We spent three and a half weeks exploring Thailand in July, but we didn’t see the south. Geographically, it made sense for us to start from Bangkok and head north, and then continue west and south in an almost clockwise direction through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Now we were heading back east to Bangkok from Siem Reap to go south and eventually continue on through Malaysia and Indonesia. Luckily, Dustin allowed us to crash at his place for a night in-transit. We used the day in Bangkok to shop for a new camera for Gabriella, since hers mysteriously disappeared in Laos. She got an awesome waterproof camera that certainly came in handy at the beach.
From Bangkok, we hopped on an overnight train to Chumphon, and then took a 3-hour ferry to the island of Koh Tao. At the pier, we were greeted with the usual folk fighting for our business with transportation and accommodations. We settled on the popular beach of Sairee and found a decent bungalow steps from the water for about $20/night. Koh Tao is a small island, only 21 sq. km, with a handful of beautiful beaches dispersed around the edges.
We rented a motorbike for two days and explored the different areas. Narrow roads weave left and right, up and down through the lush landscape. Every so often, we were rewarded with an amazing lookout point of the hills, rocks, and endless sea. Sometimes, I didn’t think the bike would make it up the incline and once or twice Gabriella actually had to jump off so I’d have enough power to get to the top. It was always worth it though. Each beach we stopped at seemed to get progressively better than the last. On the second day, we visited Hin Wong Bay for some of the most amazing snorkeling. For the first time since we’ve been traveling, we felt this destination could rival Hawaii for its natural beauty.
We spent five nights relaxing by the beach and swimming in the clear, warm water of the Gulf of Thailand before taking another ferry south to neighboring Koh Phangan. This island is significantly bigger, around 167 sq. km, and is famous for its ritual Full Moon Party. We heard that this rave of drunken strangers was isolated to one corner of the island and that the rest was too beautiful to miss. With more beaches to choose from here, we settled on Haad Salad in the northwest corner. It felt relatively isolated, but again, we rented a motorbike for two days and checked out the rest of the island.
Koh Phangan felt a bit older and more worn-out when compared to the pristine scenery of Koh Tao. The landscape was drier and the snorkeling wasn’t as great. There were a couple of beaches that were impressive creations of sand, stone, and sea, but they seemed to lack that “wow” factor after coming from Koh Tao. Ko Ma was probably the best with its natural sandbar that leads to a tiny jungle-island with large rocks around the edge. The weather was also overcast with intermittent periods of showers and sun, compared to clear and sunny skies on Koh Tao. It’s hard to complain about an island in southern Thailand (and I’m certainly not), but it was clear which one was our favorite.
After five nights in Koh Phangan we took another ferry and bus trip south to Krabi, on the west coast facing the Andaman Sea. Once in Krabi, we decided to take a quick longtail boat (a big canoe with a motor) around the bay to Railay Beach. We had kept hearing good things about Railay from other travelers and it sounded different from the places we’ve been so far. We also met a German couple that was heading there and became friendly with them over the next few days.
Railay is a small peninsula that sticks out into the Andaman Sea, but has the feeling of an island because it is only accessible by boat. Gigantic limestone formations surround the area to the north making it isolated from motor vehicles and hordes of tourists. It’s only a 5-minute walk from the east beach to the west beach and there are two other beaches adjacent to those, separated by rocks. These limestone faces also make for some of the best rock climbing in the world. The sheer beauty of it all is easily greater than the sum of its parts.
Our first night, we walked to the west beach to watch the sunset. A wide blanket of white sand stretches out beneath limestone faces on three sides with the sun sinking into the water on the fourth. Some locals were throwing a frisbee on the beach and I couldn’t resist joining in. I’ll admit I missed a few throws and catches because I was awestruck by the magnificence of my surroundings. The setting sun changed the colors in the sky from blue to pink to orange to red with an infinite number of shades in between. Sailing a frisbee across the sand encompassed in that environment was a moment I wanted to grasp with both hands and enjoy for as long as possible. The next two nights provided stunning sunsets as well, but neither compared to excellence of the first one.
On the second day, while the sun was still high in the sky, we tried our hand at the rock-climbing that makes Railay so popular. We went for a half-day and did five climbs. The first was only 12m, but the highest took us to 30m. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but it’s much easier knowing you have a harness and are able to relax when you don’t know where you’re next hold is at. Although it was pretty difficult towards the end of each climb, the view from the top made it all worthwhile (even the sore muscles the next day).
Southern Thailand proved to be an impressive display of natural wonders and quite different from the north. It was a bit more expensive for transportation and accommodations, but still cheap by western standards. We both agree that Thailand is a place easy enough for anyone visit and has enough attractions to please any interest. Definitely put it at the top of your list and don’t try to rush through it. We were a bit disappointed at only having 2 weeks for the south, since we entered by land with a 15-day visa, but we met two girls from the US who only had 2 weeks for their whole trip! What a shame… It I’m certainly going to miss the pad thai and papaya salad, but on to Malaysia!