Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jacque Cousteau-ing in Thailand, part 1

So, I made it out of Hanoi, and into Bangkok, then took a flight down the Trang Province in southwestern Thailand. In all my travels, this is absolutely one of the most beautiful places one earth. Or, I should say, one of the most beautiful beaches on earth. Beaches and deserts are my two most favorite places on earth. The desert in the Northwest of the US is amazing in its pristine solitude, rugged landscape, and breathtaking colors. The beaches of the Andaman Sea, which is the area between Burma, western Thailand, and western Malaysia are stunning. The water is amazing. Even in the “winter” its 84F, and crystal clear. I've seen my fair share of tropical beaches, and let me tell you so far, this takes the cake. And the crème de la crème are the islands off the coast. When swimming you can see clearly down to fifty to sixty feet below. The sea life is stunning in it's variety of colors and forms. Every single creature you see is a shade of neon. I really didn't think it was possible that these colors existed outside of bad fashion. I did my best to get some underwater footage of this actually.

How you ask? Did I spend $500 for an underwater camera? NO! I spent $15 on a camera dry bag (basically a glorified ziploc bag) designed to keep cameras waterproof up to ten meters (30 ft). I also don't have a camera, so as usual as I use my cellphone for my camera/computer/email/texts/maps/gps/video/everything. Let me tell you, smartphones are probably the coolest invention since the computer itself, especially if you are always traveling or live out of a suitcase, as I do. The footage is pretty clear, but lets say my underwater filming skills need to be improved. I'll post the edited version on YouTube, so stay tuned.

So, I arrived in Trang Province, a little known tourist destination (a thing that is becoming very rare in Thailand, there's few places you can go in this country where there isn't a flood of Russian and Australian tourists) and hopped a boat to the island of Koh Mok, about 2 miles off the mainland. This was ok, the lodging was cheap ($13/night for a clean room with a fan no AC) I found a real basic room with an outside bathroom -no hot water, but you don't really need it when the weather is a constant 85F, and it's a two minute walk through the jungle to the beach.

I decided to go here to do some diving, as this area is world renowned for it's diving. There's few places in the world where you can see for about 60ft in any direction underwater. And the coral life is amazing. Also, on the way to the beach, you are likely to run into the pack of wild monkeys which roam the islands, as I did one day. I scared them as much as they scared me. A word about monkeys. Monkeys are really cute. And they are really human like in their ways. But just like humans, they can be dangerous and unpredictable. Most monkeys are tiny, and if worse came to worse, you could fight one off depending on how good of a fighter you are. But these monkeys were pretty big. The biggest was about the size of a full grown rottweiler. Like most wild animals, they'll leave you alone, unless you present them with food, then they can become a bit aggressive. I was going to toss one a banana I found, but as it rose up and approached me fearlessly, I decided to just toss the banana a safe distance away. He took it, gave me a weird little eye shrug, then followed his troops back into the trees.

I spent a few days on the slightly touristy island of Ko Muk. But honestly, as I'm traveling along, and still dealing with some heartache, the last thing I wanted to be surrounded by was a bunch of happy in love, beautiful and rich tourists. I almost always prefer wilderness or small local communities to the touristy places, but when I'm feeling lonely, especially so.

So, I hooked up with a dive company here, and we went out to the island of Koh Rok, I'll be posting pictures on my picassa account soon. It's breathtaking. But it's very isolated. Once you get there (a two hour boat ride), you're on your own to get back, as boats don't come by too often. Well, they do, but they are tourist day trip boats that only stay for two hours, and if you wanted a ride back with them, they charge an arm and a leg, as you are literally a captive audience. The island is national park, and there is no development allowed, which is a godsend. The only lodging available are tents that you can rent from the park for $10 a night. However, for tent camping, it's pretty luxurious. There are bathrooms with showers and toilets (no hot water of course), and a small restaurant which serves up mediocre, but expensive due to transportation costs, Thai food.

But the place is truly like paradise lost. Thailand as a nation, has their tourism run like clockwork. There is literally no place in Thailand, where you can't find someone who speaks English and is willing to help you, at most for a small fee. In Vietnam, you're on your own, so you better be prepared for anything. But traveling Thailand is easy. There's never any 'roughing' by real traveler standards involved. Thailand is where you should go if you want to visit S.E. Asia, but don't want to end up in the 'crazy Asia' situations I end up in.

I spent the first day diving in the most beautiful water I have ever seen. On the day I saw two of the most amazing sea creatures, a six foot long manta ray, and a hawkbill sea turtle, that we swam with for a while. Sea turtles are one of the most peaceful creatures I have ever seen. They swim very slowly and gracefully, they literally look like a slow moving, gigantic bird. The Ray that we saw was amazing too. They move in such graceful, and yet spooky ways. They literally look like a ghost floating through the sea. Their big black eyes keep an eye on you, and it's a special feeling as you meet their alien eyes. You can see they mean you no harm, and in fact, you get the feeling they see you as something below their concern. They acknowledge you, then write you off as no threat and continue their slow, graceful glide. They're two of the most interesting creatures I've seen in my life, in land and out of land.

We also saw plenty of moray eels too. They look frightening though. They are constantly opening their fang lined mouths and scanning their area, waiting to snatch anything that comes to close. But even they are not aggressive. Morays don't really move. They stay in their little nook, with only their head sticking out. You can go fairly near them, and they won't attack. In fact, they tend to avoid you. The only people who get bit by a moray are the ones who accidentally poke their hands into a dark crevasse, and the eel, feeling attacked, defends itself with a bite. As long as you don't poke them, they won't do anything to you.

