Thailand - Butang Islands
The Thai islands of Butang, near the Malaysian archipelago of Langkawi, offer first-time charterers an easy escape and great cruising
The names by which the islands in the northwest of Malaysia and in the Andaman Sea are known bespeak a glorious kingdom. The Land of the Legends, or the Jewel of Kedah are but two such monikers. Now commonly known as Langkawi, with 99 islands in its archipelago, is the more famous of these island chains. Nearby, in neighboring Thailand, there is the added destination of the Butang Islands in the Tarutao National Marine Park, in the very south of peninsular Thailand. Spoiled with natural beauty and excellent sailing conditions, these islands were to be our destination for a Christmas charter getaway.
We had organised a two-week bareboat charter trip in December 2010 with Sunsail. Our goals were to sail, snorkel, explore and most importantly – escape from civilisation! The sailing adventure started at the Royal Yachting Club in Kuah, Langkawi, where we had booked a Leopard 440 catamaran. With all our provisioning done online in advance, we were prepped and ready to go.
After a briefing from the Sunsail representative, we set off at midday for Pulau Beras Besar, one of the many uninhabited islands southwest from Langkawi. It allowed us the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the yacht, with our sails up in winds of up to 20 knots. Anchoring was very easy on a sandy bottom of eight metres. Being close to the beach let us to explore the neighbouring islands by dinghy and enjoy a relaxing afternoon snorkelling and swimming. We also met up with our friends and their two teenage children, who chartered an Owner’s Spec Lagoon 440 catamaran from Dreamcharters, out of Telaga harbour to the northwest.
The sailing conditions and the winds were generally consistent with normal conditions during the November to April season, with winds coming from the northeast and blowing five to 20 knots, gusting at 25 knots, with generally calmer seas. This season is known to be the drier one, even though we did have a lot of rain and a big swell in Thai waters around the Butang Islands. Even the locals told us that they had not had such a wet season for seven years and it was unusual for that time of the year. During the alternate monsoon season from May to October, prevailing wind blows from the southwest from five to 25 knots with large swells to the west of the cruising area.
The first three nights we spent at various anchorages in the south of Langkawi, including Monkey Creek located near to the Pregnant Maiden Lake, which is located between the island of Palau Gubang Darat and the picturesque cliffs of Pulau Dayang Bunting and accessible from both ends. It is a very popular spot for barbeques, as it is sheltered in both seasons and close to the freshwater lake. However, it is advisable to visit the Pregnant Maiden Lake in the early morning or late afternoons, as it can be very busy with tourists during the midday.
Telaga Harbour was our next stop before we crossed to the Butang Islands Group in Thailand and this was our last stop to fill up with water. Also as arranged beforehand, a Sunsail representative met us to return our passports stamped with both entry and exit Thai visas (valid for two weeks).
Unlike the other marinas encountered on the trip, Telaga Harbour has a European feel, as it is based on a Mediterranean theme with excellent restaurants that offer Spanish Tapas, Russian, Brazilian, modern Malay and Chinese food. Supermarkets that provide local vegetables, fish and meats are just 15 minutes away using the numerous taxis that drive past the harbour. The famous Langkawi cable car is only about a 30 minutes walk (or five minute taxi ride) away from Telaga Harbour, and offers panoramic sightseeing spots with amazing views over Langkawi, out to Tarutao and towards the Butang Islands, our final destination.
On to Butang
The Butang group of islands lies approximately 27 miles to the northwest of Langkawi. These seven granite islands (Koh Lipe, Koh Adang, Koh Rawi, Koh Butang, Koh Tanga, Koh Taratao and Koh Chuka) are all covered with lush rainforest and fringed with white sand beaches. The very deep and clear waters around this group of islands provide perfect snorkelling and diving conditions. In particular, there are beautiful corals for keen divers wanting to spend two to three days exploring the waters with the numerous certified dive operators on Koh Lipe.
As we crossed from Langkawi to the Butangs, the wind was blowing quite strongly and ensured quick crossing times as we were sailing with quite large swells. However, on the way back even with strong winds, we were struggling sailing against the big swell. Sailors should also be advised that local fishing boats need to be treated with caution, as they often travel in pairs or bigger groups, dragging fishing nets behind them by as much as 200 metres, and at just two-metres depth. These nets may not always be visible. What’s more, even if you’re under sail, some of the local boats will not stop or change direction!
After a 28-mile sail and crossing into Thai waters, we anchored northwest of Koh Lipe, the only populated island in the Butang group with several restaurants, shops, bars, money exchange and Internet access.
Care must be taken when coming into anchor anywhere around Koh Lipe as there are large columns of shallow coral and someone should provide lookout on the bow when motoring in. Anchorage is in mud around ten to 15 metres. From the boat, we were able to take our dinghy to Porn Resort on Sunset beach, which offers access to jungle trails that cross the island, taking us to the more populated southern part of the island, Pattaya Beach.
In both seasons, any of the three recommended anchorages around this island are adequate for an overnight stay. This is a party island that does cater for full moon parties and one did take place on our first night, keeping us awake until 5am.
