Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
Thailand has redeemed itself – saved by the Southern Thai Islands in the Gulf of Thailand :-). We have visited these parts 20 odd years ago – previously Phuket and the island of Phi Phi – the former of which we didn’t particular like for the usual seedy horrors and grime associated with many parts of Thailand – and the latter which were stunningly beautiful back then but badly damaged by the tsunami of 2004 and, apparently, not very sympathetically re-built. Also, now incredibly overrun with tourists by all accounts, we didn’t bother re-tracing previous steps to Phi Phi.
For a quick 2 hour hop from Singapore for a weekend break, Krabi province – West Railay Beach in particular – and its environs didn’t disappoint – thank goodness – we would hate to have wasted a precious weekend ;-).
It is a very (very!) laid-back place and it took all of about 20 minutes to take a deep breath, relax and get into the swing of the no flip-flops, toes in the sand, dinner in a swimsuit and sarong lifestyle :-).
The beaches, limestone karst scenery, jungle and clear turquoise seas were also gorgeous.
Paradise had its downsides too, of course. Not the least of which was a voracious species of weird and wonderful bugs which came out to play at dusk and would only be (slightly) deterred by a liberal bathing in neat Deet. We have probably lost 10 years of fruitful life as a result of spraying and inhaling the nasty stuff every evening and morning but it beat the monster bites… at least in the short term ;-).
And then there are the crowds…. this island chain is very, very popular…. from 5 star tourists to backpackers… By some stroke of luck I managed to pick one of the slower periods for this time of year – still absolute height of season for perfect weather but too close to the recent Christmas and New Year holidays for many people to still be on vacation.
I cannot quite imagine how overrun it would have been a few weeks earlier.
We decided immediately upon arrival that the only way to see these beaches in all of their glorious pristine emptiness is either to drift about at your leisure in your own private yacht, or to get up with the lark and make your own way to them on foot or by kayak. The trick was to arrive and enjoy the calm before the storm – specifically before the arrival of the ubiquitous longtail boats and speedboats sped across the waters towards you destroying the peace with their noisy diesel engines. Each boat disgorged 20 or more screeching tourists with all their paraphernalia for a day at the beach – beach balls, umbrellas etc etc….. ghastly.
As luck would have it (or rather, as supremely good planning would have it 😉 ) our beach hotel on West Railay (itself a top destination beach) was a short 15 minute walk or a relaxing 10 minute kayak paddle on tranquil, clear waters around the headland to our favorite beach, Phra Nang. Before 9.30am it was the most perfect beach on earth – white sand, jungle, butted at each end by 2 imposing limestone headlands, complete with caves (and some diverting appendages at the phallus shrine in Princess Cave – a shrine to fertility), dripping limestone stalactites, views over the limestone karsts in the sea, swifts swooping, calm turquoise waters and total tranquility. From 9.30am onwards the ear-splitting arrival of the first longtail boat heralded the death knell to peace so we leapt back into the kayak and paddled away for the solitude of the offshore karst islands leaving the noisy hordes behind us – and – feeling a little sorry for them that they would never see it as we had….
Pretty much the same story pertained to our own beach – West Railay – before 10.30am it was beautiful and again after 4pm when the longtails revved up their enormous engines and started to ship the day trippers out again leaving us a beach of relative calm where you could grab a bamboo mat and sit on the sand, candles flickering in the breeze, listening to the gentle waves lap on the shore whilst watching the sunset. A cocktail in one hand and a can of Deet in the other … what could be more blissful? 😉
So the best place to be between 10am and 4pm is either visiting somebody else’s beach with the masses, snorkeling, kayaking or enjoying some impromptu rock and jungle climbing :-). I had already read about the lovely viewpoint over the Railay beaches and headland cliffs but I was also concerned that the climb may be a little heavy going and most likely the kind of hike which would be out of my usual range of acceptable exertion. Whilst I can walk for days (without stopping) on the flat or on a slight incline – give me anything with a sheer rock face and a tangle of vertical jungle tree roots and I am unlikely to be first in the queue to scale it ;-).
