Snorkel Thailand Now, Before the Reefs are Gone!

Global warming has taken its toll on the world’s tropical reefs, Thailand included. 2010 saw one of the most serious coral bleaching events in recorded history affecting most of the reefs in the tropical regions of the world, from the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific to the Caribbean.

Note: We have an update as of February 2020 at the end of this blog.

I was in shock myself to discover some of my favorite reefs in Thailand’s waters seriously damaged in a matter of just a few months. In January of 2010, the group of avid snorkelers who traveled with me on a specially organized trip covering three marine national parks on Thailand’s Andaman seacoast had the greatest time and was amazed by the incredibly lively, colorful and abundant reefs protected within the marine parks: I have three Google+ albums of that trip with underwater photos (albums offsite, open in new windows):

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Healthy Reef
Healthy Koh Surin Reef, 2010
Damaged Reef
Damaged Koh Surin Reef, 2011

A few months later, after I had returned to California, I was worried when I read in the Bangkok Post online newspaper that marine scientists were very concerned about the rise in sea temperatures that was causing massive coral bleaching. Many were keeping their fingers crossed that the high sea temperatures wouldn’t be prolonged so that the coral could have a chance to recover.

What is Coral Bleaching?

Dead Coral
Fish over dead staghorn coral

The colors of corals come from a kind of microscopic algae that live inside them. The corals form a symbiotic relationship with the algae which nourish them with the essential nutrients they cannot produce without the algae’s ability to photosynthesize energy from sunlight.

This interrelationship is thrown out of balance when environmental stresses such as water temperatures much higher than normal, increased water acidity (another global warming phenomenon from increased CO2 being absorbed into the oceans) and pollution are elevated. Under extreme conditions, the algae begin to release substances that are toxic to the corals. In a desperate attempt to survive, the corals have little choice but to expel the algae. When the algae is expelled, the corals lose their color and become white. In other words, they become “bleached.”

Fish over Dead Coral
Parrotfish & dead coral

Bleached corals are still alive. If environmental conditions improve within a reasonable period of time, the algae can return to normal and become reabsorbed by the corals. However, if the environmental stresses are prolonged, the algae can die and when this happens, the corals, without their partner to provide them with the food they need, will eventually starve to death. Coral bleaching events, therefore, are closely monitored to ascertain the degree of recovery and destruction of the reefs.

The 2010 Coral Bleaching

Healthy Corals
Healthy corals

Massive coral bleaching was reported throughout the tropics in 2010, including the Caribbean, South Pacific, the entire Indian Ocean from east to west and the Coral Triangle — the world’s richest coral region spanning the area from the Philippines to Indonesia and the Malay peninsula. (The Coral Triangle covers just 1 percent of the earth’s surface, but is home to 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs, 76 percent of reef-building coral species and more than 35 percent of reef fish species.)

Scientists concur that the bleaching was caused by significantly higher than average sea temperatures from an El Nino cycle made worse by global warming which had already raised sea temperatures. Bleaching episodes occur when ocean temperatures rise above 85 to 87 degrees F. In 2010, ocean temperatures as high as 93 degrees were reported in the Indian Ocean and around the Coral Triangle.

Staghorn Coral
Healthy Staghorn Coral 2011

Scientists believe the devastating event in 2010 might be even more severe than the last massive bleaching during the 1998 El Nino, which destroyed more than 16 percent of the earth’s reefs, most of them in tropical regions. Some of the reefs damaged by the last event were just beginning to show some recovery when this recent bleaching put them back in jeopardy. It usually takes a decade or more for a damaged reef to make some measure of recovery if conditions return to normal and stay ideal for the corals. However, with no signs of global warming slowing down and short of any concerted international effort to drastically reduce CO2 emissions any time soon, tropical reefs are endangered and, according to some scientists, it’s likely they might become extinct within the next two decades.

Many Dive Sites Closed by January 2011

Partially Damaged Coral
Partially damaged coral

By January of this year, ministries in the Thai government (as well as in several other neighboring countries) announced the temporary closure of a long string of the country’s most precious dive sites in hopes of rehabilitating the reefs. It became apparent that the coral bleaching event during the hottest months of the year from April to June 2010 had led to the widespread demise of some of Thailand’s most beautiful and highly prized reefs. My heart sank as one of my greatest joys of coming home to Thailand every year is to immerse myself in the warm waters of the seacoast and in awe of nature’s beauty beneath the surface. I just had to see for myself how bad the situation really was.

