Looking for a tropical paradise with knockout scenery, where you can do everything or nothing with like-minded travelers or just your own shadow for company? If so, then it’ll cost you!
Less than US$25 a day, actually. We paid US$700 each for a month’s holiday on Thailand’s Andaman Coast. And we’re not backpackers. Paradise has a new name, and there’s 1,000 miles to explore, much of it still unaffected by Thailand’s tourism tentacles.
From Gin and Tonics to Gibbons
Thailand’s Andaman Coast is its western seaboard, stretching from Myanmar to Malaysia. The most popular destination is the 800-square kilometer (about 300 square miles) island of Phuket, “Pearl of the South,” and that’s where our journey began.
Dominated by resort-culture, Phuket’s southern beaches peddle 24-hour action. In the marbled courtyards of four-star hotels, gin and tonic rivals pineapple juice as the refreshment of choice, and the distorted bass strains of Madonna and Oasis fill the streets. Tourism is big business, and cultural experiences beyond dodging kamikaze taxi drivers are rare. Bungalows on the beach are also rare, but we found the next best thing.
Perched on a hillside at the southern end of Kata Beach catching gorgeous sea breezes and views to match are the Flamingo Bungalows. Phuket’s beaches are dazzling, but commercialism has left many areas tacky, so we headed inland in search of cultural diversions. We struck gold at the Khao Phra Taew Forest Reserve in the island’s north.
Staffed by international volunteers and financed by donations, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre rescues animals orphaned through poaching.
“Up to 10 gibbons are killed by poachers for each juvenile captured,” our guide said as she led us around the facility nestled deep in the forest. Purpose-built free range enclosures house the orphans, specially designed to prepare them for re-introduction into the wild. “Gibbons are very territorial,” she continued. “Once they leave their environment, it is difficult to relocate them.”
We felt compelled to help and were delighted to adopt a little guy called Bubu for a year. US$20 earned us an adoption certificate, photographs and the peace of mind that Bubu would have a fighting chance – at least for the next 12 months
Adjacent the center a short hike through the jungle leads to Bang Pae Falls and a rewarding swim. Laying in cool water at the base of the falls, listening to the rainforest, I contemplate Phuket’s contrasts.
“This place has something for everyone,” I said to my wife, Karen.
“But nothing new,” she replied. “Let’s move on.”
Happy Hans and the Island of Pigs
The bus to Trang takes six hours. We heard the driver’s Thai “Top-40” tape three times, shared our seats with school kids, farmers and monks, and ate Thai potato chips that tasted like cardboard. How can a land dominated by chilies produce such bland junk food?
Trang is a wealthy, friendly and lively trading town dating back to the first century, and today it’s home to a thriving rubber industry. Tourists here are few, and the atmosphere is exciting in the markets and streets.
The atmosphere is exciting at the Trang Hotel. The second floor “Karaoke Room” is especially popular – smiling beauties on barstools are the main attraction. And I never heard much singing.
Delicious noodles and real filtered coffee are the traditional fare, available from many food stalls and street vendors. Near some stalls on Thanon Ratchadamnoen is Trang’s only second hand bookshop, run by “Happy Hans,” an expatriate German, and his Thai wife, Ani. Local advice is valuable, and Hans’ enthusiasm for the nearby island of Ko Sukorn was infectious.
“It’s a little-known oasis,” he said. “If you want to see one of Thailand’s last unspoiled gems, then hop on a boat and check it out. You won’t regret it.”
Ko Sukorn’s real name is Ko Muu, meaning “Pig Island;” a curious fact, given its Muslim population. We followed Hans’ advice and explored tiny villages, deserted beaches and islands of sheer limestone cliffs, pausing frequently to admire the translucent waters and their rainbow-colored inhabitants. We hadn’t been this relaxed for months. It was an energy-sapping 11 paces from our veranda at Sukorn Beach Bungalows to the sand, and a mere 23 to the water. We made a note to thank Hans.
No poisonous spiders here
Three hours north of Trang is Krabi, Thailand’s latest tourism success story. The area’s spectacular landscape provides visitors with idyllic beaches, coastal forests and islands and world-class rock climbing among spectacular limestone towers. Tourism booms, but its effect has been well managed. It’s still easy to escape the Krabi crowds.
The town is busy, but feels friendly and relaxed. A rummage through the sensational day and night markets is fun. Yet most people head for the beaches, all accessible by a short, dramatic boat ride from town.
