Three planes, one van, one longtail boat and a beach tractor ride later we arrived in paradise. It was a bit of a tiring journey from Varanasi, taking nearly 24 hours in all, mind you the actual flight time was a total of perhaps 6-8 hours. Lesson learned on planning in advance. One of the big dilemmas for “round the world” travelers is whether to buy the so-called round the world airline tickets or a package of major flights in advance, or to buy one-way tickets as you go. We did a bit of a combination, buying a number of more “major” international flights before leaving, and then supplementing that with internal flights, ferries, buses, trains etc. as we go. One such major ticket was a flight from Varanasi to Bangkok that had a sub-optimal layover in Kolkata. We wound up skipping Bangkok altogether and taking a decidedly un-direct route down to Krabi. We are learning!
By the way, a handful of people have asked why we’re skipping Bangkok. Alan has been already; Jenni had not, but figured we’d see lots of big hectic Asian cities on this tour and given the protests and craziness going on there, figured it might be an OK city to skip for now. We will eventually be making our way back up to Northern Thailand, but decided to work our way south down the islands and ferry it over to Malaysia for a bit before the journey back up to Chiang Mai. It kind of made sense, it kind of didn’t. We were kind of tired of changing our mind on itineraries and so this one stuck.
We also had some concern regarding the onward ticket rule and thought showing a confirmed Koh Lipe to Langkawi ferry ticket would be safer than arguing about our plans to cross from Thailand to Laos over land. As it turns out, the onward ticket issue never came up on our flights to Thailand from India or Malaysia and in any event we chose to fly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang.
Anyway, on to the good stuff: a very much appreciated beach holiday!!! After 25 nights in India, some of which were more trying than pleasant, we were ecstatic to be on “vacation.” So much so that we bought a bottle of bubbly at the duty free in Bangkok and upon arriving in Railay popped that bad boy with a toast of “cheers to not being in India anymore!” We love us some India, but talk about a vacation from which you need a vacation!
There is so much beauty to be found in Thailand, it’s incredible. Picking a couple of islands to visit was almost as difficult as picking out what to fill your plastic baggy with as a child at those bulk candy stores. Being optimizers, you know that this process involved Alan vigorously researching the virtues of each island and Jenni google image searching each one with a lot of comments like, “well, this one looks like the most perfect turquoise water, but did you see the way the longtails frame the karsts at that island?!” At some point we settled (smartly) on Railay. By the way, while we didn’t spend too much time in the town itself, Krabi was featured on the New York Times’ list of 52 places to go in 2014.
Perhaps a little orientation on Railay and the Thai islands is in order. There are tons of islands! Some are on the gulf side, like Koh Samui (very developed and often compared these days to Phuket) or Koh Phangan (home of the full-moon party), which Alan visited on his 2007 trip to Thailand. More are on the Andaman side, and that is where we stayed on this trip. Ko Phi Phi is probably the most famous of these. And Railay is not actually an island. It is part of the mainland, but huge limestone cliffs make it accessible only by boat so it has the feel of an island. These same cliffs make it very popular with climbers. This blog covers the various islands pretty comprehensively.
Railay itself has a few different sections. The most popular area is Railay West, a beautiful crescent bay framed by huge cliffs with awesome sunsets. Our hotel was on Railay East, which is the non-swimming mangrove-y side, but a mere five-minute walk across to West. And being on the East side meant we were even closer to Phra Nang (about a 10 minute walk), which is the beach on the south of Railay and our favorite spot. Then there is Ton Sai, reachable by longtail or a short walk over rocks (tide-dependent) from Railay West.
Unless you are there to climb, you can probably skip Ton Sai. It has lower quality beaches and water than Phra Nang or Railay West. It’s more popular with the toking crowd who hang out walking on tight ropes and listening to music best described as heady. No wonder Alan remembers spending his time here when he came in ’07.
Funny enough we stayed at Sunrise Tropical Resort, the same hotel in Railay that Alan stayed at over six years ago when he traveled post-big law and pre-buy-side jobs. It was a bit of a splurge, at around $100 a night, and oh what a luxury it was. Air conditioning! Tons of space! Wood floors! Blankets! Pillows that are soft! A separate shower! A safe! A TV (that we never turned on but still)! A pool (that we never went in even, but who needs it when you have perfect oceans lapping at your feet)! A huge breakfast buffet! A mini-fridge! Towels for the shower! AND separate towels for the beach! We are living like gods among men here! Even though Sunrise Tropical is not on the “good” side of the island, we were only a few bungalows farther than the farthest back rooms of the hotels on the “good” side. Plus there is that proximity to Phra Nang.
