While Bangkok may be a glistening gem of a city, full of flashing lights, broken streets and chaotic, life-threatening traffic, the country of Thailand is home to a huge range of other travel destinations, particularly the beaches and islands that are scattered all around the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. My time spent in this mega city had been incredibly eye-opening, but once again that travelling itch was gnawing in the back of my mind, and I felt like I’d been stationary for too long. I needed to keep moving – to keep travelling – and so I decided to make the most of my time left in Thailand by making my way south to explore some of the coastal delights that the country has to offer. After a quick search through locations and hostels, I set my destination as the small coastal town of Krabi.
Sticking to my commitment to travel as cheaply as possible – and to also get the most “experience” out of my journeys, I booked a ticket on the overnight train from Bangkok. It was a 12 hour journey from there to a town called Surat Thani, from where I would travel via bus for a few more hours before finally reaching Krabi. Including delays and waiting time, it took me about 17 hours before I finally set foot in the hostel – a long time considering Krabi has an airport which is a one hour flight from Bangkok, but it was also remarkably cheaper. Getting the train also felt like an adventure itself – the staff working on board came down the aisles and set up the beds, and an hour into the journey I was curled up in my own private bunk, watching the countryside pass by under the cover of night. It was actually kind of fun – I felt a little bit like a child again, hiding in a cubby house or a fort made out of pillows. I admit that it may not have been the best sleep of my life, but it was adequate, and the option had the advantage of covering both transport and accommodation for the night, killing two birds with one stone. The morning of my arrival in Surat Thani was a confusing wild goose chase, with buses and vans taking me from place to place until I finally arrived at the hostel in Krabi. It was a little unnerving when you weren’t 100% sure where you were going, but sometimes you really have no choice but to go along with it and pray whoever is taking you wherever just knows where they’re going.
I soon learnt that I should probably put a bit more effort into my research in the future, as I made a startling discovery upon arriving in Krabi – the town itself doesn’t actually have any beaches. I was a little put out – gone were my fantasies of strolling down to the beach, with nothing but a towel and my ukulele, and strumming little ditties among the backdrop of paradise. But I hadn’t come through 17 hours of transit to sit and feel sorry for myself. After showering and changing out of my soiled traveling clothes, I enquired with the hostel staff and learnt of a “local bus” that could take me straight to one of the nearby beaches. So away I went, in the back of what was essentially a ute with a roofed cage mounted in the tray. I rode for about 20 minutes before we turned onto a long strip of road that ran parallel to a long beach called Ao Nang. I alighted and made my way down to the sand.
It was early afternoon at this point, and I was faced with another problem that I hadn’t properly considered – low tide. The beaches in Thailand are particularly shallow, so when the tide goes out, it really goes out. I probably had to walk about half a kilometre before the water was even above my thighs. Since the water is so shallow, it also stays very warm. As I crouched down in the shallows to fully submerge my body, it felt more like I was taking a sandy, saltwater bath than a dip in the ocean. It was still quite pleasant, but not exactly the refreshing dip I had been expecting, or that I really needed in the sticky Thai humidity. Nevertheless, I was glad to be out of the city and washing away the rest of my worldly cares on a beach somewhere.
I had been told by a few travellers that he beaches down in this part of Thailand were some of the most beautiful in the world, with clear waters and pristine white sand. Yet as a made my trek through the waves breaking around my ankles and back go the shore to walk along the beach, I was quite shocked at what a found. All along the sand and in the wash along the shoreline, the beach was polluted with all kinds of litter. T-shirts wrapped in pieces of driftwood, lost shoes, beer bottles and other shards of broken glass, beer cans, plastic bags, water pistols and other toys – after closer inspection the sand along the beach resembled somewhat of a dumping ground. “Untouched” was a word I had heard used to describe these so-called pristine beaches. Maybe Ao Nag was an exception, or maybe that person hadn’t visited this area in a long time, but as the sun set on the otherwise beautiful seaside setting, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed in what I’d found. I climbed aboard the local bus and headed back to the hostel, making a determined promise to myself to continue my search for the pristine beaches tomorrow.
