9 Dec 2000-17 Jan 2001
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Thailand
Phuket and Phi Phi Islands
Overdeveloped, yes...but the beaches! The beaches!Dec 9-15 and Dec 24-28
Our original plan to get to Thailand was by train from Penang, Malaysia. But it turned out the train from Penang was booked solid. High season was upon us, and the fully-booked train was our first tip that we were in for some crowds during the coming holiday weeks. Either we would have to take the bus (two agonizingly slow days on winding roads) or fly direct from Penang to Phuket. We chose the latter -- for about $80 US, we cut two days off our travel time, arriving at Phuket International Airport it only 45 minutes. Beats the back-breaking, multi-day bus journey...
View from our room, Kata Noi Beach
This was actually our second trip to Thailand together. Our first was back in 1997. Since we had spent time here before, we weren't in any hurry to rush around and do a bunch of sightseeing. We also had friends coming soon to visit us in the islands for the holidays. So, our plan for southern Thailand was simply to relax. And kick back we did -- we spent over three weeks on the beautiful islands of Thailand's southwest coast.
Phuket is Thailand's busiest and most-touristed island. As most of you have probably noticed by now, we aren't exactly the "follow-the-crowd," big tour group types. So we weren't really that thrilled to be going to Phuket -- we viewed it simply as a gateway to the southern Thai islands. The plan was to fly in, spend a day or two on a beach, and then get out as quickly as possible. Phuket gets very busy around the December-February holiday season, which didn't make things easier on us. The island was very crowded, mostly with package tour groups from Europe and the States. Embedded in these groups are many of those loathesome, culturally ignorant, "I'm-on-vacation-and-I'm-going-to-do-as-I-do-at-home-and-who-cares" tourist types. These are the people who don't bother to check the local customs before, say, planting themselves topless on the beach, completely offending modest Thai sensibilities in the process. Now, this may sound really exotic to all you guys back home. But let us assure you, when you roll over from your spot in your sun chair and get an eyefull of the 100kg, 75 year-old German grandma sporting nothing but a bikini bottom laying next to you, well, that's just really unpleasant. Best if you just follow the local customs, granny...for the love of God, put those things away before somebody loses an eye!
Phuket was not our scene at all. We did, however, find a nice beach called Kata Noi, on Phuket's southwest coast, where we spent a few days lazing in the sun, enjoying the beautiful water and nice sand. Phuket may be overdeveloped, but it still has outstanding beaches. Powdery white sand so bright it hurts your eyes, brilliant emerald water so warm that when you get in it feels like you're jumping into a hot tub. But three days was enough.
From Phuket, we hopped on a boat to the beautiful Phi Phi Islands. There are few islands on Earth that can compete with the beauty of those off the Krabi coastline, especially the twin islands of Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley. Unfortunately, their appeal has attracted unbelievable crowds in the past two decades. Both islands are supposed to be protected as part of a national park system, but Phi Phi Don is crowded with hotel and bungalow developments. The developers seem to have the upper hand...it's said that park officials are afraid of stepping foot on the island for fear of being run off by the money-hungry land developers. The environmental damage caused by this haphazard development seems irreparable and is quite sad -- garbage litters the overburdened dirt streets, plastic bottles lie on some of the beaches, and the offshore coral reefs are dying from the sewage runoff. It's probably too late for Phi Phi's fragile ecosystem.
Ton Sai Beach, Phi Phi Don
But it's still hard to not to be captivated by the stunning natural beauty of the Phi Phi islands. Phi Phi Don may be ruined, but the developers have kept their hands off its gorgeous sister, Phi Phi Ley. Phi Phi Ley is the island which was used for the recent (terribly bad) movie The Beach. In fact, Maya Bay is the famous "beach" in the film. And it is spectacular. Both Phi Phi islands are made of limestone, which has weathered away over the eons to create a phantasmagoric land of steep craggy peaks, weirdly contorted bays, and cave-studded cliffs. Surrounding all this are amazing coral reefs and beautiful white sand beaches. The stuff of which idyllic tropical island dreams are made. What this place must have looked like just 20 years ago, when the first backpackers arrived...
Stunning Maya Bay, Phi Phi Ley -- WOW!
One of the best things you can do around this part of the Thai coast is hire a long-tail boat to take you around beach-hopping. It's still very easy to find beaches you can call your own for the day. All you have to do is tell the captain to drive you around until you find something to your liking, have him drop you off, and hang out for the day, lazing on the beach or snorkeling or hiking or whatever. The captain will come and pick you up later in the day, at the time you choose.
Heading out on a longtail boat
We thought we were escaping the crowds of Phuket by going to Phi Phi. Oh, were we ever wrong. Phuket is a big island, capable of absorbing the holiday throngs without too many problems. Phuket's main beaches are very crowded, but you don't have to go far to get away from them. There's a lot of space there. Phi Phi Don, on the other hand, is a tiny island, and it's very difficult to get away from the crowds. Even uninhabited Phi Phi Ley gets busy from daytrippers during high season. After a few days, we had to get out. Thailand is just way too busy around the holidays. Our suggestion: by all means visit this beautiful country, but come during the off season. We found ourselves creeping ever further away from the busiest places, in search of a little tranquility.
