With some diving in Ko Tao behind us we were heading to Krabi on the Andaman Sea side of south Thailand next. My parents were coming to visit us in the beautiful bay between Phuket and Krabi Town. While it is one of the most expensive parts of Thailand, it’s also one of the most beautiful. Having recently spent a week in the gold standard for karst islands and huge cliffs, Halong Bay, I hoped that Krabi could live up to my memories from visiting four years earlier.
Depending on where you go and who you talk to, Phuket can be an awful, disgusting place, or a nice island with a wild side. Based on my experiences in Phuket years prior, my opinion leaned toward the former. With little idea of the layout of the largest island in Thailand, I had been coerced into visiting Patong Beach on my first visit to Phuket. Cab drivers said it was a good place to grab a beer and some food, so off I went. After about 15 minutes of stumbling past open air strip clubs with lady boys dancing and aggressive men selling tickets to ping pong shows (where the girls don’t use paddles), I was more than ready to leave Phuket and never return.
While the island does have a massive drugged up tiger zoo where tourists can lay on the poor creatures, tons of obese middle aged white men walking with teenage Thai girls on each arm, and captive elephants being ridden by not so pleasantly plump westerners, it also has a beautiful side. Sissy and I picked a hotel at the quiet Kamala Beach, a predominantly Muslim part of the island, and found a beautiful beach and reasonable (for Phuket) prices on accommodation. A day trip with my parents to the Big Buddha – a 45 meter tall Buddha statue, Chalong Temple, and a beautiful viewpoint helped change my long held opinion of Phuket.
We also spent time near the airport at Nai Yang Beach, enjoying the small but beautiful national park, and hanging out just meters from the runway of Phuket International Airport, with huge jets whizzing overhead! These planes are full sized passenger jets and they take off and touch down right over you if you walk down the beach a short way. Announcements play from speakers pointed at the beach telling visitors not to shine laser pointers at planes or send up any explosives on penalty of death. While Phuket still is no highlight of the general area (it isn’t actually in Krabi province, but a neighbor), it seemed much more pleasant this time around. If I were visiting again I’d skip Patong Beach and head straight for Kamala and Nai Yang.
Ao Phang Nga National Park
Northeast of Phuket, bordering Krabi province, Ao Phang Nga National Park contains 42 beautiful karst islands, which jut straight up out of the ocean. The most famous of these, James Bond Island, is a cheap tour that is easily booked from just about anywhere in Phuket, Phang Nga, or Krabi. Knowing that the $33 per person day trip being presented to us in Phuket would be jam packed and low adrenaline, we jumped aboard regardless because the price was low and it was a good way to whet our appetites for the beautiful scenery we knew would be awaiting us in Railay and Tonsai in Krabi.
After an hour of being taxied from Kamala Beach to the east coast Rassada Pier, and being herded onto a speed boat with 36 other visitors, we were on our way into the park. On our way to James Bond Island we noticed that the small islands that we passed slowly became taller and taller, until we were cruising past dramatic cliffs that were vertical or inverted walls of rock towering hundreds of meters out of the water. Our boat stopped near a small opening at the base of an island, and as we faced the solid, flat rock wall, we saw kayaks ferrying people in and out of a tiny cave. Unlike Halong Bay, or Railay and Tonsai to come, we wouldn’t be paddling these kayaks ourselves, but crew members from the boat paddled us inside of the hollow island to a gorgeous lagoon surrounded by cliffs.
The scenery more than made up for the lacking experience of being paddled around by a local, and although this wasn’t our normal way of traveling, it was still easily worth the trip. Back on the boat, we whizzed onward toward the main event, the needle of an island that was once featured in James Bond, The Man with the Golden Gun. Approaching the island, we saw massive rock walls ahead, and as we rounded the corner we also saw dozens of longtail boats dropping people off on a pier. A longtail took us from our speedboat to the same pier, and we were greeted by hundreds and hundreds of tourists.
