THAILAND PART 2: THE SOUTH & THE ISLANDS

Like the first time, we were yet again ready to come back to Thailand after our South East Asian loop led us back in January (our route for the months of December and January circled from Thailand to Laos to Vietnam to Cambodia back to Thailand). Following our bed bug-ridden stay on the Cambodian islands with over-priced food (Cambodia is one of the only countries in the world that widely uses two currencies – besides its own Cambodian riel, they use American dollars whereby one dollar equals about four thousand riels, which means that stuff that would have previously cost a couple of thousands of riels is now rounded up to a full dollar price making everything fairly expensive compared to neighbouring countries), we were excited for the comfortable and affordable experience Thailand is able to offer and, of course, the food that I still think to be the best in the region.

KOH CHANG

One of the most northern islands of Thailand, Koh Chang is conveniently located around half a day’s travel away from Bangkok and a couple of hour’s drive from Cambodian border making it an attractive destination for those with not enough time to travel further south or looping around South East Asian countries like we did. It is also one of the largest islands in the Gulf of Thailand and is a part of the Mu Koh Chang National Park which means you can find a bit of everything in one place – from hiking trails and jungle waterfalls, to off-shore corals and island hopping. If you are in Bangkok and have had enough of the city or just have time around the area in general, I could not recommend this destination more.

If you do not drive a moped (we bypassed it this time as we were a group of five), the main type of transport in Koh Chang are tuk tuks – the same pick up style truck with seating at the back as we first encountered in Chiang Mai. They run up and down the island and you just need to go on the main road and stand for a few minutes until one of them appears from around the corner. The journeys are not long here – we were almost at the bottom of the island and it would take us 45 minutes to get to the north tip where the ferries operate from. The only thing to keep in mind is that they are not the cheapest – they have fixed costs for the routes in between the beaches / villages and they are usually a double of what you would pay on the mainland, given the lack of public transport alternatives.

The perfect size of Koh Chang offers a place for any taste of traveller! In the north lies the private villas and this is where most luxurious resorts are located however you might not find as many street restaurants and bars. Going further down on the west coast, it becomes more populated as you reach Kai Bae beach where most shopping can be done however it also has a lovely strip of white sand making it a great destination for families. Lonely Beach further south is the backpacker party destination however it can get a bit loud and mainstream with bars competing to attract the most tourists – somehow they think the louder their music is, the better chance of a bigger crowd! Having said that, the beach side restaurants and bars at Lonely beach are perfect for a sunset drink and offer a much more sophisticated vibe from the high street.

Carrying on further south, the island gets a bit more local however one of the hotspots there is the Bang Bao village, built on piers entirely. You can walk through ‘streets’ and paths built on water which branch out to local homes, hotels and restaurants making it quite an elaborate network on stilts!

We stayed in Bailan Bay, a 5 minute drive from Lonely beach – it is a small village with around 10 main restaurants and bars, and a couple of shops. It is perfect if you want some peace and quiet, and also are keen to explore different parts of the island rather than stay in one place. We treated ourselves to a small lovely resort with a pool which made the lazy days much more enjoyable in what is the driest month of the year for the region! The beaches around the area are slightly rocky but great for snorkelling however you can find a small strip of sand on the south end of the village by the Marriot hotel.

There are a few restaurants that we particularly enjoyed whilst staying in Bailan Bay. Happy Turtle is perhaps the best spot on the main road offering great quality local food and Thai cooking classes, even though we found them quite expensive compared to others we had done (their offer cost £25 per person for a couple of hours with extra charges for recipes, compared to the £10 cooking class we did in Sri Lanka which included hands-on experience and recipes or the £20 private class in Vietnam). Lisca Pizza are a small pizza bar just off the main road however they also gave a beach side restaurant (Lisca Beach) on the south end of the village which is more upmarket – even though the menu is quite pricey, the food quality is very high and they offer authentic Italian pizzas as well as a great cocktail range. Finally, one of our favourite spots was right on the pier close to our resort – a local restaurant part of a guesthouse (Koh Chang 7 Guest House) with few rustic tables lined up by the water where you can enjoy sand between your toes whilst watching a sunset and eating great local food at a very affordable price.

There is so much to do in Koh Chang (too much!) that it might be easy to forget to just relax and enjoy being on one of the best islands the country has to offer. There are adventure parks, guided hikes and jungle walks, as well as the endless boat tours to snorkel and visit the neighbouring islands… You can spend each day doing something different and spending a lot of money for it.

As we had some friends visiting us for a week, we wanted a relaxed experience and so spent most of the time exploring the beaches of the island and walking around the different villages along the coast. Kai Bae beach has got to be one of our favourite spots – sandy shores and the calm sea, tall beautiful trees providing some shade along the sides of it make a perfect spot for a sunset with an iced coffee.

Wanting to explore the quieter side of the national park, we also spent a day on the tiny Koh Wai island which is about a 30-minute boat ride away from southern Koh Chang. If I thought that Koh Chang resembled a tropical paradise, I was in for a surprise – the small public beach dotted with tall palm trees leads into the crystal-water sea offering the best snorkelling experience with its coral base and the plentiful of tropical fish swimming around you. There are a couple of floating piers out in the sea which were perfect for sunbathing and jumping off into the blue sea to cool off.

