Thailand: Islands in the Sun

Thailand: Islands in the Sun
Photo Credit: Dinodia
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Location is everything in the islands of Lanta and Krabi in Thailand

Devalina Mookerjee
April 01 , 2014
12 Min Read

"There was once a chief on this coast,” says Mat, our island guide, “whose wife had no children. So she prayed to a powerful serpent that lived by the sea. The serpent said her boon would be granted, but she would have to wed her daughter to his serpent son when the girl came of age. The chief’s wife agreed. Time went by, and the promised girl grew up. Beautiful and adored by all, she fell in love with a fisherman’s son and wanted to marry him. Thinking that the serpent was sure to have forgotten the promise made so long ago, her parents agreed.

But the serpent remembered, and on the day of the wedding he approached a holy man to demand that the broken promise be avenged.

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This holy man was very powerful, and he cursed the wedding, turning the 150 guests into these islands,” he sketches a comprehensive, almost 360° sweep of his hand, “you see around you.”

The islands rise sheer and gigantic out of the water. Looming black, orange and white limestone cliffs fringed with tropical jungle, they float on the emerald-blue surface of the Andaman Sea. My toes are held as far out as they will go over the water, as the Ao Nang Princess speeds away from the mainland Nopparatara pier towards the island of Lanta in south Thailand. Droplets from the side wake of the launch cool my feet, salty wind whips through my hair and massifs hover over the water like the floating islands in Avatar.

We had taken an early morning flight out of Bangkok to Krabi, and a van to the pier. Now, the bright lights and nightlife of Bangkok seemed impossibly far behind, with only water, sunshine and clean tangy air ahead.

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The gateway to that happy promise is Sala Dan pier on Koh Lanta, which turns out to be both sleepy and welcoming. In a short while, we are in Lanta Sea Food, overlooking its own little fish farm in the bay. The spicy salad with seafood is excellent, as is the deep-fried whole sea bass. But it is only afternoon, and we have an island to explore, so after a gratifying, if short, lunch, we head out to the southernmost tip of Lanta Yai. “There is one paved road on the island,” says Mat, “All the beaches are on the right.” And there they are, spectacular stretches of white-gold sand and deep-green sea, fringed by coconut and pine, flashing by while I fidget in my seat, longing to stop and explore each one.

Our current destination is the Koh Lanta National Park, at the southernmost tip of the island. The place seems deserted, but we are told to beware of the monkeys who will apparently commit any criminal act to steal food.

The beach is white velvet, and it is drizzling just enough to lightly dampen the sand. I look out over the water, and can’t see the line between the water and the sky on the horizon. There are distant islands hanging in the deepening haze, and the water near my feet is clear with gentle lapping waves. A picture-perfect beach, complete with a lighthouse on a hill, and little rock pools with marine life washing in and out with the tide.

A quiet sunset later, we ride back to the north of Lanta Yai to visit the sea-gypsy village of Old Town. “Indonesian, Malay and Chinese people have lived together here for a long time,” says Mat, “They came by boat over many hundred years, and stayed.” Darkness falls as we wander the village, marvelling at the late evening sea view from the long pier and beachside cafés. The next day dawns bright and clear, and my swimsuit and I are absolutely ready to embark on the four-island tour.

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An hour of sun and spray from the Sala Dan pier, we drop anchor just off a beautiful white-sand beach on Tap Island, and I wade in. The water is warm and clean. Little near-transparent fish treat my legs as pillars to dart around on their busy ways, amidst shells, rocks and translucent emerald water. Turning to scan the horizon, I am greeted by the extraordinary sight of people carrying daypacks and umbrellas walking leisurely through the middle of the sea. “It’s a sandbar,” says Mat, “You can only do that at low tide, when the water is shallow all the way from Tap Island to Chicken Island.”

Chicken Island? It’s an unusual name for a behemoth of limestone and tropical vegetation. Later that day, the eponymous chicken neck comes into view as we round a bend, rising many hundreds of metres into the sky. There are barely visible rock climbers along the median reaches of the steep cliffs high above the water. Some have chosen to wear blue or bright red, otherwise they would be impossible to spot from the boat.

Just off Chicken Island is a sheltered cove in which we stop to snorkel. The water is calm and green, and seething with fish just below the surface. It is eight metres deep at this point, and we are warned not to dive too far, on account of the sea urchins. The striped yellow-and-black tigerfish are aggressively interested, pausing for a moment to meet my gaze square on with unblinking blue-lined eyes, and taking minute nips at my fingers and toes. There are two or three brown-and-white polka-dotted fish and a kingfisher-blue fish with yellow fins. The sea urchins are nestled in the coral far below, looking like mutant kiwifruit with bad intentions, equipped with long black spikes that I don’t really need a warning to avoid.

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Lunch at Rai Leh beach includes a delicious tom yum soup and barracuda with vegetables, after which we are ready to island-hop again. This time, it is to the heart of the creation myth that explains this incredible topography. Phra Nang is the cave of the promised princess, around whose petrified wedding guests we have been boating, swimming and snorkelling. The cave itself is clearly a place of fertility wish-fulfillment. I am momentarily stunned, and then intrigued by the hundreds of phalluses in the shrine. They are of wood, some beautifully painted and finished, others rudimentary and weathered, piled over rocks rising high into the cave. Unfortunately, reports of a storm make it necessary to leave immediately, and the speedboat races incoming rain to Ao Nang beach. There, I am made happy once again by the purchase of a sweet-sounding, eleven-chambered reed flute from an old man on the beach.

