Thailand and Burma

We love Thailand!  To date it is one of the very few destinations we broke our “no repeating destinations” rule.   The combination of wonderful people, beautiful landscapes, delicious food and of course spectacular diving keeps drawing us back.  This trip we decided to at least add a new destination, Burma/Myanmar and the Mergui Archipelago.
Since we were doing a 10 day live-aboard, we had no time to tour the mainland.  We did have a day and half to relax in Phuket before the Philkade departed for the Similians.  Our last trip we really enjoyed the Phuket Crowne Plaza and decided we would stay there again.  It has been sold and is now Movenpick Hotel.  Nothing has changed.  Service, food, and our room were all excellent.  Plus, it’s only a short walk to the beach!
On the way home we had a day to burn in Bangkok and decided to try a new hotel.  Dream Bangkok is an upscale “chic” hotel that provides a very nice room, convenient location for wandering around and a helpful staff. It was also very reasonably priced. Beware if you are in a rush to get to the International Airport around rush hour it can take well over an hour.  Otherwise it was a very nice hotel that we can happily recommend.
Aquamarine Divers Co., Ltd. and the Philkade
When we decided to go back to Thailand there was no doubt who we would tour the Similans and Mergui Archipelago with Aquamarine Divers aboard the Philkade.  This is a first class operation from the office staff and crew to the boat itself.  This time we splurged booking the Aquamarine (deluxe) cabin, and we are now officially ruined.  No offense to any other live-aboard we have been on or will be going on, but the Aquamarine Cabin has set the bar very, very high.  A queen sized bed, more storage than you can fill, a couch, double sink bathroom and your own entertainment center. 
I am lazy, so some of the info about the boat, dinning and schedule is cut and pasted from a previous report.  I do this only because the same high standards that we encountered on our first trip with them are in practice today.  In addition they have an excellent website where you can get all the ship specifics, schedules, etc.
The MV Philkade was built as a private luxury yacht.  It was converted to a dive vessel a couple of years ago.  In everyway the Philkade is built for comfort and she takes a maximum of 13 divers.  You board the Philkade in the evening.  After moving in you can set up your dive gear, bags are stored and the standard briefings take place.  Dinner is served and all mingle before retiring below decks to rest for the morning’s first dive.  During the night the vessel makes for the first dive site in the Similans.
Life on the Philkade
I can’t say enough complimentary things about the crew: they were fantastic.  Once you set up your gear, you will not handle it again.  Once you have your wetsuit on, they are on the spot to help you into your BC and carry your camera. The service is decadent.  On your return from each dive, a crew member would whisk away your wetsuit to give it a wash and hang it up to dry!  You are provided numbered “inside” and “outside” towels.  The stern has a well thought out rack with clamps for drying “outside” towels between dives.  If you want any of your towels washed you put it in a basket in your room and it will be laundered.
As before, food on the Philkade was good to excellent.  There is your standard continental breakfast available at 6:30am including coffee, juice, wonderful fresh fruit, cereal, etc.  At that time you place your order for what you would like for breakfast on a pre-set menu.  There is always Western and Thai options.  So for breakfast you would have a choice of eggs or Thai rice soup or noodles.  Lunch again was typically more “Thai” with a variety of options.  Dinner was always a sit-down meal served by the crew.  As with many live-aboards you would often come up from a dive to find some kind of freshly baked item to snack on.  Of course packaged snacks, water and orange juice were always available. Pop, beer, and wine were extra and tallied on the honor system.  The fresh fruit was abundant and excellent.
The Daily Grind
Each room has a phone and at 6:30am you receive a wake up call.  The first dive briefing takes place at 7am and you’re in the water by 7:30.  Following dives go in at 10:15, 2:45pm, and 5:45pm.  This schedule worked out fine as most of the dives where in the 60fsw -90fsw range.  The dive deck had been rearranged since our last visit and it is a big improvement.  There is plenty of room for all guests to don dive gear with a bin under your station for storage of extra gear.  Nitrox and testers are available.  Given the dive profiles, Nitrox is the way to go. 
