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Thai High on the Andaman Sea
Cruising Thailand’s Islands and Karsts on a Clipper Ship

The Star Flyer’s crew hoisted the sails as the sun set over the Andaman Sea. Those of us with the inclination lent our hand to the task of raising mizzens and staysails, although we knew the crew only acquiesced to our desire to be seamen. We were soon sailing at a 12-knot clip, listing downwind as we sailed southeast towards the southern tip of Phuket Island. We had spent the day at Ko Similan, largest of the Similan Islands, where my wife and I had snorkeled, sailed a Sunfish, scaled a granite outcropping, and lounged on the white-sand beach. Colorful parrotfish and Moorish Idols, moray eels, brain coral and other sea creatures had kept our interest beneath the waters that day. Now as the sky turned crimson, we offered a toast to the 360-foot-long clipper's 16 sails, an acre of sail to the wind. We were headed around Phuket Island into Koyao Sea for a firsthand look at Thailand’s exotic Phang Nga Bay with its incredible limestone karst formations, mangrove swamps, and stilt-raised fishing villages. Visit Thailand's stunning architecture and magnificent culture first hand with Expedia.

The Star Flyer on the Andaman Sea

A Real Clipper

Although built in 1991 utilizing the advances of a steel hull, GPS navigation, motorized sail furling, and first-rate guest cabins, the Star Flyer is a true clipper, built for sailing speed. It’s part of the breed of ships that was developed in the 1800s to quicken lengthy U.S. coast-to-coast runs around South America’s Cape Horn. For most of the week that we sailed the Indian Ocean’s Andaman Sea through the Straits of Malacca from Thailand’s Phuket to equatorial Singapore, we were powered solely by the wind. Since the Star Flyer is a cruise ship, the captain kept the sails moderated, especially at mealtimes, when too much listing would otherwise make for sliding plates and utensils. When the wind weakened or we pulled into a new port, the 12-cylinder diesel engine provided smooth power.

Climbing ropes
Climbing the ropes

Although the captain didn’t attempt to attain the ship’s 17-knot top sailing speed, we zipped right along the coastline. One day I climbed out on the bowsprit net for a more exciting feel as we sliced through the seas. I had the good fortune to sight four dolphins, playfully surfacing, as they cut across our bow.

On another day, the captain invited the adventurous to climb the rope ladder to the first mast platform, 55 feet above the deck. I admit to avoiding the look downward as I made the ascent, but the heady view from the platform was worth the sweat. Those seamen of old who climbed the ropes in the howling winds around Cape Horn certainly gained my deep appreciation, especially as I realized that the upper top gallant sail hung from a yard over 100 feet above this first platform.

Phang-Nga Bay

The highlight of the voyage came on the day that we sailed up the Koyao Sea east of Phuket Town, and then disembarked to a speedboat that took us further up into shallow Phang-Nga Bay. We took advantage of the opportunity to snap pictures of the Star Flyer sailing under full sail, then started our explorations of this unique region. Scores of karsts, amazing limestone islands or "sea mountains," rose around us, with jungle vegetation hanging from vertical walls. The uninhabited, naturally sculptured islands, some with peaks reaching 1,000 feet altitude, contained numerous grottoes, caves, tunnels and lagoons. We slowed and viewed some caverns where the roof had eroded to reveal the sky above. Better known as hongs (Thai for "room"), these collapsed caverns can only be entered via tunnels when the tides are low. The nearby Phi Phi Islands, exhibiting the same type of geography, were the site of the recent movie, The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In a similar vein, we made a stop to hike and catch the views from Ko Phing Kan, or James Bond Island, a location used in the filming of Man with the Golden Gun.

