& Tarutao: The Joy of Tropical island crossings
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
are 74 species of mangrove in Thailand. Mangrove
forests provide both food and shelter for many
living organisms. The soil in a mangrove forest
is similar to that of a tropical rainforest. This
is because the nutrients in the soil are very
close to the surface. In both rain forests and
mangrove forests, the trees have a very shallow
The mud is actually a very important part of the
food chain which depends on mangrove later down
the line. First of all, the mangrove trees break
up waves. Once the waves are not disturbing the
water, the fine particles in the water combined
with the mangrove tree bark and leaves form sediment.
This allows algae to grow in the sediment. This
is the start of the food chain. The algae are
food for snails. Decomposed leaves are food for
crabs and prawn.
The decomposing leaves and bark are eaten by bacteria
and fungi. The tide carries the nutrients particles
out of the mangrove forest into deeper water.
This becomes food for plankton (which is food
for whales), algae, and the mangrove trees too.
Mullet, a species of fish very common in southern
Thailand, also feed directly on the decomposing
leaves. In fact, the amount of protein generated
directly from the eating of decomposed mangrove
leaves and bark is much higher in mangrove than
in any other source in the world!
The tangled roots of mangrove trees provide shelter
for small fish from bigger fish. The little fish
go into the root system to keep from getting eaten.
This allows the little fish to survive to become
bigger fish. So, these bigger fish then try to
catch other littler fish. The littler fish, of
course, then swim into the roots to keep away
from the big guys. Mangrove forests are the breeding
grounds for hundreds of fish. Many of these fish
species are also very important to the commercial
fishermen. The prawn farm industry, which is illegal
in most countries due to its highly destructive
methods, is the biggest single threat to the mangrove
forests of Thailand. Harmful algae blooms, nasty
viruses, are just two of the downsides of this
business. Large expanses of mangrove are usually
clear cut to make room for the rearing ponds.
In one two year stretch, Thailand lost has of
its remaining mangrove to the prawn farm industry.
So, before you buy a pack of tiger prawn, think
about the impact that food has on the environment.
The next day, we paddled out to a
lovely tropical island called Ko 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 Ko 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
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 Ko 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 Ko Muk
and Ko 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 Ko 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 Ko 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 Ko 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 Ko
Muk from the north side of Ko Kradan would take
longer than our easy crossing from Ko 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
However, not knowing whether our guests were as
contemplative, I started talking and the others
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 Ko 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 Ko 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
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 Ko 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
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.
Heading onto Ko 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 Ko Khao Yai and Ko 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 Ko
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
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,
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
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.
escort boat took us out to Ko 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.
Ko 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 Ko 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
This was a ten day trip. We saw many monkeys, orchids,
fish, lizards, and birds. This was the greatest
variety of birds and wildlife I had seen in these
islands. This area is yet to be inundated with mass
tourism. See it while it's still in its natural