Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Koh Lanta - five days chillin' on Lanta

The first morning on Koh Lanta started beautiful and sunny. Though not as early as the previous morning, we were still up at 6:30am, before breakfast service began. So we started with a walk along the beach. It really was a magnificent way to start the day. As the beach faces west, the shadows of the trees shade much of the beach, making for a refreshing stroll, mostly out of that hot Thai sun.

To say that our day (and in fact most of our days) on Lanta was lazy would be an understatement. The day passed with dips in the pool, a short walk up the beach to talk with agents to organise our transfers to Koh Ngai (as well as transfers between Koh Ngai and Koh Kradan and a day trip to Koh Rok), with simple lunch at one of the restaurants about midway along Long Beach at Lym’s Bar. The afternoon brought a nice thunderstorm accompanied by a few hours of steady rain. Laying on the day bed in front of our room, book in hand, was the perfect way to witness nature’s tempest.

After the storm passed, the sun came out in time for us to take another stroll along the damp beach. The day ended with dinner at the place next door, The Thai Cat, which had great food and cocktails. Can’t come to Thailand and not have a few Mai-tais…

Day two was very similar to day one, except no thunderstorm and we had lunch and dinner in different restaurants. The weather was cloudier and felt slightly cooler, but even more humid, if that is at all possible. It was already 100% percent humidity… We did spend time sitting on the hotel’s sunlougers in front of the beach, and floating around in the ocean. From the shore, the sandy bottom fell and rose and fell again in waves, before giving out to deep water. J and I mused about the bath-water-like tepid water, commenting on how much nicer Melbourne’s beaches would be if Port Philip Bay had more tolerable water temperature. My theory is : install a huge heating element in the centre of the bay to warm the water (think of the element in a kettle but like 1000 times the size). So the day passed punctuated with walks on the beach, and beers, more silly musings.

One little bar we loved was called “SeeSunBar’, near the middle, but towards the southern end of Long Beach. It was a simple, family run place, with sun loungers in the sand, the perfect place for sunset with a few cold Changs.

After the sun had set, and we relived the bar of a few beers, we ended up walking to the end of Long Beach to Castaways for a really delicious dinner. They had a large menu with so many Thai and western choices. J and I have a tradition when we travel: find Mexican (or Tex-Mex) food. And here, we found it. Always dubious about how good the standard would be, we ordered our enchiladas and chimmi-chungas as we sipped our beers. When the meals came, they were huge! And to our delight – delicious! The beans/frijoles were the best I’ve had – clearly home made with smoky chipotle chilies.

While we were still at dinner, we could see the dark sky occasionally lit up. Nearby, a couple of thunderstorms passed close by – one out to sea, the other further south over the hills behind us. Walking back to the hotel, we sat on the cool sand in the still night air, watching the amazing light show. I would have sat out all night, but J suggested we get going in case the thunderstorm decided to come in our direction (which it didn’t). Back near the hotel, with the danger of getting drenched behind us, we enjoyed another cocktail at Thai Cat before crashing.

Not being able to take doing nothing much longer, we booked a day trip to Koh Rok on day three. Pick up was from the beach directly in front of the hotel at 8:30, giving us plenty of time for a walk and breakfast beforehand. Our speed boat (SinThongChai with the Thai flags along its side) was spacious and fast, with the staff speaking barely enough English for us to understand the program for the day. We stopped at a few more places along the beaches of Koh Lanta picking up a handful of other passengers before heading to the horizon, and the two islands of Koh Rok.

First stop took us to a spot on the south-eastern side of Koh Rok Nai. A small drop off with lots of rocky reef was the home to many fish and some corals, sadly affected by boating and fishing. The highlight was a huge, titan triggerfish trying to escape detection (that I followed until it finally swam out of my range). 

Lunch was on the southern beach of Koh Rok Nok. Set among the shady trees, many picnic tables provided a comfortable place to have your included meal. All the boat tour companies used the same facilities, and pretty much had the same meal: fried chicken, fish curry, veggie stir fry and fruit.

There’s a camp ground, and lots of men that looked like military, so I’m not sure whether it’s some sort of training area or what. And there was a separate restaurant. To the rear of the food preparation area (i.e. the rubbish area), large monitor lizards patrol, looking for an easy meal. We saw three huge adults, and a smaller juvenile. With the lizards were an army of hermit crabs, scouring the scraps for snacks. The island had so many hermit crabs. J and I entertained ourselves ‘talking’ to them (meaning picking them up, letting them crawl on our open hands, then returning them to continue their day). Some of them were really huge; some climbed trees, but most seemed to hang around shady areas or the trunks of trees. 