My husband Michael and I took a trip down to the Andaman seacoast in late January and checked out the reefs in our favorite marine national park — Mu Koh Surin Marine National Park, followed by a few days on the islands off the Krabi coastline. That trip showed us in no uncertain terms the destructive face of the specter of global warming. Upon my return to the States in March, I wrote an email reporting what we saw to a few of the people who had expressed interest in joining my next southern Thailand trip (in Jan/Feb 2012) to relive their treasured experience of Thailand’s southern reefs.

An Excerpt of the Email to Prospective Southern Thailand Trip Members

Pre Bleaching Scene
Pre bleaching scene

. . . Thailand did not escape the 2010 global coral bleaching episode, but although a considerable amount of damage had been done to our favorite reefs, from Koh Surin to Krabi to Tarutao, we are planning to go ahead with our southern trip scheduled for next January/February. From our point of view, at our age, we most likely cannot expect to see a perfectly healthy reef again in our lifetime as the recovery process is slow and sea conditions cannot be expected to remain ideal for the reefs with global warming still uncontrolled. We fear that this recent global coral bleaching disaster may mark the beginning of the end of tropical coral reefs, as some scientists believe.

We, therefore, would want to take every opportunity to go snorkeling before the tropical reef system is further damaged in the next major El Nino cycle. In many badly damaged reefs in Thailand, conservationists are beginning to observe small signs of recovery since the bleaching occurred last April and May, and have pushed for measures to reduce other sources of environmental stress on the surviving corals to improve their chances of long-term survival and ability to reseed the reefs.

Soft Corals
Soft corals are ok, 2011}

Michael and I took a week’s trip recently to check out the reefs on Koh Surin National Park and around the Krabi area. We had wanted to check out our favorite spots at Phi Phi but a major storm system moved in that week and thwarted our plans. (It is presently the La Nina part of the cycle marked by stormy seas.) Instead we ended up on Koh Poda and snorkeled the nearby islands. The longtail boat driver we hired took us to a reef we hadn’t snorkeled for some fifteen years. We were heartened to see new coral growth after the overused reef was closed off more than a decade ago to tourists.

Trip A had a day trip to Phi Phi in December but on the day we went, we were able to snorkel only one site before the seas turned too rough to swim. But that hour snorkeling Koh Yoong was nothing short of magical as the tide was perfect and there were tons of fish. I was not yet fully aware of the extent of the coral bleaching at that time and was too distracted by the abundance of fish to pay much attention to the condition of the corals. In fact, I even snapped some photos of beautiful corals apparently unaffected by the bleaching event.

Fish & Coral
Fish and damaged coral

We were at Koh Surin National Park for three days. Although we were saddened to see large expanses of dead coral, we had a wonderful time nonetheless snorkeling the different sites. There were plenty of colorful fishes to keep us entertained and we honestly hadn’t seen as many enormous schools of different kinds of fishes since the tsunami year. As we do every year, we saw varieties of fish we’d never seen before. The damaged reefs continue to provide structure, form and color as a backdrop and as homes and breeding grounds to the reef fishes. The seaweed and algae that have begun to cover the dead corals are a source of abundant food for the herbivores, including the turtles. We saw lots of reef sharks which meant there’s still plenty of food for the larger predators as well. The occasional sighting of swaths of living coral and the brilliant colors of tiny new coral growth made me smile with excitement as I photo-documented what I saw. There are some varieties of coral more resistant to bleaching than others, so there’s still plenty of color on the reefs.

Although some of our favorite reefs are temporarily closed to allow them to recover more quickly (and we agree with the park’s decision), I was glad to get to see reefs we had overlooked before. In certain ways, they are every bit as interesting.

Despite the bleaching, we still find the snorkeling in Thailand to be much better than in Hawaii (we went snorkeling in Hawaii last spring). We have uploaded an album of underwater pictures taken this season onto our Google+ web gallery and invite you to view them at:

Some Signs of Recovery

Regenerating Coral
New baby staghorn growth

I am a little more hopeful after hearing a few people I know on Koh Surin National Park report recently that there are ample signs of new coral growth in several locations around the islands. At the same time, I hear that another El Nino is coming in a few years. With all the uncertainly surrounding the survival of the tropical reefs, all I can say is: I am going to put on my snorkeling mask and go snorkeling as often as I can before the reefs forever disappear. And unless we all do something to slow, if not stop, global warming, it will be sooner than later.