The island we were on, Khao Phing Kan, was really beautiful, with a huge, smooth slab of rock leaning across a cliff, forming a small cave, and plenty of insane looking erosion all around. Pushing our way through to view Ko Ta Pu, or James Bond Island, we saw a smaller than expected but still impressive tower of limestone, eroding away at the bottom. With the right angle, most people find a way to keep the other hundred people taking the same shot from their lens, as we did too, but the reality of the situation is less glamorous than the photos. We found that if you stay on Koh Yao (Yai or Noi) you can rent a longtail to take you before the tour companies show up, which would be a much better way to visit if this location is important for you to visit. James Bond Island is impressive and beautiful, but not the most beautiful in Ao Phang Nga, or Krabi by a long shot.
Another cave and another beautiful lagoon later, it was time for us to race an incoming storm back to Phuket.
The main reason we came to the area was to visit a place that is home to some of the most dramatic karst landscapes we’ve ever seen, Railay. Islands that defy gravity by towering so high and protruding from their small bases into larger upper halves dot the ocean around Railay, and on land things are no more tame. Railay itself is a small peninsula, surrounded by huge cliffs with sheer drops, keeping roads from being built to access the place. It’s been called one of the best rock climbing sites in the world, and for us non-climbers it’s a place to gawk at the out of this world landscape and explore the nearby islands.
Years prior to this visit, when I climbed a bit for fun, I enjoyed some amazing deep water soloing in Railay for about $30 for the day. While we had signed up to deep water solo in Halong Bay, our plans were ended due to rain, so we thought we’d try again in Railay this trip. Unfortunately a ban on deep water solo has recently gone into effect in Krabi, so we had no option to climb without ropes over the ocean here.
Bummed about the deep water solo ban, to lift our spirits we visited a lagoon near Phrang Nga beach in the south of Railay just before sunrise, with our headlamps on to guide us. The hike to the lagoon is more of a scramble where you pull yourself up ropes tied to a muddy, steep hillside. Signs at the start of the hike warn visitors of the danger of the climb and not to base jump from the top (it’s a karst cliff after all, perfect for BASE). Only 15 minutes or so of scrambling brings you to a fork in the path, and the left side heads to a viewpoint. We headed right, choosing to venture down to the lagoon that’s somewhat well known.
The descent to the lagoon is much tougher than the ascent before it, and isn’t for the faint of heart or the out of shape hiker. Getting down to the lagoon requires you to lower yourself down muddy ropes, do a small bit of rock climbing, and squeeze through a tiny rock hole that dangles over a three meter high drop off. About a half hour after starting our descent, we reached the lagoon just after sunrise. We had checked the tide charts since some people had complained that during low tide the lagoon is just a mud hole, and when we got there at high tide it was a beautiful greenish blue shallow lagoon with mud all around it.
The lagoon sits in an eroded bit of the huge karst mountain, reminding me of a cenote you might see in Mexico. It’s too shallow to swim in, and the floor of it seems to be the same thick mud that coats the edges, but it was 100% worth the effort to see it. We turned and climbed back out, which was a bit easier and faster than our descent in, and headed to the viewpoint to see Railay from above.
Our accommodation was in east Railay, and we chose to show up and search for a room instead of booking online since the cheapest room on Booking.com was going for $67 a night. We ended up finding a place at Rapala Rockwood Resort, near the old end of the beach, shortly before Last Bar. The price was a steep $25 per night for an aging bungalow with a bucket toilet and cold shower, but much better than the $67 that we found elsewhere. Railay east is nowhere near as beautiful as Railay west or Phrang Nga in the south, but the whole peninsula is so small that a 20 minute walk will get you just about anywhere.
Phrang Nga was our favorite beach for a few reasons. To access the beach by land you’ll walk under an eroded cliffside with caves dotting the edge. Macaques and spectacled langurs like to hang out in the area, as they do around the rest of the peninsula, and vines hang down while new stalactites grow up. Once you reach the beach a gorgeous island sits just off the coast where you can paddle out in a rented kayak to explore, and a cave is just to your left after a short walk through the water.