From shore, the outlook was stunning; crystal clear blue water with white sands – your stereotypical, tropical island that you’d see on any travel brochure. Truly gorgeous. There wasn’t much of a long beach to walk along, the sand giving way to rocky shoreline after a few hundred metres. 

In front of the picnic area, a nice snorkelling area was roped off away from the boat landing area. I found it to be as good for snorkelling as anywhere else on our day trip, with the added luxury of wading in directly from the white sandy beach. Spending most of the time in the water, I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the fish and few corals. Visibility wasn’t bad and very few other people out there made it really pleasant – not worrying about flippers in your face was nice.
The last snorkelling spot was on the south-east tip of Koh Rok Nok, at another drop off. The sea was a bit rougher here. The corals were much better with a large variety of clams and anemones (with nemo), as well as the usual fishy suspects. Though we didn’t see a shark, or turtle or any particularly unusual fish or corals, I just loved being in the water and seeing the undersea world.

Back at Lanta, we showered and headed out for dinner at the pizza place next door (Mr Wee’s), which really hit the spot. More lightening provided a lovely moving picture out to sea. The cool air breeze was so soothing, so another nice walk along the beach finished our day. With our torches in hand, we spot-lighted the crabs ambling around the beach. Some of these hermit crabs, which I named ‘Herbie’ were huge. It’s surprising how strong they can be too. On your hand, their eyes and legs appear from the shell, and then they really pull away if you try to hold their shell. We stopped and talked with some of them, always being gentle and mindful to return them carefully to the beach.

Day four was almost the same as day two, with the exception of a big walk into the Sala Dan town area in the late afternoon. From Long beach to the town area, it’s a few kilometres, with a few stalls and shops to browse along the way, which I did. As you get closer to the pier/jetty area, there are more and more convenience stores and places to eat. There is a little shopping centre with alleys of stalls selling your typical tourist fares; sarongs, tee-shirts, sunglasses, hippy pants and shorts etc.  I bought my mandatory fridge magnets and a few little presents for family. We ended with a nice dinner at ‘The Black Pearl’, which was pretty good. 

Not prepared to walk all the way back in the dark, a lady tuk-tuk drivier delivered us back to our hotel, where another beer finished our day. 

Another relaxed end to another lazy day on Lanta, our last. The next day, we were off to Koh Ngai, an idyllic tropical island from another idyllic tropical island. We thoroughly enjoyed our lazy days in Lanta, and probably should have explored more of the hinterland. It is such a laid back and beautiful place, and hopefully it won’t get so developed and busy as nearby Ao Nang, or worse - Phuket.

- K

Monday, October 26, 2015

Krabi Town - the journey begins...

So my love affair with Thailand finally continues. Though it has only been a year since last time (which almost doesn’t count really, as it was only 2 days in Koh Lipe), I was itching to go back to my favourite country. The wait for the end of October seemed to take eons. I had booked so much earlier in the year so the months and weeks had dragged on and on. Impatient to start the holiday, we spent the night before our flights at the airport hotel. With a 6am flight, and living well over an hour from the airport, it was totally justified to be closer for a more convenient departure. As it was J and my 10 year anniversary, we decided it was part of our celebration, coupled with an expensive meal and vintage champagne.

Not a whole lot to report about the flights; Melbourne to Sydney (with breakfast in an almost empty Qantas lounge), Sydney to Bangkok, then a short hop Bangkok to Krabi on Bangkok Airways. I have to say, the service on the Bangkok air flight was great – lovely Thai meals and drinks service for a flight that was barely an hour (and the same on the return homeward flight too). Qantas could learn a lot about how to service passengers from them. Suvarnabhumi airport is still under construction, or renovation, and had the dreaded long queues to clear immigration.

Knowing we were arriving in the late afternoon / evening, we chose not to try to get to Koh Lanta that night, which would have involved private cars and much money. Instead, we stayed one night at a guesthouse in Krabi town. We had arranged to be picked up by Phoom, the manager of Grandmom Place (the guest house), and we were in our room, and back out again, within an hour.

It was a Sunday night and I knew the night market would be on, which would provide plenty of entertainment for our evening. Knowing it was nothing like the big tourist markets or shopping strips of Ao Nang or Phuket, I was looking forward to a relaxed browse. There was a good selection of stalls, mostly geared towards locals, with lots of food and clothing. But there were also some touristy wares, with jewellery, art, candles and wood carving – the usual souvenir fodder. In the centre of the market, there was a clearing with seats for people to eat etc, as well as a stage. DJs alternated dance beat music with local singers and bands. I’m not sure what the occasion was (or even if there was one), but it provided a great backdrop to the night. 