Restrained by the lack of time (and motivation I have to admit!) to go on a full-day hike through the jungles of Koh Chang, we got a taste of it following a 30-minute trail to the Khlong Phlu waterfall. The most popular of all on the island, the waterfall offers an impressive sight of a narrow but powerful stream in between two tall rocks. It has also formed deep pools of water at the base perfect for swimming.

We loved the cool dip after a hot day’s trek through the jungle however were not expecting the large groups of cold water fish swimming with you – whilst in the water, you cannot stay still but have to keep moving constantly otherwise they nip at your thighs and arms!

Overall, the week in Koh Chang was a perfect ‘holiday on a holiday’ spent relaxing with friends. Whether you are one for adventures, looking for a family getaway or a backpacker keen to party, Koh Chang is a perfect destination that has it all.

KRABI TOWN

On the way to many popular islands in the south of Thailand, Krabi town is where all the transport hubs are located and it also has one of the bigger airports for the region. However due to other popular destinations situated close by, Krabi is often overlooked by travellers and only observed in passing from airport to ferry pier or vice versa. I am pleased we had a couple of days to spare which we spent there.

Krabi is not a small town however the vibe is very relaxed and local as even if travellers do decide to spend more time on the mainland, many choose the Ao Nang village located a 20-minute drive from town. With a long strip of sandy beach, it may look like a more attractive destination than Krabi which surprisingly has no access to a beach. However it had been a backpacker party destination for a while and now has a very commercial vibe – the long streets by the beach are dotted with mainstream resorts and noisy bars offering happy hour.

On the other hand, Krabi’s small winding streets are lined with cosy cafes and local restaurants. Stepping off the main streets, I wandered through the town and observed what felt a very hip local area.

The main town attraction is the Wat Kaew temple atop a hill making it look grander from the bottom of the bustling streets, but even from up close the building is impressive and offers a lovely view.

Similar to Chiang Mai (and I’m sure many other Thai towns), Krabi has a few daily and weekly night markets and our local was just around the corner from the Old Town by the boat pier. From late afternoon onwards, many stalls with local foods line up the square and start preparing their delicious foods which are thoroughly enjoyed by local residents and travellers alike. This is where I came across an old lady offering home-made coconut ice cream and it must be the best of the kind I ever tried!

Every Thursday, the cultural market is a more official affair whereby one of the main streets of the Old Town are closed and taken up by vendors and a stage in the centre. Offering even a larger variety of local delicacies and produce, it is a perfect way to grab a cheap dinner making your way through the many stalls and trying out different foods. This is mainly a local event compared to other night markets we had visited creating a more authentic feel to it. Furthermore, the centre stage is showcasing the best of the local arts with an instrumental band playing in the background and later taken up by the Krabi school performances of music, dance and Muay Thai!

However the main Krabi attraction is undoubtedly the Tiger Temple, located a 45-minute drive away from the city. The temple itself is no different from many others we had seen, however it is located on a massive rock and can only be reached by climbing 1260 stairs through its overgrown cliff sides!

The view that opens up from the top is breath-taking – tall cone-shaped rock mountains, green valleys, Krabi town and the Krabi river running through it to open up into the Andaman sea… Most come up to enjoy the sunset here but I cannot imagine making the way down in the dark!

TONSAI AND RAILAY

A short boat ride away from the neighbouring Ao Nang, Railay and Tonsai beaches offer a spectacular setting – still part of the mainland however blocked out by high limestone cliffs, this area can only be accessed via water and does not have any motorised vehicles. The vibe is therefore very laid back, especially at Tonsai beach which over the recent years has developed to be a preferred backpackers’ and rock climbers’ choice due to the expensive accommodation options across at Railay. Tonsai contains one street looping out from one side of the beach to the other dotted with a couple of resorts however mainly simple guesthouses and hostels. Having said that, even the cheapest option here is pricier than most on the mainland. We stayed in Chill Out Bar & Bungalows and whilst it is a lovely complex with its own bar and restaurant, be prepared for a full jungle experience with gaps in the walls & ceilings and jungle noises throughout the night (we had a ‘resident’ underneath our hut that came out to play each night to ensure we weren’t sleeping too well!)…

The Tonsai beach itself is a lovely framed area of white sand with a few Rasta bars along the shore offering coconuts or Chang beer – up to your needs!

The main issue, however, is that it is very shallow and when the low tide hits the beach, the water leaves you with a very rocky shore making it impossible to swim in.

Whilst a little disappointing, the proximity of this whole area is very convenient and you can walk to Railay West beach within 15 minutes. After a little hike over a rocky hill (alternatively, you can tread through water around it when the tide is low), a larger but as beautiful Railay West beach provides a much nicer swimming experience even though it is busier as you have all the travellers from the nearby resorts catching the sun rays with you.

Crossing over the peninsula takes about 20 minutes by foot, and it opens up to the Railay East beach mostly used for fishing boats and ferries due to its eroded shores and a treeline.

