Chapter 29: Andaman Adventures

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Where I stayed
Tara Inn

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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

I like the word "Andaman." It sounds mysterious and exotic to me, possibly because of some long-forgotten reference I heard years ago to the Andaman Sea. Then again, most of the place names around here - and words, for that matter - sound exotic, despite my feeble efforts at learning Thai. (I can do numbers now!) Anyway, I decided in Krabi that since I was already on the Andaman coast I might as well see most of the big scenic destinations around here so I won't ever have to backtrack this far.

I started last Tuesday with the Laem Phra Nang peninsula, which is a few km west of Krabi, and I hired a long-tail boat from the Krabi waterfront to bring me to East Hat Rai Leh (Railay Beach). The beach was kind of mangrove-y and pebbly, but pretty, and it was packed with mostly empty backpacker bungalows and cafes. I was told that high season just ended; every destination in Thailand has a wildly different schedule for peak tourism - even places that are very close to each other. Inland a bit from the beach was Diamond Cave national park, which was a welcome break from the hot sun despite the fact that the cave was shallow and unimpressive.

The main draws of the Laem Phra Nang area are the spectacular limestone cliffs jutting straight up out of the perfect blue water. Not surprisingly this is a world-class rock-climbing destination. I wanted to get myself up near the top of one of the cliffs for the view, so I used a steep (sometimes vertical) trail that had ropes hanging down most of the way so I could haul myself up the slope. It was just like rock-climbing, but in sandals and with no safety equipment! The view over the bays & beaches & cliffs was well worth the muddy effort, though, and my paradise-jaded eyes kept me glued to the spot for a good half-hour while I tried to compose good panoramic pics.

I descended to Hat Tham Phra Nang, which is a perfect sandy beach surrounded by more striking limestone formations. Unlike East Hat Rai Leh, this beach was overcrowded, mostly with Japanese or Thai cruise tourists who were clambering around the rocks and all wearing matching life jackets of green or orange. It was a funny sight, but it also killed the mood a little, so I didn't hang around. Instead I hopped on another long-tail boat and sped up past West Hat Rai Leh and Hat Ton Sai (yes, there will be a test when I get home) to the resort town of Ao Nang. From there it was only a half-hour ride by "sawngthaew" (local pick-up truck bus) back to Krabi.

On Wednesday I took a ferry to Ko Lanta, which is a large island to the south of Krabi with an ever-growing tourism scene. It's not as crazy or upscale as many of Thailand's other islands, though, and high season was over, so it turned out to be a good place to hang out and relax on the beach for a few days. For 4 nights (400B/US$10 per night) I rented an awesome beach bungalow at Sayang Beach with modern furniture, an intact mosquito net, a comfy bed, and a new & private bath made from natural materials like stone & bamboo. I met a friendly English couple named Al and Cait on the boat over, and they stayed a few rooms away from me, so we hung out on the beach, played cards, and ate & drank together often. Um, yeah... not much else to say about Ko Lanta, really. Nice place. =)

I expected Ko Phi-Phi Don to be a similarly laid-back and dusty paradise-in-training... but when I arrived by ferry on Sunday I was shocked by the mass development. The main village of Ton Sai is a rambling maze of narrow paths (there are no cars on Phi-Phi) filled with people, restaurants, dive shops, bungalows/hotels, and construction sites. At first I hated it, but that's partly because I was offended by the outrageous prices for accommodation. Apparently it's still high season on Phi-Phi Don, so I grumpily agreed to 500B for an acceptable hotel room at Tara Inn (I thought it was a sign, since Tara is one of my best friends). I spent the afternoon getting lost in the village and climbing up hundreds of stairs to a viewpoint which provided a hazy view over the island's beaches, bays, and limestone cliffs.

Monday I wanted to find a more isolated beach to hang out on, so I walked south along the coastal path toward Long Beach. Once Ton Sai village ends, the path alternates between being a jungle trek and a walk through the grounds of various resorts, and I found Long Beach after an hour or so. After stopping for an iced coffee, I took another path across the island to Ao Lo Mu Di, which was just the kind of remote spot I was looking for - except that it was raining on & off, so my beach idea was spoiled. I headed back to town, had some dinner, and then met up for drinks with an Australian girl named Jen who I'd chatted with at lunch.

Yesterday I went on a dive trip with Viking Divers, a reputable outfit in Ton Sai run by hearty Nordic types. There were two fellow Americans on board (Scott & Michelle from DC), which was a nice change, and the boat was large and comfortable. The only downer was the clouds which were still loitering around. Our first stop at 9am was Maya Bay on the deserted neighboring island of Ko Phi-Phi Leh, which is all dramatic cliffs and caves. Ao Maya is famous because it's where Danny Boyle shot most of the beach scenes for his overly-maligned 1999 film adaptation of Alex Garland's "The Beach." As a side note, I adored the book in 1998 and enjoyed the WBRU premiere of the movie; reading about the backpacking culture and seeing the Thai locales on film sparked some of my initial interest in backpacking, even though both the novel and movie can be seen as heavily critical of the lifestyle. The dive operators cringed whenever "The Beach" was mentioned, but that's because they were still miffed at how the shooting kept the area closed to dive operators for a while. Actually, despite rampant controversy at the time, the film makers left Ao Maya cleaner than they found it, and it's still beautiful. The down side of the publicity is that when we surfaced from the dive at 10am, our boat had been joined by about fifty others. As for the dive itself, the visibility wasn't amazing, but we saw a hawksbill turtle, tons of lionfish, and an amazing octopus. The second dive, further out to sea at Bidah Nog, was fun but uneventful aside from a few eels.

Today I took another ferry to Phuket Island, and then hopped on a minibus to Patong, which is one of Thailand's most-developed tourist tra-... I mean, beaches. As such, and because it's high season here, too, I've just resigned myself to over-paying. At least my 600B room is pretty swank, HBO'd, startlingly clean, and conveniently (and unexpectedly) right across the street from the gay-borhood: the "Paradise Complex" of dozens of restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops aimed mostly at gay tourists. Surprisingly, I didn't realize the area existed until two hours ago. More surprisingly, that scene looks more wholesome than the rest of Patong, which has a reputation as being a place where desperate and ugly old European men come to score with pretty young Thai girls (don't even get me started on that...). The main streets are lined with seedy-looking go-go bars, massage parlors, and over-the-top Disney-esque entertainment complexes (kind of like a Thai Bourbon Street), so as you might imagine I'm looking forward to seeing what creeps out of the woodwork and onto the sidewalk tonight. Full report coming soon!

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