The Seaside and Sightseeing in Beautiful Barcelona

There are many benefits of overnight transit. You kill two birds with one stone by paying for transport plus a night of accommodation in a single cost, and your time sleeping is spent productively whisking you away to your next destination, and you wake up refreshed and ready to venture into a new city. Unless, that is, your luck runs out and you don’t get a bed in the sleeper carriage and are forced to sleep in the ‘reclining seat’ class. It was described as being like business class in a plane, which really meant “You have lots of leg room but the seats are still terribly uncomfortable and actually nothing like business class on a plane”. I had fallen asleep in France and woken up in Spain, but not without the accompanying neck pain and stiff, sore legs that were the result of an inability to find a comfortable sleeping position. I would have been a little more annoyed if it hadn’t been for the fact I’d just arrived in one of my most highly anticipated destinations: Barcelona.

***

When making arrangements for staying in Barcelona, I had discovered that Rich, one of Brendon’s friends who I had met in Thailand, was also on vacation in the city. She was renting out a room through Air BnB, and fortunately there had been a second room in that apartment that I was able to rent out for myself. I’d been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts, and the fact that the price of my own Air BnB room would be less than the four bunk dorm in the hostel in Paris definitely made it a preferable option, so I had booked the room. When I arrived in Barcelona, I dragged myself off the train and through the sunny streets to meet Rich at the apartment. It was around 9:30am and a gorgeous day, with a sky that was a clear and cloudless blue, but the city around me only just seemed to be waking up, with limited traffic and only a few pedestrians. I would quickly learn that Spain generally runs several hours behind the conventional time of most daily events and activities. When I arrived at the apartment, I sent Rich a text message asking which apartment to buzz on the intercom. A few moments later, I heard a shout from above me. I looked up to see Rich hanging out of the window, a big smile on her face and waving down to me. She let me up into the apartment, and she introduced me to the owner of the apartment before sitting down to catch up over a little breakfast. The last time I had seen Rich, she was putting me in the back of a taxi in Bangkok and giving the driver directions in Thai. We’d both come a long way since then, so I told her all about my trip across the Trans-Siberian and Europe so far, and she described some of the beautiful sites she’d seen while she’d been vacationing in Spain. Rich was actually in Barcelona for part of a Spanish language component of her university studies, but she’d arrived early and done some traveling prior to the academic side of her holiday. However, she had been in town long enough to be able to play tour guide for me, so once we were done with breakfast we got ready and headed out to seize the day. Our apartment was right near Arc de Triomf which, having just arrived from Paris, made me do a quick double take. It seems erecting arches on the site of ones victories had been a pretty common tradition at some point in European history. Barcelona’s arch was a fraction of the size of the Parisian one, but it was a still a beautiful piece of architecture among the charming Catalonian neighbourhood. That was one thing I had underestimated before arriving in Barcelona – the desire to distinguish the west coast culture of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. “Argh, it’s so frustrating that I can’t read all the signs!” Rich had bemoaned out loud. I’d been confused at first, knowing that she basically spoke fluent Spanish, but it turns out that most of the signs were in Catalan – a distinction one could probably only make if they actually knew at least one of the two languages. It was at that point that I realised, despite a five week trip to Costa Rica followed by almost a year of language lessons, I really knew next to nothing of the Spanish language.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

Rich and I walked to the metro station and caught a train across town to one of the sights she suggested – the botanical gardens and Montjuïc Castle. In proper European fashion, the town was one architectural delight after the next, from the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, which comes alive with a colourful light show at night, to the beautiful Italian-style building that was Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, or the National Art Museum of Catalonia, to the classical castle itself, which also gave stunning panoramic views of both the city and the harbour and seaside. In our attempt to find the castle, we also got a little lost and somehow stumbled across the Olympic Stadium from when Barcelona hosted the games in 1992, which we were able to have a peek into as well. Afterwards we wandered through the streets on our way back downtown, with Rich pointing out all the features of the cities buildings, and we stopped for a lunch of traditional Spanish cuisine: paella. Despite it being included in every example in every Spanish textbook I’d ever used in my studies, I’d never had the pleasure of eating paella, let alone paella in Spain, so it was a small novelty that made me quite happy.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Montjuïc castle.

