Phuket – Ko Adang – Penang – Ko Butang – Ko Rok Nok – Ao Phang Nga – Ko Similan
While they are not compulsory, for the curious at heart, and intrepid in spirit, the variety of excursions that Star Clippers offers is wide. Thailand has the largest percentage of National Park of anywhere in the world, the scenery is stunning to behold, and the culture is rich in history.
Travelling across the Andaman Sea, our first stopover was at Ko Adang – Ko meaning island in Thai. The beach, which encircles 30 square kilometres of dense primordial rainforest, is the nesting site for green turtles, and if this is the first sight these hatchlings ever witness in their lives, they could do a lot worse! Tranquillity and snorkelling on the sandy beach eased us in to the gentle Thai way of life.
The next morning we docked at Penang, which translates from Malay as ‘the island of the Beetle Nut’ as is clear from its shape. Georgetown (the main city) is a former outpost of the British East India Company, but the city has a modern feel, and the juxtaposition of cultures across centuries of trade means that the street food is outstanding. We explored the streets of downtown Penang, taking in the Indian and Chinese quarters and tasting some spicy Assam Laksa, a thick noodle soup with mackerel – delicious! And then we enjoyed English afternoon tea with scones and jam at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel for a complete contrast.
Star Clippers organise an action-packed day, taking in the Entopia Butterfly Sanctuary, with over 7,000 butterflies, the world’s largest reclining Buddha, the Botanical Gardens, a floating Temple and a typical 19th century home of a rich local merchant, Pernankan Mansion, replete with opulent furnishings and artwork. A truly stimulating day, for culture, history and appetite!
Our next stop was at Ko Butang for a perfect afternoon of beach activities and snorkelling, and we were warned to keep our belongings close, as the fearless beach monkeys were liable to snatch them! Once a mobile phone found its way into the thick nearby jungle, no ‘Find my iPhone’ would ever locate it again. This was good advice as we watched a family of monkeys disappear with the lunchbox belonging to one of the water sports team.
Onward to Ko Rok Nok, a worthy contender for the ‘best beach in the world’. It was deserted and uninhabited, and incredible – like stepping back into pre-history. The snorkelling, in particular, was fabulous. I had never previously had much luck with masks and snorkels; the seawater would get in my eyes and nose; but trying out a full-face mask for the first time was a transformational experience. I felt as if I had dived into an episode of Blue Planet, immersed in the chromatic undulations of the fish and coral, and found Nemo! The memory I will take away was of a shoal of large silver fish, around 20, performing a synchronized swimming display right in front of my nose. They twisted and turned in unison like a cheerleading ensemble, almost as if performing for me. A perfect moment.
The week of discovery continued, each day with multitudes of surprises. We learnt about the charcoal industry, and about the overfishing of shrimp and squid. We learnt about how Thai people historically disliked the sea and water, and so enslaved fishermen from Cambodia. On Ao Phang Nga, we visited the caves of the Birds’ Nest collectors. In these wild rock formations, hundreds of thousands of swifts make their nests, using a substance from their salivary glands. This is the essential ingredient of Birds’ Nest Soup, a Chinese delicacy, which is said to have rejuvenating powers. Three times each season, collectors ascend these caves using only bamboo scaffolding, plucking out around 150 nests in a day. These sell for $2000 per kilo, primarily to Hong Kong restaurants. The craggy caves were high and daunting, and not a place for safety at work policies or risk assessments.
The ‘Ko Panyi & James Bond Island’ tour by speed boat was a real highlight. It may have been filmed back in the 1973, but the lure of visiting a location for ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ filled up three speed boats of inquisitive guests, with tours in three languages (English, German and French). The tour propelled us away from the Star Clipper at 32 knots through the implausible rock formations of the 40 islands of Phang Nga Bay. Stalactites and stalagmites the size of statues almost grimaced at us in grottoes, each one growing at the rate of an inch every hundred years.
Ko Panyi village was next, a fishing community built onto stilts by Nomadic Malay fishermen, with 1600 inhabitants, a school, mosque, and the world’s only floating football pitch! It is a tourist destination, and the Thai locals, who live in wooden huts on stilts, eke out a living selling jewellery and souvenirs from stalls. We were able to explore and get close to the day-to-day lives of these people, although we were advised not to take photos of the gibbons dressed in western clothing.
Then on through mangrove swamps, the roots of the trees extending many feet below the surface, like arboreal icebergs. Finally, to the iconic rock, which Roger Moore’s James Bond flew a seaplane around.
On the final day, it was a last opportunity to relax, this time on the unspoilt golden sand beaches of the Similan Islands (tip: arrive mid-afternoon after the Chinese day trippers have departed, along with their ubiquitous selfie-sticks).
After an unforgettable week of educational and cultural experiences, and a complete eye-opener in so many regards, I wished I could remain with the many other guests on board Star Clipper who were staying for a second week to explore the islands north of Phuket; and there were even those who were indulging in a third week when the ship was bound for Singapore. Now that’s another one for the wish list!