As you can imagine, we got out of there as quickly as possible and headed to the small town of Khao Lak, where we caught our 4-day liveaboard dive boat. The diving was so phenomenal that when the boat docked, we turned around and went back out with it the next day for another 4 days of sheer diving heaven
. The water was 31 degrees even at 40 meters (120 feet), and the visibility was 30 meters (90 feet). We dove 4 times a day, and I certified Suzanne as an Advanced Diver while we were onboard. Each dive brought with it new species that even I, after over 1,000 dives in 14 years, had never seen anywhere. Diving the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea was unquestionably some of the best diving I have ever done. We crossed our fingers over the span of 28 dives in the hopes of seeing my first whale shark, and the ever-elusive manta rays. Then, on our last of our 8 day diving expedition, the magic happened and we spent several minutes staring from 10 feet away at a beautiful whale shark. Suz, being closer than I was, was overwhelmed, as the rate of her bubbles quadrupled while the shark quietly swam toward her. We were also treated to a huge manta ray slowly flying over our heads like a giant carpet and several leopard sharks, in addition to the 1000s of fish and coral species that we encountered with each dive. Not only was the diving amazing, but the deserted white sand beaches within the national marine park were pretty incredible, too. We spent my birthday not only diving, but hiking up an amazing rock formation to have a stunning view of the Andaman Sea.
Upon our return to shore, we had some time to explore the former resort town of Khao Lak, which is now a tsunami-devastated shell of its former self. Random twisted and contorted cars lay scattered about. While some buildings remain virtually intact, low-lying resorts and homes are now completely levelled. Vegetation is destroyed up to 2 kilometers from the coastline and many of the local businesses have gone bankrupt. Posters abound with photos of missing foreigners, many of them just children. The town of Khao Lak lost 70% of its residents to this disaster, wiping out entire families and their bloodlines. Needless to say, it was a very sobering experience to spend time there. We can only hope that the upcoming monsoon season doesn't bring with it more disaster, as so much of the coastline is now prone to erosion without its vegetation. It was heartening to see a visible presence of recovery efforts here, with volunteer centers and new hydro lines. We wondered what the situation is like in places like Sri Lanka, which see far fewer tourists.
Phuket was everything we anticipated, which means, in a nutshell, we hated it. That's not to say that there probably aren't spectacular beaches and resorts catering to the mass tourist market, but the small slice that we saw really left everything to be desired (and a few things to forget!). We stayed on an ugly overcrowded beach, and mostly hid out in the a/c of our room. The nights were pure entertainment, walking down streets lined with open-air bars full of Thai women soliciting the German and Swiss men. Many of the sexy women dancing on stages, on closer inspection, are actually men, eager to flash their newly purchased breasts.