Krabi’s Peaceful Rhythms
Monday, March 28, 2011
The limestone steps were nearly vertical at some points, each varying in length and width, distorting my perception of depth, and causing me to stumble like a lame bird. I peered over the edge and sighed at the lush landscape of verdant highlands almost 800 feet below; a magnificent view of coconut palms, rubber trees and coffee plantations stretched for miles amidst majestic karsts.
I pressed on to the next flight, wiping the sweat from my face so I could clearly read the distance marker that read: 913 — 359 steps were left to climb before reaching the peak. I wondered how over a thousand feet of narrow, winding staircase had been carved into the cliff when I could barely ascend without clenching the metal railing.
My legs began to tremble as I rounded the next flight, providing a clear sign that I should stop and rest for a moment. I sat in a small alcove where an outhouse had been built, and slowly swished some tepid water around my mouth. Two butterflies gracefully circled flora sprouting from the crag’s edge, their vibrant cerulean wings beating a dance of courtship. The tranquil location lulled my rapid heartbeat to a slow steady drum and I began to feel aligned with the quiet rhythms of nature.
Located in southern Thailand, Wat Tham Sua, or Tiger Cave Temple, is an intricate maze of natural limestone caves, surrounded by dense jungle. The name stems from a Thai legend that tells of a tiger that once inhabited the caverns, stirring the village people with its fierce roar. Today, the grottoes are used as dwelling quarters and sacred areas of worship for monks practicing Vipassana, an ancient technique of insight meditation. Two staircases at the base of the temple lead to very different destinations. The first, consisting of the 1,272 steps I had chosen to climb, leads to a peak with panoramic views of the surrounding area. The other, a more manageable 130 steps, winds down to a network of elusive caves where monks come to meditate everyday amidst the chorus of thousands of chanting cicadas in the nearby hills. Though the temple itself was built only in 1976, archeologists have excavated tools and pottery dating back to the Stone Age from the caverns, suggesting an ancient civilization once existed in the area.
I stood up deciding to make a final push for the top. The air seemed drier and sweeter as I climbed the final staircase, each inhalation fueling my determination. Finally, at the peak, I was rewarded with an impeccable prize: 360-degree views of bucolic Krabi province. I walked slowly on the smooth, orange tiles of the temple floor gazing at the distant paths of outcrops leading to the Andaman Sea. I paused to admire several impressive Buddha statues and whispered a short prayer before the “footprint of the Buddha” — a historical representation of the Buddha’s footprint, imprinted in stone, symbolizing the ground that his transcendent feet touched after attaining enlightenment.
Wat Tham Sua was one of many reasons why Krabi seemed so delightfully isolated from the rest of Thailand. The rural province is an oasis of sleepy beach towns, unexploited natural landscapes and approximately 130 islands accessible from several locations on its scenic shorelines. Unaffected by the recent upheaval in Bangkok, and away from the crowded party towns of Phuket, Krabi was the perfect place to wind down after a rigorous two-week journey through some of the more touristy areas of Thailand.
Visitors can fly directly into Krabi International Airport from Bangkok, Koh Samui or Kuala Lumpur. I was traveling from Chiang Mai, so my only option was to fly into Phuket, where I stayed overnight to catch up on some much-needed rest. The following afternoon I headed three hours east towards Krabi via private car. After several failed attempts throughout the trip of trying to bargain with irrational taxi drivers who refused to turn on their meters, the private car companies here proved to be less expensive and free of hassle.
As we neared the northern districts of Krabi, the landscape began to resemble an 18th-century version of Jurassic Park — lush jungle and curtains of precipitous limestone towers stretched as far as the eye could see. Almost 20 miles from the hotel, I asked the driver to stop by the Krabi night market so that I could sample some authentic southern Thai cuisine. The delectable display of curries, coconut waffles, roti kluay (warm banana pancakes), and all things satay, became a smorgasbord of inexpensive treats. Much of the food was prepared by Muslim vendors, so alcohol was forbidden, but luckily overindulgence of delicious fare was not.
After the market I continued on with the remaining 45-minute drive to the resort. Here the roads became less traveled and acres of seemingly impenetrable forest were the only thing separating the few scattered shacks on the side of the road from miles of shoreline.
Our hotel, the Amari Vogue, was nestled in the outskirts of Kao Hang Nak Natural Forest on the pearly sands of Tubkaak Beach. From the resort’s secluded location, guests can look out across the sea to the perpetually haze-enveloped Hong Islands, 15 minutes away by long-tail boat. The 57-room boutique hotel is a relatively inexpensive alternative to the Phulay Bay Ritz Carlton, also situated on Tubkaak Beach, and about a five-minute drive down the road.
In between long strolls, swimming in the bath-like ocean, and watching the assiduous eating rituals of hundreds of sand bubbler crabs, I took sun-soaked trips to the surrounding islands.
On the second day of our stay my husband and I were picked up at 8 a.m. by Phi Phi Island tours and were taken 20 minutes by car to the Ao Nang port. From there we boarded a speedboat with six Singaporeans, two Parisians and our witty Thai guide, Sanun, and set off on the resplendent waters of the Andaman Sea. As we approached the shore of Maya Bay, several of us stood awe-struck by the island’s massive limestone humps — glorious barriers that seemed to gracefully bow inward creating a sea of tranquility within the cove. Although the beach was crawling with tourists, I couldn’t stop giggling as I splashed around in the warm, glowing water, feeling like a child who had just discovered her very own secret garden.