Koh Lipe is also home to one of the few remaining sea gypsy communities in Asia, called the Chao Ley or Urak Lawoi. In the past, the Chao Ley led a nomadic lifestyle. However, the community on Koh Lipe has been settled for decades, and due to the growing tourism industry, their community has changed dramatically, and not always for the better. Live on Koh Lipe has become more expensive, requiring locals to make the most of the high season, for in the low season (referred to as the “green season” locally), there is little activity.
After a sleepless night on the northwest coast of Koh Lipe, we decided to sail to the west coast of Koh Adang and anchored on one of the five yacht moorings that are quite close to the corals. Here was a perfect place for a barbeque, right on the beach, with fantastic snorkelling over a coral garden just off the beach. There was no need for any restaurants at this peaceful place. The island has a small sea gypsy community, but no facilities of any kind. On the south beach of Koh Adang is a freshwater tap and a moderately hard trekking trail to the 600m summit of the island, which gives you breathtaking views. This was one of our favourite mooring spots throughout the whole trip as it is relatively close to Koh Lipe (30 minutes of motoring) but remains peaceful, scenic and untouched.
Due to a big swell and high winds in the following days, we made our way west to seek shelter on the southern reaches of three islands to the north of Koh Butang. This area is commonly known as the best anchorage in the area from visiting crews. Though well-sheltered from the wind, this anchorage can be tricky owing to strong currents, and boaters should make use of the two large mooring buoys. There is quite lot a lot of current among the smaller islands, particularly during outgoing tides. Using buoys where possible is a good idea, though visitors should be wary of smaller buoys over corals, as these are intended for long tail boats.
On the way there we stopped south east of Koh Rawi to enjoy the best snorkelling of the whole trip on an even more fantastic coral garden than before. During the night,s the skyline was lit up with numerous squid fishing boats.
At this stage we tried to sail across the 20-mile passage to the large Thai island of Tarutao (which is not part of the Butangs). However on our attempt, we were met with very rough seas, with winds directly on our bow. We therefore decided to stay in the Butangs until the seas calmed down. We wound up spending Christmas Eve at the south of Koh Lipe at Pattaya Beach with fresh fish at the ‘Thai Thai’ restaurant. Pattaya Beach offers many restaurants and bars as well as possibilities to stock up on the food at the supermarkets on the main street.
On our return trip to Langkawi, we sailed to the north coast of the main island of Langkawi, stopping at the famous Hole in the Wall and Tanjong Rhu resort.
The Hole in the Wall is a gap between the towering cliffs, where the Kilim River joins the sea with a floating fish restaurant called Rahmad and an eagle feeding area.
The Tanjung Rhu features the most picturesque sandy beaches in Langkawi and this hotel resort complex was the last stop of our sailing trip. It had a very shallow anchoring depth and it was only possible to enter with catamarans and with shallow draft keelboats. On the last day of 2010, we returned to the Royal Yacht Club with too much food and dwindling water supplies. New Years Eve was spent at the Royal Yachting Club, which was unfortunately not too busy at all. Hotels such as the nearby Westin offered special New Years celebration packages.
The pilot book offered good information regarding mooring/anchoring spots and it is a good idea to follow their recommendations wherever possible. Also take care where and when to go swimming as the currents can be misleadingly strong and the ever present threat of jellyfish in some locations. Tidal range is relatively small at just 1.5-metres, and this didn’t present any problems for us apart from having to drag the dingy quite high up on flat beaches.
The weather throughout the trip was fine with pleasant temperatures, which was not too hot and not too much rain. Sleeping on our catamaran’s trampoline was lovely!
Our main concern throughout this trip was water, as Telaga Harbour was the only anchorage to fill your supplies with. There were no pontoons to fill up with water anywhere at the Butangs, so (for smaller yachts) be prepared. Food was not an issue at all and in fact, we had over provisioned, which meant we had to stay on board and eat the food rather go ashore.
The trip showed that this area of the Andaman Sea offers something for those wanting a more adventurous trip, and for those wanting more on-shore comforts. And the good news is, the passages between islands are not daunting and are an excellent place for first time yachtie charterers!
Arriving by yacht:
Superyachts wishing to cruise thearea can consult long-time area operators such as Asia Pacific Superyachts (www.asia-pacific-superyachts.com) or Simpson Marine (www.simpsonmarine.com) for advice and management support.
Smaller yachts and owner/operators may wish to consult www.marine.gov.my, a all-in-one information website for boaters that can be accessed in English.
For those wanting to a bareboat or smaller crewed charter yacht, Sunsail maintains a base on Langkawi (www.sunsail.com)
Distinctive yachts that are found cruising the Andaman Sea during the dry season are the luxury Phinisi yacht Silolona (www.silolona.com).
Also operating in this region is the 30-metre long-range cruising sailing yacht Asia, skippered by Paul and Debbie Johnson (www.boat-yacht-charters.com)
Luxury motoryacht charters can be arranged through Simpson Marine (www.simpsonmarine.com).The 34-metre luxury superyacht Sakinah, a 2005 Euroyacht, is based out of Langkawi’s Telaga Harbour (www.my-sakinah.com).
The Southeast Asia Pilot remains the definitive print source (and now online) for information on cruising the region, and includes sections on Tarutao (www.southeastasiapilot.com).