2020 Update

Giant Clam
Ko Tarutao Clam

Snorkeling this past February (2020), signs of coral decline are still visible. However, in many spots there are also signs of recovery, substantial recovery at some sites. Even in areas where the coral is severely damaged, you still come across sections that are still relatively pristine. There are also many, many fish still available for viewing. As of this time, it is still very worthwhile indeed to snorkel in Thailand.

Do check out Kasma’s albums from her 2020 and 2018 trips to Southern Thailand for an idea of what is still available. (Albums are offsite & open in new windows)

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2011 & Michael Babcock, May 2020.

Thai Culture Wednesday Photo

Painted Dragon (Wednesday Photo)

Pattani Boat Dragon

Painted Dragon
Dragon detail from a boat

The southern Thailand province of Pattani, on the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea side, is known for its painted fishing boats. Along with Yala and Narathiwat, Pattani province is predominantly Muslim. We used to travel there on Kasma’s trip to Southern Thailand but with the unrest in those provinces (there is a strong separatist movement) we’ve not been there since early 2003.

This dragon is a close-up from one of the boats. I wish I could tell you the beach where the picture was taken but I simply don’t remember. The picture was scanned from a color negative.

Be sure to look at next Wednesday’s photo of one of the boats.

The Wednesday Photo – a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Food Travel

Trang Cakes – Kook Ming

You may have heard of Trang cakes. Trang, a city in Southern Thailand, is a kind of crossroads city for Nakhon Si Thammarat, Krabi and points further south, including many of the islands in Trang province. If you’ve spent any time in Trang you probably noticed the stacks of square boxes at various food stores and wondered what they were. The boxes contain a type of cake called Trang Cake and they are one of the food items that Trang is known for. Another is pork that is roasted in a particular way. There’s even a Cake festival in August.

Stack of Trang Cakes
Stacked Trang cakes

A Thai traveling around the country usually plans to stock up on food items that a particular town or locale is known for, such as salted eggs in Chaiya. Travelers to Trang will often pick up several Trang cakes to take home as gifts. On her trips to Southern Thailand I always looked forward to Trang, because we would get to have Trang cake for several days. Kasma always picked up a couple to take to the staff at our favorite restaurant, Ruen Mai in Krabi.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Trang Cake Logo
Kook Ming, the best Trang cake

When buying a Trang cake you want to make very sure that you buy the correct one. The one Kasma and I recommend, and the only one we can, in conscience, recommend, is that made by Kook Ming. Their motto is: “The Original – The Best” and you should look for the logo, which has two black birds flying over the name and the motto. When asking for them, you can also specify “Kook Ming, the cake from Lampura.” On the trips, we pick them up from a kanom store in town (see first picture to upper left). The one time that Kook Ming cake was not available (it is popular and can sell out), we tried another brand and found it to be nowhere near as delicious.

Although you can buy the cakes in Trang town, I recommend an excursion to the bakery itself. Simply head north on Highway 4 towards Krabi. Lampura is roughly 14 km from Trang in the district of Huai Yot. The bakery will be on your left as you head north.

Kook Ming Bakery
Kook Ming Bakery in Lampura
Kook Ming Sign
Sign at the bakery

Trang Cake
Slices of Kook Ming cake

Kook Ming cake is very much like a sponge cake. It is light and bouncy with good flavor. They make it without preservatives of any kind and no baking soda but with plenty of eggs and shortening. Their website lists 10 different flavors (opens in new window). My favorites are the kehk som (orange cake), kehk dteuy hawm (pandan leaf cake), kehk neuy sod (butter cake) and the kehk sahm roht (three flavors cake, the three flavors being orange, coffee and plain). In addition to the standard cakes in the large square boxes, they also sell cakes that are similar to jelly rolls, rolled up with frosting and sold is smaller, rectangular boxes (see picture to right, below); I’ve only seen these jelly-roll cakes sold at the bakery.

