Thailand’s Two Coasts
The speed of air travel can lead to some intense contrasts. Midway through February, orderly, wintry Kyoto was replaced with the chaos, noise and oppressive heat of Bangkok. The waves of taxi drivers and touts pressing their services were a bit bewildering after a month with the reserved, unfailingly polite Japanese. From the perfection of thousand year old gardens to soot-stained streets lined with garbage and stray dogs, this was a textbook case of culture shock.
But two familiar faces from back home were there to right our upturned world, and the four of us had a few days to acquaint ourselves with Thailand’s capital city.
A longtail boat ride was a blissful escape from the city streets and a glimpse into the lives of people living on the river. Small homes lined both sides of the riverbanks, and we finally saw the happy Thais we had heard so much about. Swimming children half drowned themselves frantically waving to us, elderly ladies washing their laundry cracked huge grins, men paused their work to wave and smile.
In Bangkok, the old and new are thrown together and melt into one in the tropical heat. Glass skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls rise above streets that seem a few decades behind, caked with grime and the realities of life in a developing nation. Food stands serving fresh fruit and spice are impossible to ignore, and a walk down a soi in Bangkok often turns into lunch. Through weekend markets and an evening on one the city’s many rooftop bars, it was a quick introduction to Southeast Asia, and great to have friends along for the ride.
After several sweltering days, it was time to part ways and trade Bangkok’s cement for the turquoise waters and cool sea breezes of Southern Thailand.
Ko Phi Phi
Ko Phi Phi rises sharply out of the Andaman Sea and is an amazingly beautiful piece of land. Opposing crescents of blond sand beach connect the two mountainous halves of the island.
Though the island is technically in a national marine park, this strip of paradise is packed with resorts, loud bars and young travelers guzzling alcohol out of plastic buckets. But between the hammock on our bungalow’s deck and a free tasting menu each evening, we were content to spend much of our time at Viking Nature Resort, our home for four nights.
With a tip from the staff at Viking, walking just over a hill past the resort-lined shore brought us to the gorgeous and sparsely populated Loh Moo Dee beach.
A six-hour longtail boat ride gave us an expansive tour of Ko Phi Phi and the surrounding islands. We walked on the perfectly white beaches of Bamboo Island, swam and snorkled in small bays set into the undeveloped Phi Phi Leh, and scowled at the irritating crowds at the otherwise picturesque Maya Beach.
Of course we only added to the tourist onslaught, and it is a very hard balance for many places to retain their natural beauty while accommodating everyone who wants to see them. Despite the National Park status, some of the most beautiful parts of the Phi Phi islands struggle to retain the appeal that brought everyone in the first place. It made us appreciate North America’s park systems, which do a fairly good job with this balance, that much more.
An impressively rough road leads to a small cluster of beachside accommodation on the far southern tip of Ko Lanta. Few people made it down this far on the island, and it was refreshing to walk down a long quiet beach, dotted with tiny scuttling crabs rapidly fleeing our footsteps.
We made our way south along the rugged shoreline one morning in a rented and extremely sluggish kayak. It looked remarkably like the California coast, rocky inclines covered in tall golden grass and dark green trees spilling off cliffs into blue waters.
Just one night in Krabi and a day trip to Rai Leh beach meant it was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but well worth it.
Rai Leh beach is famously beautiful— and for good reason. Huge karst cliffs, dotted with rock climbers, rise out of the water on all sides. The prettiest beach we visited, it was also one of the busiest, with people from all over the world soaking up the sun and buying fried noodles from longtail boat vendors.
Midway down the walk to Rai Leh, a trail leads a few hundred feet up to a view of the surrounding cliffs and swaying palm trees. We scrambled up the steep path along with two travelers we met on the boat ride from Krabi, grasping the well-worn ropes and huge undulating tree roots. Apparently not satisfied with the amount of sweat and red mud we were now covered with, the four of us opted to continue down a more challenging path to a freshwater lagoon. Descending ropes into a narrow chasm-like valley filled with massive palms and kapok trees felt like stepping into Jurassic Park. The lagoon itself was encircled with towering walls of limestone karst, though unfortunately muddy and not good for swimming.
Khao Sok National Park protects 738 square kilometers of rainforest tucked between the two coasts. In contrast to developed Ko Phi Phi, it suffers a lack of infrastructure. Without a car, tour packages are the only way to access the beautiful Lake Chelan, and maps and information are marginal at best. It makes it hard to do it yourself, but one of the two trails reaching back into the forest from the National Park center proved to be an excellent consolation prize.
Hike for just a few minutes into the dense jungle, and any manmade noises evaporate. Shrieks of cicadas fill the air, interspersed with the whooping of monkeys and tropical birdcalls. Space and sunlight are at a premium, and everything fights to get a piece. Trees engulf other trees on their way to the sun, and vines as thick as our waists climb high into the air.
Seven kilometers into the forest is Ton Kloi waterfall, the last in a series of falls highlighted on the park’s hand-drawn map. After passing the several other anticlimactic cascades our hopes were not high. So we were utterly delighted when the rough trail ended at a huge waterfall spilling into a deep green pool. Drying off in the sun after a swim, looking up at towering trees and listening to the din of animal life, it was everything we could have wanted from a day in the rainforest.
Like many other tourists who head to Ko Tao, we were there to learn how to scuba dive. We chose Crystal, a large dive operator that sees new students through PADI Open Water Certifications in four days. Though Crystal Dive is popular and starts new courses every day, plenty of passionate instructors keep group sizes small. We thoroughly enjoyed our course, instruction and down time there.
A day learning the equipment in the pool and some instructional videos from the ‘90s prepared us for our first boat dive on day three.
Dropping far beneath the waves was an entirely new experience for both of us, and one we’re eager to continue. Huge schools of gleaming fish swirled as one, colorful angelfish and wrasse darted in and out of the coral, and grouper bigger than us hung in the shadows. Floating weightlessly 30 meters underwater, listening to your own steady breathing and seeing marine life you never knew existed, a half-hour dive feels like a strangely pleasant dream. Though we wish we had pictures, we were too focused on avoiding a lung expansion injury or decompression sickness to bring a camera along on these first few dives.
After two self-indulgent weeks on the beach and another brief stop in Bangkok, we are now in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where we will pass the rest of the time left on our visa. We have learned that between long rides in countless types of vehicles, unexplained waits, and side of the road transfers, the actual traveling part of travel in Southeast Asia can be exhausting. Our new strategy involves moving less and maybe seeing less, but staying longer in the places we do reach and enjoying them to the fullest.