Learning to Swim in the Andaman Sea

 

We all have our shortcomings. Some of us can’t dance. Other can’t drive a stick or ice skate. For me, it’s always been swimming (in addition to whistling and snapping . . . I just cannot get those two down!). You see, at the impressionable age of four I found myself happily drifting along in a community pool, comforted by the buoyancy of my kiddie inner tube. What should have been a magical summer childhood memory quickly turned to terror as my scrawny four-year-old self suddenly slipped through the safety of my inflatable tube straight down into the deep end of the pool.

In lieu of any sort of human instinct to flail and preserve my own life, I was motionless and remember watching bubbles rise to the surface as I headed in the opposite direction. It was right then and there, just four years into the campaign known as life, that I resigned and thought to myself, “I am going to die now”. Moments later I was rescued from being added to the pool drowning statistics for that year by my mother.

Despite desperate attempts on the part of my parents to get me back in the pool so I could properly learn how to swim and prevent the traumatic event from occurring again, I steadfastly refused to do anything beyond wading waist deep in calm water for over 5 years. At 10, peer pressure from summer pool parties had me clinging desperately to the sides of swimming pools as I watched my friends splash carelessly in the deep end. By my teens I had managed to work my way up to a sad sort of doggy paddle, which involved me waving my limbs about until I could achieve about the speed of a snail; and by my early 20s I managed to learn how to tread water for a few minutes.

Satun, Thailand

Taking this story into the present day, I was very generously gifted a 3-day trip to Satun, Thailand recently, which included a full multi-island tour complete with swimming, beach and snorkeling excursions. Not wanting to miss out on exploring a new part of Thailand, I accepted the offering with a bit of trepidation.

Satun is located on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia and includes dozens of postcard perfect islands strewn across the Andaman Sea. With most foreign tourists heading to nearby Phuket or Krabi (they have better transport links), Satun is left with a handful of Thai tourists and countless white sand beaches with crystal clear, calm waters.

Following a flight into Hat Yai, a shuttle ride, and a speed boat adventure; I arrived on the beautiful island of Koh Lipe. My vacation package included a 2-night stay at a resort located right on Pattaya Beach (not to be confused with Pattaya city). Immediately upon checking in, I dumped my gear in my room and struck out for a spirited round of hardcore wading.

Koh Lipe

As I made my way past several rows of sunbeds and a sprinkling of French tourists, I entered the water timidly. Parts of Pattaya Beach are extremely shallow and during low tide it’s possible to wander over 100 ft from shore before the ground drops offs. The first thing that struck me as I took my first steps into the water was how warm it was. Looking down, I also noticed that the crystal clear waters below me were barely moving. Indeed, Pattaya Beach is so calm that you might mistake it for the most beautiful swimming pool in the world.

Clear waters in Satun, Thailand

Encouraged by the gentle waters, I headed out farther and farther from the shore until my feet began to tiptoe over the sand. This would normally be the point where I would turn around and head for more solid ground, but for some reason I didn’t. Perhaps it was the water’s tender embrace or the buoyancy provided by the sea. Whatever the reason was, I decided to go for it. With one mighty bound I splashed my way around a sloppy freestyle stroke until the sand beneath me turned to into a series hard coral reefs, and I found myself in the company of tropical fish.

Fish in shallow water

I had realized as quickly as I made the decision to swim out beyond my comfort zone that I had finally shed my inherent fear of water. Acting as if a giant weight had been taken off my shoulders, I swam furiously for the next several hours in jubilant triumph.

With my fears conquered, I was looking forward to the following day. The itinerary was packed with island-hopping and snorkeling, and I wasn’t going to miss out on any of it. After a dismal “American-style” breakfast at the hotel, I slathered myself in sunscreen and stepped onto an awaiting speedboat.

Tarutao Island

The next 10 hours flew by in a blur of underwater adventures. Our boat toured Tarutao National Park, which is comprised of 51 pristine islands scattered across the calm azure waters of the Andaman Sea. Stopping first at Tarutao Island for lunch, I was greeted by feral cats and pigs. Hiking through the island’s shaded interior, Tarutao lays claim to a magnificent golden sand beach. Almost completely deserted, I had this shallow warm water paradise. Koh Kai (Egg Island) was the next port of call and is best known for its natural rocky archway. Before visitors began frequenting this isolated destination it was also a haven for nesting sea turtles, which is why the locals named it Egg Island.

Koh Kai (Egg Island)

View from the boat

Each year, thousands of tourists flock to the Andaman Sea for its excellent diving and snorkeling spots. In the spring and summer, the water is calm enough to snorkel in the open sea. There are several known spots for less experienced swimmers and snorkelers known to all the boat drivers in the area. Most are marked by a line of buoys and all boats offer life jackets for both adults and children. After strapping on my gear, I lept into the sea and enthusiastically dunked my head under the waterline to reveal a thriving, colorful ecosystem comprised of hard corals, sea anemones and tropical fish.

Feral island kitten

The water was dense with clown fish, parrot fish and angelfish. Gazing down to the sea floor over 30 feet beneath me were clustered of hard coral and seaweed. The entire experience was a remarkable one and I could only imagine that it would be comparable to swimming in an enormous aquarium. Heated by the tropical sun, the salty water felt as warm as a bathtub and each spot the boat lead us too was filled with more and more sea life.

After a full day of exploring the Andaman I found myself practically cured of my irrational fear of water. Now that I am finally free of this burden, I am re-evaluating my travel bucket list to incorporate a whole new set of amazing island destinations.