Apr 25 2008
Our only stipulation was that we didn’t want to do anything. We didn’t want to learn or visit or experience. We wanted to sit and read and write and swim and eat and relax. Where was unimportant.
Our decision to go to Krabi was kind of random: we wanted to start at a beach on the Andaman Coast, we’d heard good things from other travelers, and we knew it wasn’t as expensive or crowded as the other, more famous Thai beaches (notably Ko Phi Phi [The Beach beach] and Phuket). But we had no draw to Krabi in particular other than that we’d read somewhere that Krabi’s West Railay Beach might be the most beautiful beach in Thailand. Which, for us, was as good a reason as any to make the trip.
We’d been so caught up with our to-do list in Bangkok that we hadn’t researched what would happen when the bus dropped us off in Krabi Town at six in the morning. How do we get to Railay? I think it’s only accessible by boat? Where is the dock? We anxiously stood at the bus station in the early-morning dark, hoping someone might come up to us and give us an idea.
Luckily we weren’t the only ones milling around the bus station, and Ben eventually approached a girl rifling through brochures. Her name was Yla, she was from Germany, and (thank God), she’d been here before and knew exactly what to do. Despite the guy at the nearby tourist office claiming that there wouldn’t be a pick-up truck heading for the port for another two hours and even then it would be 200 baht per person so we should really take this taxi now for a mere 250 baht per head, Yla knew better. And she turned out to be right: a truck pulled up shortly after and, for 50 baht each, took us to the dock.
Well, not really. He took us to a random beach they called the port. There aren’t really any docks, per se, in Thailand. To board the longboat from Krabi’s “port” to Railay Beach, we had to hoist our luggage in the air and wade into the sea. Which was nothing we aren’t used to, and good, actually, as Ben hadn’t bathed in a few days.
Railay is a tiny isthmus jutting out into the sea. I have no idea what an isthmus is. Anyway, limestone cliffs surround the beaches on all sides, so you can only access it by boat (which meant a welcome reprieve from all those godforsaken motorbikes). West Railay is the famous beach, and this is where the longboat dropped us off. We could immediately see why it was so appealing: soft, white sand stretches between two rocky cliffs cradling a calm, turquoise sea. But along with all that beauty comes hefty prices. Thankfully, walk five minutes across the isthmus and you reach East Railay. It’s not a good beach (no one swims there) but the accommodation and food prices are noticeably cheaper. We rented a tiny wooden bungalow on the highlands. Even though it had no air-con and no hot water, the fact that it had a flushing, western-style toilet justified the price for me.
I knew that Thailand’s southern beaches weren’t going to be a cultural experience. They are unfailingly tourist destinations, their indigenous populations having long ago been pushed aside to make way for large, farang-catering resorts. What I didn’t realize was that they also take advantage of farang pricing. For instance, a plate of pad thai whipped up on the streets of Bangkok will run you ten baht (about 30 cents). On East Railay, that same plate of pad thai will cost you 60 baht and on West Railay, it’ll cost you 90 plus baht. Granted, $3 is a fine price for an entrée, especially at a beach resort, but after knowing what it should cost, it’s hard to swallow paying anything more. After eight months of seeking out where the locals go to eat, it was a hard habit to break. The locals don’t eat here, at all, because they don’t live here. That didn’t stop us from asking every Thai person we came across—a harder concept than anticipated to convey. (“Excuse me, but where do you eat? … Yes, I know, I see that restaurant, but where do you eat… Yes, you…. No, not right now, just in general… You don’t eat? … Yes, but where? … ‘No’? What do you mean ‘no’?”)
But we’d vowed not to worry about anything during these precious last days, so we didn’t waste any time: our first afternoon in Railay found us lying on the beach, in the shade of a palm tree, fast asleep.
And that’s how exactly how we spent all of our days in Krabi. And it ruled.
Want to know something about Thailand in April? It is HOT. As in, the hottest place I’ve ever been, in my life. The moment you step outside, the heat is ON you, like a tangible presence, and every pore instantly doubles in size and starts dumping sweat.
There’s no use trying to look presentable. Make-up slides off my face like butter, my clothes are soaked, and my hair frizzes up to three times its normal size. When this happen, Ben, who I’M SURE loves me no matter WHAT I look like, says sweet things, like, “your hair looks like an animal.”
Thankfully, the ocean here feels like bath water, so when we weren’t snoring or reading on the beach, we were escaping the heat in the sea.
Krabi is famous among the backpacker crowd for one reason: rock climbing. Those limestone karsts make for some of the best outdoor rock climbing in the world, and there are climbing companies all over Railay offering equipment rentals and lessons. Ben and I hadn’t come here for this reason and hadn’t really planned on climbing. In fact, we were obstinately refusing to do anything during these last few weeks. But as I saw traveler after traveler hiking out to the cliffs in all their gear, and then scampering up rock faces like it was the easiest and most fun thing EVER, my interest piqued.
So when we ran into Yla one night in front of Gecko Bar and she invited us to go climbing with her the next morning, I said, why not? Not wanting to be shown up by a girl, Ben decided to conquer his fear of heights and tag along as well.
We met Yla and her rock-climbing instructor, Cho, at his shop, Good Day Rock Climbing, early the next morning. There, Cho fitted us with harnesses and special way-too-small shoes. We walked over to some popular beginner cliffs where Cho taught us how to belay, the special harness knot, and the terminology we’d need. Then he motioned towards the rock wall and said to Ben:
I should establish our previous experience. Ben and I both had only been climbing once before, coincidentally together, at a large indoor gym at my brother’s sixth birthday party. So…twelve years ago, as high school freshman, and way before I ever called Ben my boyfriend. I’d invited Ben and my friend Kelly along to make being surrounded by 15 six-year-old boys bearable. Kelly, possessing a confidence I’ve never had, scrambled up the wall like it was nothing. I went next, got about half way up and, tired and afraid, opted to climb back down instead. Ben got about ten feet in the air, refused to go any further, and was hoisted down by his belayer.
So when Cho said “go” Ben looked at him, bewildered. “You mean, climb? Like, now?” he said.
“Ha ha, yes! Climb!” Cho responded.
So Ben walked over, put two hands on the wall, and pulled himself up.
We both surprised ourselves by actually doing it, all the way to the top, not falling once, the very first time. (Although we both had trouble with the “okay, now let go!” command once we’d reached the top).
Outdoor rock climbing is very different than indoor: it’s harder, the holds aren’t smooth plastic so it can be painful to grab them, it hurts when you slip and slam into the rock, and you scrape your legs to pieces on jagged edges.
But it’s FUN. It’s really, really fun.
I’d be on the cliff, 30 feet in the air, stuck. “I can’t go further! I don’t see how!” I’d yell down to Cho.
“Yes! Yes, you can! You just need to stand on your right leg, swing around and grab hold of that rock with your left hand.”
And since his advice requires releasing what seems to be the only thing keeping you from falling, you think, there’s absolutely no way in hell I’m doing that.
But you do. Because there’s nothing else you can do. And you know what? Nothing happens. Making such a seemingly reckless decision and then being surprised by what your own body is capable of is astonishingly liberating.
I don’t think there’s a sport in the world I’m more suited for, which doesn’t say anything favorable about me: my disproportionately long arms and legs can reach seemingly out-of-reach holds, and my monkey fingers and toes are perfect for clinging.
Ben fell a time or two (he insisted on relying on his arm muscles to pull instead of his leg muscles to push, much to the consternation of Cho). But once you do fall, you realize how unexpectedly un-scary it is and his fear of heights quickly dissipated.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I’d say, squinting up at him. “I think I put my right foot in that crevice near your arm and grabbed hold of the rock above it.”
He’d try it. “Okay, my body won’t DO that. Any other ideas, chimpanzee girl?”
We had so much fun we wanted to climb with Cho the next day as well. Unfortunately, Good Day Rock Climbing was closing for the week. Why? Songkran of course!
We knew that the Thai New Year, or Songkran Festival, was coming up because people had been telling us “happy new year!” for a week now, and most Thais had used the weekend holiday as an excuse to take off work starting Wednesday. We didn’t have to be reminded of it the next day as, the moment we stepped onto the street, a man ran up to us with a bucket of water and dumped it on our heads. “HAPPY SONGKRAN!” he shouted, gleefully, running away to claim another victim.
And that’s how the Thais celebrate their new year with the most awesome holiday tradition ever: a giant nationwide water fight.
Everyone in Thailand comes out on April 13th armed with something—buckets and scoops, hoses, water guns. We saw toddlers who could barely walk carrying water guns bigger than they were, and the toothless old women who sell us barbecued corn sprayed us with Super Soakers. We were sitting at a bar the night before and, at the stroke of midnight, the DJ came out from behind the booth and sprayed everyone on the dance floor with a water hose. At first you try to avoid it, but there’s no getting around it: you will be soaked within ten minutes of leaving your house. They take no prisoners: what you don’t want wet, you better leave at home (meaning we couldn’t really get pictures of the event). Even us tourists get in on the action. We saw an elderly British woman crouching behind a tree on the beach, wielding a water gun and mumbling, “I’m going to get those buggers once and for all!”
To add to the absurdity, everyone has white streaks all over their face, as to keep evil spirits away in the coming year, it’s best to smear talcum powder all over everyone’s cheeks.
Seriously, though, is this not the best holiday tradition you’ve ever heard of? You can run up to complete strangers on the street and soak them with water and it’s not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. Don’t tell me there’s not more than a few people you’d like to douse with water if given the opportunity.
By the way, according to the Thai calendar it’s something like 2500, so technically I am currently in the future.
As gorgeous as it is, Krabi, with its massive resorts and boats full of daytrippers, wasn’t exactly what we were looking for in our Thai beach getaway. We found that at Ko Pha-Ngan…