Pick any sunset between December and April and Thap Lamu port is a busy place to be. Dive liveaboards are layered over its piers side-by-side, jostling for space with Navy ships, trawlers and squid boats sporting wooden, lightbulb-covered tentacles. The liveaboards are all painted a utilitarian white and blue – the definition of function over form – each a singular design to put 20-or-so scuba fanatics into the water 4 times a day over the best dive sites Thailand's Andaman Sea has to offer.
MV Reggae Queen sticks out from this bunch then – vivid stripes of green and red and yellow abound – a motif carried through onto every surface. The hull? Green, yellow and red. The dining deck canopy? Green, yellow and red. The ceiling of your shower? Green, yellow and red. And its function departs from the norm as well: the Reggae Queen is one of barely a handful of snorkelling-specific liveaboards operating out of Khao Lak. I've been lucky enough to have already ticked off the Similan/Surin scuba diving experience, and this time was looking for something a little more laid back, which is why I found myself walking down the jetty to the Reggae Queen that evening.
Managed by Ralf and Eike of Andaman Snorkel Discovery, all nations are of course welcome on the Reggae Queen, but its heart and soul is definitely Deutsche, and so it was for my trip: 9 very friendly Germans, 2 Americans and 2 Italians were my companions, from their late 20s to the point where politeness means you don't enquire. Our tour was led by Ralf himself – he's the definition of the right person in the right job – an expansive character, not prone to shyness, and always up for a debate on any subject. The trip starts proper with the ritual removal of everyone's flip-flops on the side of the pier – we'll be barefoot for the next three days – before introductions, a boat briefing and dinner as we wait for the sea state to drop for our departure.
Ralf likes to avoid the crowds if possible, so a quick decision is taken to skip the Similans and run straight out to Koh Bon. Unlike some dive liveaboards, our Captain sees his bridge as a public space, so do say hello on the inter-island journeys, check out the depth sounder or GPS, and relax on the bench/bunk behind the wheel to watch the seas slip by. After a couple of hours of cruising over a lively swell, we were in Koh Bon's lee to settle down for the night – the Reggae Queen holds a maximum of 18 guests in small but comfy twin cabins with 4 shared shower/toilets, and by good luck rather than the dreaded single supplement I ended up with a cabin of my own.
The crew pride themselves on their local knowledge in choosing the route for our voyage, but the Andaman Sea is not a theme park, not an aquarium – there are decisions, and gambles, and costs and benefits to weigh for every course choice. With a whale shark reported close by that morning, our first drop after breakfast is in deep water, running along the line of the South side of Koh Bon, for a half hour of peering into the deep and hoping. Nothing going this time, so a Zodiac pickup and run around the headland to the Reggae Queen's new anchorage next to the "hole" which marks the start of the classic Koh Bon North divesite – a steep vertical drop, with a carpet of divers exhaling bubbles beneath and plenty of life on show, including a big black Moray Eel emerging from the wall a couple of metres down.
Mid-morning, the island hopping resumes with a run North to Koh Tachai, and life on the Reggae Queen relaxes down a notch or seven. We while away the journey either on the beanbag-covered sun deck or around the big, sociable dining table, helping ourselves the constantly-refilled blue plastic treasure chest of cold beer, ice tea, soda water and coke. As we relax, the crew are hard at work – Captain Noon has the bridge, with engineer Noi ever present on the dive deck and teenage Burmese boatboy Nai in charge of a nifty Honda-powered Zodiac.
Between snorkelling spots, lunch is served. Guests set up and clear the table ourselves, adding to the "community" feel for the trip, but the real work takes place in a tiny galley next to the dive deck. Our two cooks, Le Mai and Joii are on the go from before dawn to after sunset, creating spicy salads, stir-fried Thai chicken and vegetable dishes, grilled fish, or perhaps tempura shrimp. There's always plenty of rice, plus the odd noodle dish, and fresh fruit to end each meal.
The mooring at Koh Tachai South is dominated by a huge boulder complex, topping out 5 metres or so below the surface. Logically, this should be a terrible snorkel site, best left to the scuba junkies but, sliding in and out of the hazy plankton-rich water are some (literally) bigger fish, including a solitary but huge Giant Barracuda well over a metre in length – fantastic if you saw it, as I did, frustrating for those who did not – c'est la vie. After another quick snorkel, we round the headland to the beach at Koh Tachai East as the late afternoon sun starts to transition into photographically perfect light and the last daytrip boat departs – perfect timing to claim the beach as our own.
That picture you have in your mind of desert island beach perfection? Well, you're thinking of Koh Tachai East. Our zodiac taxi had, of course, been stocked with ice cold beer and sodas and the group splashed around in the warm surf, happily chatting away as we realise that, back home in Northern Europe, it is a Monday morning in December. A different life indeed...
Fish, larb salad, krapao gai and extreme longitudinal pitch were on the menu for a sunset dash to the shelter of the Surin Islands, and by mid-evening the boat is moored with a couple of Thai National Park patrol vessels and a single catamaran at a flat-calm, silent anchorage under a bright starry sky. Dawn reveals the Reggae Queen's new home astride the shallow channel between Ko Surin Neua and Koh Surin Tai – bright skies above, the islands vivid green to each side and clear blue water below. The contrast from the previous day could not have been more marked – gone were the plankton heavy depths, replaced by shallow, vivid coral reefs – snorkelling heaven.
