Monday, 6 January 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 11. KRABI / AO NANG






30/12/02: Bus to Krabi Town; book into Chao Fah; eat at Pizza Firenze; drink at Old Western Bar with a guy called Egg; nightcap at O’Malleys Bar.

31/12/02: Raining. Watch the Discovery Channel and drink lots of coffee; Mark And May’s for lunch; return to guesthouse to write; phone home and talk to my father; eat grilled fish and chicken with the guys back at our guesthouse; return to Old West Bar to see in the new year.

Krabi lies on the Mae Man Krabi (Krabi River) and, to the northeast, tree infested limestone rocks protrude awkwardly from the aquatically severed Koh Maew. Like sheered lead, their naked sides appear to be slowly succumbing to the inevitable tarnishing of oxidisation, as if a huge knife had been used to cut down into the formations to remove wedge shaped chunks of rock. The town is lively but not hectic, benefiting from a lack of any obvious centralisation, and the Old West bar is run by the coolest cowboy in town.


After two nights spent recovering from our island milieu we were off again, this time to Krabi on the western seaboard. Finding our way back to the bus station was straight forward enough. In places like this the staff at reception will often sort these things out for you, if you ask, lumping you in with other departing guests following similar agendas.
This journey was to be briefer than the last – a couple of hours at most – although Krabi’s terminus was even more remote than anything we’d witnessed prior, adding a good half an hour to the total journey – maybe more if one factored in the time we spent browsing the local tourist information on offer.
I was beginning to develop quite an enthusiasm for reading, an interest that had been on the wane ever since I’d left university (not that I’d ever read inveterately). After completing The Old Man and the Sea within less than two days, I’d inherited John Grisham’s The Client from my companion, who had in turn exchanged it with M for something else (possibly Are You Experienced) back in Haad Yao. I wouldn’t normally read books of Grisham’s ilk, but The Client had me hooked and helped kill a profusion of time on some of our longer hauls.
In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed being driven around the Thai countryside, especially in the public buses or bigger VIP coaches (I found the smaller minibuses to be crewed by humourless churls): this despite the renowned recklessness of the participating drivers and the speeds at which they travelled. You heard terrible stories, of people falling asleep behind the wheel, of head-on collisions and real fatalities. Nothing can distract a Thai with a vehicle from their mission, and if they find themselves stuck behind a lorry they will commit to overtake, no matter how exiguous any oncoming traffic renders the opportunity.

Chao Fah Bungalows has upped the standard of living a bit. Despite their low ceilings, the rooms are really rather pleasing. I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the net curtains, but it’s something I can overlook.
We’re not paying a huge amount either, but then Krabi Town’s that sort of place: most of the people here are either on their way out west – perhaps to Phucket or Koh Lanta – or they might about to head south into Malaysia or north towards Bangkok. We’re heading west, although not as far as Phuket. We’ll be satisfying ourselves with a short stay in Ao Nang. Before that, we’ll loiter for a few nights in Krabi town, if only to see in the New Year.

Pizza Firenze really looks the part and I am grateful for its European ambience.
I love the weather out here in Thailand but it would be quite nice to need more substantial attire once in a while. I am a little sick of wearing shorts and T-shirts, for the most part (I wear my shirts from time to time), and the frequency of the showers has forced me to favour my Converse over my desert boots, which I’m not happy about at all. What I would really like to do is pop back to England for a few days, just to give my wardrobe an overhaul and maybe find a nice, dark pub to while away an evening in and re-appreciate what it’s like to feel the cold. Then I would return a few days later, rejuvenated with a renewed sense of purpose.
So Pizza Firenze is good place to be, but I feel terribly under-dressed. I can begin to understand why living out of rucksack isn’t for everyone.

