Mopeds rattle and buzz past our mansion window. It’s more of a hotel, but you get the idea. The cool morning air hasn’t yet steeped into the heat of the day. With little time ‘til our shuttle arrives, we slam some stale granola with fresh milk, throw a few items into a bag, and head downstairs to wait.
Koh Lanta isn’t busy or polluted. We’re not far from the beach. The balmy breeze smells of sweat and salt. A few nearby bamboo-shack mom & pop restaurants are opening for the day.
I chat with Sen, the mansion co-owner. Lots of hotels and guest houses call themselves mansions around southern Thailand. Our room is the nicest (and cheapest) accommodation we’ve had so far, so I let the mansion thing slide.
We talk about Thai islands and Californian mountains. We speak little Thai and Sen speaks little English. Most of the information slides between the language gap.
Sen goes off for coffee as our shuttle shows up. It’s a pickup truck with open-air benches facing inward toward each other. I shout “How-dee!” To our fellow tourists but I barely get a “Hullo” in response. Must be too early still.
We hop up onto the thin cushions and the driver takes off, weaving around mopeds and slow traffic to make another couple hotel stops and fill the truck with tourists. French, Australian, Brazilian, American, all crowded together and driven by Thais.
We’re packed tightly as the driver cruises up and down steep hills, onward toward the marshy side of Koh Lanta. We stop at a pier and see a few other shuttle trucks just as full as ours.
Sierra and I chuckle at the whole idea of this thing. Did we really sign up for a snorkel tour? It cost us $25 each and is supposed to take us on a day-long trip to four islands, food included. It has been heavily recommended by our mansion hosts that we take the tour. They also share ownership with the tour company.
Everyone waits around the parking lot, squatting in the shade of trucks & trees to avoid the intense glare of the crowning sun. The shuttle drivers motion us to go down the pier.
The large group of tourists moves like a wild herd, dominating the entire one lane pier as Thais on mopeds honk and yell for us to clear the way. Whether it’s the heat or vacation brain, the crowd can’t seem to function cohesively at this time.
Two long-tail boats await us, gently bobbing in murky waters. Everyone splits off and files in, again crammed together on bench seats. Each boat has a captain and a first mate. The first boat takes off easily while our boat takes its time.
The captain fires our engine on, racks and pinions whirling as the long tail gets spinning. The captain guides the blades around our anchor rope and gets us into position.
The tight space seems to cause him some difficulty as we find ourselves moving in semi circles. After ten minutes of these back-and-forth sweeps, we learn the reason: we’re surrounded by large rocks.
The nose of the boat kisses a pair of submerged boulders. The captain tries scraping us out but he makes it worse, getting us stuck between them. Everyone is either embarrassed, nervous, or quietly smirking.
A few attempts at getting loose yield no success. The captain is keeping his cool yet he reveals subtle frustration jerking the motor to and fro, blasting the throttle. He rocks the boat severely as we begin to tip over the port side.
Little kids are bawling, young ladies screaming as we feel vertigo in our bellies with gravity pulling us toward murky depths unknown. Most of us jump to our feet in an effort to counter-balance the tipping. It seems to work and the boat doesn’t go over… yet.
This scene is repeated once more to the starboard side. Everyone is looking very anxious. I consider the possibility of a refund if we don’t make it out to sea. Sierra declares that she is never taking another tour in a foreign country.
Attempting to resolve this mess, the captain jumps overboard as the first mate assumes the motor. We notice that our shirtless captain is standing waist-deep in the murky water.
“Aw, for fucks sake!” A British woman exclaims.
Sierra and I almost burst out laughing. A few buff Aussies jump out to help the captain pull the boat from the rocks. I’m on standby in case they need a scrawny hippie with dry hands to roll cigarettes. Free at last, we take off a half hour after the first boat left.
The first mate throws us a box of snorkel gear, and says we have forty minutes. Everyone scrambles into the water.
