Written by Nick Walton
The first rays of sunshine beam through the banks of palm trees on the horizon, casting their long, slender branches into dark, exotic profiles, as if eager to remind me just where I am.
The golden light then spills onto the water, glistening with the Midas touch of a new day, and extends out to my perch at the bow of a yacht at anchor, bathing me in warmth and setting off orchestras of bird calls that echo off the towering limestone cliffs surrounding our anchorage.
This is Railay, on Thailand’s Krabi Coast, one of the many little communities dotting an idyllic stretch of Southern Siam that is accessible only by boat. Little more than a beach, a few boutique resorts, and a handful of laughter-filled, bamboo-built beach bars, this is Thailand as it was – before mass tourism, seas of beach umbrellas, and armies of persuasive touts.
It is safe, calm anchorages like Railay, combined with the region’s hundreds of limestone islands – some hiding internal lagoons or huongs – as well as remote cliff-side bars and restaurants, and favourable, predictable weather patterns, that have made Phuket’s southeastern sailing grounds so popular with both diehard yachties and those keen to explore this beautiful setting by sail.
For me, learning to sail was about empowerment. As a child I would sit in a state of muted terror as the family hustled aboard my grandfather’s 38ft yacht at Auckland’s Westhaven Marina, knowing that as flat and calm as our motor-aided departure might be, the prevailing winds at dusk in the City of Sails meant we would be sailing home, the boat leaning at a seemingly impossible angle, awash with ropes and buckles that spelled certain death to an unwary ten-year-old.
Twenty years later, and things have changed. Like an increasing number of would-be sailors, I’ve decided to learn to master wind and water, and while all yachties worth their salt know that Mother Nature will always rule supreme, it’s a liberating excuse to explore some of Asia’s most awe-inspiring scenery.
Companies such as Sunsail and The Moorings are making sailing in Thailand much easier. They offer everything from yacht ownership and management – it’s like timeshare of the seas, except your ‘share’ can be a similar-sized yacht at any of their bases around the world – through to luxurious charter holidays, complete with crew and chef, and even sailing schools for land-lubbers like me who want to be able to take the helm with confidence.
After cups of strong coffee, a few delicate Thai lady finger bananas, and a sun-drenched, fresh-water shower on the yacht’s transom, we’re ready to start another day under sail. There are four in our crew: myself, the total novice of the pack, who willingly clambers around the rigging with renewed confidence each day; Jason, a Canadian who regularly competes in the region’s racing regattas; Yvan, a company man from Sunsail who is completing his Day Skipper certification; and Skipper Chris Green, who has sailed for as long as he can remember.
Southern Thailand’s best sailing groups reach north of Phuket to the top of Phang Nga, then east across to the dramatic coastline of Krabi, and finally south to the laidback lifestyle of Ko Lanta. What’s bringing in more sailors now is newly-developed infrastructure, including the expansive Royal Phuket Marina and the Ao Po Grand Marina, where Sunsail have their base, and the opportunity for Asian boat owners to leave their yachts in Thailand rather than in the over-crowded marinas of Hong Kong and Singapore. In turn, this means more vessels available for owners of Sunsail or The Moorings and their friends and family, and also for charter guests wanting to tackle the amazing scenery of Southern Thailand from the water.
On our first day’s sailing we leave Ao Po in the mist of a monsoon deluge, raindrops ricocheting off the foredeck like watery bullets. But after an hour spent familiarising ourselves with our yacht – a 44ft Gib’Sea called Intan – the skies clear and the majesty of Phang Nga Bay can be seen in the distance: a cluster of smoke-hued islands nestled in a bed of sea mist that accentuates its other-worldliness. Ao Phang Nga is massive – worth a week’s sailing by itself. With an expanse of 400sq km, it’s a protected national park populated by towering limestone islands wreathed by coral and punctuated by caves popular with nesting swallows.
To Phuket’s south are the Phi Phi Islands, of which Phi Phi Leh is best-known as the utopian isle in the Leonardo Di Caprio movie The Beach. The Phi Phi Islands are some of the most popular in Southern Thailand; Phi Phi Leh has its own huong on its southern flank, a narrow lagoon popular with day trippers and snorkellers, and the narrow entrance to Maya Bay – ‘the beach’ – is popular with local long-tail boats loaded with tourists and ‘bareboaters’ – people chartering yachts without crew – in their yacht’s dinghy. The largest of the Phi Phi Islands, Phi Phi Don, has safe leeward anchorages and beachfront seafood restaurants galore, where fish from the Andaman Sea go straight from fishing boat to grill.
Days are spent drenched in sunshine, searching for and enjoying the steady winds of Southern Thailand. Although sailing south via Phi Phi proves far easier, and quicker, it’s hard not to enjoy the day’s sailing north from Railay, past the Thai Royal Family’s summer residence high in the hills of Krabi, to the scattering of tiny islands, Koh Yat. Jason steers the dinghy into a hidden huong, accessed through a tiny opening in the rock face. The water is mesmerisingly blue, the cliffs on each side steep and crowded with ancient vines.
“This is the kind of place only the fishermen know about,” says Chris as we return, awed, from the huong. “This is not a place for tourists in their speedboats.” As he speaks, a small long-tailed boat filled with weary fishermen approaches, and they wave as they enter the internal lake, where they’ll sleep until they need to collect their nets. “This is the beauty of sailing; there is so much untouched Thailand waiting to be discovered with every turn of the helm.”
Although Railay is a popular sailing locale, it also boasts its own loyal following of rock climbers, who travel from across the world to spend their days scrambling across the towering limestone cliffs.
Discovering the island huongs and caves of Southern Thailand is easiest with a guided kayak tour. Many tours, including those of Krabi Sea Canoeing and Ban Bor Thor Sea Kayaking, leave from Krabi or from Phuket by boat, and explore the limestone caves of remote islands, some as old as 300 million years. Tours include expert tuition and lunch. Alternatively, many charter boats come with kayaks which can be used to explore huongs as you discover them.