Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Kate van Onselen

Leaning overboard, I watched my shadow dance below over the waves and splashes. Bill, our tour guide, winked at me as he hurled pieces of left over croissant from breakfast, into the water. He was aiming at members of our tour, who were already cautiously bobbing around the reef, getting familiar with their surroundings.  The moment food hit the water, fish went on a wild feeding frenzy, and to Bill’s delight much shrieking and splashing ensued. Downing the rest of my coke, I grabbed my mask and snorkel and dive-bombed off the back of the boat, armed with a banana. My aim was to perch on top of a mushroom shaped outcrop of coral, stretching 3metres from the sea bed to just below the surface of the water. Standing on it, I could adjust my gear and ready myself for my own, private feeding experience. Breaking off bits of the banana, my adrenalin rushed, as suddenly fish were all around me fighting for their bite. Taking in the variety of fish and coral in all colours, shapes and sizes, spanning along 50 metres of dense coral reef, my chest filled with emotion and appreciation. Whilst floating, with my back to the sun, watching a school of needlefish swim away, I felt something smooth slide past me. My imagination ran wild with frightening thoughts. I spun around, heart pumping. Thankfully it was the European couple from our boat. Unluckily though, I spun around to her g-string clad bottom, quite a shock, and not necessarily the beauty that I was expecting.

Our bay was formed around one of the 42 natural limestone islands, created by tectonic movement below sea level. Flourishing with life – this was Ang Thong National Marine Park. Ang Thong translates to “Golden Bowl,” named after an emerald lake, which sits between the dramatic  cliffs of one of the islands, like water in a bowl. “Golden” refers more to the majesty of the surroundings rather than the colour of the water. The archipelago, in Thailand’s Koh Samui, promised nothing less than splendour, with its hidden lagoons, lush jungle and white sand beaches. 

 After an hour of underwater exploration the speedboat raised its anchor.  Moving our tour to Thale Nai, the emerald lake on Koh Mae Koh Island. This is a large natural saltwater lake at sea, hidden to the passer by, in the centre of a volcano’s crater in the middle of the ocean.  It is connected to the sea only through a hole in its limestone floor. On the beach, we were warned not to get into the water, as it was a sanctuary for baby sharks. Getting to the lake was quite an amazing journey, a four hundred-meter hike straight up the limestone face. The Marine Park had contracted some ingenious madmen to construct a steel ladder system to the top of the peak cliff, without which the climb would have been impossible. 

 Unbelievably unfit and battered from scraping my knees against the vertical stairwells, I fought for breath, as I reached the hideout at the summit.  To my right was the most glorious looking turquoise-green water, appearing thick and warm in the still heat, lush vegetation hugging the cliffs. Unable to absorb all that stood before me, I walked out into the sun, which presented another breathtaking view over a collection of 7 islands. This was paradise. I spent half an hour just gazing out into the vast beauty of the scene before me. 
In order to recover adequately from my hellish decent, I flopped into the sea on the beach below. Crawling through the shallow water on the sandbank I approached Bill, wondering what his story was and how he managed to land himself one of the most brilliant occupations around. The romantic in me had imagined that he, being an authentically Thai looking individual, was born on Koh Samui and grew up wanting to do this as his aspiration.  The reality was that he was from Chaing Mai, in the north of Thailand, a mountainous area nowhere near the sea.

Bill had come to the island with the ambition to work as a barman at one of the spa resorts that were springing up around the island. His English had been so poor when he moved that he was refused bar work, which was when he came across the Island Safari Tour Company. Now having been with them for nine months, he had grasped an amazing amount of the language. I was truly impressed. We lay back in the water, floating, whilst gazing into the blue sky. His contentedness in life reflected Thailand’s spirit. The Thai people have this completely individual identity in the world that is a result of their circumstance.  Sights of raw beauty contrast the obvious poverty and despite a constant sense of urgency, smiles and dedication constantly abound.

This was certainly not the impression that the beginning of the day had suggested.  We were collected from our respective hotels in the most clapped out Range Rover, fixed together in the back with custom made steel benches to sit on. I felt a twinge of guilt as my eyebrows raised at the prospect of this “fantastic” tour. The Thai have a favourite saying, in a response to tourists. So when I asked the driver if this vehicle would deliver us safely to our destination, he jovially replied,  “same-same, but different,” pointing to the shiny off-road vehicles parked at reception, as we burned diesel fumes down the road from the hotel… what an attitude to life.