WARNING: This is generally a positive review. I tried to be critical, but we just had such a great time with no hitches, there really wasnt that much to be critical of.
Recently returned from a 9 day charter from Sunsail out of Ao Po marina (Phuket, Thailand) starting on 2 January 2013.
There is very little on this forum regarding chartering in this region so i thought i'd jot down a brief review. there's a reasonable amount of info on the sunsail site as well as the hard copy or online "southeast asia pilot" publication Southeast Asia Pilot - the definitive cruising guide for the Andaman Sea...and more
We sail in BC, Canada, usually, and have previously chartered in the BVI's as well as one-way Antigua to St Maarten via the intervening islands.
- A GREAT PLACE TO SAIL AND CHARTER. I can't believe its not more popular. many, many advantages in many ways over the Caribbean and one of the few destinations where the prime chartering season is in the middle of our (Canadian) winter. we are DEFINITELY going back. i list the very few "cons" of the trip at the end, below.
My wife and I chartered a fairly new Sunsail 41 (jeanneau) monohull out of Ao Po marina base in northeastern Phuket island. we went Ao Po - Ko Hong - Ko Roi (lunch) - Rai Le - Dam Dam Khwam/Ko Dam Hok - Ko Phi Phi Don - Ko Phi Phi Le (AM only) - Ko Mai thon (lunch) - southwest Ko Yao Kai - Ko Rang Yai - Ko Nakha Yai - Ao Po. mostly short hops on this trip.
: many flights into Phuket from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur - i think there may be a direct flight from the US, but not certain. in the airport i saw flights from Moscow, Helsinki (many russians and scandinavians) & australia. we flew victoria/vancouver - hong kong - phuket. airport is modern and clearing security and customs/immigration was faster than most north american airports. this was my first trip ever to asia.
The Boat, Base and Staff
: Ian Hewitt and staff at base were very helpful, especially Phillip. Marina was very easy to enter and leave - they even offered to take the boat in and out of the marina for us, but there's no need as its straightforward. Marina is clean and modern - a bit of a drive from any of the hotel areas, but easy to get to with a good road. We had no complaints about the boat which was in perfect condition apart from 1 or 2 very minor issues.
: we partially provisioned with sunsail - they delievered exactly what we requested online, but in retrospect we would have only provisioned bottled water and beer and done the rest of the shopping ourselves at the Tesco (local grocery) and bought more thai and less western food as well as recognized that on the inhabited islands food is incredibly good and unbelievably cheap at the little beach bars/restaurants.
Weather and time of year
: well known two seasons - much windier, swellier, less protected, hotter and rainier southwest season in North American Summer and northeast season Dec-April somewhat calmer, definitely drier, cooler (e.g. 22-24 celsius at night, 28-32 in the day) less swelly, more protected. we experienced generally lighter winds, only mild swell in the southern part of our itinerary, only a single thunderstorm lasting 2 hours with no other rain. when there was no cloud cover at mid day it could get a bit uncomfortable on land b/c of the heat, but was generally pretty good. humidity wasnt bad in the "dry" season. we had a mix of winds. the highest winds we saw were only 15-20 kts. we had a couple of periods of flat calm.
: In northern Phang Nga bay the islands are generally unihabited (national park) and the waters are shallow, though even with a ca. 6 ft draft, we had no issues at lowish (although neap) tides. the bottom is very flat. there are a very large number of well protected achaorages with good holding and perfect depths. generally no swell (in the northeast season) until you get south of Phang Nga Bay - and even there its quite pleasant (i understand much worse in the southwest season April - Nov, though). very surprisingly to us, there were only 0 to a few other boats in each of the anchorages except Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Le where there's more local traffic that should be avoided. there are some currents in Phang Nga Bay
We explored the south and west side of the large main island of Phuket from land before and after the charter and there are some great anchorages there, too, which we did not visit this trip. again, despite it being "high season" they seemed very empty except Nai Harn bay, which was only moderately busy.
the other thing that astounded me was the physical beauty of the area (and this is coming from someone who usually sails in BC with some spectacular vistas as well). sheer cliffs. sea caves and tunnels. lush greenery. soft sand beaches.
On the Islands
: great, cheap, food. did i mention the food is amazing. and cheap. and fresh. we had mediocre food only twice: once when we stupidly ate at a western place, and once when i screwed up a meal on board.
basic supplies available. great swimming. monkeys. many, many opportunities for snorkling, kayaking, hiking. in the larger settlements (including Ko Phuket) lots of other activities like diving, wildlife, elephant trekking, cultural opportunities (Buddhist shrines, etc) and surprisingly good running routes.
we had at no time any concerns about crime. did not worry about our dinghy. were never accosted by anyone (though you could easily buy fish from your boat from local fisherman if you were so interested). people remarkably friendly. the only rude people i ever met were tourists.
(in my opinion):
reliable, good weather (in the northeast season).
numerous protected anchorages with good depths that were uncrowded even at the highest of high season.
food. food. food.
friendly people. felt safe.
physical beauty. spectacular.
variety and number of choices of destinations and itineraries.
variety of interesting activities with perfect conditions for swimming.
winds can be a little on the light side in the northeast season (Dec-April), though it is a mix - if you dont mind motoring a bit or picking shorter hops not a big deal. chartering a cat or going on the shoulder season would also probably take care of it.
long flights from North America, although we had no issues, and coming from the west coast it wasnt that much worse than getting to the caribbean from an expense standpoint, but probably would be from eastern canada/US eastern seaboard.
A couple of places (Phi Phi Le after 10 AM, the built up part of Phi Phi Don) were a bit busy with tourists - easily avoided, however, and they are still definitely worth a visit.
Hot mid day. time for a dip.
If you're fair skinned/redhead like my wife, you need to get that SPF 3000 out.
: (hopefully next year) One Way to Malaysia Sunsail base on Langkawi Island via less busy islands of Ko Lanta, Ko Muk and points south. maybe a visit to Similan islands and west coast of Ko Phuket. do all of our own provisioning. avoid Phi Phi Le after 10 AM. more kayaking in the caves. learn more Thai phrases. maybe someday down the road charter from one of the bases on the gulf of thailand.