Cruising in Thailand: what we won’t miss

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There are a lot of great reasons to sail in Thailand. But for all those things we really enjoyed, there were plenty of things we won’t miss. What didn’t we like? Here are some reflections based on nearly half a year spend in Thailand between 2013 and 2014.

It’s lousy underwater. Thailand is supposed to be famous for great dive sites and snorkeling. I don’t doubt that years ago, they were great. But now, it’s mostly pretty dead underwater- clear signs of overfishing. We were always within sight of fishing boats, many of them the paired trawlers that drag a net between them and indiscriminately clean out every bit of marine life in the middle. Not a surprise that sharks, dolphins, turtles, etc. were absent- we didn’t see a single one while we were there. Add to the tragedy that these boats famously employ slave labor. That particular aspect is apparently getting some attention from the government, but it’s not slowing down the parade of boats that continuously trawl for “trash seafood” (anything they can get) to feed the shimp farms on shore. Did you know that the US is one of the biggest importers of farmed Thai shrimp? Think about the cost of your  next pretty shrimp cocktail. Meanwhile, there’s still plenty of business schlepping tourists out to snorkeling sights, but I think the tourons just have no idea how damaged it is – most of them probably have no basis for comparison.

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It’s very touristy. That doesn’t work with us for a few reasons. Partly because it changes the behavior of people you meet locally, partly because it changes the place itself. Like on the beautiful offshore marine park islands, or the gorgeous islands around Koh Phi Phi, which are breathtaking for a short window after sunrise and again before sunset, but for most daylight hours are  overrun. I think we counted around 1,000 day trippers on a small curve of beach in the otherwise gorgeous Similan islands. Between clueless tourists on jet skis, raucous booze cruises, or locally-driven daytripper boats recklessly hotrodding around, I’d rather be somewhere quieter. Or the sex tourism that plays out in the seamier side of Phuket, which apparently supports human trafficking and who knows what else. Or the shops selling the same junk over and over and over. You can find the true place behind these distractions, but they can make it difficult.

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Amusing myself by taking pictures of the selfie-takers one afternoon

Relationships are transactional. We like getting to know people in places where we travel. But almost every person we met in Thailand was only interested in what they were going to get out of us. That made it pretty difficult to have any kind of relationship: I really don’t like being treated like a walking dollar sign, it’s not what I’m about. There were exceptions, sure, overwhelmingly, if we weren’t buying something, there was no interest in pursuing conversation. If we had spent more time in areas with less tourism, this would surely be different.

Officialdom is erratic. Sometimes, the hand is out for an unofficial fee. We didn’t encounter that much, but even once leaves a bad taste. It is clear how disconnected higher level government decisions are with what actually happens on the ground. Like when the government decided to require all foreign yachts to carry AIS transponders last year: when we checked into the country, MONTHS later, it didn’t come up either of the two times we cleared into the country. Probably not a surprise considering the paper forms in customs all still pre-printed with a date that begins “19__” – things do not happen quickly here, it seems! But it’s nice to have some predictability from the government of the country you’re traveling too, and occasionally the lack of stability was unnerving. Like when we were sitting in the immigration office in Ranong last year, where big TV screens were showing protesters, one of them in life-on-cam death throes from military sniper fire on the streets of Bangkok. It was horrific. But the Thai immigration officials just went about stamp-stamp-stamping everything in the crazy backwards everything-is-paper process to extend our visas and seemed completely unaffected by the madness in their capital.

Yes, we liked a lot of other things about Thailand. We did meet some wonderful people – people we’ll never forget, and hope to meet again someday. We saw some gorgeous places during our months, places we would happily return to and spend extended time. But when we shake it all out, Thailand ends up ranking pretty far down the list of places we’ve been as cruisers; these are the reasons why.

Savvy sailors know we love it when you click through to the SAILfeed post– thanks for tossing change in our cruising kitty!

6 Responses to Cruising in Thailand: what we won’t miss

  1. Melissa White February 7, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    Ugh. This is just so sad to me. Makes it feel like there is little reason to make a stop there. The over fishing is very discouraging.

    • Behan February 17, 2015 at 8:13 pm #

      I know it makes it look bleak. It really, Thailand wasn’t our favorite place- BUT on the other hand, I don’t regret going, either. There’s still a lot to see and do and explore and learn about and experience. I just think I’d rather go with different expectations than I originally had of the place.

  2. Petra G February 7, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    Thanks Behan.

    It’s refreshing to hear the good, and the not so good about many of the places you and others have traveled. Sailing families like you have a much keener perspective on places, due to your extended stays. I’ve been avoiding Thai shrimp. I’m from Vancouver BC, so our own local shrimp is a mainstay for us.

    Thanks again Behan, for your lovely stories that you’ve been writing, to keep us landlubbers (for now) entertained and informed. I always look forward to your writings.

    • Behan February 17, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

      Thank *you* Petra! oh man… Salish Sea shrimp… lucky you to have the best at your doorstep!

  3. Yvette February 9, 2015 at 5:07 am #

    Interesting reads all around, thanks.

    I visited Thailand in 2009 (can’t believe it was so long ago!) when I was backpacking around after college- interestingly, I didn’t like it as much as its neighbor to the north, Laos, as so much of it was overdeveloped in ways similar to what you described. (I only went to the islands on the eastern side tho, and the northern part.)

    I will note though that I got scuba certified on Koh Tao then and they definitely have sharks and turtles there at least, as I saw them. 🙂 Though preliminary Google searching indicates even there is going downhill when it comes to reef health…

    • Behan February 17, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

      Yvette, I’ve heard good things about Koh Tao! And certainly, not all the reefs are hosed. Well, not yet. It’s pretty well on the way, though, and there’s nothing to stop it. Pretty sad.

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