It was getting towards the end of the high season in Thailand when I got the opportunity to hop on board the MV Pawara, a liveaboard boat which also runs southern island diving trips to Phi Phi, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.
It had been a while since I last visited these dive spots which have always been among my favourites in Thailand, so I dusted down my BCD and looked forward to immersing myself in the splendour of the Andaman Sea on a 3 night liveaboard cruise.
Trips on the MV Pawara start with a pick up at your hotel, which will be around 5pm if you are staying in Patong Beach, Phuket. I joined other guests on the transfer to Chalong Pier, in the south of the island near Phuket Town, where we all gathered ready to board our home for the next few days.
The guests and luggage were transferred to the main boat in a huge dinghy, with the crew being friendly and helpful straight from the start. Consequently, everybody stepped on board in a good mood, safe in the knowledge that we would be well looked after.
Our first day of diving was around the Phi Phi Islands. We had very good sea and weather conditions, unsurprising given that April (the month of my trip) to July is the best time to dive the Phi Phi sites. The water was clear with visibility easily over 15 metres, and at this time of the year there tend to be fewer people on the boats which makes the diving feel that little bit more special. Also the weather was perfect for me: nice and hot, with a gentle breeze and only the very occasional shower.
We dived Koh Bida Nok on the fringing reef of its north-eastern side; we were the only people in the water since the Phi Phi scuba operators seldom make it there at that time of day. It was a good feeling to be right on the site long before any daytrippers.
Clear sunny skies and great visibility made the reef sparkle! The corals were bursting with colour and there seemed to be a kaleidoscope of multi-hued fish everywhere I looked. We also spotted several leopard sharks, one of the sights for which Phi Phi is renowned. After this beautiful morning dive we had an easy egress from the water on to the dive platform. On other occasions on this liveaboard trip I would see some guests struggle to get back onto the dinghy with its high sides, so be careful to keep your fins on or you could make the struggle much worse.
After a hearty breakfast with plenty of toast, beans, eggs and the like, we listened to the briefing for the next dive at Koh Bida Nai, from north to south on the west side of the island. By this time we had been joined in the water by the daytrippers based in Phi Phi but there were not so many of them as to spoil our fun. In fact our group was delighted that this dive included 4 frogfish, and we spent plenty of time marvelling at them and taking pictures.
There was plenty of excited chatter about the frogfish over a tasty and thankfully quite light lunch, before we all took sometime to unwind. Some caught some rays on the sundeck while others studied the fish books. I used the time to start writing this report just for you!
Soon it was time for us to stride off the platform at Maya Wall, on the north west side of Phi Phi Leh Island. Again the conditions remained perfect for this relatively shallow site over a reef festooned with sea fans and soft coral. We came across a big turtle that was feeding and seemed in no rush to run away, so again the photographers among us were ecstatic. We then proceeded slowly down to Maya Bay, enjoying the swim-throughs and bright coral backdrop, all the while surrounded by a variety of reef fishes. A couple of the more observant in our group then indicated that they have come across 2 painted frogfish in a coral tree. It was a great spot as they were so well camouflaged, and blended in with their background almost perfectly.
Having dried off back on the boat, we stood around drinking tea, enjoying an afternoon snack and discussing where we would conduct our sunset dive. It was concluded that we would drop in at a rarely dived spot known as Hin Dot, just at the edge of the busy Tonsai Bay in Phi Phi Don Island. Despite the heavy boat traffic in this area and the doubts several guests expressed to each other beforehand, we found this site to be amazing.
In spite of the reduced visibility all the guests had a great dive. There were reef fish everywhere; schools of trevally, fusiliers and jacks with barracuda sailing in circles around the pinnacles, and the riot of the vibrant purple and yellow soft coral completed the scenario. Satisfied with an excellent first day's scuba diving, the guests all unwound in the early evening in the lounge, chatting in the saloon, watching some TV and playing games as the boat rocked gently in the warm night water.
After dinner we had enough free time to visit Phi Phi Tonsai village, enjoy the shopping and a partake of a refreshing beverage or two in some of the island's finer pubs. Back on board we chugged slowly south to Hin Daeng and Hin Muang as guests relaxed in the open saloon and drifted off to bed for a well-earned and cozy sleep.
One of the most interesting and welcome features of life on the Pawara is the use of music. Instead of the usual barrack style hollering that often greets the bleary-eyed diver on a liveaboard, you are gently coaxed from your somnolent state by soft music that filters through the boat via a system of speakers including 1 in each cabin. So at 7:00 am I was roused by the same sweet music that is also used to call guests to briefings and meals.
We enjoyed a light breakfast of croissants, toast and fresh coffee, overlooking Hin Daeng and Hin Muang - the 2 most famous dive sites south of Phi Phi, offshore from the island of Koh Lanta. Being at the end of the peak season in Thailand, it was great to wake up to the realisation that we were the only boat around and had the sites all to ourselves.