Posing yet again at Maya Bay
We did have something to get excited about while in the islands, though. Visitors from home! Our friends Diana and Mark were coming to visit us over the holidays. We were to meet them on Phi Phi Don on December 24th. So, we had to make our way back to Phi Phi after our brief getaway to Krabi and the Pranang Cape (more details below). There, the four of us celebrated Christmas. It may have been crowded on Phi Phi, but it was great to have some friends around for the holidays! With Diana and Mark, we spent several days on Phi Phi and a few days in the Pranang area, ending with some time in Krabi town and on the really beautiful island of Koh Ngai.
Mark catching up on the news, boat to Krabi
The Krabi and Trang Coasts
Finally...Beautiful and Uncrowded ParadiseDec 16-23 & Dec 29-Jan 5
Railay East beach
We finally found our uncrowded paradise after leaving the hordes behind on Phuket and Phi Phi. On the Thai mainland, just a little northwest of the provincial capital of Krabi, lies a beautiful region known as the Pranang Cape. The Pranang Cape, like the Phi Phi islands, boasts limestone cliffs and outcroppings. It also has a couple of outstanding beaches: Pranang and Rai Ley West are both long swathes of white sand, perfect for swimming and snorkeling. But the Pranang area is not nearly as busy as the offshore islands we had just come from. A mellow, easy-going atmosphere rules here. The tourists are respectful of the locals, and the locals are just as interested in chilling out as the tourists are.
Stunning Railay West beach
The Pranang area is actually connected to the mainland, but it has the feel of an island -- giant limestone peaks act as a natural barrier to mainland highway traffic, which means the only way to get here is by boat. With no motorcycles, no cars, and only a few dirt pathways, Pranang is a great place to get away from it all. Like Gilligan's Island, only you don't have to peddle homebrewed bamboo bicycles to generate your own electricity...they pipe it in for you, gratis.
In southern Thailand, henna tattoos are the current fashion rage for everybody from older tourists to younger locals. Getting a henna tattoo is a lot easier than the real thing -- it's painless and the henna dye wears off in about two weeks. Having completely fallen into the beachcomber's grove after a couple of weeks in the islands, we of course had to get our own "tats." Three bucks and thirty minutes later, we walked away from the tattoo stall as newborn Bad Asses. For two weeks, anyway...
Jen and her henna tattoo
...Jen giving it a go, too!
In the past decade, the Krabi area has become a mecca for outdoor adventure sports fans. Sea kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, spelunking -- it's easy to take up any of these activities here. But the biggest draw is rock climbing on the limestone cliffs that abound in the Pranang area. Climbers from around the world come to Pranang and stay for weeks or even months, honing their skills on some of the world's best climbing routes. Since we were here, we thought we'd give it a go. Three of us took climbing lessons, and before we knew it, we were scaling vertical walls 30 and 40 feet high without any problem. It's really amazing what the most basic equipment (climbing shoes and safety harness with rope) can allow one to accomplish, even with a minimum of training. We can see how rock climbing can become such an addictive sport -- it's easy to learn and really fun! We also learned a valuable lesson as beginning rock climbers scaling their first high walls: don't look down when you get near the top. It's much easier to finish the route if you don't.
Climbing a wall at Pranang...
From Pranang, the four of us headed south, to the little-visited province of Trang. Trang, like Krabi, has a lot of beautiful limestone scenery and dozens of perfect islands. But it really doesn't see many tourists. We went to the island of Koh Ngai (a.k.a. Koh Hai), and couldn't believe what we found: a perfect tropical paradise, uncrowded, friendly, and incredibly beautiful.
With Mark & Diana at Koh Ngai
There are a lot of outdoor activities to engage in around Koh Ngai. One of our favorites was the boat trip we all took to Koh Moo, one of Ngai's neighbor islands. Moo is endowed with an extremely unusual natural attraction: the Emerald Cave. The intimidating black cave entrance lies on a rocky seaward edge of the island, accessible only at low tide by boat. At low tide, sea water fills about two thirds of the cave, so you can swim through the cave and still have air to breathe above the water. A visit to the Emerald Cave goes something like this: You jump out of your boat and swim through the 80m (240 foot)-long cave in pitch blackness. Just when you think you will freak out permanently from the sensation of swimming blind through the ocean cave (what terrors lie beneath that inky surface?), you emerge into a stunning lagoon, fringed by a golden beach and surrounded by lush jungle vegetation. The lagoon is like a giant limestone "donut" sinkhole in the middle of the island -- the only way in or out is through the Emerald Cave. Swimming back through the cavern to the boat wasn't nearly as difficult as the entry was. A unique experience, to be sure.
Tired of beaches yet?! One of Koh Ngai's
Sadly, Mark and Diana had to leave us after two nights on Koh Ngai. They had to get back to Bangkok for their return flight home. We stayed on Koh Ngai for an extra day before heading back to the mainland, where we stayed the night in the town of Trang before catching our train to Thailand's busy capital...
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