Ao Nang and Rai Leh are the busiest beaches, with a resort-like atmosphere, but we chose nearby Nam Mao as our base. “Dawn of Happiness” bungalows is the beach’s sole occupant and co-owned by world-renowned conservationist, Thom Henley. It’s in a lovely pocket of coastal rainforest, complete with abundant wildlife, especially big spiders. Thom assured us none of them were poisonous, but we didn’t quite believe him.
Regular boats visit the Phi Phi Islands, famous for their natural beauty and location for “The Beach,” a recent Hollywood blockbuster. Climbers searching for valuable swallow nests used in preparing the Chinese bird’s nest delicacy scour the cliffs and caves. Inland from Krabi ancient rainforest shelters Buddhist temples, elaborate cave systems and magnificent waterfalls.
The area is rich in scenic and cultural wonders, and over breakfast one morning, we pondered our next destination, chatting with Thom and recalling our adventures. Then a strange thing happened.
A spider the size of a dinner plate sped – no, galloped – across the floor towards our feet. We actually heard it. Within an instant we were all on the table looking at one another, then we burst into laughter. And I’m sure Thom was first on the table.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s not poisonous.”
Reef, Rainforest and Romance
An hour north of Phuket and two hours from Krabi is the sleepy coastal village of Khao Lak, our last stop. Kilometers of unspoiled white-sand beaches greet the Andaman Sea, punctuated by majestic granite outcrops. Surrounding the beach are the forested hillsides, valleys and cliffs of Khao Lak-Lamroo National Park and some of the world’s oldest rainforest.
It’s an atmospheric stage, and one of Thailand’s wettest regions. Afternoon thunderstorms are common, giving way to magnificent sunsets. The romance of dining on fresh seafood by candlelight while watching a misty, purple sunset with your toes in the sand listening to torrential rain is a memory that will stay with me forever.
Sixty kilometers (37 miles) offshore is another natural wonder, the Similan Islands. From the Malay word sembilan, meaning nine, these uninhabited islands form a well-protected marine park of staggering beauty. We joined eight other adventurers for a three-day live, aboard trip on a converted 16-metre Thai fishing boat through the islands, falling asleep under a billion stars and swimming with a billion fish.
Run by a local company called Poseiden Bungalows, the trips are led by an English-speaking guide and Thai crew of three and offer an ecologically sound choice for exploring the sensitive environment. There are no anchors, no septic tanks and no noisy generators, thanks to 24-volt electricity.
By day we explored an underwater wonderland, combed arcs of powder sand and rainforest, and dined on smorgasbords of freshly prepared Thai delights; by night we sang and reminisced to a canvas of twinkling stars.
Most of us were here for similar reasons – to experience one of Thailand’s few remaining pristine environments, but leave as few “footprints” as possible. And we succeeded.
Back on the mainland in Khao Lak, I realized we are barely an hour from Phuket. We’d come “full circle” in a month, seen astonishing sights, and had again experienced the unmistakable cultural richness that summons us to return so regularly. And it was all on the doorstep of one of the world’s premier resort destinations.
We had shared waterfall swimming pools with fun-loving families, cardboard-tasting potato chips with school kids piled on our laps in cramped buses, and prayers and incense with monks and nuns in cliffside temples. And if we ever needed help, there was always a smile and a friendly, helping hand.
“Land of Smiles?” You bet. My wife, Karen, calls this the “Buddhism Factor.” She could be right, but to holiday in Thailand and not embrace its people and culture is only half a holiday.
I wonder if others know what they are missing.
If You Go
HOW TO GET THERE: Flying to Phuket is the easiest and most convenient option since its international airport connects with most overseas destinations. There are domestic airports in Trang and Krabi.
WHEN TO GO: After the monsoon, between November and May. This is peak season – the water is clearest and there are fewer rainy days.
TRANSPORT: Regular buses go everywhere and they’re cheap and comfortable. Hiring a car and driver is good value for a group. Local longtail boats operated by fishermen link smaller islands and larger ferries service more popular destinations.
ACCOMMODATION: Beachside bungalows are abundant, providing the definitive tropical holiday experience. You’ll pay between US$10 and $20 for a decent one with your own bathroom. Expect to pay big money for air-conditioning but it’s wasted – fans are better in this climate.
BUDGET: A good general rule is to double your accommodation cost. Eating and transport is cheap, so you’ll just need to allow for any special extras (like a cruise through the Similan Islands – US$150 all-inclusive for three days).
Tourism Authority of Thailand