We first explored Hin Daeng, starting from the south west wall that drops down to over 60 metres; the water was so clear that shortly into our descent we could clearly see the bottom. The dive was peppered with interesting sightings such as schools of rainbow runners dashing in very close to the reef for breakfast, and groupers sharing the same crevices with moray eels.
All the while angelfish, surgeonfish and butterflyfish danced around us in the gin-clear morning water. Unfortunately we did not see any mantas at this site which is unusual since they are regularly sighted here. Although as we made our way back up the sloping 3 rocks that form Hin Daeng, there was no sense of disappointment since we had enjoyed another very pleasant and relaxed dive, and there were smiles all round over our hot breakfast.
Next we dived Hin Muang, 4 high pinnacles that extend from the sandy bottom at 70 metres up to 5 metres from surface. As we sank below 10 metres it all became clear ... literally. Incredible visibility again accentuated the purple of the corals and anemones that carpeted the rocks. We witnessed a big school of mackerel hunting and jacks zipping up and down the reef. The amount of life was so great that I even forgot to keep an eye out for the mantas that appeared to be on vacation for that week.
Following lunch of tempura, veggies, soup and eggs, most guests took a quick nap before the third dive again at Hin Daeng, but this time swimming in the opposite direction. On this occasion the current was stronger due to the incoming tide but it was another good dive with 3 ghost pipefish being my personal highlight.
Our final dive of the trip was at sunset, in the famous chimney at Koh Ha, where our luck with great visibility continued. The dive includes a chimney like swim-through that takes you from 17 to 5 metres. You need to be careful about your rate of ascent, and if the tide is rising you may decide to not enter there. Marine life you can expect to see here include seahorses and a variety of nudibranchs, so make sure to bring your macro lens.
As we headed back all the guests agreed we had enjoyed great conditions on uncrowded dive sites and all things considered it was a very relaxing and rewarding liveaboard trip.
The first impression upon boarding the boat is the great deal of space, with the huge open air lounge where they conduct briefings. On the main deck you will find the bar and the spacious and comfortable saloon equipped with a 52 inch LCD TV, laptop, DVD and Sony Playstation. There is also plenty of space to store cameras, computers and others electronic equipment. The shelves are well stocked with general interest books as well as fish identification books.
On the upper deck is the well maintained sun deck, which has enough room for all liveaboard guests to be sunning themselves at the same time in comfort, whether lounging on the deck itself or in the wooden furniture. One interesting feature of the Pawara is that the Thai captain uses a modern joystick rather than a traditional wheel to steer the vessel.
The cabins are spacious enough and the air conditioning runs well. Despite being a steel boat, MV Pawara is in fact not too noisy. Cabins on the lower deck are not comfortable for tall people since the ceilings are only 1.80 m, but they have a twin bed and are en-suite. I think the best value cabins are the standard bunk beds on the main deck, the toilet and showers here offer more space, there is a desk and reading lamp. The 2 deluxe cabins on the main deck offer more storage space but the toilet and shower are a bit on the small side.
If you like soft pillows you will need to bring your own (along with your teddy bear) as the pillows provided are really hard. We have asked the operator to replace them or offer some alternative as a result of this trip.
The dinghy is big and comfortable, but at the moment lacks a ladder so you need to keep your mask and fins on to 'jump' back into it. The crew on the dinghy will be happy to help you but surely a ladder would make life much easier.
On the dive deck and platform, at water level, there is enough room for all divers, each space having a plastic crate underneath the bench for boots and other small individual items. The deck works well and has 2 deep fresh water tanks for cameras, just don't leave your computer there or it will log a dive!
Most of the food is Thai, but be warned there is no pork since the kitchen staff are Muslims. All day long you can avail yourself of the free fruit, biscuits, tea, coffee, milo (chocolate), lemon or sweet Thai style tea, and soft drinks.
Breakfast is simple but complete with eggs, chicken sausages, croissants, toast, ham, butter, cereals. It's served in the dining saloon on the main deck, and a light breakfast (croissant, toast bread) is served before the first dive.
Dinner and lunch are served on the liveaboard's upper deck buffet style, and always include 4 choices. The Thai cuisine is not too spicy and there is always 1 soup.
The food is good quality, prepared on time, more than enough for everyone on board, and well-balanced. Vegetarians and others with special requirements must give advanced notice.
Overall I believe the Pawara is a very good value liveaboard option, both for the Similans and the southern island trips like this one. It is a particularly sociable boat where guests tend to gather in the communal areas.
Pawara means 'Treasure of the Corals', and everyone left our trip feeling they had experienced the treasures of the Andaman Sea. So if you are looking for a fun, mid-range option from which to dive the best sites in Thailand, then maybe Pawara is the perfect boat for you.
Written by Diego Bianchi, April 2008