After almost a week in Bangkok we were more than ready to head down South and get a heady dose of sun and sea on the famed Andaman Coast. There was only one thing standing in our way: the fifteen hour overnight bus trip. Just to refresh your memories, this was the trip we had booked on our whirlwind tuk-tuk buddha/(fake)TAT office tour, so after many worst-case-scenario warnings from our friends at Sam Sen Sam Place, we were sincerely relieved when the bus did eventually show up (about an hour late). Of course at this point, we had no inkling of the horrors to come.
Let’s just say the bus wasn’t exactly the ‘VIP’ standard it was sold to us as, and this was just the first one. Four different busses, about 100 stops, some eye-wateringly pungent urine stenches, one flat tire, a leaking air-con, incessant Thai-Pop karaoke videos, an attempted scam, much roadside waiting, and eventually, 22 hours and countless Oreos later, we arrived in Phuket Town; sweaty, exhausted, frustratedly, but slightly bemused.
Since we had already made plans to be on the Gulf Coast for New Years (Ko Phangan, 100 000 people, should be an experience), we decided to leave the hardcore full moon party madness till then, and headed straight for what we thought would be the relative beachside calm of Patong. As if. After meeting up with Anton (a good friend from PE) and Brandon (Hayley’s brother who lives in Phuket) we were immediately introduced to Bangla Road; home to lethal booze buckets, an assortment of lady-boys, ping-pong shows, tattoo parlours and all the other hallmarks of excessive tourist revelry. Somehow though, after our hellish bus trip, this felt like the perfect place to be so we proudly donned our western tourist caps and sank our teeth in, and were accordingly rewarded with top notch hangovers the next day.
We sussed out Patong and decided that we needed somewhere a little less commercial, and allot more idyllic, which it turns out is rather a challenge to find on Phuket in the monsoon season. After one night in Kata (where the beach was closed due to dangerous currents) we eventually found ourselves all the way down South in Rawai, a less popular tourist beach (more of a fishing village vibe) which is infinitely more affordable, relaxing, and (in our opinions) more appealing. Once we decided to settle here for a couple of days, we rented a scooter and went zipping around the Southern part of the island, which really made things far easier in terms of seeing some of the sights, and finding secluded little beaches and more interesting food choices.
However, it was only when we caught the ferry across to Rai Lay Beach in Krabi that we got our first taste of what the Andaman really has to offer; soaring limestone karst formations, emerald waters, serene beaches, lush forests and no cars. Rai Lay and Ton Sai are veritable islands, as even though they are part of the mainland, enormous karst buttresses separate them from the larger Krabi Province, so they are only accessible by boat. The whole area is rock-climbing heaven and there are climbers everywhere you look, on every climbable surface, and there is no doubt that if you stay long enough even the most hesitant individual will eventually be taken in by the climbing mania. Walking across the island from Rai Lay West to Rai Lay East (there is only one footpath) we were taken in by the abundant plant and animal life; the swathes of greenery only broken by sheer limestone cliffs and the boisterous monkeys. It is incredibly humbling to be somewhere where nature so clearly has the upper hand and it takes a good couple of days for one’s senses to adapt to the surroundings, as we found that even on our second and third days there we still could not help but marvel at the scenery every time we walked anywhere (stalagmites and stalactites even envelope the walkway to the beach). This wonder was only compounded when we rented some kayaks and got to see some of the offshore formations more clearly – some of them really defy logic.
Now, perhaps it is just a by-product of the seriously easy-going Thai demeanour, or perhaps it is more to do with the super-chilled do-what-you-want-but-we’re-not-accountable island vibe that permeates places like Krabi (they are very proud of their police-free status), but there seem to be significantly fewer health and safety precautions in these places than, well, anywhere else we’ve ever been. Seeing families riding five-up on scooters with no helmets (sometimes the driver would be no older than 13) in Phuket should have been our first indication that Thai measures of what constitutes a dangerous activity are not really on par with what we’re used to. But despite these forewarnings, we decided to tackle the ‘mildly challenging’ hike to princess lagoon, a completely enclosed lake which is only accessible via what turns out to be a death-defying hike up and down one of the aforementioned monstrous karsts that dominate the Krabi skyline. The four of us (Hails and Joff, Brandon and Anton) are by no means inexperienced when it comes to hiking and other generally challenging outdoor activities, but this was not just a ‘mildly challenging’ little stroll. It was hands, knees and bums most of the way, in very thick mud, interspersed with some rather jagged rocks and very steep inclines. Add to this about 4 vertical drops of four metres or more in which the ‘hike’ becomes a rock-climbing and abseiling expedition (surprise!) – with only mud-sodden and uselessly slippery guide-ropes to help you not plummet to certain death (or grievous bodily harm) – and you might start to get the picture. To put it bluntly, it was an emotional roller-coaster with peaks of being sublimely awestruck by the unparalleled beauty of the place, and being scared absolutely shitless whilst feeling our way down totally unknown and unpredictable rock faces with no idea what was below (barefoot Brandon was our saviour-pioneer for most of these parts). But we got there, thankfully with no casualties, and it was one hundred percent worth it! None of us wanted to be burdened by bags while we were walking, so unfortunately no cameras were handy, which was just as well, since it was not exactly a camera-friendly path, and pictures (no matter how good) never seem to do these kinds of experiences justice. Just trust us – it was magnificent!
That night we treated ourselves to a delicious buffet dinner, and then walked to the ‘Last Bar’ for some Changs and a really impressive fire show, knowing all the time that Krabi was under our skin for good, and that we’d definitely be back.