Places / Thailand

The Thaisland Dream

The Thailand of my imagination (and of those idyllic pictures) came to life in a couple of weeks of island hopping down South. I started on the Andaman coast, in the town of Krabi, which charmed me from the get go- all stunning limestone karsts and seaside calm. Maybe it was because we were on the shoulder of tourist season, or because the main town itself doesn’t have any beaches, but the place was remarkably quiet- very few other Westerners in sight, and the peaceful atmosphere of a hardworking seaside settlement going about its daily life. As I found out later, most of the travelling community bases itself around one of the three beachside hotspots a short boat ride away, some of which are more idyllic than others- we relished the calm of being away from the resorts and daytripping out to them, staying at a very charming sea themed guesthouse in the town’s main drag. Compared to some of the hostels I’ve stayed at, the impressive décor of Chan Cha Lay and the warmth of the staff made it feel like a real luxury stay- especially when the reception ladies very generously nursed me though a nasty bout of food poisoning one evening… I’d revisit without hesitation.

The charm of Chan Cha Lay

The charm of Chan Cha Lay

The ultimate highlight of Krabi town and a must-see when visiting is the weekend night market- something akin to an annual English carnival in the effort expended on the occasion each week, and a total feast for the senses. Here, the mostly Muslim community comes out in style to celebrate local culture, with endless strips of varied food stalls, polished traditional music, dance and puppet shows, street performance, and a very buzzing festive atmosphere. The locals, from elderly women to very young children in pyjamas, were out in full force and in great spirits, and it was here that I first experienced that Thai tourist catchphrase ‘The land of smiles’. With no English signage in sight, I had a bit of a gastronomic adventure tasting the local offerings, and actually had one of the best meals of my trip here- a prawn/green curry/spaghetti fusion concoction courtesy of a very friendly local hotel chef. The shows were a real treat- we witnessed a choir of very sassy middle-aged burqa-ed women sing traditional songs, young girls in exquisite costumes perform mythical dances, and a completely incomprehensible but visually spectacular puppet show. In keeping with the seaside theme, there were also Thai style tikki dancers and a beachy band of ukuleles to add to the mix…

Traditional dance at the weekend night market

Traditional dance at the weekend night market

A feast for the senses

A feast for the senses

The olde arte of shadow puppetry. I had no idea what was going on...

The olde arte of shadow puppetry. I had no idea what was going on…

... though the local passers-by were captivated.

… though the local passers-by were captivated.

There are some spectacular beaches a longtail boat ride away from Krabi town- my favourite being the dramatic karst-framed Railay, a popular haunt for daring climbers, who you see clambering up the sky-high cliffs. We spent a very idyllic afternoon here, monkey watching, sea swimming and snacking from the little boat kitchens moored on the shore, which was topped off by an almost Biblical storm that engulfed the entire area for an hour or so. Passing as suddenly as it arrived,  thunder, lightning, and heavy warm rain drove the entire beach to gather under the shelter of the cliffs, entertained not only by the weather spectacular but also the daring of the unpertubed climbers still clambering…

Railay in sunlight glory

Railay in sunlight glory

The arrival of the storm

The arrival of the storm

Slightly closer to Krabi itself, and accessible by road, is the very touristy Ao Nang beach, which despite being irreparably resort-eaten, was also rather beautiful- and still littered with the haunting remains of 2004’s tsunami. There are nowadays tsunami evacuation signs all along the road- and knowing how fast the weather can change here (I was caught in another wild rainstorm while visiting) the prospect of it is truly scary. The wonders of nature, eh…?

