Kayaking around Tarutao
Koh Lanta Activities | A Trang and Tarutao islands trip report
Being able to do both the tropical islands of Trang and Tarutao Marine Park in one trip is thrilling. Plus, we were lucky enough to have experienced paddlers on this trip. Kate, Pip, and Gaye joined us for a tour of all the best that southern Thailand could offer.
We arrived at Pakmeng Beach, checked into our comfortable, well-appointed bungalows, and set off for our first paddle. The mangrove forest behind the bungalows, provided us with just the place to paddle a bit, see a bit of wildlife, and get to know each other better.
The next day, we paddled out to a lovely tropical island called Koh Muk. It was an easy hour and a half paddle in very nice weather. We checked into the bungalows, ate lunch, and set off again. It was sure nice having paddling companions who wanted to paddle as much as we did.
Paddling around Koh Muk is always nice. The gentle rolling hills in the vicinity of the bungalows change to steep limestone cliffs. The clear water added to this treasure too. We spotted a single Oriental Pied hornbill perched midway up the cliffs. It gave its position away by honking at us. It actually took a couple minutes to find the hornbill in the thick foliage.
We paddled around to the back (west) side of the island. The multi-colored rock along this whole stretch is gorgeous. We saw Brahminy kites, White-bellied sea eagles, Pacific Reef egrets, and a variety of kingfishers as we cruised.
The primary attraction on Koh Muk is a cave which leads to a 'hong' (Thai for room). This is the most popular site in the area. Thousands of tourists swim into the cave each year. We wouldn't think of going in there during the prime visiting hours during high season. We're not anti-social, but we prefer to paddle without seeing other folks. We arrived in the late afternoon and had the place to ourselves... standard operating procedure. Everyone enjoyed the hong and our private time inside it, then we headed back to the bungalows.
The next day we turned right as we left the bungalow and paddled past the little village and the pier. Our goal was to make the crossing between Koh Muk and Koh Kradan. It was a short crossing, but a crossing nonetheless. We were excited. The weather was perfect and the water was a brilliant blue-green.
We landed on a beautiful white sand beach. Everyone was immediately impressed with the water clarity. Masks and snorkels were snatched out of the rear compartments of the kayaks. After snorkeling and a great Thai lunch, we set out to circumnavigate the island. The west side of Koh Kradan receives pounding waves during the southwest monsoon. Huge boulders have been ripped from the cliff face. The entire west side is one massive rock garden. It made for superb kayak exploration.
We didn't really need to snorkel as we could look down into the clear water from our kayaks. There were many Collared kingfishers, Brahminy kites, White-bellied sea eagles, and Pacific Reef egrets. We paddled right past a young water monitor lizard sunning itself on a rock. Sometimes they stay still. Perhaps they think we don't see them. Other times, they plop into the water as soon as they're in sight.
We all sensed a change in the weather. The sky became increasingly cloudy. We rounded the corner and our suspicions were confirmed. It was raining to the north of us and to the east. Further around, we saw that Koh Muk was shrouded in rain. It was pretty, but the wind had picked up quite a bit too. Kate didn't feel comfortable with the way things were panning out. We landed on a small beach to wait the weather out. Ten to fifteen minutes later, the weather calmed right down. A stunning double rainbow appeared over Koh Muk. We were feeling pretty good about the beauty before us.
Halfway across, the wind picked up. As we paddled into a headwind we realized crossing back to Koh Muk from the north side of Koh Kradan would take longer than our easy crossing from Koh Muk to the National Park beach.
As we paddled, stroke after stroke, we talked just to pass the time. When I make a crossing alone, I find the repetitive nature of the paddling puts me into a contemplative mood, allowing me to reflect on my love of paddling, my family, and friends. I reflect on anything imaginable just to fill the time!
However, not knowing whether our guests were as contemplative, I started talking and the others joined in.
At one point, a hug ray leap from the water to our north. It shot up at a 45 degree angle. Its nose must have been three meters in the air. It came down on a massive belly flop. Pip saw it, Kate saw the splash, Gaye was somewhere else, and I saw the whole thing. What a treat! A 'flock' of flying fish soared in front of us couple minutes later. They left the water just a couple meters from our bows. We were paddling in a tight group, so it was even more special. We couldn't decide among us just how far they flew. Estimates were from two meters to more than four meters!
One pleasure of a crossing is noticing the changes in weather. As we were approaching sunset, the light changed steadily. Often we looked over our left shoulders at the sun as it drew closer to the horizon. We were paddling toward the cliff face on the west side of Koh Muk. It was illuminated in the soft light of the late afternoon sun. The color of the water also seemed to change during this time.
