Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thailand's Phuket Islands have wealth of natural treasures

Ko Racha Yai and its sister island south of Phuket serve up a rich wealth of natural treasures on land and under the sea

PEERAWAT JARIYASOMBAT

The scene was surreal as I rode a car to the jetty in company of my dive instructor in persistent drizzle. There I noticed schools of fish in crystal clear water. Was I dreaming? In the absence of strong wind and choppy waves the sea was calm as if this wasn't monsoon season.

I was visiting Ko Racha Yai, 25 kilometres south of Phuket and its sister island of Ko Racha Noi a further six kilometres adrift, unseen havens of stunning beauty and pristine wilderness.

As I jumped into the water, I knew I wasn't dreaming. Hills on Ko Racha Yai are a natural shield against wind for dive sites around the island. A stone's throw from the jetty a gentle wind was rising and the view under the sea at some points was as clear as it is on a sunny day.

Less than five minutes later my instructor was pointing to what looked like a dull brown rock at the bottom of the sea. After staring it for a while, I saw a set of eyes open and then it gently slid way from me.

It was an octopus the size of a football. I had watched Pirates of the Caribbean the night before and was rather scared by the gigantic creature featuring in the movie, but the one I saw here seemed rather timid, even cute in comparison and that helped exorcise my fear.

A few metres away was a tiny nudibranch in black and bright yellow and giant clams showing off their violet muscles. Looking around, I found myself among countless marine life forms amidst colonies of staghorn coral reefs that extended over 500 metres south of Ter Bay.

Schools of red-tailed butterfly fish gathered above the reef. Flutemouth fish gave me curios looks, while groupers of various size hid under thick reefs totally oblivious to my presence. View of the reef and the life it supported was so clear that I found it difficult to believe I was out diving on a cloudy day in the middle of the monsoon season in the Andaman Sea.

"The seabed becomes clearer after monsoon rains end," said the instructor, and I must say I envied him because that is when this place turns very busy. November to April boats carry hundreds of tourists to sandy beaches and stunning dive sites around the island.

Situated some 25 kilometres south of Phuket, Ko Racha Yai and Ko Racha Noi are rather isolated, which explains why the sea around them is unbelievably clear. In the absence of regular boat service from Phuket, Ko Racha Yai, with only a handful of standard resorts, presents superb tranquility. The resorts occupy only a tiny area leaving most of the tropical wilderness untouched. I was staying at The Racha.

One evening, a resort staff led me to explore the wild side of the island on the ATV all-terrain vehicle. A short distance from the resort was a natural pond in which lazed water buffaloes, while cattle grazed freely in pastures surrounding it, and colourful birds flew merrily between coconut plantations and the jungle next to them.

"Most of the island is still covered in wilderness dotted with waterfalls. Do not feel scared if you come across dogs or monitor lizards," said the staff, steering his ATV past dense bushes.

"Most of the residents here are Muslim."

We rode past coconut plantations, dense jungle and crossed a stream that opened to a wide beach on the northern tip of the island.

"This is Siam Bay, the widest beach that stretches some 400 metres and gently slopes down to the sea," he said.

Extreme quietness blanketed the vast sandy beach. I could not believe my eyes as there was not a single tourist on view. The only sound breaking the quiet was the revving of my ATV engine.

Far from the reach of normal tourists, Ko Racha Yai remains an untouched natural gem boasting an excellent beach and coral reefs, thanks that it has been spared the fate dogging more popular destinations. Its inadequacies in terms of accommodation and tourist facilities have effectively insulated it from change and modernisation.

Having explored Ko Racha Yai, my next stop was Ko Racha Noi, a sister island a further six kilometres adrift. It took me 30 minutes to get there by speed boat. The azure sea glistened as my boat approached the sparsely inhabited island. By now the cloudy sky was replaced by bright sunshine.

The sea was again crystal clear and after taking pictures from the boat I went for a dip. I soon found myself drifting above a colourful coral reef and as my feet touched the seabed I spotted several forms of marine life moving in all directions in the depths.

Most conspicuous among them were the puffer fish, fat and slow moving, which the staff chased and succeeded in catching and presented them to guests. These fish, the staff told me, were spikeless. I hung around feasting my eyes on treasures of the sea before exploring a few underwater caves that were basically an extension of large colonies of coral reefs.

And that marked the end of this dive excursion to Ko Racha Yai and Ko Racha Noi islands. I left with a tinge of sadness, not sure whether they and their pristine wilderness would still be intact when I visit them next time.

MORE INFO

Ko Racha Yai is approximately 25 kilometres south of Chalong Bay, Phuket, about 35 minutes by speed boat. There is no regular boat service between the island and Phuket.

The Racha is the only luxury resort on Ko Racha Yai. For more information, call 076-355-455 or visit http://www.theracha.com.

Ban Raya offers comfortable bungalows in coconut plantations. For more information, call 076-224-439 or visit http://www.banraya.com.



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