However this is where you will go to climb the Railay viewpoint – a very steep climb (ditch the flip flops on this occasion!) holding onto ropes leads to a high vantage point atop the limestone cliff from which you can see all three beaches. One of the most spectacular views of our trip!

Spiderman

Last but not least, the smallest beach of the peninsula Phra Nang is a few more minutes’ walk away from the base of the view point hike. It is also famous for the Princess cave – as you enter the beach, the cave is located in the corner and contains a shrine dedicated to a goddess Phra Nang. Local fishermen and boatmen leave offerings in the cave to ensure the save travel on sea – most interestingly, these ‘gifts’ are mostly phallic-shaped statues meant to represent the Hindu god Shiva.

Unfortunately, due to the size of Phra Nang beach, it can get a little busy but the beauty of the surroundings make it easy to not worry about the crowds too much.

The whole Tonsai and Railay beaches area does not really require more than a few days to explore, unless you are up for some lazy beach days and afternoons spent sipping a cocktail overlooking the sea (and I couldn’t blame you!). We had four days there and even though we spent two of them being very ill (they call it Tonsai belly J), we felt like we had enough time to enjoy the surroundings. One of the popular activities we did not manage to do was canoeing which is popular due to the calm seas and beautiful rocks dotted along the sea shore however here’s the reason to come back!

KOH LANTA

Our final destination in Thailand was Koh Lanta – a large island south of Krabi, which has not yet caught attention of most travellers therefore offering a calmer more relaxing experience. Technically consisting of two islands – the North and South Lanta – it is of similar size to Koh Chang however the northern part mostly contains mangrove and agricultural fields and so the south is where we went.

The west coast of the island is much busier and contains some of the more popular destinations such as Long Beach (or Phra Ae) and Klong Dao, where most tourists would stay. And you cannot blame them – both beaches are more beautiful than each other, and offer a variety of great restaurants and bars lining the shores and the high street.

We stayed in the Klong Khong area which has been referred to as the small area where backpacker community tends to go to, mainly due to a number of Rasta bars on the beach offering pizza and mushroom shakes. Having said that, we found it very chilled and enjoyable, just like the rest of the island.

The tuk tuk service around this island is less frequent than what we noticed in other areas and we hired a scooter every day (£4 per day!) to be able to explore different parts of the island. The roads are perfect, and the flexibility meant that we could see more of Koh Lanta and come across beautiful spots we wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

For instance, one of the gems at the south east tip of the island is the beautiful Bamboo Bay – you notice it first as the view opens up from the road of an extraordinary beach at the bottom of the cliff. The water is incredible and it’s perfect for both snorkelling and swimming – one of the dreamiest spots of our trip without a doubt!

The east coast of the island is much quieter and local, and we observed much more of the Thai way of living whilst driving through there much more than anywhere else in the country. Most locals earn income from the agriculture and produce of rubber, and we could see sheets of it hanging by the houses drying in the sun. Interestingly, we have noticed that each house there has a big metal pot by the street and later realised it is where they burn their rubbish – just like in most other South East Asian countries, waste management is poorly developed and this is the most efficient way for the locals to get rid of it (sadly!).

There are no beaches on this side of the island, however instead spectacular cliff sides line the coast, and there are endless cafes offering a smoothie with a view along the way.

However the main hub of the west is the Old Town of Koh Lanta which used to be the ‘capital’ of the island before tourism developed and most business moved to the ferry town up in the north. With the main street snaking its way by the shore, the Old Town undoubtedly has the more arty feel to it than any other place on the island. Most restaurants lead out into the water and you can dine on stilts overlooking the long pier stretching out to sea.

The few days we spent in Koh Lanta were one of my favourite of the whole time in Thailand (and collectively we did spend over a month there) – perhaps I was ready for a slower pace of travel after the Christmas and New Years’ celebrations, or maybe the laid back vibe and less people allowed us to relax more and really appreciate the island and its beauty. Nonetheless, we left feeling refreshed and ready for the next step of our journey, yet again inspired by the endless beauty of Thailand.

RHYS AND GABS’ THAILAND HIGHLIGHTS

  RHYS GABS
Food Thai Green Curry. Nothing like the English versions Tom Yum seafood – even though it’s common to most of South East Asian countries, Thailand is where I tried it for the first time
Drink Chang Beer. Found all over Thailand. ‘Chang’ translates to ‘Elephant’ in Thai – eading to the locals affectionately referring to it as ‘Elephants’ Piss’ Endless versions of fresh fruit smoothies available on any street corner
People Our lovely hosts in Bangkok – Charles and Siân Our lovely hosts in Bangkok – Charles and Siân
Place Tonsai Beach. I thought places like that wouldn’t exist anymore The dreamy Koh Wai island
Experience Seeing monkeys in the wild for the first time Exploring Koh Lanta by scooter
Culture shock Koh San Road. Bangkok,  baby! Positive cultural observation – Thai people adore kids and really look after them. (They have priority seating on the Bangkok Underground).
Any other In the villages – you see kids as young as 8 riding mopeds. Even though not elaborated much on in the blog, the surviving of the food poisoning we got in Tonsai was one of the best feelings ever!

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