Sailing the Andaman Sea
We had wine on deck. Tantalizing meals that never ended. Snorkeling above exquisite Malaysian coral gardens. And the sunsets they seemed spiritual, each one more soothing, pastel-rich and emotive than the last.
After four weeks of traveling in Southeast Asia, of making fast friends and sad good-byes, of bartering, of carrying my pack, of bus rides with drivers who quaffed ''speed drinks'' and lived for playing chicken ... well, I guess I began to fixate on the downsides of traveling in paradise. Put simply, I needed a vacation within my vacation a way to find some pampering on a pauper's budget.
An Embezzler obliged me.
She was a private sailing yacht, 45 feet long, from New Zealand: elegant but not extravagant. Yet in my trampled, travel-frazzled mind, she looked like the Queen Mary.
I'd been seeking a sailboat for days, but in May, the end of the tourist season in Thailand, fewer yachts swing through Rai Ley beach, opting for the shelter of Phuket against the approaching northwesterly monsoons. There are hundreds of yachts that filter through southern Thailand each year, many of which provide charter services. On Phuket, one of Thailand's most famous tourist islands, travelers can charter boats for as little as $50 to $65 a day per person.
Most boats leave from Phuket's Chalong Bay or Krabi's Rai Ley beach, about a half-day sail east. That's where I joined the Embezzler, after Irene Palmer, the yacht's chef, responded to an inquiry I'd made with a local bartender. She found me on the beach absorbing another sunset, truly the best and worst part of the day in Rai Ley. ''It's so beautiful, so rich,'' cooed an Australian sitting nearby, ''but it always marks the end of another day in paradise.''
I was talking to this new friend when Palmer walked up and smiled her way into the conversation. Pointing to the Embezzler, anchored 100 yards off shore, she gave me a five-minute sell-job, which wasn't needed. She snared me within 30 seconds, somewhere between ''yacht'' and ''professional chef.'' Two days later, we left, shadowing the Thai coast on a course to Rok Nok, two remote islands on the way to our destination of Langkawi, Malaysia.
Palmer dubbed the trip a ''lifestyle'' charter, which meant two things. It was cheaper, at $50 a day, and I wouldn't be ridiculously pampered by Palmer, just spoiled. The full bells-and-whistles treatment costs $480 a day for two people or $600 a day for six.
As soon as Warren Johnson, the captain, got us under way, I became serious deadly serious about doing nothing. Johnson was not only the captain, but the chief gin and tonic maker, wine opener and Carlsberg fetcher. As he mixed away, Palmer busied herself in the galley, preparing enough food for the Queen Mary, perhaps not realizing that she had only booked three passengers: me and two Americans headed toward Indonesia.
Over the next few days, she smothered us with steaks, fresh fish chowders, fried chicken and rice dishes, fresh fruit and - the piece de resistance -hamburgers. I love Thai food ranks among my favorite foreign cuisine that doesn't give me heartburn but this was a welcome break. After a lengthy, sumptuous dinner with red wine, we arrived in Rok Nok. Johnson guided the yacht into a channel that forms a cradle between the islands. As he did this, I scanned the shore, tracing the tangled outline of a jungle-thick ridge in the dark; soon after falling asleep to the sound of small waves slapping the hull.
The heat of the morning sun woke me, making the cabin too warm for sleeping. I shuffled topside for breakfast and a look around. On each side of the boat ran white sand beaches that descended into the dazzling turquoise channel beneath us. Dense jungle fronted the beach, forming an inhospitable barrier. The place was blessedly empty.
Except for a few fisherman and a ranger, Rok Nok is desolate, being too far from the mainland to easily reach by small fishing boats that ferry tourists. Protected in this way - and also by the Thai government - the islands are unspoiled and able to lull visitors with solitude, making them forget the crowds, the hassles of traveling. Here, a lonely beach is all you get and it's enough.
We left Rok Nok a day later to sail for the Butang Group, several islands off the coast of Thailand near the Malaysian sea border that also don't get many tourists.
These islands became the highlight of our yachting trip. In Butang, we swam with the fish and reveled in our discovery of one of the best coral gardens Palmer, a longtime diver, had ever seen in Southeast Asia. Immense rounded balls with intriguing lobelike indentations called brain coral dotted the sandy ocean floor, growing among sheets of brown fungus-like coral and staghorn coral. Woven throughout, cementing the tapestry, was a tangled, branching, endless mass of pale green fingerlike coral illuminated by fleeting silver strands of reflected surface light.
In a dreamlike state, we slipped through this Technicolor seascape, enchanted. Clouds of tropical fish shimmered and shifted direction in an erratic, synchronized series of sharp angles. Pufferfish hovered in homey alcoves, watching yellow and black angelfish patrol their labyrinthine territory. Despite our offering of a sea urchin, a six-foot eel refused to be lured from the hallways of his coral home. A manta ray glided lazily along the bottom, heading out to sea.
It was invigorating to coast above this vibrant, thriving coral community, especially because many of the coral gardens in Rai Ley, Phuket and the nearby Phi Phi islands have been damaged or killed by anchor drag and runoff from tourist resorts.
After a day and a night in the Butting Group, almost entirely spent in this liquid heaven, we left for Langkawi, an ever-increasingly popular island just off the Malaysian coast. After restocking the boat, we sailed straight for Phuket, arriving 24 hours later.
The entire trip, from Rai Ley to Langkawi and back to Phuket, can be done in a week. Another ideal route for the hurried traveler who wants to do a ''highlights'' tour of southern Thailand would stop in Phang-Nga Bay, the Phi Phi islands and Rai Ley beach.
If you pre-arrange the trip, the most ideal landing point would be Phuket International Airport, where a crew member could greet your party and bring them to the boat.
When arranging the trip, suggest a route that travels north to Phang-Nga Bay, famous for its sea caves and lush limestone towers and more famous for providing the tropical scenery in the James Bond flick ''The Man With The Golden Gun.''
After a day or two, sail south to Krabi Province's Rai Ley beach, where most visitors bask in the sun, try rock climbing for the first time, religiously gather for sunsets and then party all night. Don't miss the Princess Cave on Phra Nang beach (a short walk from Rai Ley east beach) or the Princess Lagoon, on the footpath between Rai Ley east and Phra Nang beaches.
The Princess Cave is like a rugged gothic cathedral, complete with an altar honoring Phra-Nang, a mythical princess. The Thais believe the cave boosts fertility, which goes a long way toward explaining the number and size of phallic offerings surrounding the altar.
About halfway down the path to Princess Cave, at a kiosk, is the trail for Princess Lagoon. After a steep hike, follow the right break in the trail, which descends through captivating jungle scenery to the lagoon. The lagoon is fed by a subaqueous passage, so go during high tide, as it tends to be a mudflat at low tide.
A quick warning: Do not go alone on this hike, as there are three short fixed-rope descents over steep drop-offs, a spot where some people opt to turn back and visit Lower Viewpoint, reached by taking the left break in the trail. It offers a camera-ready panorama of the Rai Ley isthmus and surrounding cliffs.
Three to four days on Rai Ley is enough to taste a bit of its offerings, although some people come for a few days and stay a few weeks or months. The next and final stop on the yacht cruise should be the Phi Phi islands. Once pristine and inhabited only by nomadic fishermen, the main island, Phi Phi Don, has been overrun by rampant development and tourism. But the place is still worth a visit, especially by sailboat, which will allow access to remote, unspoiled parts of the two islands.
From Phi Phi, Phuket can be reached within a half-day sail. The entire tour of these areas can be done in eight or nine days.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication