We flew into Phuket, Thailand. $20 and 1 hour from Penang, Malaysia. Our first visit to the country. In the course of our 5-day stay, we visited 7 well known and oft-visited tourist beaches on the island: Patong, Kamala, Surin, Karon, Kata, Nai Harn, Rawai. They are the reason people come from all over the world to this apostrophe of land on the eastern edge of the Andaman Sea. Sadly, our short stay was enough to discourage us from going back (except perhaps to use it as a transit point).
Phuket is a tropical paradise. And it does have positives: powdery beaches, loads of sunshine, lush hills, good viewpoints and waterfalls and cool Buddhist temples. The people know tourism is their lifeblood so they are accommodating and most speak some English. The place is relatively clean compared to Mexico and Central America. Monster, skyscraper, all-inclusive resorts are few. And everything from food to taxis to clothing can be had at low prices – like 50%+ lower than America! But it is also overrun with tourists.
And while many people use Phuket as a jumping-off point — ferrying on to other nearby islands, many others, like us, do not. The place screams ‘tourist trap’. Despite the gorgeous beaches, the mess of vacation industry commercialism has largely ruined the place, in my opinion. And even more is on the way — we noted plenty of construction. So if you want to vacation with hoards of European and Chinese sun-seekers – this is your place.
Meanwhile, about 35 miles east of Phuket – across the enchanting Phang Nga Bay, we found the mainland area around Krabi, Thailand to be far more appealing. We paid under $5 USD for the 2.5 hour bus ride, Phuket to Krabi. A ferry taking a similar time is available for about $15 USD. We stayed in Krabi for 2 weeks. And while there is certainly a tourist industry near Krabi, it seemed to be about 1/10th of Phuket – and much less “in-your-face”… with most of the ‘ugly’ development found on the Ao Nang beach strip.
Most noteworthy however, is the stunning geography of the Krabi area – unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and especially spectacular from the water. Dozens of huge chunks of limestone karst are scattered all over the land, shoreline, and into the sea. Like a giant spilled a big bag of rocks. It’s a tropical ocean version of the USA’s monument valley in Utah and Arizona. These are jungle covered, often sheer-cliff-faced, giant pieces of eroded mountain towering hundreds of feet high and wide. It makes for astonishing scenery and photographs, as you can see here.
We admired the incredible geology in different ways; from beaches and boats to buses and balconies. And while my wife was recovering from our motor scooter accident, I climbed 2 area peaks to get amazing overhead views too. It was otherworldly!
Both the Tiger Cave and Temple complex and the Tab Kak Hang Nak nature trail are highly recommended – and free. Each offered outstanding views from the tops of different individual mountaintops. Both climbs were steep and hot and not for the faint-of-heart or unfit. But both were so worth the effort.
A daylong boat ride amidst the offshore karst towers is another fantastic way to enjoy the views. We shared a private ‘long tail’ boat for a day for $30 each. Some of the rock islands have beaches for stopovers, lunch, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, sunbathing, etc. But be warned, these small remote beaches do fill up throughout the day as more tour boats arrive. So go early! Further, there is a 400 Baht ($12USD), one-time, National Parks preservation fee to access these amazing islands. (Money well spent, in our opinion).
There are also at least a half-dozen larger islands in the Andaman Sea that have accommodations and services and scheduled transport – and friends told us how beautiful they were. We did not visit those on this trip, so no first hand reporting. As continuous budget travelers, we know that the word ‘island’ always means increased prices. And besides, the mainland area around Krabi was so glorious, we hardly felt the need to find more jaw-dropping nature.
Indeed, Krabi offers miles and miles of coastline which is still relatively undeveloped. There are countless rivers and mangrove swamps and deltas and mainland beaches which can be easily accessed and explored. It reminded me of the Riviera Maya in Mexico back in the 1990’s. We spent days hanging out at Klong Muang beach – a 15 minute drive from popular Ao Nang. And the views and sunsets at Tub Kaek are sublime. Serene seas, big $2 beers, super-spicy $3 Thai main dishes… a few small resorts and a scattering of beach goers. Perfect – unlike Phuket.
Editor’s note: Out of the thousands of photographs we have from the Krabi area, more are featured below. Click on an image to make it larger.