Stupidly, I had mentioned to Geoff that we might spend an hour checking out the viewpoint if it hadn’t rained in the previous few days – having read that even a slight trickle of precipitation would leave the uphill route a treacherous bog where only the insane would venture.
Perhaps unfortunately it hadn’t rained ;-), so I agreed we should check out the bottom part of the climb to see if it was really as nasty as some people had said for those amongst us who are less nimble and prone to be paralyzed with a fear of slipping and breaking our necks.
Geoff scaled it like a pro ( hmmmm… great.. I guess all those year in the Boy Scouts paid off). I dragged somewhat behind fighting my (according to Geoff) irrational fears with every uphill grope and slip, muttering under my breath. To be fair the climb was quite fun and certainly interesting in parts – the best way to survive was to cling onto the ropes which had been attached at strategic points or grab a hand hold in the rock or just trust your neck to a root. I almost enjoyed the climb as it was quite exhilarating for a vehement non-climber like myself – so I was quite proud of my achievement as those much younger and more agile scaled past me (looking sympathetic 😉 ).
However, there were moments when I had ascended something unimaginable only to start to imagine how impossible it would be to descend it again on the way back to horizontal terra firma. This is my real fear…. not the up so much as the impossible down! 😉
With various encouragement and inelegant hoisting at the less appealing parts we made it to the top where I hoped we would stop, take a quick snap, re-group and start the descent.
However, Geoff had seen the alternative route to a lagoon (which I had really hoped he wouldn’t see 😉 ) and I already knew from my research that beasties lay ahead that way… To add to it, many people were back-tracking half way and giving up on the final descent into the lagoon.
Naturally, I lost the battle to return immediately to the crowded beach and we pressed on through the buggy undergrowth to a downhill section which looked more treacherous to me than descending K2. I put up some resistance – to no avail – and was “encouraged” to grab the rope, lean back and start scaling down. I managed it without breaking my neck but seriously contemplated breaking Geoff’s instead 😉
Surely, we couldn’t be far from the damn lagoon?…. It was only then that we started to notice the flip-flop graveyard littered all around us… Surely nobody in their right mind would have followed the route we had taken in a pair of flip-flops? It seemed that many people had indeed and once they had (unsurprisingly) ripped the thongs out of the foot or they had simply become too water and mud-logged to take another step forward they had simply been abandoned… Nice that the scruffy backpackers (everyone else was in walking shoes at the very least) couldn’t be bothered to carry their smelly trash out with them…
Not more than a few minutes further on we saw a gaggle of hikers peering straight down a vertical shaft and chattering about whether to go or not… my heart sunk :-(. Luckily, even Geoff realized at that point that “No” meant “No”, so I found a semi-comfortable rock to perch on whilst he hopped over the rock edge into the abyss and scaled down on a rope.
Younger people passed on the opportunity to follow but then again much older people with bare feet leapt over the side too with no hesitation. I hope they were at least bona fide rock climbers – the Krabi area being a major destination for climbers the world over because of the sheer rock faces of the limestone cliffs.
I was quite proud of him when he returned hot and sweaty some 30 minutes later having managed the descent into the murky depths of the lagoon and the subsequent ascent without killing himself :-). I didn’t feel I could moan too much about my own forthcoming descent which I would have to make shortly after that… I think he was quite proud of me too when I managed it (slowly) but without actually crying, albeit with some further assistance ;-).
I was not born to climb – show me the top of a mountain and I will blithely run off it attached to a large kite – but don’t ask me to walk down a slippery, slidy cliff face with treacherous roots to trip over and sharp rocks to impale myself on, clinging on for dear life to a mangy old rope ;-).