The fish seem like they know the routine and barely acknowledge us as they go about their daily business. I feel like I’ve been initiated as one of their awkward distant relatives as they allow me to partake from a distance.
There are rainbow-checkered parrot fish, angel fish, and needle-nose fish that look like baby swordfish. Our camera sighs quietly in its pouch on the boat.
We float, bob, dive, and explore until the first mate blows a whistle. The whole group responds like hungry dogs at dinner time as we file onto the boat which whisks us off to another island.
Again, the box of masks and snorkels comes out and we’re told that we have twenty minutes. We hop in and see more of the same fish in different surroundings. The cave is spectacular and offers a break from the mid-day sun. We float on our backs and relax while staring up at the monolithic outcropping of limestone, chiseled into shelves by time and tide.
The whistle blows and we paddle home. They fire up and motor on to the famous “Emerald Cave.” We’ve heard nothing about this place and don’t know what to expect.
Our boat comes in hot, nearly smacking an unwitting bobbing pedestrian. The first mate is going around with a dry bag telling everyone to put their camera’s in. He looks like a pirate but I trust him anyway. He tells us not to put our snorkel gear on and hands everyone a neon life vest.
We jump into the sky blue water and the first mate gets a diving light, instructing us to follow him into the cave. The water is deep so we have to dog paddle in a tight group.
There are droves groups going in and out. It’s crowded in the cave but the surf is calm and the ceilings are high. As we go deeper, we can only see the sunlight reflecting through the water behind us, now a deep emerald green.
We swim along like a strange school of fish, saying goodbye to the light of the day in favor of the dim glow of our guides diving light.
There are higher ceilings with bamboo ladders above us. The sounds of splashing and tourist chatter overwhelm the first mates commentary so we have no idea what we’re doing or where we’re going. Sierra and I hold hands and paddle along, trying not to kick or scratch anyone.
After some sixty meters of darkness, we come upon a slit of blue sky. Rounding a gentle corner, we are treated with a view of jungle canopy and white sand.
We paddle onto a nearly-pristine beach enclosed by a complete circle of high walls. As if we are in a volcano, there appears to be one way in and one way out.
If there were ever a place to stash the booty, Emerald Cave would be it.
Sierra and I decide that not all tours are bad and this one was definitely worth our collective fifty dollars. The National Park sign has English translations on it, relating the recent history of the area. It was used by the Chao Le (sea gypsies) to store their plunder while they negotiated its distribution.
Now the Emerald Cave itself being plundered for tourism. It’s unlikely we would’ve set foot here if it weren’t for the discount snorkel tour.
We spend time exploring the small beach sprawl, take a piss, snap a few photos, and enjoy the “secluded” area as two American crackers among a gang of sunburnt Aussies & Anglos.
The guide blows the whistle and holds out the camera bag. We all strap our life vests on, filing back out the way we came, tightly packed like anchovies in a disorderly school.
We see the paradise behind us vanish into darkness as we diligently follow the light ahead.
We pass the green floor into the electric blue ocean hues, sunshine kissing our foreheads as we dog paddle into open space. Everyone boards the long tail and we kick off from Koh Mook to head for Koh Nga.
We wait in line, patiently hungry. The food is good and our stomach voids are filled for now. Sierra and I take off on a nearby footpath along some coastal tree line to explore some of the beaches before taking off again for Koh Lanta.
We hear the final whistle call and scramble back to our ride. Far from isolation, we joke about getting stranded on a beach resort island.
“The rooms are so expensive here, what would we do?”
We take our seats near the bow. It’s a wet hour or so to get back. The wind is blowing against us and each broken wave kicks hard, spraying over the bow. Everyone up front is soaked. I put on the goggles just so I can see between the sprays. I catch a final shot before we get wet.
The longtail boat cruises past the pier and slowly approaches the muddy beach. We run ashore and everyone hop off, filing into our respective shuttles and returning safely to our hotels with an emerald sparkle in our eyes.