Our last big national and school vacation was Spring Break and Tomb Cleaning holiday. We were headed to Thailand a destination from Beijing that is only a four hour flight. Attempting to plan a holiday to Thailand is like trying to decide what food to try first at an all you can eat buffet. There seem to be an endless array of islands and travel destinations. We knew for sure we’d be going through Bangkok to visit Stan and his family who had since settled there from Hanoi.
We are more of Lonely Planet travelers than Frommers. We prefer the north shore of Kuai to Maui and will take backpacking over car camping. One major destination where everyone else goes that I wanted to avoid was Phuket; everything I’d read made it sound like an over built resort town and the reports of the west shore didn’t even recommend swimming. Not my cup of tea if there are plenty of other options. Stan suggested we look into Railay Beach in Krabi province, south of Bangkok and east across the bay from Phuket. Railay Beach is a small peninsula with no roads and no cars that is cut off from the mainland by large limestone cliffs that are reminiscent of the geography in Guilin. The only way to reach Railay is by long boat from small seaside town of Ao Nang. It sounded perfect.
We planned on spending two nights in Bangkok and then 5 days in Railay. Our flights landed late Friday night at Bangkok and we caught a taxi at the taxi stands into Bangkok. We stayed at the Grande Centre Point Ratchadmri Hotel, the hotel was nice, new and the room was comfortable. After room service we immediately went to sleep. The next day we set off to see the Grand Palace. We walked down the street to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit to catch a train west towards the Chao Phraya river which snakes through the middle of Bangkok. The first thing we noticed was how hot it was, we were quickly sweating in the hot humid temperatures coming from dry cool Beijing spring. The MRT was air-conditioned and was a quick ride and a very short walk to the river. Here we bought a round trip ticket on one of the many river ferries that hold several hundred people and travel north on the river past the Grand Palace before turning around and making the return trip. The hot air felt a bit better with a breeze from the river as we watched the long boats zoom by. We exited at the Grand Palace stop and made our way through the crowded markets next to the river. We stopped at a shop to buy pants for Miles and I, since there are strict requirements about entering temples and palaces : men are not allowed to wear shorts and women must not wear short skirts and sleeveless tops.
I wish I could tell you how amazing it was to see the Palace, the place of residence of the King of Siam and Thailand since 1872 but just as we approached the gate we were informed that the palace was closed for a practice parade for an up coming ceremony. Sadly we turned away as a parade of soldiers dressed in a colorful array of finery marched by with big top hats and a marching band. After watching the parade disappear down the street Stac was in need of finding a restroom. Finding a bathroom in the buildings outside the Grand Palace is like trying to find a public restroom on the grounds outside the Whitehouse. There just isn’t any such place, and the streets and rows of official buildings seems to go on and on. As we walked first this way and then that, it kept getting hotter and hotter. The sun was beating down, the kids were complaining about needing water and things were growing more desperate. Finally Stac found an official military building that would let her use the bathroom and while we waited the kids threw themselves down on the grass under a tree in the shade to rest; Miles even took off his shirt he was so hot.
Slightly recuperated we decided we’d try to salvage the outing by walking to the very close temple of Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha. The temple seems pretty cool, but we actually didn’t do that much exploring due to the heat. I was slightly disappointed by the buddha because not only was it smaller than the reclining buddha in Yangon but it was also in a much smaller building with less space between the buddha and the exterior wall so it felt more crowded and didn’t give you a chance to really stand back and appreciate the statue. Afterwards everyone was over heated and down and we started our reverse journey of taking the river ferry and then a taxi back to our hotel.
That evening we met Stan at Taling Pling on Pan Road for dinner. Nga stayed home with their daughter Anise who wasn’t feeling well. We ate some delicious Thai food and chatted about old times. The next day we had a morning in Bangkok before heading out to the airport to fly to Krabi. I had grand plans of waking up early and seeing some of the floating markets but my alarm was set for 7pm and I woke late, so we slept in and packed and headed to the airport early. The flight to Krabi was a short hour and fifteen minutes. At the airport we caught a taxi to the city of Ao Nang which took around 45 minutes or so. The cab dropped us off at the end of road at the waterfront where we bought four tickets for a long boat and immediately walked onto the beach and climbed into the long boat with four other people headed for Railay.
