After a couple weeks in Thailand we were excited to hit up the beaches in the south of the country. Our first stop would be the large and well known island of Phuket as Tony had a friend of a friend who ran a hotel in Patong. Being short on time, Tony opted to fly. We, on the other hand, chose to take an overnight bus to Phuket. So we parted with Tony in Bangkok around 4pm to get to the bus station for the south. We had walking directions and a bus number to take, so we thought we were set. This wasn’t the case though as we hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that bus routes had changed due to protest campouts. Realizing this and not seeing our bus, we started to get a bit stressed. Eventually we started asking protesters who helped get us onto a bus headed to the larger south bus terminal. Even with language barriers and political unrest you can never underestimate the willingness of people to help out when they can.
When we did arrive we were told that the only remaining night bus was the VIP bus, which cost about $8 more per person (in SE Asia that is the equivalent of three days worth of meals). Not having many options at that point we booked the tickets and were soon on our way to Phuket. To the government bus standards credit, the bus was one of the most spacious and comfortable overnight buses we had been on in a long time. The InterCape bus to Johannesburg was close second, but this one did not try to convert us to Christianity, so it gets many extra points for that. We enjoyed the free snacks, dinner, excessive space, and comfy blankets all the way down. We slept like babies. And, once again, our bus left about 15 minutes early. We were starting to notice the pattern.
We arrived in Phuket Town at around 7am. Two local songthaew rides and about fourty minutes later we had arrived to Patong. Our first impressions of the area weren’t so great. But we made the most of our day and awaited Tony’s arrival. We were in Southern Thailand with good company. We didn’t care how crappy it may seem, we were going to make it magical!
Patong (and maybe Phuket) = Beach + McDonalds + Drag Queens
For the most part, Phuket was not what we had expected. From most of what we saw it was super developed and there were plenty of restaurants and stores specifically designed for tourists. The streets had a griminess to them that was hard to pinpoint. It was like taking some of the dirtier streets of Bangkok and placing them in these island towns. This was probably a result of the volume of tourists, who seemingly liked to party because there were plenty of built up bars and discount booze offers almost everywhere we walked, as well as the advertisings to watch a Thai boxing match at the local arena.
When we finally made it out to the beach with Tony shortly after sunset, the beach bar staff were closing up the shops. When you turned and faced the sea, you saw a beautiful coast and neat long-tailed boats. However when you turned toward the shore, you saw littered beer cans, flashing neon lights, and heard a parade of cars jammed along the coastal road. We all knew Thailand was touristy, but this was more hectic and arresting than we had expected. Despite this, we let our enthusiasm for being at the beach together win us over. We found a mini blow-up soccer ball and played around with it and got our feet wet. Then we picked a random 7-Eleven and got a couple beers to walk around with and explore the city that was emerging as the darkness thickened. As with many other places in Thailand, if you wanted to buy knock-off products, this was a good place to do it. Can’t afford Beats by Dre headphones in your home country? No problem, they make any kind of Beats by DR. Dre headphones. Need some Nikes? They have those too, kinda. Althouth unlike the super local mega Save One Night Market we had experienced in Korat, here it was all catered for tourists and thus bargaining was a must.
After indulging in our favorite dinner, street pad thai, we let Tony take the lead. He quickly found someone offering to take us to an infamous “ping pong show”, but he redirected the guy: “We want boy shows.”
The response was quick and easy – “Ahh yes, gay paradise is that way. But no show until later.”
Just a few streets away we found the dead-end street locally known as Gay Paradise. The street is lined with bars catering to the men seeking men, and doesn’t get started till after 9pm. No problem, back to our trusty 7-11 for more beers. Then we waited for the scene to build. And build it did.
The bar scene there definitely caters to gays more than lesbians, and they do it in their own way. The action at Chic Bar and Kiss Club drew us in right away. These are two larger bars that are the ‘nightclub’ venues on the street, and they are kitty-corner from eachother. The street that we had been walking down deserted just an hour earlier was now being transformed into a battleground – a drag queen performance battle-off. Complete with little Thai boys in their matching backup-dancer outfits behind a bulkier local pretending to be Madonna performing Evita or Cher or Beyonce in one of their hits.
Despite our efforts to avoid anything representing MTV movies about dance crews that are battling for pride or territory, we all know how this should go. One bar brings out the big guns and shows off with their performance (drag lip-synching, in this case), and then when they are done, the other bar comes back with their response, showing that they are better. But this is Thailand. Here we found ourselves amid the battle for drag-performance superiority, as they tried to perform over each other (yes that means simultaneously loud drag blow out on top of another only twenty feet away). After the battles had been raged they would then try to drag the crowds from the street into the bars where they did more of the same performances. Amanda laughed at the entire scene recalling her highschool weekend trips to the all age gay club she would frequent with her friends. For her it was like entering a time machine that popped her out on the other side of the world.
We ended up hanging outside and grabbing beers (which were way over priced) between the two bars. Finally we decided our brains may explode if we stayed any longer and headed back to our cozy room at the Backstage Inn.
The following morning, we enjoyed a quick breakfast and bid adieu to the island of Phuket. We have been told that the island itself is really great when you have a scooter and can explore outside the cities. We however had our eyes set on Krabi which had come highly recommended by several people.
This province on southern Thailand’s Andaman coast, is an almost otherworldly region where islands and mountains seem to erupt vertically out of no where. Plentiful natural attractions, white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, numerous caves and waterfalls, and many islands connected to the mainland via colorful long tail boats is what draws people to this area.
The ride over to Krabi was easy enough. The scenery was already remarkable with the huge limestone cliffs we were passing. Difficulties set in once we arrived at the Krabi bus station. Getting to our intended location at the hotel we had booked didn’t look like it was going to be as easy as we had expected. After three hours of trying our best to get to the hotel via public transport and considering maybe staying somewhere else we finally gave in and took a taxi – what we should have done all along. We realized that our penny-pinching backpackers mindset can be like (a weight we drag around our ankles sometimes, unwilling to let it go even when it is better in the long run).
We arrived at the Coco Nori at Sea Resort shortly before sunset. Despite the semi-remote location and lack of public transportation the hotel was very nice. And in the end the remote location ended up being a blessing after seeing the packed town and beach area of Ao Nang. The much calmer and enjoyable beach of Klong Moung was located only a five minute walk from the hotel. Tired and happy to have arrived, we decided to try to catch sunset at the beach. On the way we found a local Friday market happening where we got some really tasty food to go for our first Thailand beach sunset.
Tha Pom and the Secret Beach
Since we were in a remote spot and scooter rentals were cheap we decided this would be the best (and most fun) way to explore while we were there. Plus, Tony looked fabulous in his black and yellow little Vespa, with matching helmet. For our first day we headed a bit north toward Tha Pom. Immediately we were rewarded for our decision to rent the scooters with the amazing views and roadside scenery along the smaller less traveled roads we took. We found ourselves surrounded by enormous limestone hills and mountains jutting straight out of nowhere into the sky like moss-covered skyscrapers next to banana and rubber plantations that lined the roadside between little villages.
When we arrived to Tha Pom, we were the only tourists there. Some local kids were having a blast in the dedicated swimming area, but aside from this, we had it to ourselves. Compared to the popular Emerald Pools (locally known as Sa Morakot, a bit southeast of Krabi town and where many tours offer to take people), we were happy to have chosen the maybe smaller but still beautiful and super peaceful pools we were at. The pristine waters vary between being perfectly transparent to having a gorgeous turquoise glow, and the roots of the trees wander and zigzag across the landscape like a penny seeking a crack to fall down. We took our time enjoying this tropical swamp area, taking photos, and doing some yoga.
Feeling inspired from the natural beauty in this remote and quite location we decieded to continue our scooter explorations. Since it was mid-day we all agreed finding a beach where we could go for a cool-off dip would be nice. Winding our way along the water’s edge for a while we reached a little ferry port. Not seeing many places to swim and relax at this spot we turned around. Along the road we chose to stop in at the Banana Bungalows. We had seen this remote hostel online when trying to find a place to stay. Due to it’s popularity it unfortunately was already fully booked. Curious and hoping maybe they could point us in the right direction of a beach we checked it out. The friendly staff there not only told us where the beaches were but also told us about a ‘secret beach’ – pretty much only known by those at Banana Bungalows and locals. We took a picture of the directions, and followed them to a tee, going off the main road, passing old men working on a fence, and then walking through a rubber tree plantation. It was really neat to see how the rubber is collected from the tree sap via an angled scraping method, and collected in coconuts. After passing the grove, we found ourselves at a cliff, and just as our directions said, there was a little rope to the side, and we traversed down to a small beach, that we had all to ourselves. The beach was small but opened to a beautiful sea with more huge limestone rock islands. Paradise, found.
Thunderstorms and Blackouts
The end to our first full and absolutely stunning day in the Krabi area of Thialand came with loud claps of thunder, heavy rains, and eventually complete darkness. All of us gave thanks that we had arrived back to the hotel before the light rains had begun. These quickly progressed into a massive downpour which then turned into a blackout lightning storm. The rains maybe lasted fourty minutes, but the balckout lasted a couple hours. With candles provided by the hotel staff we sat in our room and played MOVIE, a new game that Tony taught us. Amanda, not knowing any names of actors/actresses was horrible at this. Eventually Amanda and Tony decided to wander the blacked out streets of the remote area we were in and scavenge for food. Ben’s stomach had it’s own mini-thunderstorm happening, so he stayed behind. It was fun to wander around with the power being out everywhere. Soon we learned that we were adjacent to many fancy resorts as well down the road from us, which were all semi-lit from there massive generators they had running.
We can’t complain about the rain in Southeast Asia. Since we arrived in December this was the absolute only day of rain we had. And to be honest – thunderstorms and blackouts are usually worth the experience!
Day two in Krabi began with a trip to the well known and closeby Railay beaches. Railay is a small peninsula located between Ao Nang and Krabi town. The beaches of the peninsula are only accessible by boat due to the high limestone cliffs which cut off mainland access. Boats however run quite frequently from Ao Nang and for $3 and 10 minutes worth of your time you would be delivered safely. We scootered on down to the main longtail boat takeoff spot just off the beach of the main Ao Nang town. When buying our tickets the person convinced us to pay for roundtrip, telling us they didn’t know how easy it would be to buy a ticket once we were there on the beach. Why we fell for this stupid trick I don’t know. In hindsight it wasn’t necessary and actually make things a bit harder, but we ended up buying the roundtrip ticket. Once the boat told enough tickets (filling the boat with about 8-10 people) it was on it’s way. The ride out was just as pleasant and the scenery was just as stunning. The boat dropped us on Railay West, which as it sounds, is on the west side of the peninsula. We soon learned that the east and west sides of the peninsula were connected very easily via a path that crossed the middle. It passed by many resort like hotels and eventually plopped you on the opposite end. The path itself was a bit enchanting with the crazy rock formations, small caves, and tree roots growing wildly in every direction like vines.
Our first discovery was Phra Nang beach. Here you will find people chilling out on the sand with a backdrop of experienced rock climbers dangling from the sharp cliffs just behind the sandy beaches. It wasn’t quite as crowded as the larger Railey West beach but there were still a fair share of people here. Regardless, the beach offered a solution to pretty much any possible mood. If you wanted to be active there was rock climbing, kayaking, and water cave exploration. If you wanted to relax there was beach and warm blue waters to swim in. If you were hungry there were a couple places to grab food, or you could picnic as some Thai families seemed to be doing. The beach is also home to an interesting shrine which is not to be missed. Located in a little grotto of the rocks it featured many falic statues (hundreds of them) in all colors and sizes. The signage near the shrines emphasizes that these shrines have nothing to do with Buddhism, Muslium, or any other major religion (especially those in Thailand). It then gave a brief explanation that an ancient fisherman’s legend believed that if a fisherman returned from the sea with fortune he should then place one of the colorful penis statues at the shrine to ensure future luck. Finding this entire thing a bit strange and festinating (who isn’t further drawn in by the site of many colorful and variously shaped penises) we did a bit more research online after returning home that night. There a couple of legends tied to these shrines. Which holds to be the true one is is up to the person you ask. Regardless of the stories we enjoyed this surprise sighting and hope the shrines remain for the enjoyment of future generations.
From here we made the climb to the view point on the top of cliffs at the southern tip of the peninsula . And when we say climb we mean exactly that. The sign directed us toward a cliff covered with tangled tree branches that covered the well trekked area. As we made the climb it was interesting to see the kinds of people (of all fitness levels and ages) that would attempt to make this assent along with what they were wearing (bikinis, flip-flops, you name it). We were glad to be in relatively good shape and have our tennis shoes on. Occasionally we would get a little rest as we waiting for others to pass going downward or would slow behind a flip-flop climber. Once at the top it got a bit confusing as there seemed to be multiple trails. Amanda choose one of them and we followed it along figuring it must lead to somewhere. We are sure if it was ‘the viewpoint, but we ended up at a place with a really nice view. It happened to be inhabited by a large extended family of monkeys as well. We admired the view, took some pictures of the monkeys, and watched as others that came along behind us did stupid things that tempted the monkeys to try to snatch things from their bags. This wasn’t as entertain as it may sound and it was a bit of a buzz kill on the beautiful spot and moment. So we continued along a trail to see where it lead. This one seemed to be a dead end, and we found ourselves looping around a few trails wondering along the maze of trees. The nice thing was that there are so many people visiting Railay and climbing up to the viewpoint every day you can always see where people are coming up or from or going. We took a cue from a head emerging in front for us and soon found our entry (and now exit) point.
Having explored the area a bit we now strolled back to the west beach and hung out along the sand for a bit. By this point it was getting to be mid-day and temperatures were rising. We enjoyed the beach for a bit of time and then decieded to head back to the mainland and our scooters. Since we had bought our return ticket we ended up having to wait a while for the specific company to gather enough people to make the trip worth the drivers time. It wasn’t all that bad, but as we watched the many boat drivers mingling on the beach we realized this ‘just in case’ return ticket purchase wasn’t really needed. By the time we were speeding along in the long-tailed boat we welcomed the sea breezes and the stunning views again. The views really never got old.
Thinking we hadn’t gotten enough exercise for the day with our Railey Beach viewpoint climb we decided to head to Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Sua). This temple is very well known in the Krabi area, both for it’s large grounds as well as the fact that one must assend 1,237 stairs that climb 260 meters upward into the sky to reach the temple. With our scooters we managed to there without too much trouble and before we knew what we were doing we had already assended ten stairs! Only 1,227 more to go.
It is said that in previous times, this spot is the location which a tiger used to seek refuge and sleep in the morning sunlight, thus giving it the name ‘Tiger Cave Temple.’ It is well known that in the past these mountains were home to tigers, however now it seems as though the hoards of Red Bull drinking monkeys have driven all the tigers away. Today the Wat remains one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the province.
Yes, the trek gets your lungs and heart pumping, but it is very much worth it. When you do finally get to the top you are rewarded with the views from all sides. Not only can you look over the valley and town of Krabi below, but you also have the lush jungle covered mountains of the Tham Suea region to the east that look mystical. Throw a sunset on top of that and you are sure to get a spiritual feeling of love and gratitude for life while you are up there. We spent some time appreciating the surroundings, taking photos, and giving thanks before decending.
The temple grounds are quite large and actually have much more to them than just the buddha statue and temple atop the many stairs. Amanda found a Vipassana Meditation Forest where she wandered through thick jungle surrounded by the mountainous rocks on all sides for a while. Tony and Ben opted to check out the Chinese influenced temple (at ground level) as well as the actual Tiger Temple near the parking area. In addition, they are building a new temple building and fountain as well. Time will tell whether this is being done for the Thais who come to worship, or the tourists.
Ao Nang and Hidden Places
Day three was departure day for Tony. We would be headed back to Phuket for a flight to the north. We would stay in Ao Nang for another couple nights before meeting up with Amanda’s family. What we thought was going to be an easy transition to a rundown but cheap guesthouse along the quieter (and our preferred) beach of Noppharat Thara just beside Ao Nang ended up being a long afternoon of having to last minute find a place to stay. Let’s just say we aren’t impressed with RA Guesthouse and it’s managers who told us they would have a room for us when we called the day before and then shrugged their shoulders saying they were full when we arrived. We were stunned that they didn’t even offer help or suggest another nearby place to stay. Seriously unimpressed and mega-bad karma (and online review) to them. This was a huge pain considering it was still the end of high season and cheap places tended to be booked far in advance. After blowing some kisses to Tony as he got picked up for his ferry we then spent two hours asking around and keeping our fingers crossed. $18 was the best we could find for a room with a shared bathroom and near the main road of the busier Ao Nang side – not the Thailand prices or the location we we hoping for (or are used to). Being it was the best we could do though we took it, and it ended up being a blessing because not more than three hours later Amanda started getting extremely sick. So this room became our little haven for the next 48 hours.
While Ben was tending to Amanda during the depths of her illness he also got to take in the full effects of what developed tourism does to places. While maybe a sliver better than what we saw at Patong, there was no doubt Ao Nang had been morphed because of the people there. And in many ways it was exactly what the people there wanted. It made us both wonder – why go all the way to Thailand if you are in a town on a beach that looks like and could be any other tourist beach destination in the world? You could walk down the street and not even know you were in Thailand. Maybe it was the cheaper prices. But this kind of atmosphere seemed to be exactly what the kind of people here wanted, and the locals wisely delivered it and made a good income off doing so. To us it was strange and the attraction to it was foreign and confusing. It reminded us maybe of a GAP or Starbucks – a sort of franchised vacation experience (with similar stuff to buy, restaurants, etc) that you can find so many places now in the world. We tried not to judge this, but we knew it wasn’t for us. And two days was plenty enough more time for us to know we were ready to move on.