A more sedate alternative to escaping the crowds on West Railay was to take a longtail boat trip to Hong Island to join the crowds there instead ;-). It was a long, slow and very noisy boat trip and we stopped en route to snorkel with a large school of friendly fish, then stopped again at another even more busy beach than the one we had left behind, and then finally arrived at Hong Island where we grabbed a kayak – allegedly to explore the famous lagoon. However, the stupid longtail boat driver (with obviously no idea of tide times and perhaps even less interest in keeping his clients happy) had taken so long to actually get to Hong Island that the tide was out and we were faced with exploring a muddy swamp on foot rather than paddling around a pristine clear lagoon…perfect… 😉
Hong Island beach was beautiful but there were already 1000 odd longtails on it with previously disgorged passengers (I may exaggerate but we were getting fed up with the crowds by this stage). Almost all of the other tourists were of apparently Japanese nationality and all attired in bright orange life-jackets. I have never seen a nation so utterly terrified of drowning. Some of them were at least in the water – all 6” deep of it – but even more tragically others were still wearing their life jackets sitting in the sun on the beach…
If we never see another life-jacket clad Japanese tourist again during the remainder of our 3 months out here we will be happy….There is no hope of that, I fear.
We will also be happy to return to a country (Singapore!) where there is no trash or mess or grime … as much as we were sad to leave beautiful West Railay and the Gulf of Thailand, we were definitely not unhappy to leave the occasional ankle deep piles of garbage behind us.
Tip-toeing through the accumulated detritus of a few 100,000 tourists and the resident Thais who simply can’t be bothered to clear up the trash was wearing thin.
Whilst the beaches were relatively pristine at the times of day we were enjoying their benefits at least, the interior walkways and the labyrinth of pathways connecting hotels to restaurants and shops etc on Walking Street and further into the peninsular were, frankly, appalling – a veritable playground for the macaque monkeys to scavenge through :-(.
Thankfully, our hotel was tropical, beautiful, very peaceful and immaculate in every way – the rest of the Railay peninsular needs some attention. We would suggest a little more than the collapsing, dilapitated hand-painted sign (which made us snigger) promising that the area was being cleared of trash… we didn’t see much evidence of that! Come on guys – it would only take a handful of underemployed locals a couple of days of graft to have it all tidied up – then the scruffy backpackers might have more of an incentive not to throw their water bottles and cigarette butts into the undergrowth for the rest of us to trip over ….
Still, we managed to make our way every evening through the debris and scuttling monkeys to some outstanding restaurants. Walking Street is a dirt, sandy track lined with ramshackle bars and shops with a distinctly relaxed beach feel which was perfect :-). It meandered on (through the trash) to the restaurant area – also ramshackle bamboo huts but with 2 of the best restaurants we have eaten in during the last month of travel. The Kohinoor Indian restaurant was outstanding for 2 deprived curry lovers (I don’t want to say how many curries, naan breads and onion bhajis we consumed in a weekend because it was relentless piggery – if they had opened early enough we’d have eaten curry for breakfast too 😉 ). However, the absolute best meal was at the Wan-A-Rouy fish restaurant – run by what looked like 2 very industrious teenagers with a smattering of english who explained the fresh fish options of the day (proudly displayed on a tin rack outside the restaurant) and they would then cook it, however you would prefer, on an old half oil drum BBQ in the street. It was amazingly excellent – ruined only by the 2 irritating 20’something spoilt american girls who insisted on supervising the preparation, cooking and sanitary conditions of their fish. They seasoned it (grabbing the seasoning from the chef’s hand), pushed her out of the way and wrapped it all up in tinfoil and then stood guard over it on the BBQ — presumably to ensure that the filthy locals didn’t get access to their dinner again…. absolutely outrageous… They then demanded plastic cutlery – clearly out of fear that they would contract botulism from the restaurant’s own cutlery. If only .. 😉
It was a performance to behold. We were sorely tempted to intervene just in order to protect the sanity of the 2 kids running the place who were working their fingers to the bone, talking the finer points of fish and sauce options with customers in a difficult foreign language, taking orders, cooking it, preparing and serving drinks etc etc. They, nevertheless, maintained excellent humor but must have been baffled by the tourist’s rudeness and I suspect their paranoid, loud, obnoxious and controlling behavior did little to encourage interracial harmony… Sigh…..
So…it was with a tinge of regret that we boarded our longtail boat back to reality after a wonderfully relaxing weekend break (well… perhaps aside from the rock climbing 😉 ) but happy that we could leave Thailand this time around with warmer, fuzzier feelings than we had a few weeks earlier :-).