Little Thai islands, plus Phuket, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai et al
4th to 22nd February
There are countless little hilly tree-topped white-beached islands on the Thai coastline stretching between Malaysia and Myanmar (Burma). The largest and most visited is Phuket. But many of the smaller islands have comfortable secure anchorages, some of them in a National Park where rangers appear at all hours to ask for fees.
(My conclusion a month later is that Thailand is best visited on land not sea. Boats that venture into Parks and marinas are charged eye watering amounts – though there are many exquisite and free uncrowded anchorages as well. But here at the Boat Lagoon, where I stop for a night to load new anchor chain, it’ll be about $50 a night. Yet visitors can find simple clean welcoming hotel or hostel rooms for under $12 dollars a night and experience all the delights of a marvellous country.)
Koh Muk and entrance to popular Emerald Cave (we swim through tunnel to little bay, but I couldn’t swim with camera. Hence no photo)
Sailing slowly northwards I visit several islands and some popular bays on Phuket, where white Westerners are scattered on the sun-baked sand, big blobs and little blobs, in various stages of peuce, pink and brown, mostly 30 to 50, predominantly, it seems Russian, I hire a motorbike to ‘do’ the sights of Phuket.
There’s a wonderful calm lack of highway discipline such that we overtake on left or right, whatever way we want, drive contraflow on dual carriageways, and courteously refrain from using the horn. We smile at all-comers, ‘Road rage’ completely unheard of, but accidents commonplace.
A week’s visit to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai makes a memorable and almost wholly delightful change from life at sea aboard Henrietta.
Chiang Mai may long have been a tourist mecca, and it’s a large town, but it seems supremely friendly, awash with good food and welcoming people, and of course the overarching, calming and beautiful presence of a multitude of Buddhist temples.
Chiang Rai, a much smaller northern Thailand town, is just a three and a half hour bus ride away. Armelle, whom I’d met earlier, and I go there.
And rather than expensive tourist trips to hill tribal villages, elephant sanctuaries of dubious credentials and busy temples, we hire a little pink motorcycle; and just muddle along very happily.
With just one night in each of several guest houses we whizz from super-popular and crowded and marvellous unorthodox modern Wat Rong Khun (‘White Temple’ ) to dark sinister and somewhat gruesome Baandam (‘Black House’), and museum and much more in between.
At night, the markets of Chiang Rai are alive and bursting with colourful clothes, mysterious foods, and scents and bright lights, and music. The Flower Festival happens to be here too, one of those unexpected bonuses with this form of unorganised and unplanned travelling. A festival, meeting, dance, concert, demo or party just sometimes unexpectedly comes along……
The motorbike ride up to to Doi Mae Salong,Santikhiri, an Akha hill tribe village near the Chinese border, is long and windy as the road climbs through tea plantations, terraced hillsides, lush bamboo groves and roadside stalls of fruitsellers. It’s growing blissfully cool in fresh mountain air.
We enjoy walks in the hills (including one of those ‘we’re lost’ walks through rotting bamboo, scratchy tall grasses, pine trees and steep scramble slopes where, but for the miracle of smartphone GPS, you may not have heard from us again. And nighttime temperatures are cool enough to awaken my soggy somnolent tropical brain, and need a blanket. And the scenery is soothing and magnificent.
And, after our quick trip to the hills, and back in Chiang Rai, I bade ‘au revoir’ to Armelle, caught first pre-dawn bus to Chiang Mai, and via Air Asia and so on, was back aboard Henrietta in Phuket soon after dark (she’d swung and spun on a rented mooring buoy for over a week, the only way to avoid crippling marina charges).
Though life on board is seldom dull for long, and there was no romance on land, I shall miss the happy friendly companionship of a lovely Parisian….and maybe dream of elephants instead…