The need to help conserve the beauty of the Similan Islands
I was in Tanzania the first time I came across the phrase ‘like living in a postcard’. A fellow traveller and I were lazily waiting out the twilight on the balcony of a fourth floor hotel room neither of us could afford, watching the dying chaos and flickering street lamps of Dar es Salaam. The next morning I was to take my first boat ride on the Indian Ocean and cross to Zanzibar, so I was flicking through a guidebook he’d lent me. ‘The very name is exotic,’ wrote the guidebook author. ‘A cymbal clash followed by a sigh…Zan-Zi – barrrrrrrrr. To be there is like living in a postcard.’
As pretentious and bloated as this description sounded, it didn’t disappoint. And the reason I mention it now is because of all the places in the world I’ve been since, only Thailand’s Similan islands have matched Zanzibar’s postcard appeal. GVI Phang Nga Marine Conservation volunteers arriving throughout the high season have the chance spend three days and two nights on one of the three islands that provide accommodation. If you’re here long enough, you may get to go more than once.
To reach the Similans, we caught a lift with one of the endless number of tour groups that depart daily from Thap Lamu pier. Before we’d even reached the islands, our group allowed us to join the paying tourists for an hour’s snorkelling where we saw, amongst the versicolour wildlife, a pair of green turtles swimming close enough to smile at. Then, as the tour boat crept us closer to the bay, the water turned from wine-dark blue to a clear and aqueous green, prompting one volunteer to remark, ‘it’s like sailing over mouthwash!’ The bay that greeted us foregrounded chalk-white, flour-soft sand against a viscous green forest. And once beyond the bay, wooden huts and tents interspersed with water-monitors, fruit bats and the ostensibly patterned Nicobar pigeon (indigenous to the islands) constituted our temporary home.
It’s a paradisiacal description of a paradise island. Yet once the boatloads of tourists arrive en masse, between 10am and 4pm each day, the need to help conserve the beauty of the Similans becomes apparent. Perhaps it’s a form of wilful ignorance, perhaps it’s sheer lack of concern, perhaps some really don’t understand that even Eden needed sweeping. Ultimately the reasons why someone would want to carelessly toss a cigarette butt or an ice-cream wrapper on a beach instead of in a bin are debatable; the point being that the underfunded and variably Anglophone National Park staff need all the help they can get to keep the Similans the way they are. The work involves cleaning, trail maintenance and patrolling the tourist-dense spots to keep them from littering, stealing coral and/or chasing the fish.
It’s tiresome work in a hot Thai sun, and can be frustrating. The entire grotesque spectrum of human absurdity at times seems spread across a Similan beach like a Bakhtinian carnival. But when the visitors leave, you’re left from dusk until dawn with a setting that others dream of, that others work towards, that others pay for. It’s a surreal feeling to be alone on a Similan beach; it feels like you’ve found something you never knew you were looking for.
Michael Bowden, 6 months Conservation Volunteer
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