When Amanda did begin to perk up a bit the following afternoon and decided some air and sunshine would do her good, we managed to successfully find a nearby geocache. This led us to a secret and beautiful tucked away spot. It was located on the opposite of the rock jetty between the busy Ao Nang beach and the calmer Nopphara Thara beach on the opposed side. There was a nice built walkway with benches to sit and enjoy the breezes and ocean views in peace. We also managed to catch a sunset viewing on the last night, ending our time in the south with a romantic and peaceful vibe.
Thailand Tourist Buses
Our return trip to Bangkok was an interesting one. We had booked overnight bus tickets for 600 bhat each (roughly $18). This seemed the be the running price at the many many tour agencies on the main street in Ao Nang. When we booked the ticket Mr. Ban (who disguises himself as the ‘tourist police’ instead of his real identity – owner of booking agency) he at first said it was 1,000 each. We shook our heads saying we thought it was 600 (like on the sign) and said thanks anyway and began walking. He was quick to grab us and ask us to wait as he made a phone call. “Ok” he confirmed. 600 baht is fine. This is a special price only for tourists, locals can not have. We weren’t exactly sure what he was trying to say as it seemed backwards. Usually the locals get the cheaper prices on pretty much everything, so we assumed he was just trying to backpedal from his attempt to get more money out of us. Either way we ended up with two tickets in our hands at the price we wanted.
Now we usually don’t buy tickets from these tour agencies but being that main bus station was all the way back in Krabi we thought it would be worth it. The price seemed right as well. We were pleased to hear that it included a pick-up from Mr. Ban’s office as well, which would save us the money and hassle of getting to the main bus station on our own. When we got picked up things were looking good at first. It was a nice shuttle van and it then picked up more people from the area. Next though it randomly dropped us at a remote corner on the outskirts of town where there were a couple tables, some snack stuff for sale, and a fold out table where a woman put a sticker label on each of our shirts saying ‘Bangkok’. We were then told to wait twenty minutes. We figured at this point that we weren’t taking a government bus as we had expected and instead would be picked up by a larger bus. We were only half correct in our assumption, since we what picked us up from this corner was another van (once more people had been dropped off). A couple vans were filled and then we were toted across the peninsula to another shack (slightly larger) just outside of Surat Thani. Here a larger number of people slowly accumulated from various vans. Since this side of the peninsula has the many islands better known for partying there were many young, barely dressed, party beach type people that became a part of the larger group. We noticed at this point the signs around stating “No taking photos.” These signs pretty much confirmed our suspicions leading up to this point – we were going to be on one of those large tourist buses that were known for stealing peoples shit.
At this point there was noting much we could do but be as smart as possible about things. When the bus arrived they hurriedly directed people on it. Everyone sat up top, there were no seats on the bottom. Instead all the luggage went in the bottom, where crews of people go though your bags and take anything valuable. We made sure our bags were locked and then Amanda insisted on sitting in a seat where she could view the door they were loading the luggage through. Her biggest concern at this point was they would actually take an entire bag.
We did make it to Bangkok and we did receive our bags intact at the other end. But there was no doubt that people were going through the bags below. The bus stopped several times for no reason at random places on the road. Each time Amanda watched the door below like a hawk. We were later told this is when they have groups of people come onboard and go through the bags that aren’t locked. Ben also caught a local sneaking down the stairs to the bathroom with a small blanket draped over his head, and then instead of going to the bathroom he was reaching under the seats, and digging through a passenger’s purse. This was at 3:30am when everyone else was asleep. Ben yelled at the person asking what he was doing, and intentionally woke up many people on the bus in the process. The person in question just quickly walked up to the front of the bus with the blanket over his head and said nothing before locking himself up front with the driver. We are assuming this guy was staff and part of the gig. Lesson learned – don’t mess with these non-government buses and don’t buy your tickets from any agency, no matter how tempting the price or what they tell you! Yes, having your bags locked seems to keep things safe for now but we wouldn’t be surprised if they soon just start taking random bags. These buses seems to be one of those unfortunate things that has grown in Thailand with it’s increased popularity as a tourist and backpacker destination.
After this exhausting night and situation, we were glad to be done with the bus, and have our belongings with us and safely off the bus. They had rushed us off the bus just as quickly and harshly as they had herded us on, and they were gone. And while this was not a fun way to end our time in the south with a good friend, we are able to look back on it for what it was and the good moments we captured amongst the beautiful scenery and warm familiarity of friends. Things like these buses and the madness of Patong are now an undeniable part of what has become part of current day Thai culture and situations. And as unappealing to us as they may be witnessing them…