On day 11 we were up and out early from our floating guesthouse. Our Trang island resort destination reported high seas kicking up daily around 2-3PM. We needed to arrive at the departure pier by 1:00PM to avoid a rough crossing. The early start afforded lovely morning light on the jungle-draped karst towers for our trip back to the Khao Sok landing. Temperatures were pleasantly cool and we enjoyed one last magic hour on the lake. Then it was back in the vans for our journey south where we enjoyed the scenery, highlighted by rubber and palm oil plantations. Even though time was short, I insisted on a quick stop at Koranee NP. As Phang Nga Bay was too far to include, I’d settled on the compromise visit to the similar geology of Koranee. But it turned out not to be a compromise at all. We had little time, but we piled into longtails, motored out through mangrove swamps, and then through a magnificent Hong. Hong means “room” in Thai. These impressive features are cave-like passages underneath karst stacks, the one karst feature lacking at Khao Sok. It was exciting to float through the watery cavern. Stalactites looked like jagged teeth as we passed the entrance into the nether world of inky darkness. Our boatman cut the engine and we glided through in silence, broken only by the sounds of the surrounding jungle, the occasional dip of an oar, the click and whir of cameras firing, and the subdued oohs and aahs of our group. I imagined Charon rowing our souls across the river styx into Hades as daylight faded to darkness. But hope returned with light as we quickly approached the opposite end. We emerged from the bowels of hell, once again passing the gaping and toothy maw of the underworld. Simply magical! What a country.
Then it was back in the vans heading south. We arrived at the mainland departure pier for Koh Ngai in plenty of time. Our passage was calm and pleasant and delivered us to our island paradise. We’d been laughing and singing the theme song from Gulligen’s Island at our rustic floating huts, but as we approached Koh Ngai on the horizon, we could not avoid the same comparison to the profile before us. It is a true island paradise, only partially developed and a world away from the frenzy of more famous Krabi, Phi Phi, and Phucket. Thapwarin Resort is a picturesque collection of thatched bamboo bungalows overlooking a magnificent stretch of golden sand with karst islands as backdrop to complete the idyllic setting. Virtually everyone trickled into the beach-side bar for happy hour libations and then enjoyed a splendid seafood BBQ dinner. Gorgeous grilled prawns shared the table with barracuda and mackerel, attended by a couple of curries and the usual fresh fruit: a tropical feast. It was a fitting end to another amazing day in Thailand.
Day 12 was a vacation from our vacation and there were no tour activities. Day 13 was our excursion day. We made an 8:30 departure and arrived about an hour later at one of southern Thailand’s most spectacular natural wonders: Morokot (Emerald) Cave. The Emerald Cave is a captivating anomaly of nature and a traveler’s adventure par excellence. It is actually a hong, the interior of which having collapsed, creating an interior lagoon. It is like a giant sinkhole with a secret entrance. Inside the jungle has reestablished itself beyond a perfect sandy beach, surrounded by steep karst walls, draped with jungle greenery and reaching up to the azure sky. It's reached only by swimming through the access tunnel-cave. After tying off our boat we jumped into the clear refreshing water. We eagerly swam into the zigzagging cavern, once again trusting our fates to the gods of the underworld (and our guide with his waterproof flashlight). The entrance and exit are quite small but widen beneath the water, allowing the sun to create an electric glow, similar to Capri’s Blue Grotto – only emerald green. It is lovely. But once all the way in, the darkness is complete. We were glad of our guide and light. We soon emerged in the private magical world of the interior lagoon. We were not completely alone but we beat the hords yet to come. It was quiet, peaceful, and magnificent. We stayed about 20 minutes, marveling at the uniqueness and enjoying the sandy beach. During that time a trickle of other tourists arrived so we braved the cavern to return to our own world. As we entered the cave we passed a giant conga line of arriving Thai tourists – a huge orange (from the life jackets) centipede of gigling, smiling faces, each with his or her hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. It was pleasing to see them having so much fun but the clamor they brought broke the magic spell of Morokot. We were leaving at just the right time. Emerging again at the entrance we saw a second conga line: this time the row of huge tour boats which had arrived from the mainland - each disgorging its requisite orange centipedes. The decision to leave early had paid out big and we felt lucky to have had our time inside. [Note: Morokot is prominantly featured in this season's television show, The Bachelor.]
We continued our excursion to nearby Koh Kraden. We had another fabulous picnic on board and enjoyed the beach. The next highlights were two snorkeling stops. First we returned to the southern tip of our island. The water was clear and the reefs provided some colorful corals and lots of sea life. I saw starfish, giant clams, angelfish, soft corals, tangs, parrots, and a fascinating cuttlefish. Others spotted a moray eel. Our last stop was Koh Waen, one of the tiny karst islands we see from our beach at Thapwarin. Here we found different underwater sights - long-spined urchins, fan and antler corals, tons of anemones - with brilliant blue, purple, or red sleeves, and clown fish hiding within. Afterward we were all tired and ready to return to our resort for a quick nap or journal catchup before a sunset beer by the beach.