Phra Nang is wonderful. It is home to one very nice resort (Rayavadee) and no other development. To walk there you pass caves full of crab-eating macaques (aka mustache monkeys) and arrive at a perfect bay of clear turquoise waters with jungle-covered karsts sticking out of the pristine sea. And the coolest part by far: there are longtail food boats. It’s the Thai answer to food trucks. Pad thai, fried rice, coconut shakes, beers, and more all on the cheap and available just a few steps into the water. Heaven.
Railay West is by far the most popular, lined with resorts and bars, including one awesome sunset viewing spot at the walking street entrance where they set up rattan mats along the sand, play chill music and serve drinks while the big pink ball in the sky sinks into the ocean. I’m trying not to insert too many sentences in here that say simply “sigh,” but it’s hard. How else can I describe that feeling? And in what was quite possibly the most perfectly set up question and response of Jenni’s lifetime, when Alan pointed at the white lanterns young lovers were buying from Thais on the beach and sending off into the sky by flame asking, “what are those?” Jenni was able to respond, “Oh Alan, you just don’t watch enough Bachelor to be cultured.” (On Ali’s season of the Bachelorette they attended the Lantern Festival in Taiwan, there is also a lantern festival in Chiang Mai.). Proof, watching the Bachelor does not suck the living soul out of me, but in fact makes me a more cultured person!
We had one other epic sunset while in Railay, this time while having a picnic back over at Phra Nang beach, eating pad thai, mango with sticky rice and a bottle of wine while being practically the only people there. Pretty incredible. So while it is quite touristy and crowded on Railay, there are still pockets where you can feel a bit removed from it all. Which is pretty great considering how easy it is to get here.
It was quite sad to see how much trash people leave all over the beach. Jenni walked around and picked up a few pieces, but it’s really a bit soul-sucking to see the way people treat this natural treasure. And an aside, how come people don’t consider throwing their cigarettes on the ground to be littering?! Huge pet peeve. Also, tons of people smoke here. So, those are my main complaints: trash and smokers. Have some respect for the bounty this mother earth provided us, people! Come on!
Alan also indulged me one day with a boat tour out to see some of the more iconic Thai islands. He’d been before, and so had seen these beautiful, but preposterously touristy locations prior. But let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a big deposit in the favor bank to generously oblige your wife’s request to go to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, again. We first hit Bamboo Island, where it appears you can camp! Pretty cool, although for an island with absolutely nothing else on it, it struck us as odd that the tents are set up right on top of one another. Oh and the highlight here was the water. Clear clear clear clear clear. Mmmmmmm.
We boated by Phi Phi Leh and the Viking Cave. Next was arguably the most famed photo-op spot of the Thai islands: Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh. This is where they filmed The Beach (apparently, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, a rather shitty movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio). We were in awe, not so much because of the breathtaking natural beauty (which was admittedly quite stunning, if you could see it), but the MASSES of tourists. It took probably 15 minutes to pull the boat onto the shore because they literally had to shove other boats aside and squish ours in between the dozens of others. Absurd. It’s an absolute joke. It’s like a caricature of itself, complete with at least four and a half tourists taking jumping photos or flashing a peace sign at any one time. When Alan was here in 2007 he stayed on Phi Phi Don (the larger, main Phi Phi island with all the development) and hired a long longtail boat for a day, and with a very early start he saw Maya Bay with hardly anyone else there. Perhaps this is still possible if you beat the day tour rush.
We stopped to snorkel just outside the cove at Maya Bay, which was fun as always. I love snorkeling. It’s one of those activities that’s so consuming you can’t really think about much else beyond the mesmerizing display of foreign creatures living quietly and unbeknownst to most of the world below you. An in-the-moment and awe inspiring thing, that ocean is.
The boat stopped quickly by monkey bay at Phi Phi Don, but there were no monkeys today. After an unexciting included buffet lunch, we wandered over to the northern side of Phi Phi Don and hung out in the super shallow and even more beautiful bay. So much better on this side. It’s like a gigantic kiddie pool, but the water’s warmth comes not from gallons of human urine. And it’s surrounded by beautiful nature, not Dora the Explorer diapers bloated with chlorinated poo.
