Monday, December 9, 2013

Khanom's Pink Dolphins

Regular contributor John Borthwick checks out pink dolphins, “pancake rocks” and a piranha-free fish spa in little-known Khanom.

Fabulous Khanom. What — you’ve never heard of the place? All the better. This small fishing town with nine kilometres of white sand beach sits on the mainland shore of the Gulf of Thailand, mid-way between Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat. It’s well south of Koh Samui and about as different from Samui’s tourist moshpit as somtam is from Caesar salad.

While some Thais know of Khanom for its rare pink dolphins, the destination is now registering on the radar of other discerning travellers. We head to the town pier to join local character, Mr Dang on his dolphin-watching cruise boat. Khanom locals are proud of their pink, Indo-Pacific dolphins (sometimes also known as Irrawaddy dolphins). There are some 60 of them, although they remain vulnerable to entanglement in the nets of local trawlers. Dang seems to have made an appointment today with several of them. As we cruise this marine national park the dolphins romp around us, ride the boat’s bow pressure wave and then, lingering in ones and twos, woof down the sardines that Khun Dang’s deckhand throws to them.

A pink Irrawaddy dolphin

Dolphin spotting from Mr Dang's cruise

We cruise further through the islands of the marine national park and come to the extraordinary geological display known as “pancake rocks” where the rock strata, that cooled in some prehistoric volcanic epoch, have separated into parallel sheets, more like the pages of a massive tome written (literally) in stone.

A stack of pancake (rocks)

About five years ago a pair of young Finnish flash-packers wandered along this coast and finding the remote beach of Hat Na Dan they had the wit (and, fortunately, also the finances) to buy a prime little slice of it. Today, Atte Savisalo and Kati Hakkinen are justly proud of their luxury, 28-room boutique retreat, Aava Resort & Spa, which was recently voted by Tatler Travel Guide as one of the “101 Best Hotels in the World”.

In Finnish, the name Aava means, “open, spacious, calm” and the experience here is just that. Endless white beach, endless blue sky and no obligations except to take a dip, read a good book, have a spa session, check the local market, and then another swim — what’ll it be, the pool or sea?

How gorgeous is this beach?

Having exhausted these possibilities, we head inland to explore the fantastic stalactites of Wang Thong Cave. A subterranean phantasmagoria of metaphor rocks comes alive beneath our flashlights — crystal pillars, frozen waterfalls and Dali-esque phantoms in silica and slow-mo time.

Our final stop for the day is a freshwater stream at Tontarn Natural Fish Spa. Now, this fish spa is not your shopping mall variety — you know, where folks sit around for 20 minutes having a “feet-in-the-fishbowl” experience. At first we dangle our legs in the cool, running stream and then, suddenly, it’s shrieks and crazed giggles all around as our toes are nibbled by small, black ki kom fish. Dozens of them per foot. Despite the din and our awful piranha jokes, after an hour we all emerge with feet still attached to our ankles — and much cleansed, right down to little teeth-graze marks on our toenails.

Going in for a feast!

Later that evening, those same feet carry us across the sands to an al fresco dinner of lamb, mussels and merlot, and much more, as served at tables beneath countless stars on Aava’s endless beach.

To get there: Fly from Bangkok to Surat Thani, then road transfer to Khanom, 90 minutes away.

Happy dolphins! PICS: John Borthwick

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