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Libong Dugongs Aerial Survey

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Research on the dugongs of Libong is ongoing, with another aerial survey completed. It’s odd that the Professor didn’t tell me about it since his Lifelong Learning Foundation has co-funded some of the research.

In fact it’s a long-term project. The current PI, Kanjana Adulyanukosol, has worked in the Libong area since at least the mid-nineties. Given her experience I hope that there is cause for optimism, though a slight decline has been observed. The variation in sightings is large and absolute counts are not possible, so I take this to mean that the decline is non-significant. In such a small population—and given the slow reproductive rate of the dugong—it would otherwise be cause for serious concern.

It would be interesting to compare the data from all surveys carried out from 1997 (which I think was the first) until now.

The Dept. of Marine & Coastal Resources in Phuket seems to have matters in hand. Maybe rather than trying to survey the dugongs myself (I’d thought about rigging up a blimp cam), I should focus on mapping the seagrass habitat.


One thing is for sure: the field is more crowded than I thought.

And that is a good thing.


Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Ko Tao
Coming home from holiday is always a bit of a shock; especially when it involves startling awake in a congested, droning metal tube, improbably suspended in the night sky 30000 feet above the Siberian tundra and convinced that—at any moment—the spaceship is about to crash to Earth.

But coming back from Thailand is more than that. Awakening is not followed by relief. The colours dancing in my head on the National Express bus home did not settle down to the surrounding vista of grey, followed by a mild pang of regret.
Back home...
It’s not a question of putting some jerk chicken in the oven or going out for a curry and turning the radio to the Asian Network. I’m turning my entire kitchen over because I want to recapture those smells. I can’t let go of them.

Coming back from Thailand is heartbreaking.

Consider this: of the fifty countries I have visited, Thailand is the only one I keep coming back to for reasons unrelated to work, family or the constraints of a package holiday. And that was before I had a better reason to consider it.

John is the same. The proximity of the Red Sea is the only thing that placates him (it looks like I’ll have to take up diving again!)

One thing is for sure: we will be back!

One Last Memento

Extraordinary Measures

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Suit Fitting

As far as I could tell, the suit fitted perfectly. John shrugged into the jacket and turned, looking over his shoulder, when a pained expression crossed his face.

“What is it?” the Tailor asked.

“Not enough, er—” he indicated his crotch, “—ballroom.”

The Tailor tsk-ed and walked around him, tweaking here and there.

“Bend over. Hm…” He gestured at the row of chairs. “Sit down and spread your legs. Let me see.”

John did, grimaced and got up again. “It’s no good. It’s too tight!”

At that moment a man on a scooter pulled up outside, grabbing several suit covers that were draped over the handlebar. The Tailor gestured and he tossed the suits over a rail and came over. The two exchanged a few words in Thai.

The man shook his head and the Tailor pointed towards John. Without taking off his helmet, the Driver walked over and crouched on the floor, where—with the Tailor leaning over his shoulder—he proceeded to feel John’s crotch.

The Driver tsk-ed and mumbled something.

“Not normal size,” The Tailor translated.

“Big, eh?” the Driver grinned. There was another short exchange in Thai, then the Tailor picked out the roll of Cashmere which had been the material for the suit. Waving his yard stick, he measured out a generous strap and ran his scissors through the precious material. He handed the strap to the Driver while shooting John an admonishing glance.

The Driver took the offending trousers and extra material and departed.

“Come back tonight,” the Tailor said.

John did. This time the suit fitted perfectly.

Had Chao Mai National Park: Crowded Paradise

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Crowded Paradise

I was already aching at the prospect of returning to bustling Bangkok and—all too soon—head for home, so signing up for the daytrip had been a good idea.

“Which island is it going to?,” I asked when I signed the receipt. I was surprised that the agent hadn’t discussed the various options with me.

“Four island,” she said. “Muk Island, Kradan Island, Chueak and Ma Island. Everything.”


[read on]

Trang: Morning Musings

Friday, January 15th, 2010

(Entries will be backdated as they appear, so scroll down. The dugong entries are coming soon!)

Koh-Pee: Trang's famous local coffee

Today I thought I’d engage in an act of mass tourism, since is was my last full day in Trang.

The day trip to the Hat Chao Mai National Park, taking in the islands of Ko Muk, Ko Cheuk and Ko Kradan, would leave from a travel agency near the station. Speed and efficiency ruled from the start. At the Sin Ocha Bakery, my breakfast was on the table before I could reach for my cigarettes, which meant that I was 45 minutes early for the minivan.