After doing a circuit of the stalls and buying a cool woven hippy style top and a few bracelets, we settled into one of the cafĂ©/restaurants overlooking the action. With Chang beers in hand and yummy spring rolls, we relaxed enjoying watching the world go by. One thing that caught my attention was a little bar. It was different in the way the drinks were served. Not in a glass, or plastic container. Not a milkshake cup. No. In bamboo – like in the hollow cane/stick part. They had a huge selection of cocktails - all for 180 Thai bhat, or around $7 Aussie dollar - bargain. Though I tried, J wouldn’t buy me one…

For no good reason, we were up before 6am the next morning. Sure, we had an early night the night before, stopping for some more beers on the way back to the guesthouse due to the market closing up at around 9:30pm, but getting up that early on holiday is not right! Ceasing the opportunity for a good walk in the cool of the morning, we headed out for a walk along the river to Khao Khanap Nam. It, or should I say they, are a couple of rocky outcrops up along the river. About 100 metres high, they sort of frame the river and Krabi town, like a gate. You can see them from Krabi town, anywhere along the river. 

Enjoying the scenic walk, we stopped to look at the various sculptures along the boardwalk.

First off, there was a fascinating metal and tree truck sculpture, with lots of patterns and twisted shapes. We couldn’t find a sign or information about what it represented, but it was a really great piece of art.

A few hundred metres was Nok Awk. The sign explains that Nok Awk, or white-breasted sea eagle is the white bellied eagle, a day hunter, living in trees and breeding in cold season. This Nok Awk sculpture was created by Krabi Municipality to symbolise comprehensive knowledge, self-sufficiency, responsibility and consideration for others. With a quote, “Fly High, Look Far and Reach out Goal”, I wondered if someone forgot to check the spelling i.e. reach our goal… 

We also passed the famous crab sculpture, which was being climbed on and enjoyed by a few local families, as well as these cute little ‘Nemo’ figures, that I think were seats or something, that were dotted along the footpath. 

We walked as far up to Khao Khanap Nam as we could, but you really need a boat to get right up close. There are supposedly some caves with stalactites and it sounded worth a visit. But we were happy with our walk and the opportunity to explore Krabi town.

Before heading back and preparing for our mini bus transfer to Koh Lanta, we visited Wat Kaewkorawaram. A pair of long naga serpents line the stairway up from the main street. It’s a lovely white temple, with ornate finials and multi-tiered roof. Inside, colourful paintings of the Buddha’s life and previous lives adorned the walls. Phoom told us that it was renovated a few years ago, but the temple itself was quite old. I paid my respects as an old local lady sat in the doorway, gently offering a ‘wai’, which I returned with folded palms.

Back at Grandmom place, we figured we had enough time for an early lunch, or second late breakfast. The bus was due to pick us up at approximately 11:15, which was nearly an hour away. So we chose to grab a bite there. Though only fired rice with chicken for J, and just basil and vegies for me, it stands out as one of the most surprisingly simple and delicious meals of our trip. Phoom told us he made it himself from his Grandmother’s recipe. Just as we commenced eating, the bus turned up – almost half an hour early. But they were happy to come back once we finished our meals, which they did as promised at 11:15, the original pick up time.

The minivan company deposited all us passengers at their office from the various pick up locations through town. Stickers indicating our destinations were stuck to our collars as the staff sorted out which vehicle was going where. Then it was on. Phuket passengers to the big, new looking van at the front, Koh Lanta passengers to the smaller, run down van at the back. J and I were among the last to get on, so I got stuck at the back, while J snuck into the front passenger seat beside the driver – maybe the most comfortable and spacious seat on the whole van. Bags were tied to the roof and we were off quickly. 
The trip was actually OK, with good roads and a pit stop to stretch and grab a bite or toilet break. At each of the two car ferries, we had to wait in a long queue of traffic for more than half and hour each, which was the longest part of the journey.
On Koh Lanta, or just Lanta, we were dropped at the side of the road. Pointing down a side road, the driver indicated our hotel was down ‘there’. Wow, I thought, we have to do the last part on foot with all our bags… nice. But alas, a motorbike, sidecar, tuk-tuk arrived that scooped us up and delivered us to our hotel, Lanta Sand. It really was only a few hundred metres from where we were dropped. 

We loved the villa we had booked and quickly set about finding the beach, and then a beach bar to sit, grab a bite and then watch the sun set, which was quite a few beers away. 

After our super early morning, and the long, squishy minivan ride, sleep also came early. From the few hours of daylight we had seen on Lanta, we knew we were in for a beautiful and relaxing holiday.

- K