The shiny side of Ao Nang

The shiny side of Ao Nang

From Krabi, I took a trip out to nearby Phi Phi island for a few days, to sample some idyllic island existence. It was every bit as beautiful as promised, but not even slightly secluded- aside from the exclusive resorts tucked away in its unreachable niches, the place is now overrun with tourists, and priced to match. The main village by the boat docks represents the mostpart of the accessible landmass, and in three days here I was satisfied that I had seen everything it was possible to access on my budget- not a bad feat, in fact. This included the breathtaking Phi Phi viewpoint at sunset, offering views of the whole island and others beyond bathed in stunning shades of light, and a then whole lot of beaching. The long walk to Long Beach was totally worthwhile for its extra seclusion and its strip of pure white sand meeting turquoise water, while the main beach by the village was not to be knocked- and came alive at night with sunset happy hours and spectacular fire shows. I also took a day’s longtail boat trip touring around the island, snorkelling at the most idyllic spots, and visiting the famous bay at nearby Phi Phi Leh which the setting for blockbuster The Beach. Though a day of longtail motor soundtrack does grate after a while, the stop points were surreal, and the snorkelling visability perfect for spotting bullsharks and all manner of fantastic fish- a day very well spent.

The approach to Phi Phi

The approach to Phi Phi

Fishing at dusk

Fishing at dusk

Hazy sunset views from Phi Phi lookout

Hazy sunset views from Phi Phi lookout

An idyllic day of snorkelling...

An idyllic day of snorkelling…

The setting of 'The Beach'

The setting for ‘The Beach’

Evenings filled with fire

Island evenings filled with fire

To say I then ‘hopped’ over to Koh Phagnan would be an understatement- the journey comprised of a ferry back to Krabi, a bus across the mainland, and a couple of hours of ferry into the Gulf of Thailand. I spent another few days here, timed perfectly with the famed Half Moon party in the island’s forest (I was a week early for the beachside Full Moon), which was a very frivolous, somewhat tipsy, incredibly neon coloured techno music extravaganza. I was lucky enough not to witness any of the more sinister carnage known to happen at these events now and again- I came back exhilarated in the early hours of the morning to greet the onset of a humid hangover enough to put me off partying again for a week. The few days I spent on the island- significantly bigger than Koh Phi Phi- were mostly spent exploring the place by bike, which is really the only way to get around and a great one at that. (There was, however, a dramatic battery-dying-deep-off-road-in-dirt-track-jungle disaster which was rather expensive to extricate myself from, so I’m going to learn some basic bike mechanics for next time.) I explored the island’s waterfalls and beach offerings, racking up quite a few kilometres on the island’s hilly and windy roads- some of the views, especially at sunset, were unforgettable. Our very friendly hostel had use of the private beachfront resort pools across the road, which were the setting of some great evening dips and sundowners, and I got the sense that I could stay on the island a long while longer- so surprise. I decided to head on to sample the fabled virtues of diving haven Koh Tao next though, since it was on my way back to the mainland…

Dramatic offroad rescue

Dramatic offroad rescue

Half moon madness

Half moon madness

Sunset swing

Sunset swing

Koh Tao had to be my favourite island visited, all in all- very small with a villagey feel, and mostly geared towards diving and snorkelling, it had the quiet and laid back atmosphere I was islanding for- and some of the best snorkelling I’ve ever done. I took another day boat tripping around here, in a larger vessel this time, stopping all around the landmass and at the outlying Nangyuna Island, where the waters were cliché clear and the marine life incredibly abundant. As well as bull sharks and a thousand varieties of fish, I saw coral life like you see on wildlife documentaries- for me totally awe inspiring and one of my best days in Thailand so far-  augmented by the hilarious boat staff and brilliant dynamic of daytrippers, too. I’m definitely going to come back and dive here when I have a slightly more lenient budget- and will pray that the place doesn’t become more tourist-ridden by next time, as it looks set to. I stayed in the main Sairee village at a beachside bungalow, and finished up the South in true holiday style- lazing by the pool, walking around the island (it was only some 20km2), visiting viewpoints, and drinking cocktails on the beach watching stunning sunsets. Not a bad life, really. Good to know that there are still dozens more islands on the Thailand list, so plenty to work through for future travels- I imagine this is the life I’ll be craving when back in London…

It's a hard life on Koh Tao.

It’s tough on Koh Tao.

Really.

Really.

Big blue boat trip

Big blue boat trip

FISH

Waters so clear you could see these…

Photographic fruits of a steep little hike

And the photographic fruits of a steep little hike

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