Railay is a peninsula that has 4 main areas (map). The first beach closest to Ao Nang, and the furthest west is Tonsai beach, it’s reputed that the beach is not that great, but there is lots of rock climbing. Further east around a set of rocks lies Railay West on the west side of the peninsula. There is a narrow strip of jungle between the other side of the peninsula which is known as Railay East. Railay West has a gorgeous beach flanked by tall cliffs and headlands and a set of hotels and restaurants that sit back off the beach on narrow fronts of beach, that then go back quite a ways into the jungle. Railay East has more hotels and bars but there is no beach only mud and a mangrove swamp. To the south or tail end of the peninsula is the smaller and even more dramatic Phra Nang beach. This is one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand with gorgeous white sand, large trees, dramatic cliffs on either end and two small sea stack islands just off the beach. There is only one hotel at Phra Nang, Rayavadee, and it is very very pricey but sits tastefully back from the beach and you hardly notice its there.
We raced in our long boat over the blue water across the blue water, with big white clouds, blue sky, along dramatic cliff lines with white sandy beaches. We first stopped at Tonsai beach to drop off four of our passengers. Not really sure where we were (it’s not like there are signs announcing the beach names), we asked our boatsman if this was Railay West, he told us to wait. A few minutes down the beach we pulled up to a long beach that had several dozen long boats pulled up on the beach. We climbed out and grabbed our bags. There is no dock, so your climbing over the side of the boat and walking in the shallow water to the beach. We could see wheel tracks of other folks who’d brought traditional luggage, we slung our packs on our backs and walked up the beach away from the water. The hotels along the beach are set on narrow fronts of land off the beach under a canopy of trees. There are no large signs that blazingly display the resorts names, and the address meant nothing as there are no roads only sand. We walked up to one set of buildings and then another looking for our hotel : Railay Village Resort. Finding it we entered and retrieved our keys. The weather in Railay wasn’t quite as hot as Bangkok, but I was still impressed by the covered dress of our Muslim host as she filled out our paperwork.
Railay Village Resort has two pools, one near the front desk across from the restaurant. There are two style of rooms, a set of single level cabanas that are set along a walkway of jungle shrubs, trees and flowers. Further back is another long pool that is flanked by a long set of two story rooms. Our room had a large king bed and a couch where Sofi slept, we had an additional cot brought in for Miles. There was a large jetted tub and the kids quickly jumped in their swimming suits and filled it with bubbles and made a mountain of suds. Most everything we’d read online reported that Railay Village food wasn’t that great so we went next door for dinner and relaxed while watching the sunset.
The next morning I woke early and headed out in the dark in search of the trail that would take me up to the top of several of the karst cliffs that overlooked Railay West and East. I walked east across the narrow strip of land to Railay East and then south along the sidewalk above the mangroves and mud to where the “beach” ended and the headlands began. I found a mud trail with ropes that would be slick when wet and began climbing up. I reached the makes look out but this was only about halfway to the top of the karst and I kept on up a faint trail that climbed up through the limestone cliffs and small trees. Finally reaching the top I made my way through bamboo and thick brush towards the highest point. There is no defined top, only the tallest piece of limestone you can stand on top of. The limestone is a light gray color and has been carved and worn by rain into sharp spikes, a slip while not deadly would be very painful. A low marine haze prevented much of sunrise but The next morning I woke early and headed out in the dark in search of the trail that would take me up to the top of several of the karst cliffs that overlooked Railay West and East. I walked east across the narrow strip of land to Railay East and then south along the sidewalk above the mangroves and mud to where the “beach” ended and the headlands began. I found a mud trail with ropes that would be slick when wet and began climbing up. I reached the makes look out but this was only about halfway to the top of the karst and I kept on up a faint trail that climbed up through the limestone cliffs and small trees. Finally reaching the top I made my way through bamboo and thick brush towards the highest point. There is no defined top, only the tallest piece of limestone you can stand on top of. The limestone is a light gray color and has been carved and worn by rain into sharp spikes, a slip while not deadly would be very painful. A low marine haze prevented much of sunrise but I watched the sun crest over the clouds and waited until it lit up the cliffs at Railay West, after taking a few photos I descended and went back to have breakfast with the family.