Montjuïc castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

From there we walked home through the historic centre of Barcelona, and up the famous main street, La Rambla. “You have to be really careful around here,” Rich cautioned as we strolled past the many shops and stalls that lined the dividing strip of the street. “Street theft is a pretty big problem. They’re not just opportunists – they actually have professional pick pockets.” It wasn’t so much a matter of safety as it was just keeping your wits about you, and your valuables out of your back pockets. While I’d fallen for a couple of irritating scams along the way, I’d been extremely lucky when it came to a matter of forceful theft on this trip, so I found myself being extra cautious so that I didn’t spoil that record, although most people just seemed to be peddling their standard cheap and tacky souvenirs. Eventually we turned off the main road and wandered through the smaller streets, adorned with art work and exquisite sculpturing, and grabbed a delicious gelato before returning home to rest and ready ourselves for the coming night out.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

The delicious paella.

The delicious paella.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

***

The following day, and in fact most of the rest of my time in Barcelona, was spent relaxing and chilling out, rather than seeing any more sights or doing anything particularly touristic. Barcelona was flooded with tourists for the summer, and I didn’t enjoy feeling like a sheep in that collective. Though one of the things I had been most excited for in Barcelona was the beach, so the next day Rich and I took it easy after our night of partying and spent the afternoon soaking up the sun on the sand, and I also ventured out into the waves. The most striking thing about Playa de St Sebastià was that it was “clothing optional”, but unlike many nude beaches I’ve known or visited back in Sydney, which are usually small strips of sand tucked away in the far corners of the city, this beach was one of the main beaches of Barcelona and it was packed. Men, women, children, families, couples, big groups – the sand was full of all kinds of people and a good 50% of them were baring all for the world to see. Topless sunbathing isn’t such a big deal in Australia, but these women had stripped off entirely, as had the men. I have nothing against nudity, but it did feel a little different from previous beaches I’d been to. I think what struck me as so peculiar was how many people, including myself, remained relatively covered up. I’ve always felt as though there’s some weird reverse taboo about actually leaving your swimsuit on at a clothing optional beach, but the term ‘optional’ is taken very literally here – you’re free to chose, and naked and the modest mingle as though there was no difference in their attire at all.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

In addition to being a nude beach, I’d also read that Playa de St Sebastià was a gay beach, though while it was frequently by gaggles of gays showing off their naked bodies, there was an equal amount of small children also running around naked, something one wouldn’t expect at a designated ‘gay beach’. I guess the atmosphere was just so liberal and carefree that it attracted all kinds of people. Rich and I stayed there all afternoon, and when we were done we decided to walk home instead of catching the metro. The streets of Barcelona were the perfect blend of seaside relaxation and a festive, lively flair. In the early evening, when the sun was setting but the streets were bathed in twilight, we went for another walk and saw may people in the parks around Arc de Triomf and saw lots of skateboarders and roller skaters, as well as street performers and other people just enjoying a stroll down the promenade. Compared to my arrival on my first morning in Barcelona, it felt like the city had finally woken up.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Although, while the city had definitely woken up during the day, there’s always a lull in activity when most people observe the beloved Spanish tradition of an afternoon nap, or siesta. They slowly take their time waking up again in the afternoon, but it’s when the sun goes down that the city truly comes alive…

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Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.

Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.

We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

***

We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.

But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.

***

My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.

There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.

There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.

Life’s a Beach

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.

Ao Nang beach

Ao Nang beach

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 quiet streets of Krabi Town at night

The quiet streets of Krabi Town at night

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.

On the boat pulling into East Rai Leh.

On the boat pulling into East Rai Leh.

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.

On the stunning shores of West Rai Leh.

On the stunning shores of West Rai Leh.

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.

The sun turning the sky a beautiful shade of pink on the boat ride home.

The sun turning the sky a beautiful shade of pink on the boat ride home.

***

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.

The island above the cave, and the surrounding blue water.

The island above the cave, and the surrounding blue water.

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.

Changover.

Changover.

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.