Reaching Phranang Cave (past the penis shrine by the same name) is easy enough, and once you do you’re likely to leave most of the other tourists behind. If you didn’t know it was there you would probably think it was just another cliff side. The entrance to the cave area has a tiny beach and you can walk across a small wooden bridge to get to the opposite end that sits above the water. While it’s not a massive cave to explore, we really enjoyed the break from the growing masses that tend to flock to Phranang Beach.
The sunsets from Phranang Beach are amazing, and though day trips will often stop here for sunset, it felt less crowded than Railay West during our visits. Just off the shore you can swim or take a long-tail after sunset to see a nice show of bio-luminescent plankton in the water. Make sure it’s dark out and wear a set of goggles, look down into the ocean, and wave your hands around to see blue sparks light up underwater. If you’ve been to the Caribbean to see this phenomenon then you may be disappointed as the glow can’t compete with the bright blue that is found in Puerto Rico or Jamaica, but it’s still a really cool sight to see.
The chilled out backpacker beach of Tonsai is just around the corner from Railay West. A 10 minute walk from Railay West Beach, or an hour and a half through the jungle, brings you to a much less densely populated beach with equally beautiful cliffs surrounding it. As you walk along the beach you may notice a bamboo ladder that looks like it’s seen better days to your right. Heading up the ladder leads to a second, even worse off ladder, and then to a run down platform with a beautiful view of Tonsai.
There’s no fee or regulation for these ladders that we could find, just climb at your own risk!
The beach may be much less crowded than Phranang or Railay West partially because unless it’s high tide it isn’t overly pleasant. When the tide is out the beach is shallow and rocky, making it tough to enjoy getting in the water. While you wait for the tide to come in, watching the climbers ascending ridiculously hard routes is a great way to pass the time.
A popular day trip from Railay is one of the island hopping tours that can be booked just about anywhere on the peninsula. A small group trip on a long-tail set us back 800 baht each, which included dinner and excluded the 400 baht national park fee that we’d need to pay if we wanted to land on Poda Island. The size of our group was perfect with eight of us fitting into the long-tail and setting off toward the islands.
You’d think boating around past karst islands would get tiring at some point, but after weeks of being around them in Vietnam and now Thailand, they were still amazing to me. The way they seemed to defy gravity and protrude straight out of the ocean was fascinating. We sailed into an inlet on an island, between two rock walls that could’ve been 50 meters tall, and landed on a small beach to snorkel. Hundreds of tigerfish swam around our feet, and once we put our heads under to observe them our boat driver threw a handful of rice nearby, causing them to swarm in front of our faces.
Our next snorkeling spot was a bit more intense – we jumped from the boat into the ocean and followed a reef, seeing giant clams, spikey urchins, cute clownfish, and neon parrotfish. We had enjoyed the snorkeling in both spots a ton and decided to forego visiting Poda Island, partially because the tide was high, cutting off the natural bridge between the islands, and partially to save the 400 baht per person for other activities. We headed back to the first snorkeling spot which was now completely deserted, and climbed around in a cave before having dinner on the small beach.
The following day we rented a couple of kayaks to explore the closer islands a bit more at our own pace. From Railay West we grabbed the kayaks for 200 baht for the first hour and 100 per hour after. We paddled to the islands just in front of Phranang Beach, and then out toward Railay East. The cliffs and overhangs were as impressive as any we’d seen and a great place to paddle along. We stopped off at a series of small beached after about an hour of paddling, where a few climbers were ascending the cliffs and a startled exhibitionist quickly clothed himself.
After visiting some of the best scenery we’ve been around we weren’t excited to leave it all behind, so we decided to ferry over to a lesser visited island not far away, Koh Yao Yai, where we’d visit more incredible islands and see more dramatic scenery!