The Waterways of Southern Thailand
By Terry Blackburn
The waterways of Southern Thailand offer some of the most stunning river views and seascapes to be found anywhere in the world and their bio-diversity draws visitors from all corners of the globe in ever increasing numbers. In order to maintain this near pristine environment, it is essential for tourism in the region to be kept as low-impact as possible.
Sailing, diving and snorkelling are all suitably low-impact and are great for seeing much of Southern Thailand. However, if you want to explore both the remote headlands of Trang and Tarutao, the hongs of Phang Nga Bay and the reservoir and creeks of Khao Sok National Park then there is really only one way to do it – in a kayak. One of mankind's first ever sailing craft, the humble kayak is still the quietest and most environmentally friendly way to get around on the water.
Dave Williams has been a kayaking and rafting enthusiast for over 24 years. A native of Virginia, he has been based in Phuket for the past nine years and was one of the founding fathers of sea kayaking in Phang Nga bay. He has since pioneered paddle tourism in the more far-flung reaches of Southern Thailand and beyond. His business Paddleasia is currently the only company offering kayaking trips outside of Phang Nga bay in the region.
A physically imposing man, standing well over six foot, Dave sports a muscle strapped physique, honed over the many years he spent tackling some of the most vicious rivers and creeks in North America, that would be the envy of most people half his age. These days he has, by his own admission, a considerably less physically demanding working life on much gentler Thai waters. His enthusiasm for a hobby that became his career remains undiminished and he now loves Thailand almost as much as he loves paddling its waters around Phang Nga, Trang Tarutao and Khao Sok.
Khao Sok National Park has been the major trekking destination in the area for many years – a vast swathe of primary rainforest is intersected by a myriad of rivers and small tributaries which all flow from, or into, the park’s huge 156 square kilometre reservoir. Poaching has unfortunately taken its toll on the park's fauna, meaning that although a day's trekking can often offer stunning vistas there's little to see in the way of wildlife. For Dave though, when he's running his two to three day trips in the park, Khao Sok represents 'wildlife in abundance to a degree that it's almost incomprehensible'.
'Every time we go there we see dozens of monkeys – longtail macaques, pigtail macaques and dusky langurs,' he relates. 'We frequently see gibbons too and a lot of birds. Thailand has over 950 bird species and during the migratory season, you can see almost all of them in Khao Sok. I've seen five different species of hornbills there alone. Wild pigs are always a joy to see too. When the water level is low, banana trees pop up on the newly exposed bank and grow really fast. The pigs like to push them over and eat the pulpy roots at the base of the tree.'
Why is Dave lucky enough to see this remarkable array of wildlife? The answer is simple – kayaks are virtually soundless and the creatures of Khao Sok are often blissfully unaware of, or unconcerned by, their presence as they glide gracefully past.
The reservoir area has great potential for further low-impact, environmentally friendly, water tourism. The successful floating bungalow operations in the reservoir give local people an important stake in the park's future sustainable development. Likewise, many longtail boat operators offer short, often rewarding, trips around the reservoirs banks. A passionate environmentalist, Dave's only concern is muffler-less longtails who gun their engines in a tactic designed to scare animals out of hiding for the tourists' viewing pleasure. 'Obviously they're not killing them, so it's preferable to poaching,' he says, 'but the problem is that if, for example, you go out in the late afternoon and there's a big tree that's in fruit and you scare all the monkeys and other animals off the tree, then they might not return to the tree and then go hungry. It's something I'd prefer not to see supported - you can see plenty from a properly muffled boat, it's just a question of being patient.'
