Just as a conductor might launch a concert with a musical flourish, the heavens launched the evening light show with a blinding blue-white baton of lightning that slashed horizontally across the black Thai sky.
Every night, there had been hours of similar light shows that started shortly after sunset and lasted well into the wee hours. During the afternoon, towering pillars of cumulonimbus clouds boiled up over the mainland into crenelated towers, with black streamers of rain slanting down to the hot earth. After sunset, I had a front-row seat for Mother Nature’s light show, with an icy Singha beer.
The air was still and balmy, our anchorage was as quiet as a millpond, and the long crescent of white-sand beach glowed with a faint luminescence as the wavelets shushed onto the shore. Best of all, this magnificent anchorage, protected by encircling headlands, was all ours, but that was no surprise: We hadn’t seen another yacht in four days of cruising the Andaman Sea off Thailand.
We were too far away from the light show to hear more than a faint rumble long after each flash. Overhead in the clear night air, the Big Dipper fought for space among zillions of stars, and it wouldn’t be long before the Southern Cross poked above the horizon. This was cruising at its best.
I had flown to Thailand to explore the waters aboard a Hatteras 58 motoryacht owned by my friend Pongpol Adireksarn, the former minister of transport who, after his political career, became a spy novelist. Thailand felt like a story setting to me: The roads wind through dense jungles broken by rubber plantations, whose cathedral-type rows of arched rubber trees date back to when this country was called Siam and ruled by a king. I also glimpsed the occasional golden Buddha, or an ornate and gleaming temple filled with monks in saffron robes. Water buffalo in the rice paddies added to the sense of another time and place.
Thailand has been compared to the Caribbean of Ernest Hemingway’s time—untouched and absolutely enticing. When you anchor, you can look down through 90 feet of crystal-clear water and see the shackle on your hook, and many anchorages are there for the taking. In the warm water, saucy, rainbow-colored fish dart up to your mask and peer in, as if asking what you might have for them. Local fishermen offer to share their catches of fish and lobster, and are embarrassed when you insist that they take a few cans of cola in return for the pet-size crustaceans.
In Phuket, we set out across Phang Nga Bay, where the waters are as calm as a lake between Phuket Island and the mainland. Here are the eroded limestone pillars thrusting upward from the sea like surreal fangs. Some tower as high as 1,000 feet, while others have weathered into hollow spires where you can dinghy through caves to reach the open-air atrium in the center that seems as remote as a moon crater. Others are eroded around the base, leaving them notched inward like mushrooms and drizzled with stalactites of green and brown lime. Everywhere you travel, you’ll see the rickety bamboo scaffoldings that Thais use to collect the basic ingredient of bird’s-nest soup.
We stopped at Koh Panyi, a stilt village inhabited by nomads. Marked by a cobalt Muslim temple, the village is filled with shops and restaurants catering to tourist boats, and the back alleys lead to tottery private homes.
Turning south, we overnighted at Koh Racha Yai, a secluded island off the tip of Phuket with a deepwater cove, a perfect beach and complete privacy.
Early the next morning, I moved aboard an equally pristine Hatteras 53 sport-fisher for the run out to the Similan Islands 20 miles west of Phuket. These 11 islands—a government-protected preserve—are lushly forested with tumbled boulders much like the Baths at Virgin Gorda in the Virgin Islands. The beaches are empty and clean, and the diving is incredible.
On the way to the Similans, I spotted sailfish and dolphin cruising fearlessly on the surface. A 1,000-pound black marlin reportedly washed ashore on Phuket several years ago, and 250-plus-pound black marlin are commonplace. Sailfish are Cabo-size at 60 to 70 pounds, and the sea is filled with wahoo, pompano and king mackerel. The 100-fathom drop-off is just 28 miles offshore with all the baitfish that marlin love to eat.
Though there are more than 80 islands scattered around the Andaman Sea, I recommend stopping at the two largest Phi Phi islands. Phi Phi Don is fun for a day or an evening, with beachfront restaurants and shops catering to tourists, but a little walk will take you behind the glitter to a quiet village. You can explore Viking Cave with a dinghy and ponder whether the ancient cave paintings are really those of Vikings or artists from another civilization. Phi Phi Le is off-limits during the nesting season of the swifts, whose nests are prized, but both of the islands offer diving and snorkeling along cliff walls and into cool caverns. Though we didn’t explore them during our cruise, the northern islands of Koh Surin are said to be equally idyllic.
Thailand is, in many senses, a sleeping beauty. Set your own course for Southeast Asia, and enjoy everything beneath that beautiful sky.
Hot, Hot, Hot
Thai food is delicious, but beware of the hot sauces. When a local warns you that a delicacy is hot, it will raise blisters on a naive Western tongue. Hallmarks of Thai food are the lavish use of coconut milk, peanuts and seafood. Mee krob is a crisp tangle of deep-fried noodleswith a sweet-sour-salty sauce, while tom kha gai is a classic coconut-chicken soup. Tom yum goong is giant prawns sauteed in a pepper sauce.
On the Silver Screen
James Bond, in The Man with the Golden Gun, made Thailand a household name in 1974. Today, James Bond Island, where an eerie pillar rises from the bay where bad guy Scaramanga lived, is a tourist spot. It was not the only film shot in Thailand; in the 1950s, Around the World in 80 Days arrived in Bangkok, and three Rambo films used Thailand too. Air America and Good Morning, Vietnam were also shot here.
The prime season for Phuket and the Andaman Sea runs roughly from November through April, when northeast breezes blow steadily and there is virtually no rain. For the Gulf of Thailand, the season runs from January through August. The summer monsoon season, with daily rain and high humidity, lasts from June through October.