Review of The Junk Liveaboard in Thailand
Recently, I was lucky enough to get on a chartered liveaboard with some close friends and ex-colleagues. The Junk had been on my liveaboard wish-list for a while; the history of the boat, the old-timey vibe, and of course, diving somewhere new was very appealing. So did it live up to expectations? Have a look at my review of diving on The Junk liveaboard in Thailand!
History of The Junk Liveaboard
The Junk is an unusual name for a liveaboard but it refers to its history as a type of Chinese sailing boat. Junks were so named during the colonial period to refer to boats that used fully battened sails and were used as cargo ships, pleasure boats, or houseboats.
This particular boat, the June Hong Chian Lee, was built in Penang, Malaysia in 1962. It is 30 meters, 140-ton three mast junk with 330 square meters of sails. The boat sailed from Burma to Malaysia carrying charcoal in its early life, before becoming a party boat around Phi Phi islands, then becoming a diving liveaboard in 1997.
The boat is super cool in photos with its massive sails up, and beautiful teak wood construction. I say ‘in photos’ because unfortunately, but understandably, it is a big job to unfurl the sails and put them up each time. Which is why it is not done often.
It has been fully modernized inside with a comfortable lounge area where we had all of our dive briefings, and where the food and drinks are served. There is air-conditioning in here which was a nice relief from the hot Thai heat outside.
We had 20 guests on our chartered trip, and it was comfortable enough without falling over one another. There is a huge table outside for eating and chilling out. Then a top deck to catch some sun (just make sure you don’t sit in front of the captain’s eye-line otherwise you’ll block him from driving the boat and he might yell at you!), and another top deck with sun-loungers and beanbags. During the day, the crew will rig up a big shade over the huge table and sun-loungers to beat the sun.
We received a very thorough briefing of the logistics before our first dive. This was clear and informative so everyone knew what they were doing and when.
The setup area for diving is outside on either side of the boat with numbers for each diver. You get a numbered tank rack, a numbered crate for your bits and bobs, and 2 numbered pegs to hang up your towel, wetsuit, belongings. They also put that number on a sticker for your fins. This is used so that you don’t mix up your fins (if everyone is wearing the same Scubapro Jetfins – which happened on the last liveaboard I went on!).
You will be put into groups with similarly experienced divers and be given a dive guide. Each group will get ready on the boat before moving onto a rib (Rigid Inflatable Boat) to get dropped off over the dive site. Your fins will already be on the rib (which is why the numbers make it easier).
On the rib, you will put your fins on, and when the driver tells you it’s ok, you will backward roll-off all at the same time into the water.
The diving groups entering the water are staggered, with about 5 minutes or longer in-between each drop-off. The rib driver and dive guide might also decide on different drop-offs which is great so you don’t have to see too many divers in the same spot.
The order of the diving groups are rotated each day, but stay the same for the day. This allows everyone to either be the first group in the water or the last group to enter.
There were also big tubs to rinse off your smelly wetsuit (I mean, c’mon, we all do it..) which was rinsed after each dive. There was also a freshwater tub for cameras, computers, torches, and masks.
The highlight after each dive was the ‘hot shower’ from a giant ceramic jar with fresh water. The water was heated up from the sun and we all lined up after the dive to get a bucketful of hot water poured over us. It was delightful!
Our 4-night stay on The Junk liveaboard took us to the Similan and Surin Islands around the west coast of Thailand. Our first dive was a check dive to gauge everyone’s experience, determine the number of weights you needed, and to ensure everyone could put up a Surface Marker Buoy (SMB). We visited the main dive sites, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai, and the famous Richelieu Rock during our trip. The location for our dives changed a bit depending on the conditions, but this was always communicated to us. Some of the dives included:
Elephant Head Rock
There are three large boulders rising out of the water, with one boulder on the surface with a hole that looks like an elephant ear. Loads of submerged boulders that have created cool swim-throughs and sheer walls. The bottom is around 35 – 40 meters. I loved this dive with its medium current, visually stunning valleys and cool swim-throughs. We also saw so many giant moray eels hiding in the rocks, and also spotted some bright blue ribbon eels. Unfortunately, I had a horrifically foggy mask!
Koh Bon has an opening on the surface of the rock where you can see through to the other side. Boats will usually park in the bay which protects from the wind and waves. We spent the night moored up here. The western ridge has a cleaning station for mantas, but unfortunately, we had no mantas during our dive, but they are known to be around, especially with the strong currents on this dive site. This seems to be a large dive-site and we were dropped off at different places for several dives. Really nice with lots to see. I believe we were aiming to dive Koh Bon Pinnacle, but with the low visibility, our plan changed. This Pinnacle is apparently quite a deep dive, with the top starting at 18 meters.
Koh Tachai is located about 20 km north of Koh Bon. This island has a beautiful white sandy beach that we were not allowed to go to as the princess had recently shut it to the public, but it looked awesome from afar. We had a dive at Twin Peaks (Koh Tachai Pinnacle) which is about 500 meters away from the main Koh Tachai island and consists of two submerged pinnacles.
The south pinnacle is bigger, and about 12 meters from the surface. It is surrounded by large boulders, and the sandy bottom is around 30 to 45 meters. There are swim-throughs on the west side and the east side has smaller rocks, covered with hard corals. There are colorful soft corals and large sea fans. The north pinnacle is about 50 meters away and the top of the pinnacle is 18 meters from the surface.
Manta rays and whale sharks can be seen here, along with whiptail rays, whitetip and blacktip sharks, and schools of barracuda, snappers, and fusiliers.
This dive site is the big bananas of the Andaman Sea, and the highlight of the diving trips out here. Some claimed that Jacques-Yves Cousteau found this dive site, but this has been recently disputed, and it is more widely accepted that Richelieu Rock was named after Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu, a Danish officer who became the first and only foreign-born commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy. He was the first person to complete a hydrographic survey of the Andaman Sea including the site of Richelieu Rock.
The rock itself is horseshoe shape, with a mooring line on the south-east. The top of the rock is hidden in high tide, and can be seen in low tide. It is a pinnacle with a bottom depth of 35 meters. The south side (inside of the horseshoe) slopes down gently with sea fans and bright corals, while the rest of the pinnacle consists of steep walls and groups of rocks.
The marine life is stunning here, and it’s also where we spotted the whale shark on the east side! There were some giant harlequin shrimps (my absolute favorite) munching on starfish legs, quite a few seahorses (biggest ones I’ve seen), schools of giant trevallies and snappers, lots of nudibranchs, tiny and gigantic scorpionfish and more.
The current wasn’t super strong here. But if you do have ear troubles or you’re without a guide, you will probably want to descend on the mooring line in case of a current. The dive site can get busy, but we did 4 dives here and two of the dives we were alone. Amazing dive site; lots to see and experience, despite the low visibility on our dives!
Most of our group took their own dive equipment, but some people did rent equipment on board. There were spares of BCDs, wetsuits, regulators, lots of SMBs, lots of torches, various masks etc. It was well-stocked, and the quality of the equipment seemed quite good.
We used enriched air (NITROX) on all of our dives. The head equipment guy came around to each diver with an analyzer before every dive so that we could analyze and check our own nitrox tank.
You can choose double/twin share, a triple berth, or a 4 person room. Each room has air-conditioning and an en-suite bathroom with hot water.
The rooms are a little dated but keeps in line with the traditional old sailing boat theme. It’s clean and a crew member comes and makes the bed each morning during your first dive. The bathroom is a bit old but usable with a good amount of hooks and racks for your toiletries and towels.
I’ve never been on a liveaboard with bad food, I don’t even think that exists, and The Junk certainly did not disappoint. We had eggs, bacon, sausages, potato hashbrowns, and rice soup options for breakfast. Various lunch options including papaya salad, green curry, pad-thai, laab, chicken popcorn, and salads. Snacks like fried bananas, muffins, sticky rice and mango dessert, spring rolls. And dinner options which included curries, pork belly, and everyone’s favorite, spaghetti bolognese. There were also vegetarian options and a steady supply of fruit.