Karst formations of Phang-Nga Bay

Karst stalactites at grotto entrance

As we sped further up the bay’s tidal channels, we reached an area where dense mangrove swamps bordered the narrowing waterways. Here we saw small fishing villages along the shore and fishermen who plied the waters in their cut-off sampans equipped with long-tailed motors. We stopped for lunch at Ko Panyi, an island with a Muslim fishing village of 2,000 people where the homes and connected walkways were elevated on stilts. The village was founded 200 years ago by seafaring Muslim families that arrived from Java, Indonesia. They have continued as fishermen, raising grouper in floating cages next to the island. As we trod the narrow walkways between the homes to a restaurant, the friendly local children called out to us. We passed a big green mosque and neighboring cemetery (the only areas on land), a school, and a market filled with small shops selling seemingly everything under the sun. When we reached the waterside-terrace restaurant, we sampled the tasty local fare such as khanom bao lang, made with black rice, shrimp, and coconut.

Long-tailed boats

Stilt Village
Ko Panyi stilt village

Muslim Girl
Muslim village girl

Through the Strait of Malacca

Sailing south from Thailand through the Strait of Malacca made for a beautiful cruise, although the wind moderated as we neared the equator. One of the world's busiest shipping channels, the strait is still known for its piracy. Our captain had the crew on pirate watch at appropriate points. We made calls at the Malaysian ports of Langkawi, Penang, and Malacca -- a highlight due to its vibrant Chinatown and history as a major port for the Malay, Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Our cruise ended in Singapore, one of Asia's most beautiful, ethnically diverse, and commercially energetic cities.

Star Flyer
The Star Flyer at close to full sail
Strait of Malacca

Cruise itinerary
(courtesy: Grand Circle Travel)

Central Thailand's Treasures

As we looked back on our Southeast Asia explorations, we agreed that Thailand had been the high spot of our voyage. Our cruise had started at Phuket, so our itinerary included a stay in nearby Bangkok. It was a convenient location for day trips within central Thailand that increased our appreciation of its rich culture and history. Thailand means "free country," and excepting Japanese occupation during WWII, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia to have avoided rule by foreigners. The nation traces its roots and its written language back to the 13th century, when several subgroups of the Thai-Kadai group of Southeast Asia united in the Mekong River Valley to wrest power away from the Khmers of Angkor in Cambodia. Kings have ruled the Thai nation, formerly known as Siam, since its inception. It is currently a constitutional monarchy under the beloved Rama VI, descendent of Rama IV, made famous by the movies The King and I and Anna and the King. The friendly people are primarily Buddhist, and most young Thai men spend several months as monks. The following sites were the most memorable of the central Thailand treasures that we encountered.

Ayuthaya was Thailand’s ancient capital of one million residents during its Golden Age from 1350 to 1767, before it was destroyed by Burmese invaders. Now a town of 60,000 people, Ayuthaya holds an amazing amount of history, with ruins of city walls, temples and chedi (stupa shrines).

Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha consists of more than 100 beautifully colorful buildings and shrines that span royal history from 1782, when Bangkok was established as the current capital.

Chedi ruins at Ayuthaya

Grand Palace
Grand Palace scene

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, where we arrived via canals on one of Thailand’s characteristic long-tail boats, is full of bartering vendors and their sampans laden with multicolored fruits and vegetables.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, part of Japan’s infamous Death Railway constructed by 80,000 Allied prisoners and 100,000 Asian laborers in WWII, is still in use today. Nearby sits an emotion-rending museum and several cemeteries honoring the thousands who died there.

Rose Garden Thai Village features a Thai cultural show that highlights ordination into the Buddhist monkhood, Thai kick boxing, working elephants, a Thai wedding ceremony, and regional music and dancing from throughout the nation.

Floating Market.jpg (12731 bytes)
Floating market's busy scene

Thai Women.jpg
Thai women relaxing

High on Thailand

It’s hard not to be singing the praises of Thailand after experiencing the wonders of its western coastline from the convenience and luxury of a clipper cruise ship. The Similan Islands and Phang-Nga Bay will stand forever in our memories. Add the historical and cultural experiences of Central Thailand and a cruise through the Strait of Malacca, and it’s an unbeatable exploration experience.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

Les Furnanz
Photos by Rita Furnanz

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