Kook Ming
Kook Ming, the baker

The story of the bakery is that of a rags-to-riches Chinese immigrant to Thailand with the name of Kook Ming. Born on the island of Hainan off the southern coast of China in 1916, he was sent by his parents to Thailand when he was 18 (an elder brother was already there) because of the great unrest and fighting with the Japanese. He originally lived in Narathiwat province, where he worked at a series of odd jobs, mostly manual labor; he earned 7 baht a month. After a year he moved to Hat Yai, where he began working for a distributor of soft drinks for 12 baht a month. A hard, diligent worker, after three years he was made a regional manager and sent to Trang district with the magnificent salary of 25 baht a month.

Trang Cake
Kook Ming Trang Cake

After a time, Kook Ming took a liking to the cross roads town of Lampura, 15 km from Trang; he moved there and opened a small coffee shop to serve locals and travelers through the town. He bought the coffee beans and roasted them himself and served the coffee along with a number of snacks; his wife made fried bread, a type of dumpling called sara bow and curry puffs and they supplemented these with kanom from elsewhere. One of these kanom was a European-style cake: Kook Ming would bicycle the 14 kilometers into Trang in the early morning to purchase the cakes.

Cake Boxes
Boxes of Kook Ming cakes

His patrons, however, did not care for the cake, which had a frosting, so Kook Ming decided to come up with a good cake recipe that would better suit the local tastes. He made a stove out of a 200 liter oil drum and began experimenting. He also invented an appliance to beat eggs. He was having difficulty getting the cake to cook evenly so he invented a type of pan with a hole in the center, much like a plain bundt pan. He then spent a fair amount of time perfecting his recipe. Once he mastered the recipe his cakes became very popular and the popularity began to spread. As the demand grew, customers wanted to buy cakes to take home, so he began selling them in the square boxes.

Making Trang Cakes
Pouring batter into the pans

A break came in 1960 when an group of men on a electricity commision travelled through and loved the cake. One of the men recommended the bakery to an agency that gives a seal of approval to certain restaurants and food stands, recognized by the logo of a green bowl (which can be seen on the side of the cake box). The delicious cakes became more widely known and at one point Kook Ming was the guest on a popular television game show that spread his fame even wider. The Kook Ming website (completely in Thai, unfortunately) has many pictures of celebrities who have visited the store and a couple from the game show. The bakery continues to flourish, run now by his daughter, who came up with recipes for many of the different flavored cakes. Kook Ming died in 2004.

Trang Cakes
Boxes of jelly-roll cakes

In Thailand, as elsewhere, the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. I’ve counted at least another half dozen brands of Trang cakes; but this was the first and is still, as they say, the best. More than once when we’ve stopped at the bakery to have cake and coffee and to stock up for the ride north, there have been tour busses that have stopped – nearly all of the people on the bus were buying cakes, often several boxes.

Aside from a chance to see where the cakes are made (in a clean, modern bakery in the back of the store – they’ve long outgrown the 200 liter oil drum!), their store in front still offers a number of other delicious treats that are made on the premises. I’ve included pictures of two of my favorites. The first is a curry puff, a flakey outside with delicious chicken curry on the inside – garee pahf sai gkai. They also make a pastry filled with sangkaya, a rich egg custard. The second is a substantial, tasty cookie, very crunchy. Their website contains several pictures of other snacks (opens in new window) that are made on the premises.

Curry Puff
Yummy chicken curry puff
Trang Cookie
Tasty cookie from Kook Ming

Check out the Kook Ming Website (offsite, opens in new window)

Written by Michael Babcock, July 2010.

Travel Wednesday Photo

Beautiful Thai Beach (Wednesday Photo)

Koh Khai, Tarutao National Park

Beautiful Thai Beach
Yes, it is that beautiful

In looking over nearly a year’s worth of Wednesday photos, I was appalled to see that I didn’t have a single one that celebrated Thailand’s beautiful, white sand beaches. The beauty of the seacoast is something that startled me on my very first trip to Thailand. Now every year I look forward to our time on the coast and in the water.

Kasma took this picture at Koh Khai in Koh Tarutao, Tarutao National Park. It shows a longtail boat, the preferred mode of transportation for most people on the ocean waters of the south of Thailand.

See also:

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Markets Wednesday Photo

Nakhon Market Vendors (Wednesday Photo)

Nakhon Si Thammarat Vendors

Two market vendors
Two market vendors

The markets of Thailand are filled with colorful, delicious looking ingredients and finished food. By far the best part of the markets are the vendors themselves. These two young women are selling curry pastes at the Sunday market in Nakhan Si Thammarat, in southern Thailand. It’s a lively and extensive market and well worth a visit. We go and graze our way through the market – there’s plenty of prepared food as well as ingredients for any Thai dish you could imagine.