I could see the station from where I sat. The loudspeakers spewed forth a barrage of either political propaganda or morning pep talks as no trains were arriving at this time, leaving them free for other uses.

The street—alive with commuters—was lined with cake shops and travel agents, but there were no convenience stores, let alone newsagents. It made me wonder where to get the elusive Bangkok Post from. The copy at the Sin Ocha had been five days old.

Where do people in Thailand buy their newspapers? Especially here in Trang; a town full of pharmacies, opticians and whiteware stores—as well as the cakeshops and travel agents clustered around the station—but with amazingly little of practical value. Getting from the internet café to the nearest food outlet involved a fifteen-minute trek.

Music began to play from the loudspeakers and the girl in the chair next to mine gave me a prod.

“National Song!”

I blinked. Everybody had stopped doing what they were doing and stood still. I hastily rose, feeling like an Olympic athlete at somebody else’s medal ceremony.

The girl turned around and grinned. “National song,” she said again.

I almost hushed her, thinking that we should stand quietly to attention, but the man who had frozen in passing as the music started up joined in. “National Song.” —Just in case I hadn’t got it.

When the anthem was over, life resumed as if nothing had interrupted it. A gaggle of Schoolgirls walked by, dressed in pleated navy skirts and short-sleeved shirts. The Muslim girls wore white headscarves down to their shoulders, but that was the only difference.

Trang is a mix of Muslim and Buddhist and the atmosphere here is relaxed. There are no tensions like in the Southern provinces which were once part of a different Malay Sultanate.

“But they speak another language there!” I said (Yawi).

“Nonsense,” the Professor said. “They are all Thai, all go to Thai schools and speak Thai. What they speak at home is their affair.”

Little chance of a quick reconciliation then.

I have travelled through Hat Yai, Songkhla and Satun in the past, and crossed the border at Sungai Kolok without any problems. But in rural areas people are sometimes kidnapped and executed at random and bombs are regularly planted in the towns. The government’s harsh response has done little to calm tempers. So far Farang have not been targeted, but it is only a matter of time. Farang matter because the government could lose face internationally, and sooner or later the separatists will realise this. At least the Professor maintained that things have grown more relaxed with Thaksin gone.

Nobody would believe it just from travelling around the Land of Smiles (provided they don’t watch the news, but who bothers with that when travelling?) but politics in Thailand are volatile, and riots—even civil war—are not out of the question.

Nobody knows what will happen when the King dies.

Ko Libong: Future Research?

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

All good things come to an end, but there was no hair-rising scooter ride up-and-down slippery slopes at the end of my stay on Libong. Instead I split a longtail directly from the Nature Resort to Had Yao with the nice Swedish family who had enabled me to see the dugongs.

On the pier, I turned my back to the cool shade offered by its sister resort and faced the village square which was dozing in the mid-day sun. The minivan was already waiting. There was only one direction to go from here: back to Trang.


The van would leave when it was full. For now my backpack sat forlornly in the boot, while I sat in the shade on the terrace of a private residence, watching two children—a naked toddler and a little girl—squeal and run around, occasionally helped along by a friendly slap from an adult.

Village life at its most relaxed.

From the hammock behind me, the old man who had offered me the seat lobbed stones at the toddler’s battered plastic tractor, hitting it with great accuracy. An occasional scooter or pickup drove past, but half an hour later all was quiet. Apparently nobody was up for going on a shopping trip to Trang.

A refreshing breeze picked up. Two Brahimi kites circled high above the small hill at the back of the village, bringing back memories of other journeys.

Ko Libong lay behind me, separated by a three kilometre stretch of water, looking close enough to swim across. Just a mile or so to my left, closer to the island, we had seen dugongs yesterday. And I may not have seen the last of them.
[read on]

Different Things To Do In Thailand: Build A Rainforest Camp!

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Green Wall

A large part of Ko Libong is covered with rainforest, which is protected under the ‘no hunting zone’. On my first day at the Nature Resort I decided to go for a walk up the hill at its back. The path let through fields and a rubber plantation, one of many that cover the flatter parts of Ko Libong like a park landscape with trees arranged in military rows.

I hesitated—this looked like private land—but a man sitting on the porch of a hut by the plantation’s edge waved me on. His dog Leila bounded after me, ignoring his calls, her nose to the ground and tail wagging in the air. There would be no snakes accosting us here!
[read on]


Thursday, January 14th, 2010

I’ve found my animal.