My trip to Krabi also marked the first time that I would be staying in a hostel. I’d heard some horror stories about stolen possessions and other traveling nightmares, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. After showering and changing I ran into a couple of guys in my room and introduced myself. We sat around chatting for a while – Jens was a traveller from Sweden and Sam was from London – and we ended up going down to the local night markets for some cheap Thai food dinner. Back in hostel room, we got chatting to a Moroccan traveller, a girl named Sarah. The four of us, complete strangers until that evening, made an unlikely group of friends, yet we ended up chilling out on one of the hostels balconies, drinking and smoking and just talking about our lives. It was at that moment that I really felt like a traveller – just an individual in a collection of wanderers, making our way through the world, whose paths intertwined for that one night, for that brief moment in time.
The next day, after trading tips among the hostel dorm room, Sarah, Sam and myself decided to catch a boat to a beach called Rai Leh. A pair of Norwegian girls had promised us beautiful beaches there, and I figured we could trust the word of someone who had visited the area just days before. And we were not disappointed – as the boat cruised in to anchor just off the beach, even the towering sheer limestone cliffs that filled the scenery around us were breathtaking. Sam said it looked like something out of Jurassic Park, and as a fan of the movie I most definitely agreed. This place was simultaneously beautiful, soothing, and awe-inspiring – this is what tropical paradise was supposed to look like. Rai Leh was a strip of land that had two beaches, with the eastern side acting as more of a port for the various boats bringing people in, so we made our way over to the western side which had been a little more developed for the tourist population. There were lots of bars and resorts just beyond the edge of the sand, so we had a few drinks before making our way into the water.
I soon discovered that the shallow beach at Ao Nang wasn’t a one-off thing. The water at West Rai Leh was a similar depth to begin with, and I had to walk out a long way before the water even came up to my chest. But when it did, the water became much cooler, and it was lovely swimming around, diving under the waves, and then kicking back and marvelling at the sweeping scenery that surrounded the beach. While the water wasn’t as deep as I would have preferred in a beach – or probably more accurately, what I was used to – it was definitely the visuals of the location that made it so appealing. The sand and water was also a lot clearer than Ao Nang, so I was satisfied to have finally founded these fabled, pristine beaches.
I also learnt a few travelling tips from Sarah that day. As we boarded the boat to take us to Rai Leh, she had brought along her large rucksack, while Sam and I only had our smaller backpacks. “You must never book more than one night in a hostel,” she said to us in a thick French accent, when we asked her why she had checked out and brought all her gear with her. “You never know where you might end up, or where you might want to stay. Krabi Town has no beaches! I do not want to spend another night there.” She had been travelling around the Thai islands for months now, and she had definitely mastered the tricks of the trade. And she was right, of course. When we got to Rai Leh, she sniffed out some budget accommodation – a mattress on the floor of a bamboo hut on the east side – and checked in straight away. “The beaches… This is where I want to be.” Sam and I still had our beds booked back at the hostel, so when it came time to get the last boat back to Krabi, as the sun set behind the clouds and turned the sky a glowing pink, we bid Sarah goodbye and good luck in her new home for the night.
My original plan had been to leave the next day, but I felt like my time in the beaches had come to a premature end. So after sniffing around some of the tourist information centres in the street, I booked a full day SCUBA diving tour for the following day, and secured my room at the hostel for one more night. I hit the hay early that night, to rise for an 8am pick up, in a car that took me back Ao Nang beach. From there, a boat took the group – the dive instructor and a pair of stern looking European men who spoke very little, and when they did, it was rarely in English – about 40 minutes out into the sea. We geared up, and soon we were descending into the deep blue.
I had completed my Open Water SCUBA Diving course when I was only 12 years old, on a family holiday in the Maldives. I had been diving periodically since then, but it had been about 4 or 5 years since my last dive. So I was a little nervous, but as I flipped over the edge of the bloat and plunged below the surface, it all came flooding back to me – unfortunately, like the sea water into my mask. But other than that, it was like riding a bike – some things you just never forget.
The first dive reached a depth of about sixteen metres. The visibility wasn’t the greatest, which meant the distance you could see through the water was limited, but it wasn’t awful, and we were still able to see all the marine life that was just teeming in the water around us. Schools of fish that looked like walls in front of us parted as we swam in their direction, and our guide pointed out some other less obvious creatures, such as sea horses clinging to the coral, or small stingrays that would gently hover above the surface, and then take off once we got too close. It really was like another world down there on the ocean floor, and I realised just how much I loved and missed SCUBA diving, as I marvelled at the marine alien world. I made a promise to myself at that very moment that I would make more time for diving in my life, and later went on to scope potential diving destinations on the rest of my year long world tour.