Paddling around the Andaman in Trang is an entirely different prospect to Khao Sok. Trang Province is one of Southern Thailand's best kept secrets – if visitors go at all, they're most likely to be cruising through on a yacht, or staying at a resort on one of its few inhabited islands from which frequent day trips run to the Province's biggest tourist draw: the Emerald Cave. Found on Koh Mook, the Emerald Cave – only recently discovered by helicopter – is only accessible at low tide, when it's possible to swim down the 80m, seemingly jewel encrusted cave into the pristine hong (room) inside. Dave fully appreciates the cave's charms too and makes sure it's on the itinerary of all Paddle Asia's Trang trips, but with a slight difference. 'We wait until the last tour group leaves, then paddle in,' he says. 'It really is a magical experience. People's jaws just drop; they don't know what to say. The tour companies keep the place in perfect condition – there's not a cigarette butt or discarded can anywhere. We hang around on the beach inside for a couple of hours, then paddle back in the dark so we can see bioluminescent plankton, which can be pretty amazing.'
Much like Khao Sok, bird life also abounds in Trang: oriental pied hornbills, kingfishers, white bellied sea eagles and kites all frequent the islands, which are amongst the least developed in Thailand. The proximity of Koh Mook to the mainland also gives many novice paddlers the opportunity to complete their first crossing: the hour and a half trip is hardly arduous, but it is immensely satisfying. After Koh Mook, it's also relatively effortless to paddle to nearby Koh Hai and Koh Kradan – both equally stunning and reef fringed, making them ideal for a spot of snorkelling. Koh Hai is an especially attractive paddling destination as it's easy to circumnavigate in a day.
Further along the coast, and just five miles from the Malaysian island of Langkawi at its closest point, Taratao Marine National Park has been designated by UNESCO as an ASEAN Heritage site. It has also attracted increasing attention from the Thai government which wants to promote the area as a high-end tourist destination - a move that Dave wholeheartedly supports. 'Paddle Asia has just opened an office in Tarutao. We've done that because we support the government's desire to build up the park's reputation,' he explains. 'We want to be there to set an example of an environmentally friendly, low-volume, low-impact, higher priced operation. We believe that mass tourism can be hard on a culture and the environment. Our philosophy is that people are willing to pay more to go on a quality trip with highly experienced guards who can answer everybody's questions. That comes at a premium – not an outrageous one, but more than a mass tourism trip would be.'
The park itself consists of 51 islands - seven of which are significantly larger than the rest. The main island features tidal rivers, primary mangrove, hardwood and nipa palm forests (the palm fronds that are customarily used for roof thatching), as well an array of wildlife, including crab-eating macaques, dusky langurs and monitor lizards that can grow as large as seven feet. The ultimate highlight for a lucky few though is the opportunity to paddle amongst a school of dolphins. It's an unforgettable experience that Dave is always keen to try and repeat when he's in the Park.
Undoubtedly still the most popular paddling destination in the area is Phang Nga Bay and gliding into its mysterious and beautiful hongs aboard a sea kayak has been a high priority for Phuket visitors for the past decade. The hongs are entered through low ceiling caves in the imposing karst rock islands of the bay. Once inside, visitors are dazzled by the variety of flora and fauna: macaques, herons, monitor lizards and mangroves can all be found. The number of companies offering kayaking day trips into the bay has mushroomed over recent years, leaving some of the more popular hongs a little overcrowded to say the least. This in turn has brought accusations of environmental damage caused by untrained guides and overeager tourists. But, as Dave attests, the bay is a big place and a little education can go a long way.
'There are over a hundred islands in the bay. Most companies go to the same four, meaning that there's still a lot left to explore,' he relates. 'The biggest problem in Phang Nga bay, in my opinion, is litter. Judging by the stuff we find, most of it seems to come from fishermen – Styrofoam, water bottles and clumps of fishing net. But that's just a matter of education – don't hold it against them. We should clean it up and try to get some educational programmes going. As for the other companies, I don't see any serious environmental damage being done. People aren't going in there and breaking off stalactites, climbing all over the trees or defacing the environment. There's noise pollution, but that's about it. I'd say there's room for even more companies there and I'd welcome the competition as long as they keep safety paramount. Paddling is still a great way to explore the bay without doing any harm. In fact, paddling is a great way to explore just about anywhere.' And that pretty much sums it up.
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