If I want a three months volunteer position to carry out research on the dugongs off Libong, it’s mine (!)

Normal service will resume shortly.

Ko Libong: Crab Capital Of Thailand

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Hermit Crab

Something clattered across the floor. A shell with legs protruding from it like a grotesque fist. Simon picked the thing up by its tip.

“This was right among the kittens!”

He pointed it towards the Swedes, who recoiled from the menacing pincers.

“I’ve never see such a monster hermit crab,” I said.

“Oh, they grow bigger,” Simon replied.

When I went beachcombing that morning, all the pretty shells had scuttled away from my reaching fingertips. Every shell big enough to house a hermit crab, did, with the juveniles sticking to the tideline rather than the rock pools as they do at home. And as for the adults: they are terrestrial. I think they feed on kittens.

And it’s not just the hermit crabs. Simon brought up a photo on his camera screen: a crab the size of my foot holding a toad by its hindleg.

“I’ll be sure to wear my booties,” I said.

Crab Habitats

But this is just skimming the surface. The terrestrial crabs have escaped the intense competition that is going on at sea. I can hear it in the clicking in the mud. The sand is covered by the neat pearls of their excavations. And crabs are part of the fauna that comprises the oyster-barnacle community which encrusts certain rocks like a belt just below the tideline.

Rockface Ecology

An exuberance of life, above the surface and below.

Dugong Tour

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Tour Boat

“Your new life begins tomorrow,” the Professor said.

We were in the bar, listening to the briefing he gave us about the tour.

“Seeing a dugong brings luck. Your life will change. Things are not the same afterwards…”

We were about to ask him what he meant with this mysterious statement when one of the children shrieked. I leaned across from my table to be confronted with an enormous cockroach scuttling past the half-empty dinner plates. The Professor shoo-ed it away.

“I’m sorry. Those creatures are completely harmless, but I’m afraid there are everywhere around the villages.”

“I think we could do with some luck,” the mother said, letting out a deep breath. I admired her fortitude; had the table not separated me from the roach, I’d have run screaming out of the door, arms flailing in the air.

The Professor suppressed a smile. “Perhaps. But back to the tour. Don’t worry if you don’t see any dugongs. There are no guarantees, but it doesn’t mean bad luck. It just means that your time hasn’t come yet.”


The longtail floated in the calm sea, illuminated by soft morning light. All three kayaks were tied to its stern. I felt a pang of guilt because I hadn’t helped to clean up the mess I’d made yesterday (I had literally been unable to lift the damn thing out of the water, and by the time I had recovered it was dark).

Today would be so much easier!

We climbed on board and sat down in the shade of the awning while our Chao Ley skipper cast off and agilely stepped along the gunwale to take the steering wheel.

The sea started to pick up, its surface rippling gently, just as it had done yesterday. Five minutes after we’d set out I saw another dolphin-sized splash. By now I was convinced that it was a fish, but what a fish!

It took us just over ten minutes to get to Stationary Beach, which the map labels as Laem Muda. The boat slowed just before we turned into the eastern bay. I squinted into the glare, but saw nothing.

Within a few minutes, another longtail arrived. It had farang on board but no kayaks. We all stared out to sea, but saw nothing apart from the gently rippling waves and small splashing fish.

“There,” The skipper shouted.

Three more minutes passed and the sea had calmed slightly, with fewer fish splashing. Both engines were silent as we continued to stare in vain.


I took out my binoculars and started to sweep but still I saw nothing while our skipper made one call after another. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I lost vision in the left lens. I don’t know whether it was smudged or something was lodged inside, but it wouldn’t budge.


“The Chao Ley are the best stewards for the marine environment,” the Professor said. “They grow up with the sea. They can see underwater. Not like us. They can grab a fish with their bare hands!”

Until recently, the Chao Ley—or Sea Gypsies—have led a nomadic life, travelling across the Pacific and Indian Ocean in their wooden boats as many of them still do in Indonesia. But more and more are settling down as they are forced to assimilate into a country.

“Otherwise they’ll be kicked out,” the Professor said. “But they belong to the sea. They’re international, from here all the way to Africa. It’s reflected in their music and their songs.”

“Do they really see differently underwater—I mean, do they have different vision from us?” the Swedish Engineer asked, still contemplating the first statement.

“No they don’t have different vision. They’re trained to see things that you’d never notice.”
[read on]