We have more market pictures on the website. If you’re in Nakhon Si Thammarat, try Wang Derm for breakfast!

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Restaurant Travel

Solar Squid in Pranburi

Alas! As of February 2018 we found out that the restaurant has been permanently closed. I’ll leave the post up as a sad reminder of a great restaurant.

One of our favorite seafood restaurants in Thailand is [was] found in the coastal town of Pranburi. I always think of Pranburi as “Squid town” because of the presence everywhere of squid and cuttlefish that are laying out on the racks to dry.

Squid drying on a rack
Squid drying on a rack

The restaurant is called Rahn Ahahn Sunni or, Sunni’s Restaurant. To find it, go to Pranburi from the main highway, go to the coastline, and look for the Pandorea Hotel; the restaurant is right across the street. The address for the hotel is 444/4 Moo 2, T.Paknampran, A.Pranburi, Prachubkirikhan 77220, Thailand.

One of the best parts about traveling around Thailand with Kasma is that she has found some of the best restaurants you can imagine. My first trip to Thailand was in 1992 and one of the most memorable meals in a trip full of memorable meals was in a little restaurant in the town of Pranburi along the Gulf Coast of Thailand.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Look for this sign
Look for this sign
Seats with a sea view
Seats with a sea view

If you go, be prepared to order in Thai – if nothing else you can order the dishes here for a great meal.

The reason we eat at the restaurant is the extremely fresh seafood, prepared in numerous delectable recipes. It is directly adjacent to the sea and from your tables you can watch the waves go in and out. There’s often a very nice breeze going through the space that keeps you cool as you eat the spicy, delicious seafood.

Solar Squid
Solar Squid

By far my favorite dish at this restaurant it’s what we call Solar Squid; In Thai it’s called Bplah Meuk Daad Diow, which literally means “squid in the sun for a moment.” Actually, the squid is dried in the sun for about half a day, giving it a unique texture and flavor, and is then stir-fried in oil. It’s a seemingly very simple dish but I suspect that there is a lot more to it. One year when we came to town, our favorite restaurant was closed. Well, Kasma still had a group of people to feed so we went to another restaurant down the coast and were delighted to find out that they also had solar squid on the menu. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near as good. When Kasma has asked Sunni, who is the chef, what her secret is, Sunni just laughs and tells Kasma that she’ll just have to keep coming back to get the dish here.

Grilled Shrimp
Grilled Shrimp
Baby Clam Salad
Baby Clam Salad

There are several other delicious dishes that Kasma nearly always orders. One of these is simple grilled prawns that are served with three different dipping sauces. Another one is a fiery hot “yum” salad made from baby clams; this dish is called Yum Gkehsawn Hoi in Thai. The dressing is sour and spicy-hot – you can see from all the chillies in the picture that this dish is not for the faint-of-tongue!

Basil Crab
Basil Crab
Three Flavored Fried Fish
Three Flavored Fried Fish

Another “must-have” dish is the Basil Crab – Neua Bpoo Pad Gkaprao. The Thai people will cook almost anything with basil – this dish is made with crab meat removed from the shell, lots of delicious holy basil (gkaprao), and (of course) lots of spicy, hot prik kee noo chillies.

Mixed vegetable Stir-fri
Mixed vegetable Stir-fry

One of the best looking dishes is the “Three-flavored Grouper” – Bplah Gkow Sahm Roht. This dish is not as spicy as the others and is topped by a sauce that is salty, sweet and sour (the three flavors).

Kasma also orders a plate of Stir-fried Mixed Vegetables – Pad Pak Ruam. It’s a non-spicy dish that serves to balance some of the other hot dishes.

So if you’re driving from Bangkok down to the south of Thailand, be sure to make a luncheon detour over to Sunni’s restaurant in Pranburi. You’ll get some of the freshest, most delicious seafood of your life and a dish (Solar Squid) that you may never have again. [So sad this place is closed!]

Kasma & Sunni
Kasma & Sunni

Two more great southern Thailand restaurants are Ruen Mai in Krabi and Krua Nakhon in Nakhon Si Thammarat. If you’re looking for a good restaurant in Bangkok, check out some of our Favorite Bangkok restaurants.

Written by Michael Babcock, August 2009 & 2020.