The divers loaded onto the dinghy at dusk, a gray sky masking the setting sun. They joked with one another to distort the clear sense of uneasiness in the air. The sign at the border promised, “we warmly and kindly welcome tourists”, but the gruff looks on the faces of the guards said otherwise.
My grim imagining from the dock in Ranong was swiftly becoming reality; our journey ashore bared a frightening resemblance to being kidnapped by the Burmese government! We filed into the customs office and watched our passports be casually slung aside while we stood to get photographed. No one spoke or smiled; the tension was palpable.
When it seemed we were free to go, we swiftly returned to the dinghy. As we started the motor, a few guards came shouting after us, one of whom jumped into the boat: this was Nyein, our Burmese guide, who would accompany us on our trip. I could tell by the look on Dani’s face that this was not a protocol he had ever seen before. Nyein was there to act as our guide and translator, as proof of our allowance into the country’s waters, both for our protection and their own. Captain Wat was commanded to remove his Thai flag and put up a Burmese one, which he was visibly disgruntled about.
Despite the drama of the day, we finally sailed off into open waters. Nyein, who turned out to be a very nice man, drank Singha beer with us as we relaxed into our new home with this motley crew. Captain Wat didn’t talk much. Our exchanges consisted mostly of Sa-wat-dii kha and khop khun kha (Thai for hello and thank you) when purchasing beer from his special refrigerator.
The ship’s fabulous cook, Swing, served us the best Thai food I ate in Thailand (next to Mrs. Jip’s papaya spicy salad). Our dinner that first night consisted of prawn fried rice and Swing’s speciality: coconut milk soup with whole straw mushrooms, scallions, and an assortment of julienne vegetables. Another standout included soft tofu curry over rice with cabbage, aubergine, straw mushrooms, and whole quail eggs. With our evening beers, Swing made us a special bar snack that Steffi and Boris, the German couple aboard, had eaten in Chumphon a few years prior: roasted cashews sprinkled, while hot, with salt, lime juice, chopped red chilies, sliced red onion, and chopped scallions.
We sailed on like this, eating amazing Thai food, drinking Captain Wat’s beers, and, most importantly, diving four times a day for a week. Each morning we awoke to the breathtaking sunrise over open water, and each evening we finished our last dive to the brilliance of the sunset.
Throughout this time, the only other boats we spotted were local fishing boats, the fisherman sometimes waving to us as we passed by. The diving was not easy, and we often dove with much current, needing to drift dive sites. By the end, I had 28 new dives under my belt and saw my first turtle (which Steffi said was requisite for any dive trip). The reef was brilliant, full of gorgeous sea fans, with none of the evident damage I later witnessed in The Philippines.
The boat usually carries 12 divers, so with only the four of us we had reign of the ship. The main deck consisted of a large dining table (three times the size of Swing’s kitchen), a center console with stereo, books in German, hot/cold water and snacks, and a main room with window seats and a big lounge area.
The best place to sleep, though, was on the sun deck, because from there you can see the stars. More than I’ve seen in so long, even though the moon was only a few days old and a small sliver in the sky. On The Flying Carpet, for the first time in my life, I truly slept under the stars, not just in a tent. I awoke every few hours to look up at the luminous sky of bright stars; they seemed near enough to touch, and I felt safe and close to home on the roof of a ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea.