Andaman Islands: Paradise Found

Have you ever had a nasty sunburn ruin a perfectly good vacation? I got a bad one about 4 days into my trip to the tropical paradise of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.  The water was so warm, the beach so inviting and the hot sun offered such a relaxing treat that I forgot about the dangers and stayed out just a little too long. And did I ever pay the price! Not only were my lips swollen like a collagen injection gone wrong and my shoulders and back bright red and likely to peel off a layer or two of skin, but it meant I had to avoid relaxing on the sand and surf, long walks along the beach and some refreshing exercise in the great outdoors.  Instead I was confined to my hut nursing my very painful burn.  It hurt to have anything touch it, cold wet towels felt like pins and needles and the mosquito net felt like sandpaper. I couldn’t sleep because every time I would move or roll over I’d be awakened by the pain.  Still the Andaman Islands are a tropical paradise, still virtually undiscovered, no massive resort developments, the way I would imagine places like Hawaii was 50-60 years ago. In fact Asia Magazine readers voted Beach #7 (that’s how they still refer to them although it’s also known as Radhanagar Beach) as the number one beach in the world! And Time Magazine rated it the number one beach in Asia!  The Andaman/Nicobar island group is made up of 394 islands but only 38 are inhabited and of those several are off limits to tourists, home to remote tribes that are still living the way they have for hundreds of years, though many have seen their numbers dwindle.  

It’s not easy to get to paradise though.  First a two hour flight from Chennai or Kolkata, India then wait around on a stifling hot jetty (pier) at Port Blair for two hours followed by a two hour boat trip to Havelock Island.  I was absolutely soaked by the time we got on board the air conditioned boat.  The resort I stayed at (Wild Orchid) transports you back in time and back to the basics.  My hut had its own bathroom with a separate shower, a big double bed with a mosquito net around it, but no wi-fi, no TV and no fridge.  It does have two big ceiling fans and AC to help you cope with the heat (temperatures around 30c each day with high humidity).  The Andamese style grass huts are in the midst of a tropical jungle and only a 2 minute walk to the beach; beautiful white sand framed by palm trees and turquoise blue water that is as comforting as a warm bath.  When the tide is in (first thing in the morning) there isn’t much beach that doesn’t get wet but when the tide goes out you can walk for more than 100 meters before the water rises above your waist.  It’s a sandy bottom so no worries about cutting your feet on sharp coral.  And best of all… it’s almost totally deserted.  I walked along the beach on a Sunday around noon and saw maybe a dozen people in just over an hour.  You really feel like you are on your own deserted tropical island.  The restaurant is very good and in fact people come from other resorts to sample the great food, with fish fresh out of the ocean.  On the ride back from the jetty on the first day I met a great couple from Iowa now living in Pune and a young couple from London, England who I really hit it off with.  When Ron (from Iowa) went scuba diving for a few days his wife Regina and I hung out together.  One day we walked the 1-2km to the nearby town (Village #3) and checked out some of the shops and markets. On our way back we ran into 4 working elephants walking down the road with their handlers.  They had chains around their ankles and I think they were just coming from the nearby elephant training camp.  The next day we rented bicycles and rode out to Beach 7, expecting it to be an easy ride. But it was oppressively hot, sunny and very very hilly… mostly Uphill.  At one point I had to sit down on the side of the road to cool off.  I was sweating buckets but also felt chilled and had goose bumps… never a good sign… likely the start of heat stroke.  But when we arrived the beach was even more spectacular than the brochures had mentioned.  As we strolled along the wide expanse of sand we noticed hundreds of beached jellyfish everywhere.  We were careful not to step on them, but found out later they have very short tentacles and don’t sting. In fact divers (scuba and snorkel) pass through big clouds of them without any trouble.  And as we neared Neil’s Cove a security guard approached us and told us we couldn’t go any further because of ‘shooting’, I asked ‘military?’ and he replied ‘no, comedy’.  What? It turns out they were shooting a TV series, the Indian version of Fear Factor, and had the beach blocked off.  There’s also a small village with a few shops and a couple of resorts (and very cool space age looking forestry department pods) but those that stay out there say they have to take the taxi or TukTuk to our side of the island regularly for variety.  Day  3 was our beach day and as we all lazed around and floated in the sea chatting until our skin looked like prunes we actually all ended up with nasty sunburns. I made sure to coat myself in sunscreen when we all headed out on a snorkelling adventure.   The five of us hooked up with two guys from Israel (they work for Yahoo and were taking a break after a conference) and another couple and their daughter now living in India. Luckily the family of three was not a family of swimmers either.  I am not comfortable in the water or on a boat but luckily the 1.5 hour boat ride was on calm waters.  We rode out to a deserted island, Inglis or English Island,  and the boat stopped a few hundred meters offshore.  We all donned our short wet suits (more for sun protection than anything else), our flippers, snorkels… and some of us in life vests, and jumped in.  What a spectacular experience.  It took me a few minutes to remember to breathe, but once I got the hang of it I glided through the water gazing at another world below the surface.  There were hundreds of fish, all different shapes and sizes and colours.  The most beautiful was the purplish blue spiky sea urchins (?) but I also loved floating through a cloud of small neon fish that glimmered as they neared the surface.  We saw a few pieces of live coral, a brilliant blue or yellow, but Dia our guide told us that most of the coral had died off a year and a half earlier because of the rising water temperature.  It was sad to see the fields of dead coral below us but still huge parrot fish were feeding off the few live parts, biting off chunks that you could actually hear echoing in the water.  After about two hours in the water we made our way back to shore, changed out of our wetsuits and went for a 2.5 hour hike through the jungle.  Some of the trees were massive, hundreds of years old. We had two guides plus Dia, our snorkelling guide, leading us through the brush and trees, up hills and down again.  We didn’t see much wildlife there are only deer, snakes and birds living on the island.   At one point the guides stopped and were breaking off pieces of bark from a big log on the ground, when we looked closer we saw that they were coated with an amber resin that was dripping from the tree above.  Apparently they take it home, put it on some hot charcoal and it keeps the mosquitoes away.  We stopped on the other side of the island on a pristine beach for a short rest in paradise.  The beach was untouched with some of the best shells I have ever seen, perfect for beachcombers, except it is illegal to transport shells off the Andaman Islands, so best to leave them where they are.  We suddenly noticed our two guides had wandered off and came back with 3 plastic water jugs and a huge plastic water barrel they would sell back to the dive shops, but first they would have to carry it back to the boat on the other side of the island… not an easy feat.  We were all drenched in sweat from the heat and humidity but they kept pace, packing along their treasure.

One of the biggest problems that I saw on the island are all of the stray dogs.  Some are better off than others, with some locals but mostly the visiting tourists making sure they are fed.  Elinor and Dean made friends with one dog they named Brutus… an un-neutered male who was usually a submissive dog, avoiding fights (although he had a few scars from previous scraps), unless food was involved when he would become just as nasty as the others.  One day I watched him as he wandered along the shore when the tide had gone out, looking for crabs to catch and eat, though I don’t know how successful he was). We also befriended a little orphaned puppy, Regina named Lester who was the cutest little guy, following us around the beach.  I gave him some of my water I poured into a sea shell.  Elinor fed him a few biscuits (all the food we had on us) but the worst part were all the sores he had because of fleas.  We decided to go into Town #3 to the veterinary clinic (with a very strange sign out front) to see about getting him some relief from the fleas and maybe some puppy food… but it was closed.  My wish is that some kind hearted veterinarian will come to the islands (and in fact all over India and south Asia) to spay and neuter these dogs, even though many Indian animal rights activists say that isn’t the humane way to deal with the issue.   Every evening at sunset we would hear several dogs fighting and crying on the beach.  It’s an out of control problem that needs to be addressed.  Those that are not cute enough end up eating scraps wherever they find them, we saw one dog on the beach that was just lying in the shade, skin and bones and near death.  It’s such a sad sight and it doesn’t have to be this way.  The island was pretty well ‘dry’ when I got there.  Not from a lack of rain but from a lack of alcohol.  The resort had a sign up when I arrived saying ‘Bar Closed’, which didn’t upset me too much, but some of the other guests were very disappointed.  The desk clerk explained that their license had expired and they hoped to get it renewed on Monday (this was Saturday). Well it never happened and it seemed most of the other hotels and bars on the island had the same issue.  There were only two places that my friends had discovered still had beer.  It must have been a big loss of business for my hotel in particular which had a great rating and the restaurant/bar was always highlighted.  Some nights the restaurant was packed but other nights only a couple of tables were filled and I’m sure the lack of alcohol had something to do with it.  The island doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife either.  Part of the reason is the time… the Andaman Islands are still on India Time even though the islands are halfway between India and Thailand… that means the time is the same in Port Blair as it is in Mumbai even though they are thousands of kilometers apart. The sun sets at about 5pm every day. There are also a lot of divers who travel to the Andaman’s for the spectacular dive sites and they always want to be up and on the water first thing in the morning.  Everything dies down by around 9pm.  I haven’t gone to bed that early in years but it was nice to get up bright and early before it got too hot outside.  In fact I wanted to get up and see the sunrise, just offshore behind the resort, but I realized you have to get up pretty early to catch it.  I kept missing it until my last day when I woke up at 4:30 and looked out the window to see the sky starting to lighten up.  I got dressed and dragged myself to the beach and was rewarded with a spectacular sunrise.  At one point the sun was a brilliant orange/fuscia colour. I was also all alone until after the sun was up so it was a very peaceful way to start the morning.  A man I called ‘the pied piper’ wandered past playing mournful tunes on a long piece of metal pipe that he played like a flute.       

