It seems like there are many days off in the semester that stretches from October to March. This semester, in addition to the numerous holidays there were days canceled for rain, days canceled because the school told us they were, and of course days where the student will be testing. Some of these you do not know are happening too long in advance and thus are tough to plan for, but some, like the mid-term testing days, are much easier to plan for. Knowing that these were coming up I began to search for places to go camping in the 400 baht tent I had recently purchased. Soon, a suggestion from the tender of bar at our most frequented bar came and was irresistible, Ang Thong National Marine Park. This is a stretch of dozens of islands that are only an hour and a half ferry ride from Koh Samui. They are mostly covered in jungle and host some pretty cool features including a piece of ocean that appears completely land locked (in fact it is connected by an underwater cave) and some stunning cliffs on many of the islands.
The boats for the islands leave once a day around 8am from either Samui or Koh Pangang. This almost presents a problem because to get to either Samui or Koh Pangang requires a 5 hour boat trip, but luckily, the ferry system provides and excellent and only mildly inconvenient solution, the night boat. The night boat leaves Surat Thani at 11pm and gets to the islands between 5 and 6am. On weekends, or the nights before a Full Moon Party the night boat is sometimes synonymous with party boat, but on a Wednesday evening it was a pretty laidback affair, no fighting for position on the mats, and no tourists attempting to be constantly drinking for 48 hours. The night boat doesn’t provide a good nights sleep, but it does make the ride slip by when you are in and out of consciousness. I arrived (and woke up) shortly after the sunrise and Koh Samui was soaked with that beautiful post dawn light that only exists for an hour or so a day. Buying the ticket to the Park was easy, the ticket is round trip includes a lunch, a tour, and access to the company’s kayaks and snorkeling equipment. The boat to Ang Thong was one of the few times I have been cold in Thailand, but this was as much due to the movement of the wind as it was to the on and off rainthat was falling.
By the time we came into view of the islands the rain had become fairly constant, though not heavy. We got off the boat on an island that is famous for having a large lagoon in the middle of it. It looked somewhat like a movie volcano top, tall walls surrounding the hole in the middle. There is a small hike up stairs to get over said walls, which was mildly precarious due to the rain making it a little slippery, but only about a 3 on the danger scale. The lagoon was beautiful and lived up to its name, The Emerald Lagoon, the water was a deep green and it was surrounded by lush jungle. When I had had my fill of looking down at it, something that happened rather quicker than it might have due to the press of overweight and shirtless tourists that were beginning to fill the viewing platform, I walked down to the water. I wasn’t certain what to expect, I suppose I thought the water would be cloudy, and I might see a small, boring fish or two, but this is what I should have expected if I were going to a lake in central Maine, not to a lagoon on an island off the coast of Thailand. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. Sea Urchins sporting huge spines dotted the rocks, dozens of small fish were darting around, an intimidating large fish strolled out from under some rocks and swam under the plat form I was standing on just as a beautiful, multi colored sting ray glided in from deeper waters. I was taken aback. It turns out the Emerald Lagoon was created by a massive sink hole collapsing, and while it looks to be completely land locked it is actually connected to the ocean by an underwater cave, making it possible for the wide array of sea life to make its way in.
The stop at this island was actually fairly short, only an hour or so and we were getting back on the boat and having lunch, a good but unremarkable masaman curry. The next stop was the last of the day for me, as it was on the island that I was planning on camping on. This island has three natural attractions, a long, fine sand beach, a limestone cave, and a hike up to a spectacular view point. They offer some snorkeling equipment, but after trying it out for a few minutes I found this to be pretty boring, there was no coral or exciting fish, only clear water, white sand, and some seaweed. I decided to check out the cave. It is a short hike up to the cave but a fairly steep one and enough of a challenge that the people that were trying it in flip flops or bare feet usually turned around pretty quickly. The hike was made more interesting by the rain having turned any dirt into slippery mud, and any rock into a very short water slide. But, the hike was short and simple enough that it wasn’t really a problem. The cave was interesting, but not mind blowing. The stalactites and stalagmites had some crazy shapes and patterns, but my appreciation of caves is not great, it seems like caves the world over are pretty similar. This one was a bit nicer because it was quite open allowing a good amount of natural light to illuminate it. The way back down the trail was actually a little easier than the way up because of a rope that ran along most of the trail as a means of supporting yourself down the steeper, and currently more slippery, sections.