Before we reached Koh Muk, the sun dropped into the sea (This is a literal translation of the Thai phrase for watching the sunset over the ocean.) Silently, we looked back. It was only after the colors faded that we talked to each other about it. Watching a sunset from a kayak is an experience everyone should have!
We drove down to Pak Bara. This is the port for vessels headed for Tarutao and beyond. We weren't in any hurry to get to Tarutao. We had time, so our plan was to paddle from the dock to the nearby island of Koh Khao Yai (literally - 'island mountain big' - 'big mountain island' in English). We paddled up a tidal creek first. The tide was ebbing, so we hugged the shoreline. When we turned around, we were given a free ride back out. Feet came out of the decked kayaks as we entered 'totally laid-back' mode. We floated past a fishing village and waved at the locals, especially the younger, enthusiastic ones.
A couple minutes later, we were parked just off of a nice secluded beach watching Long-tailed Macaques (monkeys) foraging. Cameras came out. The water was clear and the bottom was firm. It was good to get out and stretch our legs.
Koh Khao Yai
Heading onto Koh Khao Yai, we first noticed some Paphiopedilum Satun orchids. Satun is the province where this particular species grows. They are in bloom for a long time. We saw them in July and they were still in flower. Further on, we came to a hong with several entrances. I chose the longest way in. On the way, a monitor lizard moved in front of us along with a Brown-winged kingfisher. The rock surrounding the lagoon is sharp and jagged; it gives a dark, otherworldly feeling to the place. What a great backdrop for lunch!
After lunch, we proceeded to carry out our circumnavigation plans. I saw an adult-sized Hawksbill turtle, and Kate saw a turtle a little later.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we made it to the gap between Koh Khao Yai and Koh Bulan. There were plenty of beaches along our journey. Every beach had a few monkeys, most had a monitor lizard or two. Brahminy kites and White-bellied sea eagles patrolled the region.
We hadn't done a complete circumnavigation of Koh Khao Yai before. Since we had been paddling with this group for several days already, we knew they could handle it. Taking our time, we had a great day.
A river estuary just down from the park headquarters is being primed for mass tourism. Dozens of workers were toting bags of concrete to build a road. Another beautiful site is bound for the mass tourism market. It's too bad that that's the mentality here most of the time. If you want to see Tarutao sans hordes, come soon.
Outside of the river, the water was boiling with zillions of small glass shrimp. Our kayaks were tied to the escort boat. Hundreds of shrimp landed on our boats. I jumped in the water to wash them off, otherwise, they would dry out and cook on our decks. Deck-dried glass shrimp were not on our lunch menu.
The next day, we paddled the tidal river next to the park headquarters. It's always a pleasure to paddle there. The mangrove is in good shape and there are plenty of channels to explore. I was treated to a new bird sighting; a half dozen Great Slaty woodpeckers. What a weird and loud call they have. I had to pull my boat over a couple logs to get close enough to get a good look. Through my binoculars I could see the peach-colored cheek feathers of a male, so the effort was certainly worth it.
Our escort boat took us out to Koh Lipe and the surrounding islands. We stayed at some bungalows on a nice beach. The bungalows were fine, but the food was mediocre - something inexcusable in Thailand. Never mind, we found a very good family-owned restaurant in the middle of the island. It required a walk through the bush in the dark; good fun after a fine meal!
On one sunset paddle, little girls from the Sea Gypsy village waded up to us as we neared a beach. They were very cute, giggly children. We were all mesmerized by their innocence and laughter. A short while later we saw about six sailfish leaping on the horizon... what a fantastic sight! Schools of small fish had escorted us up to this point. Then, I was shocked by seeing not one, but two white morph Pacific Reef egrets. These birds are normally grayish-blue. Occasionally one is born completely white. This is different from albinism, which happens in most species. A white Pacific Reef egret has normal eyes and skin pigmentation. I was watching two. \"Roy! get a shot of that PLEASE\", I bellowed. \"I've got to have that for the thailandbirding site!\" He drifted close enough to the birds to get a good shot.
Koh Adang is one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand. There are dozens of beaches all the way around the island. We hired a longtail boat to drop us off on the farthest end away from Koh Lipe. We took our time paddling back. The beaches seemed to being beckoning to us. We couldn't paddle past many of them without stopping. We snorkeled at a few of them. The coral wasn't in great shape, but there were still plenty of fish and other marine creatures.