Through half closed eyes while swinging in a hammock under the shade of a bamboo balcony on Ko Yao Noi, a tiny fishing island 40 minutes east of Phuket, Thailand; I watched the view of Phang Nga Bay shape shift into a herd of elephants heading into a hazy horizon. The aqua water solidified into a vast grassland, and the herd seemed to subtly move as I swayed.
Of course, it could have been the after effect of the Australian red wine that was served the night before from Sabai Corner‘s Italian/Thai kitchen – or the delirious state of happiness I was in to be travelling with my childhood friend and her husband, two of the most laid back and funny people I know.
At only 2500 Thai Baht for the day, it was an easy decision to hire a traditional Thai long-tail boat and local Ko Yao Noi skipper to get a closer look at the herd. Dam, the skipper, rocked up at 9 a.m. looking sprightly in a rastafari beanie and Bob Marley T-shirt, and promised close up encounters with the anthropomorphically named Chicken Island and numerous deserted beaches.
Dam motored at full speed toward the giant herd, and took us to Koh Talu where we disappeared through a 5 metre wide crevice in the island, to reappear in a gorgeous circular pool, surrounded by 40 metre cliffs dotted with swallow nests. These nests are a much prized delicacy in Hong Kong and throughout China so Andaman Sea locals love this easy to access pool that allows them to build bamboo scaffolds for simple nest collection, with the safety of water to catch a hazardous fall in this slippery but profitable task.
While snorkelling I watched as an industrious shrimp cleaned house for an attractive Goby fish, pushing out piles of unwanted pure white sand to form a safe haven. The home was well sheltered by shells that formed a roof – in stark comparison to other Goby homes that had less or no collected shells, smaller ‘doorways’, and what appeared to be, less hard working shrimp. In the warm clear waters of Koh Talu, I’d found a trophy- wife fish. She sat proudly in her castle, Queen of her glorious domain, jealously guarding her shrimp that certainly would have been sweating were he not an underwater creature. She was an alpha female, there could be no doubt. Swishing her graceful well formed transparently pretty fins, pouting her little fishy lips and laying her pampered eggs in style, she was the J-lo of down below.
I assumed that the other Gobies simply had lazy shrimp. They’d not ‘done well for themselves’. There would be no renovation conversations for them – no new post boxes fashioned from coral or triumphant front yard mounds signifying their shrimp’s dazzling prowess. Perhaps they had coconut rum loving symbiotic partners, too lazy in the sunshine to push sand? The truth is those Alpha females are catfish – and straight out nasty. They EAT their competition and share the pleasure with the alpha male. So there was definitely no ‘keeping up with the Jones’ going on in this neighbourhood.
We couldn’t spend all day in one spot imagining conversations between fish, so we motored on to another glorious stretch of sand along Koh Tap and Koh Mor. Declining to visit the busier beaches filled with tourists, we instead found ourselves an unpopulated stretch to share with yellow damsel fish while looking up at the cliffs. The water was so deeply emerald in colour, that it was impossible to see what was below the surface, so I stuck close to the boat and occasionally rested on a submerged ledge on the stern.
During one such rest, Dam the skipper padded along from the prow to offer me cold can coffee. Sweet and bitter I appreciatively drank it, rubbing salt from my face. He looked out at the cliffs. He seemed to approve of my covered up form – I wasn’t intentionally trying to be culturally sensitive but my lily white skin has a 3 minute exposure window before ruining my vacation so I donned a wide brim hat and wore a long sleeved shirt and sarong over my bikini. Just like a muslim woman. Perhaps this was the reason why he suddenly opened up?
“In the tsunami the wave came this high,” he started, pointing up to a ten metre mark in the cliff face while referring to the 2004 disaster. “I had to climb,” he mimed a frantic scramble into the vertical cliff face. “I on Ko Phi Phi. Tsunami came in morning. 9:24. I see the wave and I go up cliff.”
It’s hard to know how to reply to such a revelation. My mind reached through multitudes of empathetic replies before I went with a factual question. “Was the water black?” I asked. “Black, yes. First water gone out. Then came back black. I work. My wife home. I had 3 year son. Now both gone. That’s why I come back Ko Yao Noi – to near parents. Now I’m ready,” he patted his shiny car engine that sat at the boat and drove the long shaft propellor, “next time I motor fast.”
I looked around at the endless water and quietly considered its double edged beauty – both the giver and the taker of life. Not long after when back in the boat preparing to head past Chicken Island I carefully watched as he aligned three scarves on the altar like bow of the boat, and diligently wound fishing line across the pretty garlands secured in place to provide good luck and protection, while honouring the spirits of the water and ‘Mae Yanang’ – the spiritual goddess of journeys.
Indeed the shiny motor could achieve some serious speed. Inclement weather closed in, and Dam flew past Chicken Island (It looked like a turkey to me) and rested at a tiny slip of sand which had a lovely tree swing surrounded by hanging garlands made of scavenged corals and strips of rope washed up ashore. We cruised along the sand, picking up shells, sea pods and corals to make out own swinging mobile and added it to the decorated tree of warm wishes.
The skies darkened so we sped home, and I hoped that many blessings would emanate from my wish left back at the swing, and be bestowed upon our lovely sea faring skipper Dam.
The thought of a hot Italian espresso after such a journey was irresistible. Sabai Corner is owned by an Italian woman and run by locals – so the food available from the kitchen reflects these influences and the coffee is particularly good.
While ordering I found a local mythology book at the counter (in Thai and English). Seated with a perfect view of the bay, and the giant herd-like islands, I sipped my coffee and read.
“Once upon a time there was a handsome prince…” it began, like any good fairy-tale. It was a typical story of love, power and betrayal with a moral influence from the Gods. Before taking his coming of age journey around the world to meet his counterparts, the prince was promised to the most beautiful girl in the land. While he was out learning about different cultures and feasting his up-coming wedding – the younger brother moved into pole position and told everyone that the older brother had decided to never return home, and that he was happy to fulfil the family promise and marry the beautiful maiden in his place.
Wedding preparations were made for younger brother and beautiful girl. Other kingdoms sent their dignitaries with expensive and elaborate gifts. Birds spread the word to the furthest reaches of the world and then all hell broke loose when the older brother returned. The book detailed the bloody battle between the princely brothers — which so enraged the incredulous gods that the entire wedding party was turned to stone.
Koh Yao Noi island was formed by the older prince and rightful groom. The beautiful girl was solidified in the northern area and every one of the guests is now an island. The grass-cutting younger brother became a smaller, monsoon addled island that is rarely visited by tourists but blessed by a large population of mosquitos.
The wedding gift from Dusit Thani’s representatives of a herd of water buffalo was forever frozen on the horizon in the north of Phang Nga Bay, bringing beauty to all for eternity, and providing a permanent reminder of the God’s wishes for peace between brothers. To the south, the mythology states that the returning prince emptied his bowels ready for battle at the base of the bay and that his excrement can still be seen in the form of many small islands. Naturally enough, after learning this, I wasn’t too driven to seek out a quiet location to ponder those formations, or reflect too long on their significance.