By the time I got back the boats were starting to leave and the rain seemed to have finished for the day, so I went to see the ranger to talk about where the best place to pitch my tent would be, and to pay for my over night stay. He let me pick the driest spot I could find, and charged me 30 baht for the night, or the equivalent of one American dollar. Pretty good deal for a spot in paradise. By 3:00 the island was almost completely empty, with only the rangers, maybe five other tourists and me. I took a walk on the beach and around 5:00 I started eyeing the hike up to the view point, which was closed due to the rain. I looked at the sign, and found it was only a 500 meter hike, “chump change” I thought, “It must only be closed to out of shape and aging tourists, not to a spritely young lad like myself!” and so after setting up my tent I popped on my hiking boots and took off. There are four view points, at 100 meters, 200m, 300m, and one at the very top. This was another trail that had a rope provided for assistance in getting up and down it, and as it turns out it was needed. What I had neglected to notice on the sign was that despite being only a 500m hike, it was 262m vertical, meaning that for every two meters forward, I went one meter up. This would be tiring on a normal day, with out a doubt, but the days rain added a bit of a thrill to the whole process. The views were amazing, getting more impressive at every landing, and as I was in the jungle and the jungle always seems to provides something interesting, there were also a lot of monkeys. Dusky Langurs to be specific. At the second scenic overlook I was surprised to find one sitting on a branch only five feet from me, calmly eating leaves and occasionally looking over its shoulder at me. These Langurs are most recognizable by the white rings around there eyes which give them a very intelligent look. After soaking in the monkey’s company I started back up the trail, and began thinking about how amazing the sunset would be from the top.
The top was stunning. Islands, at least a dozen, stretched out into the ocean, disappearing into the haze shimmering on the water. As I was standing there, soaking in the evening light I was surprised by a monkey. This time it emerged out of the bushes behind me stood, perhaps 10 feet away staring at me. A rather haunting thing given the wise aura that the white rings around its eyes gave it, and after ten or fifteen seconds it turned and moved past the “No entry” sign, and left my sight. I was still processing what had just happened when the monkey popped back up 10 feet further up the mountain and again turned to stare at me. Again it disappeared and again it popped up and stared at me only a few feet farther up the mountain. I am not a big believer in signs, but this was quite bizarre. The strange behavior of the monkey, combined with my desire to ignore the "no entry” sign and climb higher meant that there was really only way to interpret this, I should follow the monkey. So follow I did, and it was immediately apparent why the rangers did not want travelers going up that way. The rocks were sharp and there were many sudden dips and drops well designed for knee breaking and if you tilted and fell to your right you would end up with a good long time to make some peace with the world before crashing into the forest below. I climbed for about five more minutes until I came to a spot that I might have been able to pass if I had been well versed in parquet, and stopped. The monkey wasn’t there waiting to deliver some life message to me, but there was gold. Not coinage or jewelry but an entire island of it. One of the islands had a large, bare cliff facing west; the light of the setting sun had fully caught it while I was climbing. I was told when I was younger that the hour before sunset was called the golden hour for photographers, because the light was so soft and so unique that it produced some of the best pictures possible. This was the golden hour.
The central island on which I was staying had a visitor center, some bungalows and a restraint. There are probably between 10-15 staff that live there, and from what the very kind, and sociable ranger told me there are rarely more than 6-7 over night visitors, meaning this is a very low key place. The food is fine, though a bit over priced, but as the only other food to be had must be either caught or swam for its tough to complain. The Ranger’s name is Gon, an interesting man who has a background in engineering but after visiting a friend who had been working on the island decided that he much preferred a calm island life. He does some pretty amazing things with a stick which he spins around his body at an impressive rate (occasionally lighting it on fire, though I didn’t see this in person, only in photos) and spends most evenings sitting outside the restaurant playing guitar. His songs range from American hits to pieces of his own composition, most notably a soon to be world wide hit called “Don’t eat my Cat” (you can find it on youtube by searching “Don’t Eat My Cat (Linda)”, very entertaining). All in all this is an easy, relaxing and beautiful trip to take, one of many readily available to a Surat based adventurer.