By Dave Moran
The array of gorgeous soft corals and comb-like red whip corals filled my viewfinder as I moved into the entrance of a gaping cave, eaten out of the vertical reef face. The brown wall moved! Lifting my viewfinder away from my mask, I stared in disbelief. The wall materialised into a 1.5 metre grouper with small golden trevally dancing, like a sparkling crown, around his imperial head and protruding lips. Within a heartbeat he had vaporised into the darkness of the cave.
The last time I had seen a fish that size was in the gin waters of the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast of Australia. If you have never dived in Asia, your thinking may be a little like mine. Because of my pre-conceived notions I imagined that whatever moves in the seas of Asia ends up in a fish market which has been selling fish for many hundreds of years and that you would be lucky to see an oyster move in these seas!
So here I was, eight metres down off the island of Wan, just an hour’s boat ride at eight kilometres an hour from Thailand’s southern inland township of Trang. My viewfinder was filled with babies, teenagers, mums, dads, grandparents and all their aunts and uncles in a massive mixing bowl of fish species. I was stunned by the variety and quantity!
I had been invited by Thai Airways International to be part of the media to witness a Guinness Book record attempt. Thirty couples from 30 countries, including New Zealand, were giving the â€˜okay, I do’ signal under water in the sandy shallows off the island of Kradan on February 14, the first Valentines Day of the new millennium. This idea started with Trang’s first underwater wedding in 1997 when two couples took the plunge. In 1998 there were another two, and in 1999 four couples kissed underwater. This year there was a massive increase and it was also massive in its total promotional package for one of Thailand’s most ancient fishing and trading towns, Trang, just south of the popular resort island of Phuket.
A short 90 minute flight covers the 864 kilometres from Bangkok’s Don Muang International/Domestic Airport to this rustic town, where to see an overseas visitor on the streets is still a neck-turning event for the locals. The 17,000 townspeople lined the streets, 10 deep in places, to be part of the festivities as 33 decorated elephants carried dignitaries and couples through the jumble of buildings that make up the business centre of this historic town.
The visual experience was unbelievable. The vivid splashes of silks in reds, yellows, blues, golds and greens saturated your senses as a band and petal throwing children led the sauntering elephants through the confetti covered streets to the Thumrin Thana Hotel for the official welcoming speeches. The wedding ceremony was held on the island of Kradan, a 90 minute boat trip from the Pak-Meng Pier, which stretches from the shores of the small fishing village of Kantag just 45 minutes by road from Trang.
Kradan is one of 155 islands in the Andaman Sea which forms part of the Indian Ocean. There are 47 islands in the Trang area, many forming parts of marine national parks. The crews of over 400 â€˜long tails’ and assorted craft seemed to enjoy the confused spaghetti entanglement of ingredients – timber, spluttering diesel engines, two metre rotating â€˜long tail’ propeller shafts – as the mixture of humanity, boats and sea formed a blanketing blockade surrounding the beach where the couples were to formally meet before the wedding ceremony commenced. The grooms, in traditional Thai wedding dress, arrived by â€˜long tail’ boats to meet their brides, as a forest of media cameras blanketed the sun.
Groups of 10 couples were formally adorned with exquisitely intricate floral necklaces and their hands blessed with water from a golden vessel, while being anointed with oil on their foreheads. The wedding officers dressed in uniform khakis awaited the couples in eight metres of water as each pair changed into their diving gear and walked under the kissing butterflyfish archway. With strobes flashing and video motors running hot, couples gave the okay and kissed while live video and commentary announced each couple and the country they represented to the seated audience in the marquee on the shore.
With the formalities over the couples could relax and look forward to enjoying the festivities planned for the next couple of days. The underwater wedding concept was a unique central theme to gather the world’s media so that Thailand can begin the process of introducing its newest emerging town and off-shore islands to the world’s adventure seekers. As one of the officials commented, â€˜This is how Phuket was 40 years ago,’ and they now wish to reveal their southern secret which still has the pure magic and colour of unspoiled nature’s blessings to explore.
Thailand is unique in that it is separated by two distinct oceanic zones, each with their own characteristics and marine life, and more importantly, each has its own distinct diving season. Off the west coast of the Thailand peninsula is the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean and to the east is the Gulf of Thailand. The peninsula is buffeted by two opposing monsoons, the north-east and the south-east.
The best time to dive the Andaman Sea is between November and April and the Gulf of Thailand between May and October. So no matter when you arrive in Thailand you can always dive off one or the coasts. Visibility ranges from five to 30 metres with the Andaman Sea being consistently clearer. Water temperature varies between 27 and 30 degrees Celsius so a thin wetsuit or lycra suit is all you need, mainly for protection.
The outer islands do not have the backdrop of a concrete jungle which many tourist destinations now have. These off-shore islands are just exquisite; not your coral atoll, but majestic mountain tops protruding from a prehistoric sunken coast. The islands are predominantly limestone in structure which has enabled the creation of underwater caves and grottos which are begging exploration …. pack your torch. The emerald cave (Morakot) on the island of Mook is definitely for your â€˜must do’ list. Snorkelling through 500 metres of winding cave, the darkness stabbed by the yellow beam of your torch you think, â€˜Oh man this is incredible,’ as you emerge into a lost world amphitheatre of a honeymoon’s beach which is surrounded by a vertical tunnel of entangled jungle greenery. Imagine the feeling of sand squeaking between your toes as your footprints mark the beginning of a new day on a Robinson Crusoe beach, dramatically lit by the golden rays of the early morning sun. These islands are for the escapist.
Accommodation on these outer islands is fairly basic, rooms mainly consist of a main bedroom with separate toilet and shower room. Construction varies from bungalow to modest thatched roofed huts. There are no tourist traps here, just peace, beautiful, polite Thai people, and their mouthwatering Thai food. Put aside at least a couple of days to meander through the rural countryside on the mainland to visit the many waterfalls and absolutely amazing centuries old Buddhist monasteries buried deep in cavernous limestone caves.
The Sumanto Temple, for a westerner, is mind-boggling. The history is totally absorbing and the monks, if quietly approached, are happy to sit and talk of their life. Although English is not generally spoken in these outer country regions it is amazing how many can speak it due to their traditional schooling. To fully explain this stunning country of contrasts, of congested concrete, smog strangled cities to the plantations of rubber trees and rolling farmlands surrounded by mountains set aside as national parks, would devour a lifetime. I personally rated diving as very good and I only saw a minute speck of what is hidden. The pinnacles of Hing Daeng and Hin Muang, far out in the Andaman Sea, are reputed to encapsulate one of the world’s top diving sites. Whale-sharks are seen on average 70 percent of the time. For the diver who is looking for exciting diving and on-shore adventure in a land where you just have to go with the flow and choose your own day to day adventure as you soak up the Thai culture, this is paradise.
The Thailand government must be congratulated for putting in place huge marine parks and conservation measures to protect their endangered colony of dugons and the kaleidoscope of corals and their residential finny friends that call the offshore islands home. After this one exposure of diving in Asia I am definitely going back for more! And there is really only one airline that turn off the stress clock and sets you in the mood to enjoy our Thailand experience … Thai Airways.