On the third day, we take a wooden longboat from Chao Fa pier to explore part of the coastal Krabi river. Mangrove forests line the channel, their roots adapted to handle high and low tide without damage to the leaves. In a short while, two huge limestone karsts appear on the horizon. This is our destination of the morning, the gateway to Krabi, Khao Khanap Nam. The cavernous limestone caves inside the eastern karst have grown a profusion of stalactites and stalagmites in an amazing variety of shapes and textures. Incredible-looking columns hang off a ceiling so high I can barely see it in the gloom.“The fastest a stalactite will grow is three millimetres a year, and stalagmites are slower,” says Mat, while I look at a dripstone that is at a conservative estimate between ten and twenty feet high. A sign at this very ancient cave informs us that fossils have been found in the area which are over thirty-five million years old, and the possibility crosses my mind that the cave may not have been very different when that fossil was flesh and blood.

This sudden perspective on the transience of life makes me hungry, and Mat’s sympathies are sought in the matter. The longboat now heads up the river to the island of Koh Klang, which is a Muslim village on the Krabi river. We are informed that the island is too small to require heavier transport than two-wheelers and tuk-tuks, and that it makes its own batik.

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Our approach to Koh Klang is through the fish farm of the Kanabnum View Seafood Restaurant.  The resident blowfish puffs itself up alarmingly when displayed by an amused waiter, deflating like a balloon, to my immense relief, once back in the water. We sit on wooden benches beside the river and are refreshed by the local milky iced tea. The food is exceptional even by the generally high standards of local Thai food. Seafood and vegetables both taste absolutely fresh and the cooking is skilled and balanced. The stir-fried squid with cashewnut is superb, as are the barbecued prawns, as also the sea clam with sweet sauce. I go to compliment the chef and meet Sanah, whose smile lights up the room. “You did this all alone?” I ask “Oh, no,” she says, “I have a lot of help.” This help is two friendly ladies and a spotless kitchen, and I leave thoroughly impressed.

We take a tuk-tuk to see the island. A few minutes in, the landscape changes entirely. Paddy fields submerged in water are interspersed by clusters of small wooden houses with flowering gardens, peaceful in the afternoon sun. We are on the way to see and buy local batik (pa-tae). At the shop we meet Pa Prajim, who invites us to the workshop behind. The sunlit shed in which the fabric is painted stocks the traditional tools and sponge-headed brushes used for batik in this part of the world, with bolts of finished fabric drying in the shade. Mat tells us that this is part of the OTOP (One Tambun, One Product) initiative of the Thai government, in which each village is promoted for one distinctive product. The other OTOP that we visit makes longboats, and, as it turns out, a very good dry-shrimp and lemongrass paste.

The Moguls of Image, Hollywood, shot The Beach in this area, so I’m not the only person to think that there is a timeless, archetypal quality to the landscape. The soaring, fluid location shots in the movie do in fact capture the feeling of the unusual natural environment quite accurately, and I had thought those shots were simply the art of illusion. Next winter, I think, settling into my seat on the plane back to Bangkok. Next winter, I’ll be back.

The information

Getting there
Air Asia offers affordable fares from Chennai and Kolkata to Don Muang Airport at Bangkok, Thailand. Visas are available on arrival. See airasia.com.

The Ao Nang Travel and Tour Company also offers daily ferry transfers from Nopparattara pier in Krabi to Sala Dan pier in Lanta. A longboat taxi is also available for the same trip. You can also journey to Phuket or Phi Phi by ferry from this pier.

Getting around
Tuk-tuks and two-wheelers are the most popular transport on Koh Lanta. Motorcycles and scooters are available for hire. Do carry your driver’s licence and photocopies of your passport, and insist on wearing a helmet. Bicycles are also available close to most beaches.

Using Lanta as a base, it is possible to visit some of the 150 islands in the area. Tourism is organised, and it’s a good idea to take day tours. Choose among the ‘four islands one day’ tour, to Tab, Chicken and Poda Islands, and Phra Nang cave; the ‘one day trip to four islands by long-tail boat’ which will take you to Koh Chuck, Mook, Ngai and Ma; the ‘one-day trip to Koh Rok’ which focuses on snorkelling; the ‘one-day jungle tour’ which includes elephant trekking, the emerald pool and hot springs and other options. For more details, see aonangtravel.co.th.

Where to stay
The island is dotted with hotels and guesthouses. We stayed at the Pilanta Spa Resort (pilanta.com), about a kilometre from Klong Dao beach in Koh Lanta. At Krabi, we stayed at the Aonang Princeville Resort (aonangprinceville.com). This hotel has a saltwater swimming pool, and serves halal food.

Tips
Language may be a problem if you are travelling in a small group or alone. Most people you will encounter at restaurants and markets speak only rudimentary English, so carry an English-Thai phrase book and learn to use it.

The voltage is 220, like India, but you may need a round-to-square pin converter. Also, hotel rooms don’t always have 15 amp plug points, so pack camera and other electronic gear accordingly.

Don’t forget sunscreen, a shady hat, rubber slippers and insect repellent, and be sure to drink water and sweet-salt fresh lime and eat fruit to counteract dehydration by sun and salt water.


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