It was my first ever trip to the Similan Islands and as if that was not exciting enough, I would be doing it in style on board The Junk.
Do not be fooled by the name, The Junk is an absolutely charming vessel. The 'June Hong Chian Lee', to give her full name, is a restored Chinese style junk sail boat. She was originally built in Penang in 1962 and was taken over by new owners in 1997 who completely restored her to function as a liveaboard safari vessel.
To cruise around the waters of the Andaman Sea on board the very same boat that was Scaramanga's in 'The Man with the Golden Gun' was a memorable experience. So too was the excellent diving, worthy of Bond himself. You have a feeling right from the start that you are doing something a little out of the ordinary.
The dinghy took us out to the vessel in Patong Bay as the sun was setting. The Junk stood out from all the other Similan liveaboards in the bay with her distinctive lines, teak hull and 3 sailing masts.
I do not need to dwell too much on the diving in the Similans. It was of course stunning. There has been much publicity about the damage to the corals caused first by the 2004 tsunami and then the bleaching in 2010. I was curious to see how the corals were coping and it must be admitted that they have clearly suffered. There are fields of bleached corals, especially in the shallower waters. But once you get down to the deeper, cooler waters the corals start to come to life.
The real joy of diving at the Similans is the visibility and the myriad of sea-life. Great schools of barracuda and trevally patrol the edge of the reefs while schools of colourful reef fish glide around the huge underwater boulders. Turtles munch around the corals and moray eels sashay between the rocks. The nooks and crevices are home to a plethora of fascinating macro creatures. I won't go on. It was my first visit to the Similans and if they are not at their peak, I can only wonder at how stunning they must have been before.
The Junk can carry up to 18 guests but their cruise leader tells me they rarely take that number. The 2 triple bed cabins are usually occupied by couples so that gives them a maximum of 16. On our safari there were only 9 guests so we had plenty of space. There is enough space on deck for all the guests to get ready, even when the boat is full. They take a maximum of 6 guests per dive-master so on this charter we had one other dive-master.
The crew were very attentive and made sure the divers got all the assistance they needed in preparing and donning their gear. Dive entries were usually back-rolls from the dinghy straight over the site. When Dive The World sends out its intrepid staff to do these trip reports, they usually send one of their own scuba experts from the sales team. On this occasion, they sent me. I am more of a casual diver, so I fully appreciated Keith the DM's close attention to his group and his quick assistance when I struggled to find my neutral buoyancy on the first dive. From that point on, the diving was fantastic and the staff on The Junk could not have done any more to make it better.
I must give special mention to the food. The fare served up by Khun Na, the ever smiling chef, was simply exceptional. Every guest on board was in agreement - this was the best food they had ever had on a liveaboard safari.
It was lunch and dinner where Khun Na truly excelled herself with a buffet selection of Thai dishes and a few western favourites. Her Thai food includes classic dishes such as green curry, yellow curry and tom yam seafood. It is all made with that rich blend of Thai flavours but with the spiciness toned down to suit even the more sensitive Western palette. One or two western dishes are also included at each sitting. Khun Na managed to come up with a different menu selection for every meal we had on board.
Breakfast is the standard selection of cereal, toast, sausage, egg and beans with maybe also a rice soup or pancakes for something different.
The liveaboard cabins are the only significant negative to mention. They are perfectly adequate, just not up to the standard of the rest of the boat. The cabins are on the lower deck and they are basic with no windows. The beds are a little hard. All the cabins have air-con and en-suite bathrooms with toilets and hot showers.
There are 6 cabins - 2 doubles, 2 triples and 2 quadruples. Fortunately, there were only 2 of us sharing the quadruple so we had plenty of space. I would imagine it would be a little cramped if there were 4 people sharing. The cabins are basic but then they are only really for sleeping and showering and for this purpose they are perfectly adequate.
In the distant past when these Chinese sailing junks were originally working ships, they relied on the trade winds to take them from port to port. They do not have the keel to enable them to tack against the wind so if the prevailing wind was against them, they simply waited in port until the winds changed favourably. Life has changed a lot since then and The Junk has her own engines to defy the vagaries of the wind, but somehow the dive safari just would not seem complete if we did not see the vessel under sail.
Putting the sails up is a bit of an effort so this treat is saved for the big finish. After the final dive, as the ship heads back to Patong, the crew go to work pulling up the 3 sails. This is time for all manner of photo opportunities before cocktails are served. What a way to finish this Similan liveaboard trip, sipping a cocktail under the fluttering canvas, engines silent while the sun sets.
The sails come back down before darkness and it is time for a few beers as the engines resume to complete the return voyage. We woke up in the morning at Patong, slightly the worse for wear but fully satisfied with our safari.
The Junk leaves from Patong Bay, the main tourist resort in Phuket. A minibus picked me up from the Dive The World shop and took me to the pier where a dinghy took us all out to the boat. It could not be easier.
The Junk is one of our high budget Similan liveaboard options but it really does deliver on quality. The boat is distinctly different from any of the other dive boats in Thailand and that is very much part of the experience - it is unique. At the same time, the boat has been fully renovated to act as a liveaboard and the crew make the diving comfortable and easy.
Your fellow guests are an important part of any liveaboard safari and The Junk encourages a friendly and relaxed social atmosphere. On this trip we were joined by regular Dive The World customers Ian and Christine from Botswana who kept us entertained with colourful stories about their farm and their previous diving cruises. The charming Dan and Christine from Canada were always good value for a story and no doubt they will be trying our service soon while new Dive The World customer Ossama thoroughly enjoyed it too.
You cannot dive the Similans much better than with The Junk. If you want to visit in a bit of style, enjoy the diving and also feel like the trip is a bit special, then this is the way to go. I would recommend it to anyone.
Written by Jimmy Hazard, March 2011