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  • A squadron of Head-band Butterflyfish (Chaetodon collare) in close formation over the reef.

    Tourists visiting Thailand for the first time invariably arrive with baggage—some of it physical, much of it mental. Foreign vacationers may disembark with any number of preconceived images of Thailand. Some, no doubt, picture the neon lights and back alleys of Bangkok. Others may expect to be greeted by the cast of The King and I. Reality, of course, rarely matches preconceived notions. That’s where the adventure begins.

    Happy to be in Thailand, a snorkelor blows a kiss to the camera.
    Phuket and Patong
    In Thailand, Phuket Island is the center of serious diving activity. Phuket is just an hour from Bangkok by air, and there are flights almost every half-hour throughout the day. While on Phuket, I was headquartered in the bustling seaside town of Patong Beach, where I encountered a very different Thailand. Actually, it reminded me of Miami Beach.

    A tourist indulges in a five-dollar beach massage.
    Well, not exactly. But try to imagine a sea of colorful beach umbrellas stretching as far as the eye can see. You know you’re someplace a bit more exotic, though, when you spy tourists flat on the sand receiving the Zen-like beach massage. At the going rate of five dollars per hour, how can you pass it up? Patong Beach has a lot to offer vacationers. The town boasts miles upon miles of white sand beaches; luxurious, western-style, high-rise hotels at surprisingly reasonable rates; a seemingly endless selection of seafood restaurants; and a lively nightlife with just enough of an underbelly to keep things spicy.

    An Ornate Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) at Richilieu Rock in the Andaman Sea.
    Protected and Prolific Parks
    Traveling north from Phuket, we went to the Andaman Sea and visited dive sites around Richilieu Rock and the Similan Islands before heading further north to the Burma Banks. From the surface, Richilieu is a very small piece of stone, sticking out of the water only during low tide. It is a protected marine reserve, out of reach to the local fishermen. A small marker buoy identifies the site.

    The world’s largest statue of a reclining Buddah, Bangkok.
    Underwater there are several pinnacles, with the bottom ranging from 40 feet to over 120 feet. This forest of pinnacles is home to a tremendous variety of marine life. Cuttlefish make their nests in carefully selected plots. Meetings bet-ween these territorial creatures can be colorful amusement for observers. Schools of Horse-eye Jacks, batfish, snappers, fusiliers and barracudas mill around the canyons and the open spaces. Gorgonians line the walls and ledges where seahorses and Ornate Ghostpipefish are usually found. The best time to dive Richilieu Rock is when there is some current flowing. This brings in the big animals. For years, the Rock has been a well-known site for spotting Whale Sharks and Manta Rays. I did see a large Manta on one dive; however, the Whale Sharks were more elusive.

    Delicate swirls of Lettuce Coral provide a safe haven for dozens of reef creatures.
    Similan Islands Marine Park consists of nine islands. The islands are named numerically for the convenience of the visiting divers—although all of them do have Thai names. I dived islands Four, Seven, Eight and Nine. A typical dive in this island group features immense underwater rock formations. Most surfaces are lined with large red gorgonians framed by countless Glassy Sweepers, snappers and fusiliers. Powder-blue surgeonfish decorate the rock surface, looking for all the world like lilac flowers as they nibble on algae. With visibility reaching 100 feet, you get a clear wide-angle view of these magnificent and unique underwater formations, which are very similar to those found topside.

    On the way to Myanmar and the Burma Banks, the boat made a stop at Port Victoria, the border checkpoint. The process was fast and efficient, without taking time away from our dive schedule. We also had the opportunity to go ashore and visit the port’s markets, temples and lovely parks.

    Schooling Cardinalfish (Rhabdamia cypselura) swarm over the reef.

    Silvertip Shark (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) on the Burma Bank.
    Shark Central—Burma Banks
    One of the highlights from our time off Myanmar was the immense number of Silvertip Sharks on the Burma Banks. These sharks, while not overly aggressive, have some size to them. Diving with them is an experience you’ll not soon forget. The Silvertips have been fed for many years by visiting dive boats. Now, the sharks greet the boats as they arrive, and circle the area throughout the day.

    The Burma Banks has more to offer than just the Silvertips though. A marker buoy identifies the shallow part of a very long submerged reef, which averages 50 to 60 feet deep. Tying a line to the buoy, divers can enter the water directly from the live-aboard with ease. There are many other animals on the reef including octopi, morays, several small Nurse Sharks and one big Nurse Shark named Mat. The divemasters are good about showing guests different resident creatures they have seen on past trips. Many reef residents have become almost like pets.

    Bangkok’s world-famous floating market. Above: Parting of the snapper.
    Another Burma Banks highlight is the incredible color and diversity of small creatures such as ghost pipefish, Harlequin Shrimp and mating cuttlefish found at a site called Black Rock. Of course, I should also mention the Marble Rays and Nurse Sharks at Three Stooges. Other sites included North Twin, where we found excellent gorgonians and all kinds of lobster, crab and shrimp tucked into the reef crevices; High Rock, where we had to dive between fishing boats; and MacArthy, where we saw a large colony of Hingebeak Shrimp, which did not hesitate to clean our fingers.

    I returned to Patong Beach for three days after that sailing and did my best to enjoy a little bit of all the town had to offer. An impossible task perhaps, but I tried.

    Next, I was packing my bags and heading back to Bangkok. I stayed there for just one day during which I tried (and failed) to visit every temple in my guidebook. However, I did find time to visit the city’s colorful floating market where shoppers travel from vendor to vendor in skiffs. It’s the type of frenzied scene that seems to be so evocative of Asia.

    From the reefs to the marketplace, the entire trip was a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic activity. Thailand and the Burma Banks have maintained their Eastern mystery, beauty and charm. Now, with the addition of hotels, dive boats and tour operators, which can offer Western luxury to the package, there is no reason to put off the visiting this exotic corner of the world.

    Time Travel in Sangalaki | Images of Lembeh Straits | Siamese Seas
    Bali's Deer Island | Diving Across Malaysia | Southeast Asia: Getting There | Index