At a relatively cheap price, and with Thailands reputation for pumping out Scuba divers en masse, I am not shy to say I wasn’t expecting much in the way of professionalism or safety when it came to diving the Similans. I am happy to report however, this trip was a pleasant surprise. The renowned Islands did not disappoint, and MV Pawara has been one of my favourite liveaboard trips to date.
I arrived in Phuket a day before the boat was scheduled to depart, giving me some time to adjust to my surroundings and get over the dreaded air-conditioning cold/sniffle I had developed after being on planes and in Singapore airport transiting.
Somehow I had managed to book my trip smack bang in the middle of Chinese New year, and Phuket was absolutely full of Chinese families celebrating the holiday. Until the trip departure, I stayed at “Secret cliff resort” in Karon (officially in Karon, but on a hill in between Patong and Karon beaches) and found it was quite accessible by Tuktuk to the markets and restaurants. It was obvious the local businesses and hotels in Phuket were struggling to absorb the load from the holiday and so, I was happy to be able to look forward to getting on the liveaboard and heading out to Sea away from the congestion.
The day the Liveaboard was due to begin, I was to be picked up from my hotel at 4pm for a 5.30pm boat departure. The van showed up 10 minutes late, but Phuket traffic can be as fun as Aucklands, so it wasn’t really too terrible. I jumped in, dive gear and backpack in tow, and off we went to collect more divers booked on the trip. After 2 hours of driving Phukets highways, our driver pulled up to Tablamu Pier, a jetty full of boats lit up and bustling with excited divers. I was apprehensive at first, noticing all the dive boats looked pretty much the same, old but tidy, colourful but paint chipped, tired but working. All the boats looked similar, aside from one that was lit up, bright and proud with fairy lights down the centre. It looked like it must’ve been one of the top of the line boats, with an immaculate paint job, no rust stains and a warmness to it, and immediately I dreaded having booked the cheapest trip I could find. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the fairy light boat was in fact the MV Pawara, and my spirits immediately lifted.
We were greeted by “Fernando” one of the dive guides along with some of the boat boys who lowered our gear over the side of the jetty and down into a dinghy. We followed our luggage and headed out amongst the dive boats. It was a fun way to begin the adventure, calmly “putting” around the other dive boats in the dinghy until we arrived at the stern of our boat, our home for the next 4 days.
As I was helped onboard by Brian, another of the dive guides, I was shown a spot at the rear of the boat which would be my set up area for all of our dives. Unlike a lot of liveaboards where there is a ‘mothership’ and a dinghy or RIB to take you to the dive sites, boats in Thailand are designed to take you directly to the site, drop you off and wait at a safe distance until the divers surface. All divers onboard the Pawara had their own specific gear up spot, where you could sit down, slip on your BCD, take a few steps and then be in the water.
After setting up my gear, it was down into the hull to check out my cabin. Having booked a budget room, I was stoked to find I had been upgraded to a standard room due to the uneven ratio of male to female divers onboard. My Japanese roommate and I shared our own little bathroom, and were greeted with a sweet arrangement of flowers on our beds. The rooms are designed with maximum efficiency, so I was glad I had left my suitcase back at the hotel and only brought the essentials – there wasn’t much room for clutter!
After traditional Thai prayers for a safe voyage at the bow of the ship, complete with fire crackers and incense burning, the Pawara was off heading north to take us up to the Similan islands where our dive adventure was to begin. There was a great international mix of cultures onboard from fellow Anzacs, Frenchies, Brazilians, Americans, Chinese and British. We all seemed to come together nicely despite the huge age ranges from the youngest at 12 up to the mid sixties. I suppose it was our shared love of diving that made us all get along.
Day one and dive one at “Anitas Reef” was a chance for everyone to ease in to diving, and I was impressed at the patience Fernando had for one diver in our group who was trying out new gear, whilst another one was overcoming the dustiness of not having dived for a while. With the focus of this first dive being based around getting comfortable, I was happy to still be able to see some great critters like Stonefish and Morays whilst checking my buoyancy and weighting was on point.
The following dives proved even more interesting, with one site having this crazy current that would randomly come up from the depths. Suddenly the balmy 29 degree water would instantly drop to 24 degrees ( I watched it on my dive computer astounded ) and you would be kicking against a mild current. It wasn’t unpleasant, just something different, and the site was great for diving as we got to see a myriad of species of frogfish – a fish that up until then I had only seen at depths more than 30m, here we saw our first one at 12m!
