I hadn’t sunk my toes in the sand or dove into the clear sea since New Years. Aching for the beach bum lifestyle, Southern Thailand easily became the first destination on our backpacking journey.
Thai Transit is usually time consuming, inconsistent, and a hassle. However, after a chaotic morning leaving Chonburi we were blessed with a flawless route to the Southern Bus Terminal. There we waited, anxious and excited, to board our overnight bus to Krabi. Watching a throwback movie, Crossroads, and reading my new book, Beautiful Ruins, made the time fly by. Our luck of easy travel continued through the night and onward to Koh Phi Phi.
An island that was virtually unknown a few decades ago is now bursting with accommodation and pop-up restaurants catering to the influx of tourists. Nature’s curse has plagued poor Koh Phi Phi. Something so beautiful and serene that you can imagine God crafting the peaks of the cliffs and the soft curve of the coves with His own hands was discovered and its treasure shared. Unfortunately when travel and exploitation cross paths, they infest places like southern Thailand and the Italian coast – stripping its authenticity and secluded charm and replacing it with 2-for-1 specials and discount accommodation. That’s the catch-22 of traveling. Everyone wants to experience true beauty and countries want to proudly share it; however when tourists leave behind a destructive carbon footprint and locals are blinded by profit, nature’s gem is dulled. Travelers should only take photos and leave their smile. A traveler’s visit should not alter the essence of a location nor encourage its exploitation. Buy from local vendors rather than western chains, stay at an honest guesthouse rather than a greedy hotel. Embrace your host country’s culture and do not taint it with your own. Be a humble visitor, not a pushy tourist.
We were skeptical of stopping in Koh Phi Phi after hearing what a tourist trap it has become and of the copious amounts of trash left behind from said tourists. However, we knew that Koh Phi Phi offered views and beauty that cannot be sufficiently articulated with words. After dropping our bags off at our guesthouse and grabbing a quick lunch we set off for Long Beach. A 100 baht long tail boat ride will bring you to this white sand beach in 5 minutes; yet, the frugal travelers that we are know that our two legs can save us 100 baht. So we made our away along the path that snakes down the coast. The trail transforms from a cement boardwalk to packed dirt and weaving roots. Eventually the path clears and opens up to a striking white beach and cool turquoise water. We threw our bags into the fine sand and ran towards the water knowing our thirst for the sea would finally be quenched.
My mind wandered as the sun glided across the sky. When you have nothing to do and nowhere to be you have all the time in the world to think. Day dreams turned into peaceful naps. Soon my sunscreen gave up on the battle with the Thai sun, giving the cue to head back to town.
Long gone are the days of binge drinking and club music. I am too old for beach raves and blacking out, which unfortunately is the status quo for many of Thailand’s famed islands. My quarter life crisis won’t keep me from enjoying a cocktail and the beach though – I have just learned to observe from the outside rather than losing myself in the pulsating crowd.
We arrived at the bars clearly before the party so we swapped travel stories with the bartender and challenged him to connect four – am I middle aged already? The night brought us to the Ao Loh Dalum beach where we watched twenty-somethings with spring break mentalities jump through hoops on fire and pass buckets of cheap alcohol around. Even though I do not identify with that party mentality anymore does not mean I can judge it. We all have to go through that phase of recklessness where nothing matters more than the party that night. We must wake up with epic hangovers and second guess decisions we made in order to learn. So Mikaela and I stood out on the sand dune with cold beers and with fellow travelers too old and too late –in so many ways - for the party on the beach.
The following morning we arranged a long boat tour around Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Ley. Leaving the island to sleep off its hangover, we set off to see nature’s magic, countering every wave with equal force in the shallow boat. The first stop was at Monkey Beach where the macaques monkeys have been trained to come to shore upon humans arrival. We stayed on the boat as we watched the monkeys pounce on any human willing to give them food. Soon enough the motor started churning again and we were coasting along the sheer cliffs of the island.