We snorkeled one more time at shark point, where we were not lucky enough to see any sharks, but did see some scary looking starfish cum spider like things that made Jenni rather uncomfortable. It’s funny how Thais use the word “maybe.” A language of perpetually hedged statements. While explaining the itinerary it was “maybe we leave now, maybe we go first to Bamboo Island, maybe after we go here… maybe then… maybe maybe maybe.”
Whenever I travel to tropical beaches I am reminded of my fascination with hermit crabs. I don’t know what it is. I’m obsessed. As those in attendance at our wedding might recall, Alan vowed “I promise to try to accept that nothing I am ever saying or doing will compete for your attention with a puppy.” This vow did not extend to hermit crabs, but Alan is trying to accept that no matter where we are in conversation when I spy a shell crawling across the sandscape I have to explode with “oh look at that one!” Then I inevitably pick it up and put it on my hand or Alan’s stomach, just to ensure he witnesses the awesomeness that is this little animal LIVING INSIDE OF A SHELL. And then I usually share with him (for the umpteenth time) the story of how when I was lonely in college I went on over to Ithaca’s Pyramid Mall and bought myself a pet hermit crab. Somehow, my obsession manages to reignite itself again and again. What is it about those guys?
If you are from the US or many other countries, you do not need a visa to enter Thailand. Do not be confused by the space on the immigration card asking for your visa number, nor the signs at the airport directing you to the visa on arrival desk. Proceed directly to immigration. ATMs are widely available. The exchange rate was ~33 Thai Baht per US$.
Communication: At the airport in Bangkok we purchased SIM cards from AIS. DTAC is another popular telecom company. We paid 299B for seven days of unlimited data and 100B worth of talk time. Rates are 1B/min local and 3B/min to the US. This card is valid for a few months. There are lots of plan options, and you can top up at 7-11 stores.
Transportation: We flew from Bangkok to Krabi on Thai Airways. There are airports all over Thailand and many flights are quite inexpensive and convenient. Air Asia also flies here. Having taken three flights and traveled overnight from Varanasi, we decided to have our hotel in Railay arrange transport. For 1200B we got a private van from the airport to Ao Nammao from where we took a longtail straight to Sunrise Tropical Resort on Railay East. It would have cost a little less to arrange this ourselves. I think a taxi from the airport costs ~600B and a longtail ride ~60-80B/person.
Getting around the islands is often a mix of ferries and longtail boats. Ferries cover the longer distances while longtails are great for short trips, and often a ferry will offload you to a longtail for the last couple hundred yards onto land. You may have to disembark in knee-deep water.
Longtails to Railay West leave from Ao Nang on the mainland, and to Railay East they leave from Ao Nammao. Once on Railay, it is easy to walk between East, West and Phra Nang, and you can also take longtails between Phra Nang and West and Ton Sai.
Thailand is very tourist friendly. You can arrange day tours and island transportation at countless places, including likely your hotel.
Accommodation: We stayed at Sunrise Tropical Resort in a very spacious room with good AC and WiFi. There is a pool that we never used. Breakfast was included and good, with fresh omelets, fruit, etc. It is probably preferable to stay on Railay West, but again the walk is so short that it doesn’t really matter. If money is no issue then Rayavadee is where you want to stay. It is on the most beautiful beach, and I believe the grounds are open only to guests. So while the beach is public and you can easily walk there, it could be nice to step outside your room onto that beach.
Food: There are lots of food options, from proper restaurants at the resorts (which often have BBQ’s at night) to little stands on walking street, etc. One of our favorite experiences here was dining from the longtail food boats on Phra Nang. And Jenni proclaiming that her first Thai pancake hit a spot she didn’t know she had.
Activities: Many come to Railay to climb, and there are classes for beginners. You can rent a kayak from various vendors. On the walking path between Railay East and Phra Nang there is a side trail leading to a lagoon. It is very steep and slippery, and we passed. With better footwear and free hands we probably would have taken the challenge.
We did an all-day tour on a 30+ person speedboat to Phi Phi etc. which cost 1400B each including lunch and soft drinks and mask with snorkel. There are also onshore excursions to local parks and mangrove kayaking and more. Diving is easily arranged.
January 11-14, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)