After the first dive, we had a break in which I was able to do some snorkelling. This far out to sea, the water was clear and cool, and an absolute dream to swim through. The boat was anchored to a small limestone island jutting out from the sea, and as I swam around the perimeter I discovered a cuttlefish nestling in the safety of the rocks. The second dive was going to be in a cave – something I was a little nervous about, knowing some of the potential dangers. Armed with flashlights, we descending a second time, not just into the deep blue sea, but through the mouth of a cave below the limestone island, and into a black abyss. I experienced a strange sense of vertigo in the darkness of the cave. The ground can be rushing up to meet you one moment, and the next you’re bumping your head on the roof. It found it difficult to maintain a stable neutral buoyancy at the best of times, so trying to do so with no real idea of where I was proved a little stressful. I made a point of not losing sight of our guide though, not only because I knew he wouldn’t be lost, but also because he was pointing out some of the marine life with his torch. We saw a couple of nurse sharks, a few more stingrays and seahorses, plenty more fish, and a strange creature that looked like an octopus but had far too many legs, so I can only assume it was either a type of cave dwelling squid or jellyfish.
As I followed our guide in what appeared to be in upward direction, we moved through a small grotto before coming to a halt. When he shone his light at the walls around us, I saw about 5 or 6 lobsters at several points, all curiously climbing out of their hiding holes to get a better look at us. It was odd to see a lobster in the wild – the closest I’d ever really come was seeing them was in tanks at Chinese restaurants. We continued up through the grotto when, to my surprise, I broke the surface of the water. I pulled off my mask to look around to discover we’d found ourselves in a little pocket of air inside the cave, completely closed off from the outside world – the only way in was the way we’d come, through the sea. Sunlight was coming through from somewhere below, so the caves entrance wasn’t too far off, and the water lapped the edges of the rocks so that the cavern echoed around us. The light and the sounds and the serenity of the whole place made it strangely beautiful, despite being quite visually uninteresting. I’d been unable to bring my camera and so couldn’t photograph the cavern, but similar to the temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, being unable to take a photo made the experience feel that much more special – a little personal memory that was mine to keep and treasure.
(NB: I did take a few photos with my underwater camera while I was snorkelling, but until I have access to a computer with an SD card reader I’ll be unable to upload them.)
After we made our way back to the boat and then back to the shore, clouds began rolling in over the ocean and eventually a downpour of rain was released upon Krabi Town. The driver who took me back to my hostel said it was a good thing, and that it hadn’t rained there in about a month. I spent the rest of the evening with Jens, Sam, and a couple of other British guys, who introduced me to some of the local beers, the most notable being Chang. I’m not usually a big beer drinker. Maybe it’s because it was just cheaper and easier, or maybe it was the peer pressure of hanging out with four straight guys – I guess we’ll never know – but the local beer was much easier for me to stomach than any of the brews I’d tried back home in Sydney. Chang was supposed to be particularly potent though – and the next morning, after about 5 or 6 drinks and a round of beer pong, I can vouch for that supposition.
Getting out of bed with one of my highest ranking hangovers ever – dubbed a “Changover” by the boys – and getting out of the hostel by 11am check out time was not an easy task. The rest of my day was spent navigating various modes of transport in an attempt to get back to Bangkok. It took just as long as it did to get there, although since the overnight trains were all booked out due to the upcoming Songkran holiday, I had to catch a bus for the 12 hour stint of the journey. Overland travel can be long and tedious like that, but I eventually made it home to Bangkok in one very tired and worn out piece.
My trip to Krabi marked an important step for me on my gap year world tour. It was the first time I’d really gone out on my own for more than just a day. Finding a place to stay that wasn’t a friends house, organising and booking transport merely hours before it actually leaves for the destination, and making friends with the fellow travellers around me were all things that I’d been very keen to do since I’d set out on my journey. I was only heading back to Bangkok to celebrate Songkran and gather my things before heading off to Vietnam, an entire country where I truly don’t know anyone. I’d had a blast in my short time at Krabi, so now I was more excited than ever to travel to more new places and really live the life of a world wanderer.