I was also joined by Brutus the dog that wandered over to join me… sitting on the beach beside me staring at the sun as it rose above the waterline.  I wonder if that is how he starts his day too, or maybe he was just trying to see what it was that I was looking at. 

Unfortunately there are no beach chairs on Havelock Island.  It is all government property so that means that development is closely monitored but it also means that the rules are strict and right across the board.  We had asked a few times if there were beach chairs to sit on and were always told no but one day when we headed to the beach there were four beach chairs with mattresses lined up.  We asked if we could use them but were told no they were strictly for government officials.  We argued that we were the paying guests and shouldn’t we receive some consideration too, but were told their hands were tied.  Later a government official and his family arrived and sat down on the coveted chairs, and a police speed boat showed up stopping just offshore to patrol the beach area directly in front of the group.  As we swam around nearby we expected to get a stern warning to stay clear but that didn’t happen, the police security were on the lookout for much more serious threats than a small group of pasty-faced tourists.   

On the last few days on Havelock, there was a festival in village #3… I checked it out on the first night but there were only a few people hanging around and they were still working on the stage.  I went back a few days later and it was packed with people, vendors set up all over the place, and lots of kids having a ball, although as the night went on (it ended at midnight) most of the kids were dropping off.   There was an amateur stage show going on most of the night, with many of the island’s young people performing. Everything from girls on stage with their own choreographed dance to modern music (like ‘Waka Waka’ by Shakira) to traditional Hindu stories being acted out to one crowd favorite of a local boy dressed up like a Hindu woman acting and dancing to a story that I wasn’t able to follow along with, but I still found entertaining.  It was a great way for me to end my visit to these islands, mingling with the locals as they celebrated their festival.  

The best thing I took away from my visit to the Andaman Islands is the art of doing absolutely nothing.   We always seem to feel the need to be doing something even when we are on vacation and supposed to be relaxing – reading, writing letters or postcards, listening to music, talking with friends – and it took me several days to realize that. There’s nothing like spending time just lying in a hammock, ignoring the clock and everything else going on around me… just living in the moment.

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2 Responses to “Andaman Islands: Paradise Found”

  1. Dean Meier
    October 7 at 7:51 pm #

    how goes it darren?

    it’s been a while but just found your card. reading your blog brought back so many fond memories, (more than i can recall now, its 1.30 am and im a little drunk). good news, elle and i have set a date for our wedding…24th of august if your in london. hope your well and hope to be in touch soon.

    all the best dean.(english couple/andaman islands).

    • Darren
      October 8 at 1:07 pm #

      WOW Congratulations you two!! I’m so happy for you both. Of course I remember you guys and all the great fun we had together on the Andaman Islands (I’m not drunk so I can remember!). No plans to be in London next August, but you never know! I wish you both a lifetime of happiness together!

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