A Vacation within a Vacation: Southern Thailand Beyond Phuket

James Bond Island.
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On the street in Krabi Town.

After the sensory assault of Bangkok, it is time for some relaxation, dramatically immersive beach jungles, and some fresh seafood. We take our travels to Krabi, and to the totally secluded Railay Beach in particular. The airport is almost entirely open-air and probably has less than five gates. We haggle with an independent cabbie because we think the tourism companies charge too much for a ride into Krabi Town. He gives us a good price, dropping us off at a dock where we can take a canoe to Railay, where there’s nothing but a few small relaxed resorts with locals cooking food and selling souvenirs to tourists. Immediately the scenery from the boat is breathtaking. The wind blows through our hair as we gaze at the mesmerizing limestone rocks and crystal clear ocean; a moment I wish I could freeze in time. Our resort is accompanied by a beautiful beach with ominous, almost medieval karst rock, which are a deep gorgeous green that looms over the turquoise water.

The boat taking us to Railay.

Immediately when you cross the peninsula and get to the sand, you are awed by how beautifully hidden it is. After check-in at our hotel, we are ready for some lunch on the beach. Unfortunately our food options are limited to the restaurants run by the hotels since it’s off-season, but we are determined to find a decent meal. We figure that, though this beach hosts solely tourists, the entirely local staff will be able to cook us up something delicious.

Lunch of fried fish, pineapple shrimp fried rice, and plenty of Leos.

Krabi is a province with a sizable Muslim population in a predominantly Buddhist country. All the women wear a hijab. Everyone is incredibly nice and respectful. We ask the jovial waitress to fry us up a red snapper with tons of chilies and garlic.

“Make it how you like it,” we tell her. Accompanied with shrimp fried rice served in a carved-out pineapple, the meal is magical.

Here eating this delicious food, catching a buzz from a couple Leos, and enjoying the intoxicating, captivating beach scenery, nothing could be better. With not much around, we read on the sand, swim in the ocean, and clean off in the hotel pool after renting a kayak. The waters rage, and despite our valiant efforts, we are confined to the shore for some light paddling that proves to be as lovely as it is laborious and hilarious. We have a dinner of pad kee mao noodles, a stir fry with more fresh fish and shrimp, and a few strong cocktails. With a full day tomorrow exploring the enthralling region of Ao Phang, we languidly watch a gorgeous sunset, feel the ebb and flow of the ocean breeze during a massage, and enjoy pure, leisurely pleasure.

Railay Beach.

Though it was difficult to take the plunge, we choose to go on a tour to Ao Phang Nga National Park and the surrounding areas. The park was on our must-do list, but we decide to take the tour when we realize how difficult it would be to visit all of the sites we want to hit in one day. So, for the first time ever we reserve two last minute spots we barely are able to get for what proves to be a long, exciting, and awesome day. We wake up before dawn and get shuffled from the meeting spot to a canoe to the bus where our fellow travelers are waiting. There are three young American girls, a German family of four, and an middle-aged British couple. They’re all good people, but the family is a little uptight for my taste.


On the water near Railay.

First we’re headed to longboat to take us to the National Park and an island where a famous scene in The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. They call it James Bond Island. It has a real name, but no one uses it. From the islet you get a great view of the famous monolithic rock spear, violently elongated through the sea. After we take a canoe under a cavernous, damp karst rock and through the trees and plants that thrive under the water, which have grown out of the sea. Under the rock, there are sharp edges reminiscent of ice picks. The temperature drops drastically, it is utterly surreal, worthy of another world.

Ao Phang Nga National Park.

The rest of the park is beautifully foreign. Karst mountains of limestone jut out of the Andaman Sea and reach into the gloomy sky. The weather is moody, a grim yet perfect illustration for our outdoor activities; bright and sunny one moment, and dreary the next. The ocean expands into eternity with miniature islands peppered throughout the vast expanse. In the middle of all this is a floating village. Here the people’s Thai ethnicity blends with neighboring Burmese who share a sliver of border near here, becoming a wholly unique Muslim culture built upon the sea. Flourishing from tourism, the village is largely one charming market, food stalls, a restaurant, and even a school for the children. Young girls are pressuring tourists to buy a bracelet, a soda, or a postcard. There is a large mural of the opulent king that acts the backdrop to the schoolyard. It is striking that even here, in one of the more cripplingly poor and remote places we’ve been to in Thailand, the king is clearly loved despite his affluence.

To think that the impoverished people of the village are mourning the recent loss of their monarch while depending on visitors to survive is troubling. Though he was said to be a man of philanthropic work, Thailand is still poor, and is still controlled by an aggressive military junta that silences opposition. The children that live and go to school on the floating village did not choose to be born here.

Girls walk to and fro on the village schoolyard selling things to tourists

We have a lunch at the village and are served fried chicken, fried fish, curry, rice, and vegetables for our meal. A lavish display for an insolvent people. Children walk to and fro on the veranda of their school, doing their best to sell their item to tourists. The boys, however, get to laugh, play, and ride bikes while the girls bargain and plead. We decide not to buy anything from the village, except for our lunch which was already prepaid. Though tourism gives these people their only source of income, it has made them entirely dependent on it to survive. While a passing tour may provide immediate relief, it is unclear who makes the large variety of goods and food for sale.

The Queen, King, and Prince respectively.

The village is tiny. If the people manage to make all these things, then everybody, including children, must be on a rough schedule. We simply don’t know what goes on when we leave here. We take our boat back to the van and are told to feel free to purchase beer from the lady that sells it at the dock. “Beah, beah, beah,” she says. She must know we’re coming from the floating village where alcohol is prohibited under religious law.

A shrine made from the bones of an entire family.

The car drinks beer on the way to what the Thais aptly call the Monkey Cave Temple. The destination is exactly what it sounds like. A deep grotto surrounded by monkeys, which are fed bananas and nuts by visitors, shelters sculptures of the gold reclining Buddha as well as other spiritual figures, and a symbol of allegory made from the bones of an entire family. Thais and tourists alike get blessed by a monk’s holy water after donating to a small box . I want to take part in the spiritual and cultural practice, but I am apprehensive to buy any good karma or eternal bliss.

Even one of the site’s characteristics would attract tourists, but collectively this a truly special place. On our way out, rightly or wrongly,  we feed the monkeys who are eager to feast. Sometimes shy, one of them mischievously takes advantage of Thyme’s trust and cleverly maneuvers her arm to grab the whole bag of goodies, running up the limestone on the outside of the cave.

Shortly before the monkey stole Thyme’s bag of food.

On our way back we stop at a river waterfall for swimming, drinks, and snacks. It is a relaxing end to a busy day. For a moment we can enjoy the serenity of the flowing water, ponder our experiences, and become closer with our fellow travelers.

We return from Ao Phang to Railay for another dinner on the beach. I fell in love with Thai noodle soup years ago, and with a Chang on this chilly beach night, it hits the spot once again. Tomorrow we leave Krabi, and though we wish we had more time in this gorgeous region, we feel accomplished in all that we’ve seen over the last few days. Next, we’re off to the food culture and ancient temples of Chiang Mai.

Gorgeous sunset on Railay Beach.

4 thoughts on “A Vacation within a Vacation: Southern Thailand Beyond Phuket

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