national park entrance fee (about £10 or 15 USD). This lasts for 5 days. If you wanted to stay longer, on the 6th day, you would have to pay this again.
– 300THB to use one of their 3 man tents (about £6 or 9USD). Mats are about 40p a night, pillows, 20p and sleeping bags something similar.
Note – if you take your own tent, it is only 80THB a night, but I don’t know if this is per tent or a per person charge.
– 150THB for a long tail boat to take you to various snorkelling sites. These go at 9am and 2pm everyday, and work on a two day rotation. If you want to see sharks, the afternoon trip to Koh Samut is the place. There are two locations on this trip and this is the first of the two. Head towards the sandy cove. This is where they hang out!
– Rent masks and flippers for around 40p each for a half day.
OTHER THINGS TO DO ON THE ISLAND:
– Take a hammock!
– Read a book
– Get up early and go monkey spotting on the beach 200m walk from the quiet camping beach (this is the one the longtail boat will drop you off at when you first arrive).
– Do the trail that goes from this beach to one of the other beaches. I think it’s a couple of kilometres (we only did the first part and then went off piste to monkey spot).
– Spot the water monitor lizards! There are a few of them just by the campsite, especially near the little bridge.
– Swim! There are also some good things to spot further out on the camping beach if you are a strong swimmer. Mantarays and turtles were cited to us by other tourists, but we didn’t actually see these ourselves.
– Visit The Moken (sea gypsy) people on the neighbouring island.
THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:
– Food works in a voucher system, so you buy vouchers from the reception and hand these in in the restaurant.
– Food is only served at certain times, 3 times a day.
– There is only one restaurant and the food is so-so. Also, there is no bar, although you can buy cans of beer.
– Maybe go prepared and take some food and drink with you, although beware the monkeys that can not only smell food, they can also unzip your tent!!
– Thailand is home to over 200 different types of poisonous snakes – be careful in the jungle and near mangroves.
– Do not feed the monkeys! It’s not good for them to become reliant on humans, especially just so you can take a close up picture. For that matter, don’t feed any of the animals. 🙂
– Before you go snorkelling, look up some of the fish so you know what to be aware of. Barracuda, needle fish, trigger fish, stone fish, octopus etc. The sharks are all fine.