We passed the Viking Cave which housed a fragile infrastructure of ropes and bamboo poles in a cliff’s cavern. Afterwards we turned into Pileh Lagoon for a swim. The water was the perfect blend of the Adriatic’s and Caribbean’s colors – fusing emerald and turquoise in every crest and gully of the waves. The boat chartered off to Loh Samah Cove for snorkeling. The sun’s rays danced underwater, chasing the parrot and clown fish through the coral. While following schools of fish and patiently waiting for a puffer fish to puff, I was transported back to the same world I discovered in Koh Tao – one where I am truly a passing visitor.
The last destination of our tour was Maya Bay where Leonardo DiCaprio famously filmed the movie The Beach. I expected swarms of tourists so thick I couldn’t see the white sand but was surprised to see open space. The boats were tucked off to one side of the beach so visitors could take in the breathtaking view – towering limestone cliffs cushioned by lush jungle and bordered with the translucent water. We wandered through shaded paths to find the island’s viewpoints of hidden bays. As we walked around the island and swam in its clear waters we simply kept repeating how beautiful it was and gave thanks out loud for this blessed life we’re living.
The sun reached its peak in the sky and started to gracefully fall toward the horizon. We boarded our ferry to Krabi as the air cooled and the shadows of palm trees stretched out onto the sand. Leaving the ultimate paradox of commercialism and nature’s wonder, we set off to spend 4 days on Ton Sai Bay in the province of Krabi.
After a quick ferry ride and boat change, Mikaela and I hopped off the long tail taxi boat into the shallow water of this hidden bay with our new Austrian friend.
That’s the beauty of traveling. You are constantly surrounded by joy. Your fellow travelers are just as ecstatic to experience something new as you are. There are no pessimistic attitudes that plague the day. No one is sitting around a table complaining about a tyrannical boss or the burden of a mundane routine. There is solely a communal appreciation for novelty and discovery.
Hiking up the long, gradual hill to our bungalow with swollen backpacks and a barefoot Austrian by our side I couldn’t help but mirror his goofy grin plastered on his face. He was returning to Ton Sai because he loved it so much the first time and quickly saw that Koh Phi Phi does not hold a candle to this coast. We parted ways, knowing that we’d meet again on this small bay.
Ton Sai sits next to Railay West Beach, tucked in the crook of the soaring cliffs’ arm. The main road is a semi-circle that has outlets on the far sides of the beach. The only other road intersects the arc’s peak and leads travelers up a very steep hill to modest bungalows. The path continues into the jungle for an hour trek up and down the mountain to reach Railay West. Our bungalow was the last one on the jungle path. Gibbon apes chatted in the trees above us, waking us as the sun rose. Bohemian beach bars, ruggid bungalows, and locally owned small restaurants were scattered along the two roads. Electricity was powered by generators that were only turned on after sunset. Wifi was available for only two hours a day. Ton Sai truly offers the Rastafarian vibe – easy going and happy. The residents were a mixture of local Thais and expats that never saw a reason to leave this isolated paradise.
After dropping our bags in our bungalow we returned to the beach to toast to vacation. Bob Marley softly played from a beach bar’s speakers as people returned from climbing trips, played around on the slack line, or dozed in a hanging hammock – it could not have been any more relaxed.
On Ton Sai, travelers have the choice to be lazy beach bums or active adventurers. We happily did both options over the next 4 days. We spent afternoons lounging and reading our books, bouncing back and forth from shade to the sun. There were no vendors pushing to sell a Thai massage or pedicure; the only noise that filtered through my thoughts was the soft crash of the waves on shore.
One evening we chose to head over to Railay West to watch the sunset since a massive limestone cliff blocked the view on our beach. Heading there we took the jungle path, unknowing how steep the climb was and how long it would take. When we returned to level land we were greeted by a smiling woman selling mangos for 20 baht – we were sold. We shared a perfectly ripe and sweet mango and the woman happily educated us about the harvest seasons of mango and pineapple.
We continued down the path to the main strip of Railay West Beach – clearly a bit more built up than Ton Sai and with a heavy population of Russian and French tourists. We parked ourselves in the sand to watch the sun set over the water. Golden yellows mingled with pearly pinks in the sky and reflected their glow in the shallow waves. We finished our Chang beers just as the sun dipped below the horizon.
