It had been over two years since I last visited the sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang in southern Thailand. So when I was offered the opportunity to join MV Pawara's three night/two day trip there, also taking in the beautiful islands of Phi Phi, I couldn't refuse.
As the trip departure time approached so the excitement started to rise. Not only did I have good diving to look forward to but also good company with some of our regular customers joining us on the trip and also my wife and daughter. What a bonus! Add to that a luxurious liveaboard "home" and the trip was already destined to be a winner.
We were met at Chalong pier in Phuket by our host, Alan, a charming Scottish gentleman who we all instantly liked. With a welcoming smile Alan accompanied us to our living area for the next few days, MV Pawara, a spacious and beautifully designed liveaboard. Now I have tour leaded on various liveaboards, dived off of many on holidays but this one has to be right up there with the best. As we toured the boat we experienced one of the most comfortable lounges I've ever come across on any boat, a sun deck big enough for a game of football, an outside covered seating area with drinks and snacks on hand, and indoor air-conditioned dining area too.
After the tour Alan individually accompanied each customer to their cabins to show the facilities available. In total there are ten customer cabins, two deluxe and eight standard, six on the main deck and four on the lower deck. All cabins are en suite with hot water showers, air-conditioning and windows allowing natural light into the room. Towels, shampoo and shower gel are provided for customer comfort. The deluxe rooms have the advantage of being more spacious but all the cabins are very comfortable with plenty of storage space for luggage.
The itinerary for the trip started with an overnight journey to Phi Phi islands. Once we had all settled in we met back on the upper deck to enjoy the fresh sea breeze and a sumptuous dinner. After a couple of evening drinks and some amiable conversation it was time for an early night in preparation for an equally early start.
In the morning we were woken by the soothing sounds of some chilled out Thai music. This was such a refreshing way to start the day compared to the usual startling bang on the door followed by the holler of "Get up!". After a pre-breakfast of croissants and toast Alan provided an informative dive briefing and then off we went to gear up. The dive deck lived up to the excellent design of the rest of the liveaboard with plenty of room for all to comfortably prepare for the dive. When I'd seen the pictures of it I'd assumed that the photographer had played the usual tricks of perspective with a wide angle lens but was pleasantly surprised to see it really was as big as it looked in the photos! Although we only had ten divers on this trip Alan explained that the usual method was to send the customers down in two groups to avoid feeling over-crowded.
The first day's diving was around Phi Phi islands. Dive one was Koh Bida Nok. Starting on the east side we went in search of blacktip reef sharks in the shallows but unfortunately it was not to be. However we quickly came across all the usual suspects: barracuda, trevallies, lionfish and even a leopard shark in the sand.
After a filling cooked breakfast and decent surface interval it was time for dive two at Koh Bida Nai. With the ever present seahorses nowhere to be found Alan took us to a special place with four frog fish all together on a sea fan. One was even sitting on top of another! The dive continued with a gentle drift out to an area known as "Fantasy Reef" where we hung and watched jacks, barracuda and rainbow runners out for the morning hunt! Ending the dive in the shallows with colourful soft corals covered in schools of yellow snapper everyone came up feeling more than satisfied with such a great start to the trip.
If we thought the first dives were good then little did we realise what was coming. After lunch dive three was at Maya Wall, not the most attractive site in the world but great for macro lovers. The dive was mind blowing! With ten pairs of eyes scouring every inch of rock and sand the results were truly spectacular. Different types of nudibranchs, bent stick and ornate ghost pipefish, and the highlight, two clown frog fish sitting together on a rock, a type of frog fish I had always wanted to see. Add to that a turtle that followed us for most of the dive and I would have to rate this as one of my best underwater experiences ever. Alan and our other guide Lum have to take most of the credit for this as it was there local knowledge that helped us to find many of these wonderful critters.
After afternoon snacks and a visit to Phi Phi's infamous "Monkey Beach", a favourite with the kids, we headed off for the fourth dive, a sunset dive at Hin Dot. The site consists of four small underwater pinnacles covered in soft corals and a great place for a late dive. The number of snappers encountered was incredible. With a squat lobster and various types of shrimp encountered along the way this was a great end to the day.
After dinner we all went into the lounge to check out the day's photos. With specially designed desks for up to eight laptops it is an underwater photographer's dream set up. Photos were compared, sightings discussed and then it was off to bed to dream of fishes for most. Those with energy remaining hopped in the dinghy for a chance to go and explore Phi Phi islands at night.
Overnight we headed south to Hin Daeng to start the next day's diving. Hin Daeng means "red rock" in Thai and you understand why as you descend below the surface. All around the top are red tree soft corals with sea anemones and various hard coral formations adding to the spectacular scenery. I was so relieved to see the site in such good condition as I was aware that a year previous a lot of damage to the soft corals had occurred. Nobody is one hundred percent sure of the cause but what was even more pleasing to notice was that where damage had occurred the soft corals were already starting to grow back. Hin Daeng is most famous for one thing, manta rays. These are regular visitors to both this site and Hin Muang so we all had our eyes focused into the blue. Alas, it was not our lucky day but the dive was still exceptional with great underwater landscapes plus an abundance of fishes including a trio of ornate ghost pipefish and a juvenile emperor angel fish.
Dive two was at Hin Muang a.k.a. "purple rock", again deriving it's name from the colourful soft corals adorning the site. This narrow long ridge underwater offers superb views as you gaze down the side to depths of forty metres plus. Again mantas were our main focus but alas still nowhere to be seen. The dive held many treats though including a school of rainbow runner in a feeding frenzy with mackerel and trevally close behind. Dive three saw a return to Hin Daeng allowing for a chance to explore parts of the site not covered on the first dive and also one last chance to look for mantas. Unfortunately not this trip which just gives me an excuse to come back sooner.
For the final dive of the trip we headed back north and stopped off at Koh Haa or "Five islands" in Thai. For those not wishing to dive there was another chance to visit a beach, perfect for the kids on the trip. For the rest we jumped in at island number one at a dive site known as "The Chimney" This is a great site for macro with rocks and boulders all around and interesting critters to be found in the sandy bottom.
The highlight of the dive though is "the chimney" itself, a vertical swim through. At around 20 metres you enter what appears to be a cave entrance but once inside you quickly see the vertical exit. Swim straight up through a space just about wide enough to accommodate a single diver and emerge through a hole at 5 metres. Fantastic fun but ensure you go one at a time to avoid your buddy's bubbles pushing you up too quickly!
With the diving over it was time to head back to Phuket. Dinner and more photography comparisons were followed by a few celebratory drinks and then bed. In the morning we awoke to find ourselves moored up back at Chalong pier. After breakfast we departed and it was very sad to leave all the superb friendly crew of MV Pawara and in particular our new found friends in Alan and Lum. With phone numbers exchanged I am sure we will have a chance to meet with them for a beer or two at the end of the season or hopefully on a return visit. So transfers back home, wash the kit and then get stuck into the photo editing. What great reminders of a trip that must rate as my best ever!
With thanks to Duke, owner of MV Pawara, for his generosity. Also to Alan and Lum for their company and eagle-like eyesight and to all the Thai crew on MV Pawara for the friendliness and helpfulness throughout the trip. Credit also to Ally for pictures of boat and lounge.