Dr Sinharaja Tammita -Delgoda joined our Singapore and Burma, Land of Contrasts cruise at the end of 2012. Most of the other guest bloggers have focused on the awe-inspiring nature of Burma, but for this piece, the Doctor focused on the life around the Phi Phi Islands as well as the people he met on his cruise.
His blog below is one of the most charming we have received from our guest lecturers and more surprising, as he is specialist on warfare and international relations. This piece highlights some of the hidden gems that many people may not even notice.
“Limestone mountains climb out of the sea. Rearing up suddenly before us, great ridges slope down into the water. Their sides are crusted with clinging trees and bushes, their cliffs riddled with caves and gushing streams. Lying between the island of Phuket and the western coast of Thailand, these are the Phi Phi Islands.
Phi Phi Islands, Thailand
Easing down, the speedboat glides round the rocky peaks. Skimming through openings we had not seen, it emerges into the sheltered bays and hidden coves of Koh Phi Phi Ley. There are many boats and many people, yet the sound of birds is in our ears. There is also another sound, the noise of rushing water. Pouring down the mountainside in streams of sparkling silver, it falls into the sea. In the distance we could see caverns opening, tunnels running into the mountainside. In one corner, a sliver of sand curves round the corner of the bay.
On the way out I had found myself near the prow. Finding an empty space I sat and mused, trying not to dream. Another passenger beamed at me. I felt self-conscious.
“Do you mind if I sit here and talk to myself,” I asked.
“Not at all,” she said, “I just hope you get good answers.”
Her name was Brenda Waterbury, a teacher from Canada. She and her friends would meet every evening, to watch sunset on the top most deck. Her friend Wendy was lugging a large mysterious bag, which she had brought on board. “What on earth is she carrying,” I wondered politely to myself, “ and why on earth is she carrying it here.” It turned out that she had the only flippers in the group and I watched in envy as she swam effortlessly across the bay, beneath the shadow of the looming rock.
Phi Phi Islands rocks
In places the water is dark and blue, shaded by the towering cliffs. Elsewhere it is green with the shadow of the trees; clear and light in places where the sun shines through. There are no waves here, just a deep and languid swell. Beneath our feet were massive domes and moulds like brains, huge blooming flowers and spreading cabbage leaves. Darting between them were moving forms, bursts of colours, stripes and spots, Parrotfish, Angel Fish and Butterfly Fish, Wrasses and Groupers.
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North of Phi Phi, is Koh Phai, Bamboo Island. Here there are no looming limestone crags, just white sand and a lapping turquoise calm. Nature here is less dramatic; softer and more gentle. The water here is not so clear, shallow and full of sand. It is also full of boats and people.
Swimming out, I was disappointed. All I could see was a murky haze. The floor was littered with coral pieces, some were broken, others were bleached and lifeless. Swimming out further I passed the throng. The water here was deeper. All of a sudden, there was a flurry of activity. Two large fish loomed out of the sandy blur, they were feeding or trying to feed. Snapping in gulping movements, they were pecking at another fish. Surrounding them were swarms of smaller fish. Nipping and tearing in furious rushes, they fought back in numbers, holding the larger fish at bay. It was the first fish fight I had ever seen. A glimpse of magic, a world of make believe. It seems only to exist in films and documentaries but there it was in front of us; we were there, we were a part of it and it was part of us.
Crowding back into the boat, we clustered near the bows. As the bow lifted out of the water, we thrilled to the glow of speed, the sheer romance of rushing towards the sunset. The speedboat was a torpedo, cutting through the water like a streak of light. When we looked to see, we saw that we were travelling along a carefully defined path, along a channel marked in the sea.
Voyages to Antiquity guests on a traditional Thai Longtail Boat
They were other boats too, all travelling home along different paths. Trundling fishing boats, wide, wallowing catamarans and long tailed boats with curving fan shape prows, which swayed from side to side. In the distance the islands glowed and smouldered, aflame with falling light.
Flying back through the setting sun, Brenda recalled the words of an American school teacher. “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments which take your breath away.”
Dr SINHARAJA TAMMITA-DELGODA, ART HISTORIAN
Historian by training, art historian by inclination and writer on occasion, SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda has had a varied and eclectic career. Educated at western universities and Buddhist monasteries he has travelled widely in South Asia. He has an MA in Medieval Studies (York) and a PhD in British Indian history (King’s College, London). However, his greatest ambition was to be a jockey and in 2001 he came last in the first ever beach race in Sri Lanka.
The author of several articles on the colonial period, his first book work was A Travellers History of India (1994), a sweeping survey of Indian culture and history. His great passion however, is the art and architecture of Buddhism. Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of Michigan, he taught the 1st ever course on the Evolution of Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and in 2009 delivered a series of lectures as part of Asian Art Week in London. He is the author of three rather heavy works on the art and archaeology of Sri Lanka, The World of Stanley Kirinde (2005), Ridi Vihare. The Flowering of Kandyan Art (2007) Eloquence in Stone. The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka (2008).
He has also has spoken widely on warfare and international relations, while his articles have appeared in the international press and in military journals. Now specializing in the Indian Ocean and Sino-Indian relations, he currently lectures on South Asia at the Bandaranaike Centre of International Studies in Colombo.