Phuket and Bangkok, April 22-26

Packing up the boat after two months aboard was no minor task, and we had the rented scuba tanks and compressor to return as well. Around midday on April 22, after many dinghy trips ferrying stuff ashore, we bid farewell to Cyrene. We were all a little sad -- she's a superb boat for sailing and living, and we had grand adventures -- but everyone was ready for a nice long shower, and the boat was ready for some serious maintenance before spending more time at sea. A few days later, the first storms of the rainy season hit the Andaman Sea, so we didn't finish any too soon.

We cleared Thai immigration and customs once again, and then just to keep things exciting we discovered one last logistical complexity: Any boat crew arriving internationally, but wishing to leave Thailand other than on their boat, must visit a special office, fill out special forms, show a plane ticket out of the country (which we purchased hastily when we discovered the rule), and post a bond that's returned after departure. We've yet to figure out the exact rationale for the policy, but we assume there is one. In a shrewd move, Jennifer and the kids were listed as passengers rather than crew, so only Alex was subject to this process.

In the previous travelog we reported that, according to the bevy of seasoned sailors who seem to be permanent fixtures at Chalong Bay's Lighthouse restaurant, we were the first bareboat charter to visit the Mergui Archipelago, ever. Sailor talk now has it that we were also the first bareboat ever to visit the Andaman Islands. Mainstream sailboat charter companies like Sunsail and The Moorings would never let their boats cross international borders, nor would their boats be allowed to venture that far from home base. The only way we were able to pull this off was with the incredible flexibility and help offered by Cyrene's "hometown" owners, Latitude 8 Yachts. Partly, Latitude 8 has a more laissez-faire attitude than the big companies (which had some corresponding down sides, such as a few large end-of-charter charges the new manager had neglected to notify us about -- in the end we negotiated a satisfactory compromise). But it's also the case that Latitude 8 worked very diligently with us, and on our behalf, to make this unusual trip possible.

We spent about 24 hours in Phuket taking numerous showers, getting our laundry done, and visiting with our old friends at Baan Suay guesthouse
(including the pool table; photo 1) and down the street at Pro-Tech Dive College. We were almost as sad to leave that little neighborhood as we were to leave Cyrene. Baan Suay's owner Suporn, previously a professional hair stylist, even gave Tim a farewell haircut -- note Tim's short and chic coif in the photos.

We then flew to Bangkok and spent four nights in what's displaced our beloved Barcelona "aparthotel" as best accommodation of the travel-year. In the conveniently located Somerset Park Suanplu hotel, we had a huge, modern, two-bedroom two-bath apartment with living room and kitchen (the latter unneeded thanks to an expansive breakfast buffet plus delicious food on every street corner) and sweeping views over Bangkok in two directions. It was one of those web-search flukes -- after hours finding nothing but high prices and a dearth of family-friendly rooms, Jennifer stumbled upon this place on one of the many Asian hotel booking sites at a surprisingly low price. It looked too good to be true, but apparently it wasn't; we all thoroughly enjoyed the post-boat luxury.

It was Alex and Jennifer's third time in Bangkok, and the second time for the kids, although they were young enough the previous time (4½ and 6 years old) that they remember only bits and pieces. We visited some old favorite sights as well as a few new ones, ran some errands, and, remarkably, slept late and didn't feel a need to pack activities in every second:
  • With all the borders we've been crossing, and two passport pages needed by each of the upcoming Southeast Asian countries, we knew our passports would soon be full. We'd read that getting extra passport pages at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok is far easier than at home. Indeed, at home it would have required a full day in San Francisco with all of us present, and a fee of at least $60 each. In Bangkok it took one hour, services rendered without charge.
  • Once our passports were taken care of, we moved on to the tourist sites. The first stop was an unusual fertility shrine in an obscure location behind a large hotel. This shrine was an "off the beaten track" recommendation in the Lonely Planet guidebook when we first visited Bangkok in 1992, and it remains one today. The shrine's non-tourist visitors are Thais wanting to start a family. In 1992 we thought it prudent to make a small offering for the future. In spite of the rather adult nature of the shrine itself (link omitted; search for "Chao Mae Tuptim"), it was fun to revisit it, now that the future is solidly here.
  • Bangkok's Grand Palace has always ranked as Jennifer's worldwide #1 favorite touristy spot, for sheer glitter and atmosphere. Even on a cloudy day (photos 2 and 3), Tim and Emily quickly came around to the same opinion.
  • In contrast to the tiny but revered Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace, we visited the jumbo-jet sized reclining Buddha (photo 4; note Alex & Emily for scale) at Wat Pho, and the huge solid-gold Buddha (photo 5) at Wat Traimit. The kids always enjoy lighting candles and incense at Buddhist sites (photo 6).
  • At the Erawan shrine we paid for two minutes of classical Thai dance to bring us good luck on the rest of our trip. (Photo 7 was snapped afterwards.) We also went to a traditional puppet theater show, watched cobras being milked at a snake farm, and had quite an adventure trying to locate the Royal Barges Museum among a maze of canal sidewalks during a drenching downpour.
  • There was endless trinket shopping for the kids, especially in the night market and Chinatown. We also picked up a few sundries to get us through the next five weeks of travel.
  • There was endless eating too, and we did plenty of it. Although we succumbed to the kid's homesickness for Starbucks vanilla smoothies (our first time to Starbucks in Asia), mostly we just enjoyed the ever-delicious, ever-inexpensive standard Thai fare.
Bangkok has a well-deserved reputation as a noisy, smoggy, trafficky, chaotic, downright maddening megalopolis. Like most Asian cities, it's modernized considerably in recent years, especially with the addition of an efficient subway and Skytrain system that we took full advantage of on this visit. But on the streets, Bangkok maintains much of its charisma (photos 8 and 9). We're not city tourists in general; Bangkok has always been one of our favorites, and once again it didn't disappoint.

With a few days of reliable internet we've finally caught up on photo uploads. There are a lot of photos in total, and despite considerable pruning of the collections, a lot of them seem to look a lot alike. (For one thing, each set finishes with a bunch of underwater photos.) Take a deep breath before starting:
  • 82 Thailand photos covering our week in Phuket getting ready for the sailing (most photos are of the dive training) and our passage to the Andaman Islands including a quick stop in the Similan Islands
  • 83 India photos covering our time in the Andaman Islands, including the city of Port Blair and a small village on Havelock Island, as well as our passage back as far as the Similans
  • 46 more Thailand photos covering our sail from the Similan Islands to Phuket, back to the Similans, to the Surin Islands, then to Ranong on the Myanmar border
  • 95 Myanmar photos covering our time in the Mergui Archipelago, including the town of Kawthaung and a small village, and the usual smattering of boat and beach photos
  • Emily's 27 favorite underwater photos that she took, and Tim's 23 favorites that he took
Next: A week in Cambodia, divided between the capital city of Phnom Penh, and the northern city of Siem Reap, gateway to the famous Angkor ruins

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