The rest of the day we hung out by the pool and then later that afternoon Sofi and I went rock climbing with an outfit back over on Railay East. We walked back to the cliffs where I’d been hiking the morning before. There was over a dozen fixed routes along the cliffs and the place was PACKED, wall to wall climbers, a bit of a zoo. Sofi climbed first and was her usual strong self, she’s getting better at climbing with her legs versus arms, I followed on a short route. After seeing her climb the guide put her on a route that was at least 60 feet high. Sofi had to wait for a couple of others to descend before climbing up, she got a bit tired near the top but made it all the way. The guide and several other rope crews were visibly impressed. The guides encouraged me to try the same route since we already had the rope, reluctantly I tied in and set off. I was able to make my way three quarter of the way before my arms were pumped and while attempted to push off on my right leg I extended my knee way inside and I felt something pop. I immediately descended and my right knee has been tender for the past 6 weeks. (I am seeing a physical therapist and biking instead of running and it’s slowly getting better).
That evening we had a great dinner of grilled fish and we watched a dramatic sunset as dark clouds gathered on the horizon and lightning lit up the sky in flashes of light that turned the clouds a dark purple. The color seemed to go on forever and forever. That evening I arranged with our hotels front desk to reserve a kayak for an early morning departure. The next morning I didn’t make it down to the desk until 5 and by then the dramatic sunrise morning sky was already started. By the time I paddled to the middle of the bay the show was almost over but I paddled on heading south and east around the point of the peninsula and past Phra Nang Beach and around the other side to the point of Railay East’s most furthest reaches. The ocean waters of this long bay are mostly protected from large waves and the paddling was easy. The tall cliffs rose over head with their orange hued limestone contrasting with the green foliage that hung miraculously to the vertical faces. On my return I paddled out around sea stacks and watched the large sea birds circle. Just past Phra Nang beach heading back to Railay West there were several sea caves and narrow places that I could paddle through, which added to the sense of adventure. The rest of the day was spent with Stac and the kids hanging out at the pool, jumping and playing in the water. We ate dinner at the market street which served burgers and had a great Pranang Curry. That evening I walked up the street and shops and stopped in at Phra Nang Divers. The owner had been in Thailand for 20 years and seemed beaten down by the experience, he was now only booking trips through dive shops out of Ao Nang. I booked a trip for me to go diving and the family to go snorkeling.
The next day Stac had a head cold, probably too much AC, and Miles didn’t want to go so Sofi and I set out for the boat trip.. We met a long boat at Railay West at 7:30 with another father and his grown son for the short boat ride to Ao Nang where we transferred to the much larger dive boat. We hung out while a couple of other groups and a pile of gear and air tanks were off loaded. We set out for the 90 minute ride out through the small islands, past PhiPhi Island (where The Beach was filmed) to the small island of Bida Nok and Bida Nai. There was another girl, Jeni, who’s boyfriend was diving and she was snorkeling, she agreed to be Sofi’s snorkel buddy while I went diving. We did two dives, the prettiest was the last at Bida Nok just off the backside of the island in crystal clear water. I loved the sensation of floating free under the water and even though I only seem to get around to diving once a year my air use was good I seem to be over the hump of remembering how to maintain a sense of calm and breath control. We laid out in the sun on the long ride back, eating watermelon and pineapple and chatting with our fellow divers. Our boat had a diving photographer along who makes his living by selling digital copies of photos he took of the dives. He had a sweet fish eye set up with an Olympus and two strobes and his photos turned out great.
That evening we decided to rent kayaks as a family and paddle out past the point to Phra Nang beach and watch the sunset. Stac paddled with Sofi and Miles paddled with me. The only problem was that by the time we set out the wind was kicking up some waves and it looked like some rain on the horizon. We managed to stay close to the shore and make it around the point to the beach when the rain started coming down. We pulled our kayaks up on the beach and played in the surf and crawled around under the rocks to stay out of the rain. There wasn’t going to be much of a sunset and we wanted to get back before it go too dark. After helping Stac into the kayak, her and Miles paddled five feet off shore and capsized. They picked themselves up and I helped them back in and we set out paddling back. Miles and I ducked in and out of the caves in the rain as we made our way back to Railay West. We hadn’t seen the sunset but we’d had fun.
Our final day in Railay I arose early again with hopes to see the sunrise from Railay East. I walked to the “left” along the beach to the north east out among the mangrove trees to where there was actually a beach again. The sunrise was non existent but it was a nice walk about. The rest of the day we hung out at pool. In the afternoon we walked through the Diamond Cave and walked up the hill to “The Rock” restaurant were we enjoyed some fresh fruit juice and nice views of the water looking east. That night we packed up our bags and prepared for one last adventure in Krabi before flying back to Bangkok. We arose early and our hotel helped carry our luggage over to Railay West were we caught a Long Boat east to Krisda Village were we met a van and set off for a 30 minute drive to Sumate Loh Lanta Yai Safari to ride elephants. We climbed up to a small platform where Miles and Stac climbed into a seat strapped to the elephant, their Mahot rode in front of them on the elephants heard. Sofi and I rode in the elephant behind them. Our elephants walked up a steep jungle trail through a set of rubber trees. Elephants are truly amazing, they are the original four wheel drive vehicles, climbing the rocky trail with stability and ease. At times it felt like you would fall off or out as the elephant walked up over a rock, but we stayed put. We then walked down to the river where the elephants rested in the water and got a drink before heading back to the platform where we dismounted.
We paid a small fee to buy several bunches of elephants and the kids fed the elephants their treats. We also walked over to see a small baby elephant before loading up in the van and heading back to Ao Nang. We had a few hours to kill before our flight out of Krabi so we hung out in the air conditioned Starbucks and surfed the internet. Our flight back to Bangkok was uneventful and we checked in at the Twin Towers Hotel, which sadly was a run down place, a couple of gaudy steps above a motel six. A thin facade of presentability over thread bare carpets and faux marble fixtures. That evening Sofi and I went out to dinner and a movie. We grabbed a Tuk Tuk outside our hotel, a motorcycle converted into a cab with lots of bright shiny lights and we headed for the Paragon Mall. Malls are not usually my thing, but everyone said the food court in this place was not to be missed. And I was impressed. Paragon Mall made it clear that Bangkok’s got it going on, their middle class capitalism was in full flourishment, it made Beijing seem a bit hollow in comparison. We walked past place after amazing eateries until we finally settled on Thai food. Afterwords we headed up to the top floor which was an amazing movie theater. Thailand movie theaters make any other theater you’ve seen look like dump. They had plush theaters, that had three different tiers of seating, the most expensive being a big soft comfy couch for two. There were six different kinds of popcorn and a special coke zero lounge. Pretty amazing. We bought tickets to see Hunger Games and even though I didn’t like it we had a good time.
The next day we packed up and went to the airport. As we checked in at the counter the attendant called over a supervisor. Never a good sign. More time went by and lots of furious typing on the terminal. Come to find out the flight was oversold, we had no seats. They booked us first class on Thai Airlines from Bangkok to GuangZhou and then from GuangZhou to Beijing. This would add a couple of hours extra travel time but first class was nice. The rows had two seats per aisle and so Stac and I sat together and Miles and Sofi sat together. Each time the attendants brought them a new drink or a menu or food or blankets they made surprised exclamations of delight. It may never happen again, but for the few hours things were really nice. In the GuangZhou airport we landed in one terminal and we rode in mega-golf cart along a big long connecting hallway that felt like something out of a Sci Fi movie. As we walked down the terminal to our gate I was struck by all the clothing stores, they were brands that made an attempt to sound western and foreign but where just “off” and not quite right. (A topic for a future blog post). A flight to Beijing and we back home from another successful venture in the great Asia area.