There are four ways to travel to and from Ton Sai to Railay: the long and steep inland jungle path, the shorter winding rock climb on the coast, walking along the rocks during low tide, or a long tail boat taxi ride. As dusk was rapidly turning to night we knew it would be too dark to take the jungle path and the tide was too high to walk the rocks. Refusing to pay 200 baht to take a boat around the corner we saw two Germans walking toward the coastal trail and decided to follow. Thank God we found these Germans and that they had a flashlight because the path was very windy, bumpy, and steep – especially in the falling night’s shadows. We made it safely, and with no cost, back to Ton Sai and decided to call it a night as we had to get up early the following morning for rock climbing.
Every morning we had breakfast with the bungalow’s owner who clearly craved company. He sat with us and talked about anything: school, Australia, pancakes, electricity, the weather. He had a good soul and we were happy to partake in any conversation with him. He woke up early to make breakfast for us knowing that we had to leave for rock climbing. With a hearty breakfast and his good wishes, we set off for Railay West once again to conquer the cliffs.
After being given harnesses and climbing shoes, a group of four of us and our guide walked over to Railay East to the climbing site. He was a very small Thai man with crazy hair that kept saying how climbing is a true mental challenge. He was right. I have only been on a climbing wall in a gym or at my camp in Croatia a few times so I am not an experienced climber. I have never tried real rock climbing, but Thailand is a country of firsts for me so I decided to do something new.
We took turns on the easier courses as veteran climbers raced up the vertical cliffs with ease. I was amazed at how they lifted their bodies up a mountain so effortlessly and fearlessly. I envied their strength and confidence. That is what I found climbing to be. I don’t usually pull myself up mountainsides so I was using very different muscles than the ones I use running. It was a whole new total body workout – especially for the mind. You have to trust your self – and the person belaying you – in order to climb higher or reach a far grip. The height did not bother me at all thank goodness so I was able to take in the view of the sea as I climbed.
Arms and legs exhausted, our day of climbing was over but a funny guide, Ian, suggested we visit the Penis Shrine Cave. Intrigued by something so odd for a conservative country, we decided to wander around Railay East Beach. A quiet path meanders along open caverns and limestone overhangs. The rock formations are so perplexing and seem to defy gravity. Finally the path opens up to another pristine beach where there seem to be only Russians in sight. Our eyes catch something colorful off to the left and our curiosity lures us over. Sure enough hundreds of wooden penises stand erect among shrines in the hollows of the cliff. As local legend goes, villagers built the shrines to pray for luck and fertility. However, if you dare to take one of the wooden appendages, you will be cursed for eternity. It was bizarre, but after living in Thailand for so long, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
We spent the rest of the day on Railay West Beach. We noticed the sand is much different than the gravely sand on Ton Sai - finer with a clay consistency – and perfect for making drip sand castles. So reverting back to our childhood days, we built a drip sand Quidditch stadium since we realized that making a full on castle would require too much time in the scorching sun. Pleased with our efforts and displeased with our burns, we walked over the exposed rocks back to Ton Sai for our last night in this isolated Eden.
We sipped happy hour daiquiris on a long tail boat that was perched on Chill Out Bar’s front deck. This open air bar is spacious and inviting with glowing lanterns and tiki torches illuminating tanned faces. We listened to the rolling waves and watched locals show off their fire tricks with batons and poi. Fire dancers never cease to amaze me. Their fluid movement matches the tempo of the song and streaks of amber flames outline their bodies. We felt so happy and at peace in that moment that leaving Ton Sai felt unfathomable –but the next leg of our journey was bringing us to Bali so the sting of leaving Thailand’s paradise wasn’t so bad.
After our final breakfast with our kind host, he motor-taxied our bags down the hill to the long boats for us and decided to join us for the ride to Ao Nang. We sat among other travelers sad to leave Ton Sai. I idly wondered whether their trips were just beginning like ours or quickly coming to an end. Seeing the smiles on their sun- kissed faces, I knew that no matter the status of their journey, they too experienced the magic of Ton Sai.