But this is the way of aquatic life. If you are not the specific animal the creature hunts, they will almost never make an aggressive action toward you, always preferring retreat. My theory is that since the creatures of the ocean have around 1 billion years to evolve their various defense systems longer than we land animals have, every single creature in the ocean has a highly sophisticated system of attack and defense/camouflage. The most insane types of camouflage are underwater, with creatures that look like either nothing, or something completely different than what they are.

Anyway, sea creatures operate upon the same psychological principals of nations with nuclear weapons. Everyone involved knows they are a badass, and they also know their enemies are as badass as they are, so much of the ocean life is at an uneasy truce. A shark doesn't want to fuck with an eel, a school of smaller fish isn't too worried about a shark because due to their group camouflage and distraction techniques, they know that only 1% of their school will end up as a victim to the shark. As such, the odds are very good that the little fish will live. Two dead out of 300 is a pretty small sacrifice in any battle, land or sea. This is because as land animals, especially mammals have only had a few millions years to develop defenses and attacks, sea creatures have had BILLIONS of years to perfect the art of offense and defense.

With evolution, I don't see the need for any grand creator. Life abhors a vacuum. If there is some small opening in the food chain, it will be filled almost instantly by another creature whose unique abilities happen to provide a perfect match for the situation. If you create poison to kill every single type of bacteria, by the random combination of genetic traits, there will always be one or two of the bacteria that is resistant, then once 99.9% of the competitors disappear, that .01% has free range over all the other resources which have been freed by the death of their competition.

I know this might sound freaky or dangerous to those who haven't dove before but the biggest misconception about the ocean life is that it's out to get you. Now, all my life, I have had a huge phobia about sea creatures, because they look scary, and they all have ways of seriously injuring or killing you. Both things are true, however, what you don't realize until you're underwater with them is they have no intention to bother you. If you approach 99% of sea creatures, their first action is to move away from you. Unless you are their prey animal, they want absolutely nothing to do with you. Even sharks.

The only time sharks attack people is when they confuse surf boards for seals, or flapping feet for an injured fish. Scuba divers, rarely, maybe never, get attacked, because underwater, you move and look like a fish, a big frigging fish. So they generally scatter when you show up. The only really dangerous animals are the ones that are slow moving and that you step on or bump into. They're not aggressive at all, but by their nature, are extremely defensive. Things like spiky sea urchins, rock fish, jellyfish, sting rays, coral snakes, and stone fish. None of these creatures will ever attack you. The only way people get hurt is when you literally step on them or bump into them, and they are too slow moving to avoid you. As long as you are aware of your surroundings thoughs, these dangers are easily avoided.

As a side note, I did almost fall victim to two of these creatures, within a period of 15 minutes. I was snorkeling back to the beach, and was in quite shallow water, maybe one foot deep. I could have walked, but honestly, I am very afraid of stepping on these creatures. Maybe even phobic. So, I was floating with my mask on to the beach, to get as close to the clear sand as I could before putting my feet down. Right before I did, I saw a rock that looked just a little different. I stopped to get a better look. And the rock had eyes. This is a stonefish. A stonefish is one of the WORST things to step on in the ocean.

My friend Dave stepped on one, and had to be hospitalized for two days. Stonefish are really slow and awkward, so their only defense against being eaten is to sit and look like a rock, but be covered in poisoned spines for anything that tries to eat it. I missed stepping on it be about 7 niches. Also, there is a chance you can die immediately from their sting if you are allergic. Most don't though, you just suffer excruciating pain for a about a week until the poison wares off. Thats assuming you are on an island that has some rudimentary medical care. This island did not, it was a 5 hour boat ride to the next place that did. However, I was safe, so I sat observing this amazing yet deadly creature. And it is truly a marvel of evolution. It was evolved to perfectly look like a moss covered rock. Literally the only way you can tell is by noticing, as I had, that some spots on it didn't match the surrounding rock.

So, I gave the beast a wide berth, and continued to the shore. Thinking I was safe, I stood up and began wading in. A moment later, a juvenile sting ray burst out of the sand away from me, less than two feet away. Rays are not aggressive at all, but they aren't very aware of their surroundings, so they are easily surprised. And if they sting you, there's little chance of death, again, unless you're allergic, but it will hurt like hell for while. The Crocodile Hunter guy just got really unlucky, as the sting that hit him pierced his heart. Nothing to be done about that. Anywhere else, he would have just been hurt but fine overall. The good news is that these creatures only inhabit warm waters, and the more good news is that if you are wearing water sandals or scuba booties, you will be mostly safe from their stings. As such, my next purchase is aqua booties.


  1. "Thailand is where you should go if you want to visit S.E. Asia, but don't want to end up in the 'crazy Asia' situations I end up in." Well said, though I know some Old Thailand Hands that would beg to differ.

    I always believed that writing about scuba diving is like dancing about architecture, but you've pulled it off! Great article, and very informative.

    Glad you got over your phobia, and watch out for those stoned fish!

  2. Ha ha, funny that Sam picked the same quote. Yes, having traveled in SE Asia, and now living in N.Thailand, I know what you mean by the 'crazy Asia situations' not happening as much here. It is easy to travel here, and it's peaceful to live here...except right now I have a tenacious mosquito buzzing around me. After having taught in Barranquilla, Colombia, which I liked about as much as you do Hanoi, and then returned to the plight of the US education system, it seemed like I should go where I really wanted to be, and that was Thailand.

    As a fellow 'real teacher' I know how the expat 'community' can feel a bit like a community of one. I figure yoga and learning Thai are going to be the ways in. I better start learning a lot more Thai, because I plan on staying a while.

    I tried to go snorkeling in Ko Rok from Ko Lanta recently, but the weather was horrible so boats weren't going out. Maybe in October I'll go to Ko Rok directly.

    Thanks for entertaining as well as informing.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      -international man of history