An hour later we continued on to Phi Phi Leh’s emerald lagoon where we snorkeled among a serene world of diminutive clownfish, black corals, spindly sea whips and strikingly white coral bushes. As I swam back to the boat, one of my new Singaporean friends pulled me underwater abruptly. Stunned, I quickly tried to swim away until I heard the muffled screams: “lionfish!”, “lionfish!” I dove down as quickly as I could to where my friend was pointing and saw the magnificent spiny creature sauntering its way through the tall sea grass.
Next we stopped for lunch at Areeda Restaurant on Phi Phi Don and feasted on papaya salad, sweet and sour prawn soup and fried cashew chicken. Trying to walk off some of my lunch, I strolled the sandy paths while soaking in the lazy vibe of the beachside bars and cafes. I purchased a small wooden Buddha at one of the many vendors that specialize in selling amulets, odd trinkets and T-shirts, and carried it in my pocket for good luck.
On our way back to the port, Sanun offered us a delicious pound-cake-like dessert called Trang cake, which I have sought after relentlessly since returning home in hopes of finding a way to ship a year’s supply to my home. No luck yet. Sanun searched for another area where we could snorkel among the beautiful white coral, but the monsoons had stirred the currents, dragging strings of colorful, stinging jellies out to the open ocean giving the appearance of a hundred drifting crystal balls bobbing whimsically about the soft waves.
“Safety first friends, we cannot snorkel here, so we head back and you go to sleep,” said our grinning guide.
Later that night, after watching a brilliant sunset, my husband and I ate the spring rolls and vegetable curry we picked up in the town of Ao Nang from the comfort of the long cozy bench outside our suite. The sound of the gentle waves and the soft glow of twilight did indeed lull us into a restful sleep.
The next morning we bargained with a man named Khun, who routinely parked his long-tail on the shoreline by the hotel, and agreed on a price of 1,800 baht for a day-trip to Phra Nang Beach. Unfortunately, not much conversation was exchanged on the way over as the steep language barrier became apparent.
“You like Thailand?” shouted Khun over the loud sputter of the motor.
“Oh yes, very much,” I replied. “Have you eaten today?” I then blurted out. I received a blank stare followed by a profusion of nods and hearty chuckles, but no answer. I decided my attempt to practice proper Thai colloquialisms had failed miserably and I should probably stick to simple hand gestures.
Nearly an hour later we arrived at Phra Nang Beach. Known as one of the best places in the world for rock climbing – though, a climber I am not – this gorgeous expanse of shoreline was the perfect spot to cradle my toes in duvet-like sand and relax with a good summer read. The peninsula is comprised of three beaches: Phra Nang, Railay West, and Railay East. Visitors can find an array of accommodations and restaurants varying significantly in price and comfort on any of the three beaches.
I preferred to spend the day on Phra Nang Beach, as it is the quietest of the three, admiring its soaring cliffs, enchanting coves and peaceful location. Within the base of one of the grandeur precipices visitors can explore Tham Phra Nang Nok, or Princess Cave, a cavern filled with odd phallic sculptures carved by local fisherman to protect against turbulent weather and to ensure a fruitful day of fishing. The cape is cut off from the mainland by massive cliffs, so organizing a visit at low-tide is a must.
On the last day of our stay we sailed to Koh Hong with Khun, whose company I was really beginning to enjoy. Using body language and ridiculous gestures, we were somehow able to hold succinct “conversations” during the 20-minute ride. Pelay Bay, the island’s only swimmable beach, provided a more adventurous encounter with the surrounding topography and sea life. The placid, warm waters were perfect for viewing schools of stripped tiger fish, gar, and floating pink jellies. I watched as a nearby group of young locals fed the squirmy sea life, and chuckled at the sensation of hundreds of fish nibbling at my ankles, calves, and knees as they searched for morsels of food around me.
After a rejuvenating swim, I hiked a small trail located just off the beach where the skeletons of two boat wrecks had been cast by the force of the 2004 tsunami. Left rotting on their sides, the vessels were an ephemeral reminder of the destruction that took place that somber day.
An expat I had befriended earlier in the trip on the flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket explained the effect the tsunami had here. “After the tsunami the people of southern Thailand united, as many believed that an overzealous addiction to greed had angered God so much that he brought punishment upon his people,” he explained. “A few years later the unification dissipated, ‘shady’ businesses resumed and many of the beautiful beach spots have been exploited once again.”
I thought back to my short stay in Phuket when I had immediately felt uncomfortable and far from home while driving through the congested streets. It was distinctly commercial and overdone; a fast paced lifestyle and disingenuous attitudes were apparent. Krabi was different. The familiar Thai smile that says “welcome friend” was ever-present. Nature was left undisturbed and day-to-day life appeared to be charmingly simple. I fell in love with the leisurely pace and indulged in the endless opportunities to explore so many magnificent islands on a whim. In a country where tourism remains the primary source of revenue, it was a privilege to visit one of the last remaining areas where your heart can find that quiet rhythm that only simplicity can promise.
By Maria Russo
About the Author
Maria Russo is a freelance writer who loves natural wonders, good eats, ethical travel, and boutique hotels. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, USA Today.com, People.com and A Luxury Travel Blog, among others.
When Maria is not writing for her all-time favorite site (that would be The Expeditioner), she spends her time blogging about foreign jaunts and delectable food experiences for her site: Memoirs of a Travel & Food Addict. She is also up to no good on Twitter (@traveladdictgrl, @expedmaria).