I was so impressed by the diving in the Similans, from that first day with shallow sandy bottoms, through to pinnacles with wisp like cold currents, to sites where it seemed like Stonehenge had been flooded and covered in tiny beautiful nudibranchs. Having dived Palau, the Maldives, Vanuatu and the Great barrier reef I thought it’d be hard to further impress me but here I was, totally delighted by the fact that I was privy to seeing such beauty in yet another part of the world. It was here in the Similans that I realised I needed to, I must, take everyone I knew diving, whether they were interested in the ocean or not – the beauty of the underwater world needed to be shared, and the Similan islands were proof of this! How could people deny themselves visiting this beauty?
You’d expect the crew to have the best dives saved for last, but it was on day two that I had my most memorable dive of the trip – my first encounter with an Oceanic Manta ray.
‘Koh tachai’ pinnacle rises up from the bottom of the ocean and attracts schools of Barracuda and Giant trevally who (when we dived in the late afternoon) were preparing for their dinner. Amazed by the huge school of Barracuda silently swimming in formation, it struck me suddenly that someone was banging their tank excitedly. Hurriedly looking around, I saw my buddy, Charlie wide eyed and looking right behind me (never a great feeling) and I whipped around to see what he saw. Immediately I was breathless as I looked into the beautiful black eye of a huge female Manta ray, effortlessly gliding past me as Cobia and Remora followed her. The elegance she had, the graceful way she swam around the divers, eyeing us up individually as if to say “Hey, haven’t seen you around here before” was a something I’ll never forget.
The great dives kept on coming, and I came to realise I never wanted to get off the Pawara. Richelieu rock was next on the list, and although no Manta appeared here to check us out, the sheer richness of lush colours and mass of marine life was phenomenal. Another first for me, was seeing an Ornate ghost pipefish disguising itself amongst some soft coral. Had it not been for Fernando pointing it out as he took a photo, I never would’ve seen it being so well camouflaged in its environment. Along with Frogfish, Turtles, and female Cuttlefish laying their eggs – Richelieu rock had it all! Even in my dive log that evening I wrote “could dive it a gazillion times”.
Winding off the trip on the last day we were taken to the ‘Boonsong’ wreck, a shallow yet incredibly diverse site where the animals have taken a once floating vessel as their own, and created an artificial reef. Pufferfish and Honeycomb morays litter the wreck and its crannies while Cuttlefish blend into the rust coloured sand as they find crevices to deposit their eggs in. A couple of easy dives here to finish off what had been a fabulous trip.
If you’ve always put off the idea of diving in Thailand like I had, I urge you to think again! Being relatively cheap to get to and having such great access to the Similan Islands, getting on a Liveaboard gives you a chance to see Thailands amazing coastline and experience small dive groups with attentive dive guides.
Good to know: Max dive times were 60 minutes, or when the first diver hit 50bar. Great if you can buddy with a diver and guide who have a similar air consumption rate to you.
Nitrox is free and after doing 4 dives in a day, you will notice the difference to diving air. Make sure to bring your Enriched air diver certification as proof, or better yet – book to do your course during the trip with the onboard Instructors.
As there can be many dive boats at a site at any one time, it is great to carry your own SMB (all guides do). The boats will lend you one for a fee, or make sure to bring your own.
Let them know any dietary requirements during the booking process – they will bend over backwards to feed you well. Being vegetarian I am used to going without any decent form of protein and carb loading on trips like this, but I was treated to amazing tofu and mushroom dishes, and traditional thai dishes made especially for me without meat. The cooks went above and beyond any expectations I had.
Aside from the ex-pat crew onboard, most of the Thai locals surprisingly don’t speak much English. Learn your basics to show your appreciation – the crew work hard and always smile, there isn’t anything they won’t do to make your trip more enjoyable.
Price range: Budget cabins 25,700 THB twin share up to 35,700 THB master cabin twin share + Park fees 1800 THB, free nitrox, free wifi in certain areas, all meals included (you will not go hungry on this trip!)
Journey: Departing from Auckland, there are no direct flights but options to fly via Singapore with Singapore airlines or via Melbourne with Jetstar. New Zealanders are granted a visa on arrival.
Liveaboard boat/company: MV Pawara with West coast divers
Destination: Similan Islands National Park, Thailand
Itinerary: 4 days 4 nights with 14 dives. Cruising around the Similan islands, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu rock