North to Myanmar Border, March 25-28

Alex and Jennifer had done hundreds of dives all over the world before we took this trip (mostly before Tim and Emily came on the scene). If you asked either of us to pinpoint a single favorite dive site from that time we'd both give the same answer: Richelieu Rock. It's a single large pinnacle rising from the depths to just below the surface, in the middle of the open ocean on the Thai side of the Thailand-Myanmar marine border. Because of its isolation, it attracts incredible amounts of marine growth and marine life, small and large.

We first dove Richelieu Rock as part of a week-long liveaboard dive trip in 1992. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine diving it again in 2008 from a sailboat with our kids at our sides. While the above-water scene has changed completely -- in 1992 the site was remote and rarely visited; now there are several large dive charters per day -- the rock itself is still stunning and exciting. It wasn't easy diving: drop-offs and pickups were via the dinghy, there were currents to contend with, and we had to be careful not to go as deep with the kids as we might go on our own. But both kids were able divers, and even at shallow depths the sights -- particularly the profuse soft corals of every color and endless carpets of anemones -- were fabulous
(photos 1 and 2).

Richelieu Rock lies about 10 miles east of the Surin Islands. Although there are mooring buoys at the rock, it's too exposed to stay overnight so we visited on a day trip from the Surins, which themselves were a full day's sail north of the Similans. The Surin Islands see far fewer day-trippers than the Similans, but there's still one area busy with a few beach bungalows, a massive number of side-by-side permanent tents, and a restaurant (which, as usual, we patronized; we never tire of the uniformly cheap and delicious Thai food). Most of the visitors to this island are young Thais, with just a handful of Westerners. Diving in the Surin Islands was excellent (photos 3 and 4), and we had some beautiful anchorages (photo 5 for example -- although our anchored-at-sunset photos are starting to look alike), so it was a great stop altogether.

Next up was another full day's sail, thankfully our last for quite a while, to reach the mainland and the official yacht entry point for Myanmar. Across a wide channel from each other are the Thai town of Ranong and the Burmese town of Kawthaung. (We've decided to use "Myanmar" since it's the official name for the country also known as Burma, but we'll use "Burmese" since "Myanmarese" doesn't sound right.) We opted to anchor at Ranong for a bit of civilization -- internet, fuel, water, garbage removal, etc. -- instead of staying at one of the nearby islands; we can see the islands on the return if we wish.

Sailing into Myanmar has a different set of considerations from those we had entering India: On the good side, the paperwork, time involved, and uncertainty are far less. On the down side, we're required to pay considerable fees to the government, and most dramatically, for our entire time in Burmese waters we'll have an official "guide" living on the boat with us to ensure we follow regulations. Luckily Jean-Claude's cabin is now vacant -- it will be interesting to see how our guide compares with Jean-Claude as a traveling companion. We're told the guides are usually quite friendly and very unobtrusive.

We made arrangements for this part of the trip through an agent in Phuket, who works with a Burmese agent at the border. As suggested, we have two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch Whiskey at the ready for the Burmese agent, who has some latitude in determining our entry fees. (We brought whiskey for the Indian officials too, but we were told for them the cheap stuff would do; they seemed pleased enough.) Once across the border, we plan to spend about 12 days exploring the Mergui Archipelago, perhaps the sailing grounds we're most excited about on this trip.

We're a few days past the halfway point on the sailboat now, and we're certainly not tiring of it. The boat itself is extremely comfortable for "living" -- there's no claustrophobia whatsoever, it's easy to do all the things one does every day, and even the dive gear and compressor don't get in the way. The only real problem is that poor Alex can't stand to his full height in many of the inside areas. He had the same problem in the camper and does fear at the end of this year he'll have a permanent stoop. It's our opinion that a cruising catamaran (as opposed to a monohull) is absolutely the way to go in terms of comfort -- there's tons of space, the adjoining salon and cockpit encourage indoor-outdoor living, the front of the boat is a vast open deck for hanging out, and the boat doesn't "heel" (lean over to one side) when it sails. It's hard for us to understand why the majority of long-term cruisers sail monohulls, although they are cheaper to buy and perhaps more sturdy in the roughest of ocean voyages.

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