As we dropped over the side of the zodiac after breakfast, fellow guest Andrea was lucky enough to catch sight of a reef shark, disappearing quickly into the deep, while I was happy to follow snorkel guide Reen down a few metres to check out the lionfish hanging under coral ledges. Elsewhere, soft corals, waving anenomes with resident "Nemos", banded sea snakes, giant pufferfish and turtles were all spotted, plus a couple of gorgeous yellow and black Oriental Sweetlips darting from rock to rock.
After lunch, a longtail taxi collects us for a quick run ashore to the Moken Sea Gypsy village just South of our mooring. The village is built directly over the beach in neat rows – rather than haphazardly over water as in previous Chao Ley settlements I had seen – the place definitely has the look of a managed, "official" post-Tsunami settlement. I'm always conflicted with such village visits – reasonably happy to buy an overpriced, poorly-carved key ring, but unsure if, for the Moken, sitting in the sand waiting for visitors is the best way of life. The school was busy and lively though, so some confidence that there are bigger life choices avaiable for the young Moken.
Leaving the village behind, our sea taxi ran back past the Reggae Queen, threading through the shallow channel between the islands, before beaching at the end of a pathway into the jungle. The briefest of walks revealed noisy macaques happily eating fruit in the trees, while a squad of big monitor lizards stalked their way impassively through the National Park campsite next to the picturesque Ao Mai Ngam beach.
Returning onboard, 2nd cook Joii had the barbecue going strong on the boat deck, cooking up an international fusion of baked potatoes, Thai sausage and calamari, ready for a typical "last night on the boat" party. After two nights of Ralf's less than extensive music collection (Bob Marley's greatest hits, plus some Thai and German reggae), the first mutiny of the journey unfolded with music choice passing to guest smartphones – some Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton from Arizonans Steve and Deborah, plus a little Frazey Ford, Bastille and Passenger, before the "Track of the Night" emerged – definitely Ich and Ich's Vom Selben Stern – well done Andrea.
For me, the Surins were a great example of the customer care that Andaman Snorkel Discovery offer. Between swims, I wanted to take some pictures of the Reggae Queen in her element, with the perfect background of the islands under a blue sky. No problem – Nai will take you in the Zodiac to spin around the big boat to your DSLR's content. Then, the following morning, Andrea and I decided to try a 6.30am dawn snorkel in the hope of waking up the reef sharks, and when Ralf discovered our plans he again made the Zodiac and Nai available for us. Their customer-focused ethos is clear – if you have a special request, and it doesn't interfere with the larger plan, then Ralf and his crew will do their best to help.
As the boat pulled away from its mooring after breakfast on our final day the waves lifted a little higher than we had seen thus far, so at Turtle Bay high swells and zero visibility meant we were back on board in minutes, crossing instead to the leeward side of the islands where another turtle was on view for the lucky few, plus a great sight of a Moray Eel in open water, moving between coral outcrops. Big cuttlefish swam along the bottom, while I was at first excited to see a beautiful banded sea snake descending, but less so when told the venomous creature had been swimming on the surface, a half-metre away, unbeknownst to me.
For the final swim, just around the headland from Ao Mai Ngam, we were rewarded with lobster, another turtle and, most impressively, two lionfish out from their hiding places under the coral – hanging in the water, poisonous fins spread wide. Then, sadly, it was time to set course back to the mainland for a grey, choppy run towards the fishing port at Kura Buri. Reunited with our footwear on the quay, it takes just over an hour in a taxi to rewind three sailing days and by early evening most of us are around a table at a great all-you-can-eat 190 THB Thai barbecue/steamboat restaurant, to meet Ralf's wife Eike and enjoy one final meal together.
Overall, I would definitely recommend Andaman Snorkel Discovery for those wanting to explore the National Park islands off the coast of Khao Lak. There's plenty of life to see underwater, though I'd describe the coral health as OK rather than spectacular, and like most other SE Asian dive/snorkel sites, the really big fish are a rarity to look out for and treasure. What isn't in doubt is that this experience is far superior to the that of a speedboat day trip from the mainland.
Onboard, it's a near-perfect experience for the price. The boat is relatively basic, but cabins and bathrooms are very clean and absolutely fine for a few nights in a warm climate. There are some genius touches as well – the padded floor and beanbags on the sun deck create a perfect "lazy lounging" space to enjoy. I was very happy with the food (extra fresh chilli always available!), and impressed with the real effort made with the final boat dinner and the final day lunch. The addition of the kind of some mid-afternoon snacks I've seen on similar boats, such as fried bananas etc would be the only suggestion I could make.
Our head guide and crew were friendly, hard-working, customer-focused and determined to use their local knowledge to make the most of the voyage. Plus, I was very lucky to be part of a great group for the trip – my thanks go to Andrea, Georg and Sandra, Steffi, Tina, Ralf and Heike, Carmen and Siegbert, Kamal and Giovanni for making the English speakers – myself, Deborah and Steve – very welcome.