Getting up well before dawn, especially while travelling, can seem like a strange thing to do at the best of times but the reward often more than justifies the effort and so it was on this glorious day near Phatthalung in southern Thailand. A figurative and literal sea of pink stretched out to the horizon before us in the warm golden light of a tropical sunrise and for the time being we had this glorious natural spectacle all to ourselves.
A Tale of Two Visits
After our stay on Koh Lipe which you can read about in a previous blog, we moved on to my wife's family home near the historical southern city of Nakhon Si Thammarat where plans were hatched to visit some more destinations that were new to us in the area. One of these was to be to Phatthalung province and in particular to Thale Noi ('little sea' in Thai), a vast shallow lake 5km wide and 6km long, and part of a 450 square kilometre waterfowl reserve.
After the drive down from Nakhon (as the locals abbreviate it), we arrived in the heat of the midday sun on the lake side at Thale Noi. It was obviously set-up to handle day-trippers with a market selling handicrafts and other goods on one side of the road and a string of food sellers and open-air restaurants where you could sit and look over the lake on the opposite. Below these along the shoreline stretched a range of decidedly rickety looking jetties made from bamboo poles (what else!) jutting out into the lake alongside which were tied a succession of the ubiquitous long-tailed boats used all over Thailand.
We were excited to get out on the water and so we hired one of the boats which we filled thanks to some of our nieces we had brought along with us for the ride. A nice touch I thought was that the boatman had a selection of wide-brimmed hats ready for those that needed them, to avoid the worst of the heat from the scorching sun although it is worth remembering that the sun reflected from the water can also burn you easily so slap on that sunscreen too. We also quickly got through our water supply so remember to take plenty with you.
Once we had backed away from the jetty and headed out towards the main body of the lake it was nice to feel the breeze for sure after the oppressive heat, although that soon returned each time we stopped to look at something more closely. I like to stop often to take photographs and a quick raise of the hand agreed with the boatman did the trick, but even I was willing us to get moving as quickly as possible after each stop it was that hot.
Our boat tour took us on a nice long trip around the lake, seeing numerous birds (the lake is famous as a bird-watching destination) and local Thai's going about their business, and even a herd of water buffalo allowed to roam and graze freely on the marshes. These were accompanied by various birds riding on their backs and shoulders or following behind who were quick to pounce on any insects, fish or amphibians displaced by the wandering beasts. These were all very interesting to see but the main attraction for visitors are the millions of lotus plants that cloak the lake almost completely except for the channels regularly used by the boats. We spotted both white and pink varieties which were beautiful, but there are also purple flowers there too apparently but to be honest it was a bit underwhelming with not many flowers overall, just lots of luxuriant green growth which the birds, fish and other wildlife love of course. We put this down to bad timing on our part thinking it must be the wrong time of year for the best viewing.
Back at the jetty a couple of hours later we said our thanks to the boatman as we climbed out of the boat to take our chance on the swaying bamboo once more. As we were leaving we explained we were a little disappointed we had missed the views of the lotus flowers that the lake was famous for. "Oh you have to come before 10 o'clock in the morning" he said in a matter-of-fact way, "the flowers all open at dawn but soon close up again for the day once the sun gets too hot ." So it wasn't the wrong time of year, just the wrong time of day. If only we'd known before! Luckily my brother-in-law who had brought us down stepped up to the plate and gamely agreed if we were up for it then he was willing to get up well before before dawn and drive us back to the lake the next morning so we could try again. Fantastic! My wife and I eagerly agreed but we couldn't persuade any of the others to leave their beds behind so our plan was set.
Land of the Rising Sun
Somewhere in the dark of the following morning our alarms chimed and we snuck outside to wait for our ride back to the lake. It was our aim to actually arrive there at dawn and Thale Noi was about an hour away so it really was an early start but the anticipation of what might be waiting for us gave us the boost we needed. Soon enough we arrived in the morning twilight and while the others found a boatman up early enough and willing to take us out I got busy photographing the early stages of the sunrise and activity on the lake. It already felt special being there, for sure the only visitors around at that time to see the dawn of the new day, let alone the locals.
Boatman found and hired, we quickly boarded and once again backed away from the shore and headed out into the lake, straight towards the ever increasing glow from the rising sun which was still just below the horizon. Terns and gulls were silhouetted like perfect cardboard cutouts against the orange haze perched atop wooden posts in the lake, and in the increasing light we could start to see dozens and dozens of pure white herons, egrets and the iridescent purple swamp-hens that were waking up and starting to look for the best feeding areas for their breakfast.
In one of the wider open channels amongst the lotus beds the boatman throttled back and cut the engine so we drifted silently to a gentle stop. As we looked ahead, the first rays of the emerging sun burst over the distant mountains on the horizon and bathed us in the warm light of dawn. My wife and I just sat quietly for a minute or two and soaked up this magical moment, quite literally it seemed as we could already feel the additional heat radiating into our bodies.
Taking a moment to look around ahead of us towards the sun, we could start to see more and more lotus flowers opening as the sun warmed them too. It looked like the promise was indeed coming true but this was nothing compared to the spectacle we saw when the boat was turned around and we looked back the way we had come towards the shore.
With the sun now behind us and climbing rapidly, increasing its illumination of the scene, it was like a theatre curtain being raised on one of the most amazing views you could imagine. A swathe of candy pink lotus blossoms in their tens, if not hundreds of thousands stretched out in front of us from left to right. It was truly breathtaking and one of those sights you don't soon forget. The glossy green lotus leaves and the snow-white plumage of the birds dotted about just highlighted the richness of their colour even more it seemed.
We spent the next hour or so slowly motoring around between different areas to take in the views and to ensure I had plenty of photo opportunities. Another highlight for me was coming across an elderly local gentleman who was out in his small boat fishing for snakehead by gently lowering a bait into small holes between the lotus pads. He had caught a couple already and I wished I could have had a go for a while but we left him to catching his lunch and continued on.
In a small channel we once again stopped in a particularly dense area of flowers, still pinching ourselves that we were here. A couple of other tourist boats were now starting to head out from the shore, loaded down from front to back with happy smiling faces and lots of cameras pointing every which way as birds and flowers vied for their attention. It was at this point that I happened to mention to my wife that what would have made this morning just perfect was if we had thought to have packed a little food to enjoy while out on the water. She laughed and the boatman asked what I had said so she explained. Next thing we know he was digging in his bag and handing us his own little breakfast of steamed banana leaf parcels containing sweet coconut rice and red beans with a huge grin and motioned us to eat up. A very touching gesture made all the more poignant by the reality that our time was almost up in this pink paradise, and our perfect morning was indeed coming to an end. Back at shore we made certain to tip our boatman above and beyond the norm, firstly for giving us such an outstanding experience but secondly because he would presumably be wanting to replace his breakfast - I know I would!