Dive briefings were to the point with very “artful” site diagrams provided on a white board.  On our trip, the 10 divers were split between the two dive guides Kerry and Mik.  With only 4-5 people per DM, the diving is quite enjoyable.  Mik and Kerry did a good job of looking at each group and moving at a pace that fit.  (always appreciated by the slow moving photogs).  Dives start equally from the Philkade’s swim step or its two zodiacs.  Since most sites have some form of current, the majority of dives end with pick-ups by the zodiacs.  Hand up your weight belt, take off your BC, and kick/pull/drag yourself up onto the inflatable portion of the rib.  All are issued dive sausages on a 20ft string.  If you are separated from your DM these can be deployed while doing your safety stop.  The zodiac drivers are quickly on the spot to pick you up.
For Those Curious About Burma
Once we arrived in Burma our passports were handed over to a customs official and were kept during our entire stay.  In addition the government put on the boat a “guide” to “help” us during our stay.  He was a nice young man going to University and working for the government.  He did really pitch in dealing with gear and helping the crew.  In addition, he walked us through the customs port town of Kawthaung, we briefly visited in a quest for cheap whiskey.  The people were curious, several coming up to speak to us and ask the general questions, “where are you from?”, “how do you like our country?” etc…  The thought that still resonates with me is that Myanmar is Asia’s equivalent of Cuba.  (Given the government is much more oppressive than even Castro)  Buildings and cars all seemed to be built in the ‘50s and in that seedy state of disrepair you seen in poorer parts of the world.  It was a bit of a contrast to the bright cloths and other inexpensive consumer goods available via China and other low cost producers.  It is a stark contrast to the vibrant, tourist packed town of Phuket.
Thailand vs. Burma Diving
We were on the Similan-Burma 9 day 10 night itinerary.  You get 4 ½ days of diving in the Similans and then 4 days in the Mergui Archipelago. 
1, Both have a great variety of soft coral and big seafans.
2. Both are rich in fish life of all varieties. 
3. Many of the dive sites swarm with glass sweepers and massive schools of snapper and grunts.
4. Both offer anemones and clowns of every variety, in mass.
1. In general visibility in Thailand is better.  On this trip almost always over 80ft, Burma averaged around 40ft.
2. One big advantage of Burma diving is the isolation.  We never saw another dive boat and had every site to ourselves.
3. Part of the appeal of Burma is the chance of seeing more “big stuff” meaning mantas and whale sharks.  The water was rich with the “filter-feeder food”, but it seemed to be a little early in the season for these creatures.
4. Burma has a little more current and surge, but all very manageable for even fairly new divers.

 Our top 7 Thailand and Burma Dive Sites
#7 Three Trees, Thailand.  Very nice beds of staghorn and lettuce corals, leopard shark, black pyramid butterflies, more morays, all kinds of trigger fish and great schools of grunts. 
#6   North Point, Thailand.  Mainly for the variety of fish life.  Titan triggers, a pair of courting leopard sharks, banded sea snake, and massive schools of chubs.
#5 Shark Caves, Burma. Great topography, nice swim thru, excellent “walls” and the highlight was 4 big cuttle fish courting.
#4 East of Eden, Thailand. Another soft coral heaven, schools of glass sweepers in every crack, Imperator angelfish, schools of anthias; it is really like diving in an incredible tropical fish tank.
#3 Black Rock, Burma.  Wonderful topography with walls of soft corals and fans.  Countless moray eels, turtles, big schools of yellow snapper, great macro life and several octopus!
#2 North Twin, Burma.  Another great topography site covered in soft corals, hard corals and anemones, color, color, color. 
#1 Richelieu Rock, Thailand.  Julie and I agree this is may be our single favorite dive site to date.  It really has it all: great structure, mantis shrimp, fields of soft corals, bed after bed of anemones and their attendant clown fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, massive schools of grunts, manta rays and whale sharks!!!! 
In the End
There is always some “new/hot” destination but be assured the Similans and Mergui Archipelago will deliver memories you will cherish.  We will repeat this trip, on the Philkade and definitely in the Aquamarine Cabin.  The owners Arrya and Philip said they are thinking of moving the boat to Lembeh during Thailand’s low season, Count us in! 
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