As we departed the Phuket region of Southern Thailand bound for Ao Nang, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been grossly mistaken about this entire corner of the world. So far, nothing in Southern Thailand had been as expected. Even the 6 hour bus journey, which I would usually dread, was deliciously scenic & suspiciously comfortable.
Finding the right bus was unusually simple, devoid of pushy touts and tourist scams. It only took a public songthaew over to the second bus station, then picked up a cheap ticket all the way through to Krabi town. The ride took a breezy half-day and the vista was punctuated by towering limestone karst formations and tropical jungles. Moments of awe and tranquility were still punctuated with those of loss and sadness, this was still early days in the journey and my family were very much on my mind.
Krabi is one of those places that seems to breed the most contrasted of reviews. On one hand, so many recommended it to me for it’s tranquility, chilled out atmosphere and easy way of life. On the other, close friends were convinced I probably wouldn’t enjoy much of it, and that it was crawling with tourists. I suppose visiting in the shoulder season made a considerable difference, and that this region in the height of summer-season mania is perhaps a horrifying beast in comparison.
I would love to compare Krabi town to Phuket town, as they are both the inland transport hubs of a region, however as we only spent one relaxing night here, and out of the center at that, I can’t comment. What I can tell you is that we stayed in a gorgeous little hotel on the outskirts of the city, flanked by local restaurants serving real Southern Thai food by kind-hearted locals who spoke only Thai. Nothing like the resort towns of the islands, that’s for sure.
After a morning sunset through our panoramic, bedside, wall-length windows (which was about exactly as wonderful as it sounds) we made our way out toward the street to hitch a song-thaew to the seaside town of Ao Nang. But not before the charming hosts wrangled us into a group snap to thank us for staying and share on Facebook. As luck would have it, the regular song-thaew route passed right by our rural road and in no time we were on our way, crammed in tightly with additional passengers hanging off the back and our backpacks dangling precariously on the rooftop.
Ao Nang is the biggest town amongst a smattering of those kind of places I imagined only existed in postcards. You know the ones – clear turquoise water, white sand beaches, colourful long-tail boats and monstrous limestone cliffs. The weather is hot and the water is bath-like, a multitude of reefs and coves make for some of the world’s best snorkeling.
Our time in this Thai paradise was split between the two far ends of Ao Nang beach, each a tranquil haven compared to the more tourist-focused main strip of the town. Our first home was a traditional bungalow, set amongst a small tropical forest – an easy 10 minute walk from the beach but a little further to eat. The closest waters were at an inlet, with less water movement than the main beaches making the ocean a little too hot and not at all refreshing for a dip. None-the-less, there were plenty of pine trees to tether a hammock and many a lazy afternoon was spent sipping coconut shakes and reading novels to the sound of the gently breaking waves. After a week we migrated over to the other end – and into a spacious, modern studio apartment in a rather gorgeous hotel complex. Spectacular cliff views and two stunning pools complemented our beautiful room. Perhaps I could’ve happily lived out much of my life right here, just like this.
Ao Nang life was an idyllic dream. My first real sense of acceptance and relaxation in this journey. A destination that on completion led to months of separation anxiety and daydreams of returning sometime soon. It made a lasting impression on me.
Ao Nang shares a number of smaller neighboring beachs, including Ton Sai and Railay. Despite being adjacent beaches, the steep cliffs and dense vegetation mean that the best way to reach next door is by catching a long tail boat. They leave frequently and the fare is reasonable. The process is simple – buy a ticket, wait on the beach until your boat is ready, then wade through the ocean, hoist yourself up & find a place on the wooden-plank seating.
Ton Sai arrived as if imagined from a novel. A hippy-come-rockclimbers utopia of magnificant climbing rockfaces and wooden beach hut housing. A short stroll uphill from the shoreline and you’ll find a selection of uber chilled cafes and book exchanges complete with mandatory hammocks for when such a need arises (and that it does here, frequently). Perhaps not paradise for remote workers however, as most of the area is powered primarily by generator and the WiFi (and air-con, for that matter) is sporadic and often switched off during the daytime, when – let’s face it, you should be at the beach anyhow.
Railay is located one more bay over, and in many ways is the anti-Ton Sai. Instead of spotting slews of chiled out climbers napping and chowing down on pineapple curry, Railay provides more of the resort front. More swimmable beaches are to be found thanks to a much sandier bay, and oceanside massages can be found for about twice the price of back in Ao Nang. Visitors queue for cold fruit shakes and alternate between relaxing in the perfect sands and hot-footing it back into the perfect ocean to refresh.
The next time I laid eyes on these magnificent beaches I was on a pirate ship, cleverly crafted out of a traditional Thai Junk, and it took a tour around the most beautiful waters, reefs and beaches in the area to enjoy a full day, evening and sunset exploring. We snorkeled with clown fish and backflipped off the top deck into the crystal clear waters. Millions of bats flew overhead as we watched the sunset and the evening was capped off with a magical snorkeling visit into the dark, night time waters with bioluminescent plankton, an experience akin to swimming in a sky full of stars.
The perfect ending to an unspeakably magical few weeks, and one that re-shaped everything I had thought I knew about Southern Thailand. Next stop? A train journey up the length of the country to spend some time in Bangkok.