Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sea and Jungle of southern Thailand

I had heard that southern Thailand had some nice beaches and good
snorkeling sites, so we decided to catch a flight to Phuket. From
there we took a taxi north to Khao Lak, a popular takeoff point for
trips to the Similan Islands Marine National Park.

The Similan Islands are 60 km west of Khao Lak, in the Andaman Sea.
The nine islands of the park are surrounded by protected bays and
coral reefs that are rich with sea life. The beaches are a soft, very
fine pure white sand the consistency of sugar. There is some evidence
of damage to coral reefs due to the tsunami of December, 2004. It hit
this part of Thailand pretty hard. But there is new coral growing on
the rubble of the old and there are plenty of fish making their homes
here.

We saw thousands of fish, from 18-inch blue and green parrot fish to
schools of iridescent blue minnows. I saw a sea snake for the first
time, a reptile about 3 ft long that crawls along the bottom like a
land snake and periodically rises to the surface to take a breath of
air.

Cynthia and I had some very personal encounters with a large curious
sea turtle who swam within inches of our faces before diving below us.

One of the most interesting creatures I saw looked like a jellyfish --
roughly cylindrical in shape, maybe three inches across and 2 inches
top to bottom. The thing that caught my attention was the flashing
lights inside the animal -- looked like violet LED lights going on and
off, similar to a firefly, but less regular. I have never heard of
blinking jellyfish before, but I have heard of bioluminescent
jellyfish that can glow. So I need to research this a bit more before
I know whether I've come across a new species hitherto unknown to
science.

It turned out that we were diving at the time of a full moon and this
is when baby jellyfish, literally millions of them, each about a
quarter of an inch across rise to the surface in a big cloud. I had
been wearing a silk undershirt to protect myself from the sun but I
suspect it also served to trap baby jellyfish, who, not too happy
about being trapped, naturally gave the offending piece of flesh a
tiny sting. It felt like a slight tingling across my back. So now,
three days later, my back and shoulders are covered with little
itching red spots, slowly healing.

After returning from the snorkeling trip, we decided it was time for
the jungle. So we headed off for a two-day trip to Khao Sok National
Park.

On the way to the park, we stopped at a rubber tree plantation at the
side of the road where a worker was busy collecting the latex that
drips from the trees. Six days a week, after the monsoon season,
workers start around midnight (or before for especially large
plantations) carefully cutting away by hand a strip of bark on the
rubber tree, which then starts to "bleed". The rivulets of latex flow
into a coconut shell attached to the side of the tree.

By morning, the collecting shells are emptied into shallow trays where
the latex starts to harden. After a few hours, the chunks of latex are
removed from the trays and passed through a wringer (like the wringer
on early washing machines, for those of you fortunate enough to be
able to remember that far back) to remove the excess water.

After running through the ringer, the piece of latex is 18" X 36",
about half an inch thick, ready to be sold by the farmer who earns
about $2 per kilogram.

Khao Sok Lake is a large lake that recently formed after construction
of a dam and a hydroelectric generating station. The lake is
surrounded by huge limestone cliffs and dense tropical rainforest.
It's a fantastic place to just sit quietly and listen to the sounds.
Birds, monkeys and many creatures you can only imagine. It rains
frequently, as you would expect, but the rain is soft and warm and you
realize there really isn't any reason to try to stay dry.

Our latest slideshows:

Snorkeling
http://www.flickr.com/photos/11790404@N02/sets/72157622634027761/show/

Rubber Production
http://www.flickr.com/photos/11790404@N02/sets/72157622758272662/show/

Khao Sok Lake
http://www.flickr.com/photos/11790404@N02/sets/72157622634142565/show/

Limestone Cave
http://www.flickr.com/photos/11790404@N02/sets/72157622634046917/show/

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