Land of Smiles
I cannot imagine how the crew felt behind the galley door.
It was about 7:30 at night off the eastern coast of Phuket, Thailand, and I was sitting at the regal dining table onboard the 172-foot motoryacht Taipan III. I was about to be served dinner—a formal, European-style affair to celebrate the end of our group's charter in a beautiful cruising ground well on its way to being rebuilt following the tsunami of December 2004. Four stewardesses, all but one of them Thai, smiled brightly as they poured sauvignon blanc into our wine glasses. At least on my side of the galley door, in the yacht's formal dining room, the stewardesses showed absolutely no hint of terror.
Oddly, considering we were in the heart of Southeast Asia, we'd first heard the news about a half-hour earlier when a charter broker from Florida started getting frantic e-mails on her Blackberry. Her mother and sister had awoken back in the States to reports of a 7.9-magnitude earthquake near where the big one had hit about three years ago, to the southwest of our cruising location. We quickly turned off Taipan III's stereo and turned on CNN. The early-warning system had been engaged. Tsunami watches were in effect well into Thailand's waters, where we were sitting down to our four-course meal.
I later learned that Taipan III's captain, a local man named Uthai Manksond, had been alerted to the quake by weatherfax about an hour before dinner was to begin. He had kept his crew calm by assuring them, as he then assured us guests, that we were in deep water well off the coast, the place where boats had been safe the last time the earth shook and the ocean crashed ashore to destroy homes and lives. The captain's composure set the tone, and I, like the crew, followed his lead. I knew he understood the fear that was racking his deckhands and stewardesses. He'd told me his own survival story just a few days earlier. Most of the crew had stories, which they shared through broken English with dazed eyes, still as raw as New Yorkers talking about 9/11 or New Orleanians telling of Katrina.
As it would turn out, we were never in any real danger. Despite a few more earthquakes that night, there were no tsunamis, and the captain was correct in telling his crew to simply continue the charter as planned without worrying us guests. That his crew remained professional with broad smiles throughout the evening is a testament to the strength of their desire to please charter clients onboard Taipan III. Like I said, I can't imagine how the crew felt behind that galley door. All I saw for the rest of that night was beautiful food, lovely smiles, and the flashbulbs of guests' cameras as they captured memories to take home.
Thailand is one of several exotic cruising areas that have welcomed an increasing number of crewed charter yachts in recent years. Southeast Asia in general is now receiving at least a half-dozen transient charter yachts during the prime cruising months between October and April. The trend comes as more marinas spring up to support larger vessels and as yacht owners look for alternatives to increasingly crowded and expensive Caribbean and Mediterranean waters.
Taipan III is an older build, a 1981 CRN, but her American owner fits the profile of those who have come to Southeast Asia looking for options beyond tipping dockmasters 30,000 euro for a slip, as is the case during events such as the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix. Thailand's lower expenses were a key reason the yacht relocated from the Western Med, he told me as we fished onboard Taipan III's 25-foot center console near the island Ko Yao Noi. He also enjoys the friendliness of the Thai people, whom he's come to like quite a bit since marrying a local woman a half-dozen years ago.
As the yacht's central agent, Skip Mansfield of Emerald Yacht-Ship, put it: "One of the primary assets of this place is that the people like you. They want you here."
It also doesn't hurt that this cruising ground east of Phuket is spectacular both in scenery and in accessibility to the sea. If you enjoy watersports, you'll be in heaven, what with empty bays tailor-made for PWCs and water skis, not to mention gorgeous reefs ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. I did just one dive during my visit, and during that 40 minutes underwater I saw at least eight species of fish, coral, and urchins that were new to me. It was one of the better dives of my life, followed by an afternoon of swimming in water as green and clear as a fine emerald.
Above the surface, the view is just as breathtaking. It's hard to comprehend exactly how these islands came to be. They look like giant rocks that fell from the sky, mammoth droplets from the tips of The Creator's fingers, only frozen vertically without slopes or beaches that actually connect with the water. In most places, there are crevices and caves full of stalactites where sandy stretches would otherwise be, nooks and crannies begging to be explored by kayak.
Where there are beaches, most are home to fine resorts with good-quality restaurants serving Thai and Western cuisine. The onshore eateries are worth a day or two of your time simply to get a bit of the local flavor, but I found the meals onboard our yacht better than what we ate ashore, thanks to the work of Taipan III's Swiss-German chef, Marcel Ackle.
Ackle is European-trained and has been working in Thailand since October 2004, primarily in high-class resorts that have allowed him to sort out which local provisioners he can trust to fly in everything from fine wines to quality meats. "Everything is available," he told me, "but some orders take three or four weeks' advance time. It's important that guests make their preferences known early, so I can put the orders in. The islands here that are inhabited, most of them are Muslim. You're lucky if you can find beer."
We spent the last afternoon of our charter in such a place: Panyi Island, which is not so much an island as a Muslim village built on stilts in the island's lee to make it easier for working fishermen to get out to sea. About a thousand people live here, and those who don't fish for a living have shops where they sell trinkets to tourists who arrive by boat. The shopkeepers, most of them women who speak limited English, are aggressive, calling out: "Madam! Madam! Look, look. Cheap, cheap." They sound almost like birds—"Cheap, cheap. Cheap, cheap"—as they bargain in bhat, the local currency. Each conversation going something like this:
"Price for you, 1,400 bhat."
"How about 700?"
"Okay, for you, 1,000. You I like."
"How about 700?"
"Yes madame. For you, 800 bhat."
"How about 700?"
"Okay, 700. Cheap, cheap."
Seven-hundred bhat is about $20, the price of a large, hand-woven handbag that would go for $40 or $50 in the United States. Handmade silk scarves can be found here for just $6 or $7—and some of them are quite nice, with embroidery and sequins for formal occasions.
Bargaining is part of the culture in Thailand, a fact I mention because I think it's something you might consider doing when booking Taipan III herself. The experience she offers is a lovely introduction to this gorgeous kingdom, but she is an older yacht that's operating with mostly new crew who are at the beginning of their formal-service training in a destination where demand for charter is still emerging.
Specifically, Taipan III's base rate in the Mediterranean was $140,000 per week for 12 guests, and the owner is hiking it to $160,000 during the high season in Thailand. "We're exclusive here," Mansfield explained. "We think we can get it." Based on my experience, I'm not quite sold on that price point—and neither were the international charter brokers who were aboard with me. Taipan III's main guest areas are in nice condition, and she offers amenities such as zero-speed stabilizers and an onboard Thai masseuse, but parts of the yacht (such as the carpeting and overhead in some guest areas) are visibly tired, she lacks a few basics such as TVs in all the staterooms, and the local crew are still learning about the level of service that is required onboard large motoryachts, things such as bringing covered dishes instead of tin foil to the table when presenting meals to guests.
As I said at the beginning of this story, Taipan III's crew is composed of lovely, hard-working people who truly want guests to be happy. But at $160,000 a week, the service and decor should rival finer yachts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. They should at least be on par with other yachts that are opening up exotic destinations for charter with well-trained local crew, including the much smaller, 115-foot, $62,500-per week Surprise in Fiji—where service and decor are both top-notch.
Having said that, I believe that with a price correction negotiated by a good charter broker, Taipan III, like Thailand itself, offers fantastic cruising vacation opportunities. I'd make a reasonable offer and go back in a heartbeat, tsunami potential and all.
And I'm certain that this yacht's crew would again greet me with bright smiles.
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.