There were also a few seafood options (prawns/squid/fish in curries), and I always feel a bit weird about this one. I could go without seafood on a liveaboard, especially since we’re there to dive with the marine life, but I also ate it as it since it was on the table. I know people coming from overseas might be keen to try the Thai seafood curries so this is probably why it is an option but if I had a liveaboard, I would not have it on the menu.
Soft drinks, tea/coffee, and electrolytes for your water were free of charge. Thai beers are stocked up every day for after your last dive, and these were a reasonable 2.50 USD per can. You could also buy a bottle of wine for 27 USD.
The schedule for our trip was usually;
0600 Wake up call / Light Breakfast
0630 Briefing / Dive 1
1000 Briefing / Dive 2
1430 Briefing / Dive 3
1800 Briefing / Dive 4
This gave us a good amount of ‘chillaxing’ time to nap, read a book, play a game of cards, etc. after eating and before the dive!
Again, I’ve never come across crew that are not competent on a liveaboard. The Junk’s cruise director, Marco, was knowledgeable and knew his stuff. He was serious about safety briefings and was approachable when I had a question about the dive sites or marine life. He knows how to dive these locations, and knew where to find the macro life. The other dive guides were great too, with various experiences, and were helpful with logistics, and stories about the diving.
The rib drivers, equipment guys, cooking and cleaning staff, were all very polite and helpful. They were quiet (except when preparing breakfast at 5 am, that’s when they were yelling/talking to each other. Haha) The Captain was a smiley guy, which is a nice change from some captains who can be grumpy!
The Junk liveaboard is a relaxed trip. The locations for the dives were interchangeable depending on the conditions, and the schedule each day was written the night before to give you time to prepare (and to work out how many beers you would have depending on the wake-up time the next day!).
There were some ground rules for the boat, dry areas, not to charge electronics inside rooms, but they were very easy to stick to.
It was easier for our group as most people already knew each other, but I found there were enough areas to relax in depending if you wanted to socialize, or if you wanted some alone time to tan and read a book. Several people just went to their rooms during the dives to make the most out of the air-conditioning, or to get another nap in.
Wake up calls were a small bell that they rung outside your door in the morning, and the briefing calls and meal times (very important!) were indicated by a massive, and very loud, bell that yours truly was allowed to ring one time!
We had a very thorough safety briefing when we got onto the Junk liveaboard. The cruise director was clear explaining safety procedures and got us to do a fire drill with life-jackets. The Junk has a tremendous amount of power points in the lounge area for charging phones, laptops, torches etc. and we were asked not to plug anything in the rooms due to the possibility of fire, which we all know can happen on boats.
Getting onto the rib from the big boat was easy with the help of 2 men on the platform and 2 men on the rib. But getting into the rib after the dive was a little harder with the small ladder. I would imagine this can be difficult in waves.
My Diving Experience
I have reviewed the diving last as the conditions of the dive-sites is not a reflection of The Junk liveaboard. Unfortunately, we did not have the most amazing diving conditions as visibility went as low as 1-2 meters on some dives. We did, however, see a whale shark (I spotted it first!) at Richelieu Rock so of course, that made it an amazing dive.
There were currents on some of the dives, and while we did have to work a bit, and kick against it, most of the dives were comfortable for experienced divers. Nothing like the up and down currents when diving in Komodo or Myanmar!
The conditions on the surface were favorable. We had little wind, flat seas, and no rain. It was so pleasant that a few of us slept on the top deck under the stars.
The diving in the Similan and Surin Islands has a wonderful range of marine life and bright corals. I know the diving can get crowded at times with a large number of boats on each dive site, but we were lucky to have only spotted a few other boats during our trip. The dive sites can usually be catered to different experience levels, with some people going for a drift dive in the current, and some groups sheltering from the currents, so there’s something for everyone.
Boarding The Junk liveaboard and spending a few days and nights was a fun experience. You will find all the modern comforts of other newer liveaboards but you will be hard-pressed to find another boat with the charm of The Junk liveaboard. From the history of the boat to the materials used in the construction, there is no other boat like it. The dive logistics on the Junk liveaboard were smooth and professional, with a friendly and smiling crew. My favorite thing on a liveaboard is having lots of places to hang out, whether it’s in the sun or in the air-conditioning, and The Junk Liveaboard certainly delivered!