Mangrove trees live in salty water, like ocean water. Mangrove forests are found along tropical and subtropical coastlines in both the western and the eastern hemisphere. The mangroves have massive root systems that protect the shoreline from soil erosion, even from hurricanes and tsunamis. They also protect a special ecosystem of living species – including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. In recent times the mangrove forests have become endangered. Since 1980 we have lost twenty per cent of the world’s mangroves. They have been removed for both urban development and for agricultural purposes. Some of the loss is the result of powerful tsunamis and other natural disasters that wash away the soil that sustains the plants. We are very fortunate to have an extensive mangrove forest on the east side of Koh Lanta.
Adventure on Koh Lanta
We have been vacationing on Koh Lanta for several years, four or five times a year. People often ask, “What is there to do on Koh Lanta?” Now I admit that it takes very little to entertain Lory and I on holidays. We are the quintessential beach people. We like to read and suntan by the hotel pool, occasionally swim laps, go for walks on the beach – “Do you like pina coladas?” you may well ask.
We have never felt any need for ‘adventure’ on Koh Lanta. Yeah, with peer pressure we have done the one-day snorkeling trip to Phi Phi Island, and in a weak moment we hiked down to the south end of Koh Lanta Yai to the Marine Park – a much more rigorous and exhausting hike than we had anticipated – but those were aberrations in our vacationing lifestyle. We have never done the four-island tour, we are not divers, and we don’t care if we ever get up on another elephant.
So imagine our surprise when, on a recent Koh Lanta holiday, we had not one but two new adventures. At our urging, our friends Jeff and Susan had agreed to join us on for a week on Koh Lanta. It was a thrill for us to share ‘our island’ with them. But Jeff and Susan are not beach people. How we ever became friends boggles the mind. Our first adventure was a hike up to the waterfall at Klong Jark just three kilometers north of the Marine Park. It was an easy ‘family hike’ and in the green season the waterfall is quite spectacular. We had sent Lory’s mom Doris and her aunt Fran to Klong Jark for an elephant ride and hike to the waterfall in the past, but there was no water to fall in the dry season, so we were delighted with our wet reward.
Our second adventure came about as the result of a drive across the island to show Jeff and Susan the construction site of our retirement home. We were cruising past a sign ‘Mangrove Way’ on the east side of the island. Jeff and Susan are ‘earth people’ as opposed to ‘beach people’. They eat healthy food and live a healthy lifestyle. They are concerned about environmental issues, even if the issue may be in their back yard. They run, rather than walk, and they go on adventure holidays to remote corners of the world that have no beaches. “What do they do for fun?” you may well ask.
The thing is that ‘fun’ seems to be defined differently by different people. Aristotle claimed that man’s purpose is to be happy. Heidegger argued that Aristotle was a smiling idiot. He said the purpose of the human condition is to contemplate death. From my perspective, Lory and I are definitely Aristotelian, and Jeff and Susan are closer to the Heidegging side of things.
Khun Luen’s Mangrove Tour
Hence it came to pass that the four of us drove down Mangrove Way to discover what wonders would be revealed. The road ends at Tung Yee Peng pier, on the edge of the mangrove forest. A small kiosk advertises eco tourism opportunities. Our first instinct was to jump into kayaks and paddle leisurely up the narrow inlet into mangrove land. We were immediately informed that we would not be allowed to kayak without a guide to ensure we found our way out. So we decided that if we need a guide we might as well save our energy and take the longboat tour.
We crossed a wooden bridge to access a long narrow pier that winds through the mangrove to a boat launch and restaurant on stilts. Here we were greeted by Khun Luen, who would be our boatman and guide. A longtail boat is a small fishing boat. The propeller is at the end of a long pipe extending from the motor at the back of the boat. Longtail boats are also used for low cost tourism ventures in Thailand.
Boarding the longboat, we settled in for our adventure. Khun Luen spoke no English, but this did not stop him from shouting out information to the tourists about the islands we were passing and other information that will remain a mystery. He was charming. The boat followed narrow channels between the mangrove islands, and it reminded me very much of boating on the Bayou in Louisiana. It soon became clear why we would not kayak without a guide. Only experienced guides could navigate these waterways.
We passed a fish farm in the form of houseboat sitting in a wide stretch of seawater, and we spotted Lanta Old Town in the distance to our right. Then we turned back into narrow channels again and enjoyed the magical atmosphere of life in the mangrove forest. We passed local fishermen in other longtail boats. Their relaxed body language suggested that they enjoy an idyllic life on the water. We were unable to identify the two species of water birds that proliferated the area; they flew in great numbers out of the mangrove trees and over our boat. We also enjoyed the flying fish that skimmed along the water close to the boat.
The highlight of the adventure for Khun Luen was his specialty of ‘feeding the friendly monkeys’ (as advertised in the brochure). The monkeys were long-tail macaques that live in the mangrove forest. They are quite accustomed to Khun Luen bringing tourists and fruit for them to enjoy. Khun Luen maneuvered the boat up to the mangrove trees so that a dozen monkeys could jump onto the boat. It quite startled us initially! We know wild macaques from our home in Sumatra and they can be quite vicious.
Surprisingly, these monkeys were almost domesticated in that as Khun Luen moved to the front of the boat, they climbed up his legs, almost pulling his pants down. Khun Luen’s smile was as wide as the macaque’s tail is long! The monkeys were all over him, clambering to get their share of the fruit. It was hilarious!
When the fruit was gone, Khun Luen returned to the helm and backed the boat away from the mangroves. The monkeys instinctively leaped from the boat, flying through the air to latch onto a mangrove branch and scamper to shore. Another successful monkey feeding expedition!
On the way back to the pier, we passed a group of kayakers and we felt quite relieved that we had not opted for that option. They were working very hard and would not cover anywhere close to the area we were able to see and enjoy. A beautiful thing about the Mangrove Way experience is that you really feel you are supporting the local economy. Your money goes directly into the hands of the locals who run this little eco tourism enterprise.
In a small way, the Tung Yee Peng community is preserving the world’s mangrove forests. You cannot do this tour without increasing your awareness and appreciation of the special ecosystem of the mangrove forests.
TO READ MORE ABOUT MANGROVES: