Thailand without the tourists

Liz Cleere sails into Ko Phi Phi to the soundtrack of 'Pure Shores' and appreciates the independence sailing gives her.

6 mins

With its coral ridges, white sand and dearth of visitors, Ko Rok was such an unexpectedly enchanting anchorage, it was hard to leave. The storm had kept us there, but now we couldn't think of another excuse to put off heading north to check in to Thailand. After all, we'd been in the country for two weeks already, and the passage from Langkawi to Phuket should only take two days.

One of the many things they don't tell you when you jack in the rat-race to go sailing is how tricky getting across borders can be. Some countries allow you to stay for months, some just days and others not at all. Sometimes you get a nice long visa, but the boat is only allowed to remain for a short while before you have to pay huge quantities of money for a sailing permit. Thailand lets the boat remain for an easy 10 months, but on a tourist visa you have to be out after anything from 15 to 90 days (at the time of writing). And did you know that the boat has its own passport? Yours might be British, but the boat's registration document could have been issued anywhere from Paraguay to France to Tasmania. And you can't check in or out without ship's papers.

We've learned the fastest way to maximise help and minimise hassle is to smile the faces behind the counters into submission. Trying to get them to laugh passes the time during the tedium of sitting on plastic chairs in sweltering corridors. We pay pretty much any 'fine', 'charge' or straight-forward bribe they ask for: you know, they know, everybody knows it's just easier. We stayed in one east African country for a month without checking in, it cost around US$30.

So we left Ko Rok and, because the wind was favourable, headed to the Phi Phi islands instead of Phuket. What the hell, it was sort of on the way.

Ko Phi Phi Lee is where they shot the movie, The Beach. It competes with James Bond Island for the Queen of Tourism award in this small part of the Andaman Sea, but we hoped the day trippers would be leaving by the time we got there. We sailed past and realised the anchorage was too exposed to the blustery weather being churned up by the on-coming south west monsoon. So we moved on to Ko Phi Phi Don, the larger of the islands, where good all round shelter can be found at any time.

The Andaman Sea Pilot, a kind of travel guide for sailors, suggested that Ton Sai Bay had good holding and plenty of places to drop the hook, but even the latest edition is two years old and was probably written two years before that, so we've learned to take its statements with a pinch of sea-salt. The once peaceful anchorage was packed with dive boats, long tails, fishing boats, day tripper speed boats, super yachts and hundreds of private mooring buoys. It took three attempts at anchoring before we settled on a clear area a few hundred metres from land. Even so, it felt like being in the middle of a watery Autobahn.

Jamie took the dinghy ashore for an explore, while I stayed on board to cook dinner, prepare the perfect gin and tonic and catch up on The Archers via BBC iPlayer. He was soon back, saying the place was crammed with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and geezers trying to sell him a boat trip to The Beach.

We chilled out in the cockpit and scanned the limestone stacks next to us. Sea eagles and Brahminy kites soared over the rain forest and swooped out to sea. The sun began to set, and the motorway swapped day tripper boats for mini booze cruises and sunset tours. As each one passed we waved to rows of giggling, burnt visitors who cheered and raised their beer bottles at us.

It looked like fun.

For many of the places we have visited, this formula seems to be the inevitable result of beachside tourism. The 'intrepids' make way for 'independents' who make way for the back-packers, who make way for the cheap-and-cheerful-package-tourists or the ultra-smart-destination-luxury-resorts. Self-styled "travellers" might sneer at the commercialisation, but it's an important source of revenue for countries like Thailand trying to balance their budgets. Now, in November, the bungalows and resorts are empty, the harbour master is complaining of fewer sailors coming to Phuket, and there is a general feeling of unease at the falling visitor numbers. Good for us because it's quiet and uncrowded. Not so good for the Thai economy.

The next morning the weather was grey and dull. We decided to leave The Beach for another time, and pointed Esper towards Phuket. A speed boat buzzed us. We waved at the gleeful passengers as 'Pure Shores' by All Saints ricocheted off the limestone cliffs. I put on my sunglasses and hummed along.

Writer Liz Cleere and photographer Jamie Furlong are travellers first, sailors second.Their blog, Followtheboat, is a travelogue about two people and their cat Millie sailing around the world in a non-specific zig-zag. They also publish video diary updates on Patreon and YouTube every week.

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Main image: Cat on a Thai beach (Jamie Furlong)

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