Trang wasn’t the source of abnegation it was supposed to be; I’d drunk far too readily, there could be little doubt about it. I instantly felt more relaxed in Krabi – the visible presence of Japanese tourists can have that effect – but there was this thing called the Old Western Bar. Run by a cowboy booted, jeaned and shirted man of impeccable manners, it was very hard to say no to just one more drink there. And up the road there was O’Malley’s Bar showing football, which possibly tapped into that whole Pizza Firenze/European thing that I had lingering in me.
On the first night I exhibited some degree of self-control but the following evening – New Year’s Eve – I showed no such form, bonding with a local guy called Egg, who seemed content to drink with us for as long as we liked. But I was eating well and I’d finally managed to telephone home, although my mother wasn’t in at the time which would mean I’d have to try again sometime soon, a hassle and expense I could do without. (Long distances phone calls suffer a terrible time delay, so trying to have any sort of meaningful discussion is almost an exercise in futility.)
Krabi Town was charming in a sedentary sort of way. It sat on a river – or river mouth – similar in substance to that in Surat Thani, and with a monastery nearby, a neat bit of landscaping up against its walls. The town centre appeared to be made up of nothing but hardware stores, with just a sprinkling of bars and cafes but little else to occupy one’s time. This was a shame because after our brief stays in Surat Thani and Trang I was itching to put down roots for more than just a couple of nights, whilst simultaneously avoiding the sort of environment that might encourage excessive drinking. The dilemma I found myself trapped in, then, was that the most exhilarating destinations encouraged drinking and provided ample means by which to do so, whereas the more ostensibly pointless locations offered nothing to do but drink.






01/01/03: Catch a songthaew to Ao Nang and finally book into Hillock Bungalows, on a hillock. Buy a copy of the Bangkok post and stay in, sheltering from a violently protracted storm. No beer, early night.

02/01/03: Discover Jinda, a not particularly attractive looking establishment, but the food’s great. Drink at Sea of Love, then drinks on the ‘west side’ of Ao Nang. Quick drink at the Midnight Bar, play some Jenga, then back to the Hillock to play cards.

03/01/03: Return to Jinda for breakfast – weather very hot; beach and Bangkok post; dinner at Welcome; drinks at Sea of Love and Cheyana; back to the Hillock to play cards.

04/01/03: Jinda for breakfast (if it ain’t broke…); Nosey Parker Elephant trekking; dinner at Beach Garden; drinks at Full Moon and Sea of Love; back to the Hillock to play cards.

Pressed against the Andaman Sea, Ao Nang's main drag is dwarfed by a huge limestone formation that behaves like some sort of precipitous vacuum, as if a huge extractor fan has been installed on its peak dehumidifying the resort of any unwelcome water vapour.
It feels like the end of the road but it's not as Phuket lies west-northwest and islands are further plentiful off the Andaman coast. Maybe it's the German families taking their winter vacations, or the plethora of rubber plantations that furnish the surrounding countryside, but probably it's because it’s the last place to see before our return to The City that Never Sleeps.


After two days spent ingesting coffee with the guys at Chao Fah Bungalows, and drinking in the evening with the Thai cowboy who ran the Old Western Bar, we perched on the back of an over-crowded songthaew and made our way to Ao Nang. I knew little of this place other than it was supposed to have a pretty beach and was want to attract those who liked to indulge in more vigorous activity, such as scuba-diving or rock-climbing. I was interested in neither. Further, it suffered by association from being in the general direction of Phuket, of which I had heard nasty things, like it was a kind of Koh Samui but on a grander scale.
The truth of the matter would be somewhat different.

Our songthaew must have come from somewhere else, possibly Krabi’s coach station where we were dropped off a few days earlier. Once again, my fondness for breaking up our journey into explorative vignettes has placed us at odds with the general flow of things. As well as the backpackers on their way to Ao Nang, who probably left Surat Thani and its islands that very morning, there are schoolchildren to contend with. We could have avoided all this if we’d gotten out of bed earlier – if it hadn’t been New Year’s Day.
I have to stand on the back-plate for the three quarters of an hour it takes to reach Ao Nang. This is not a new experience but it is the first time I have had to do this on main-roads and at such speed. It’s a little scary but there are some impressive limestone outcrops along the way to divert my attention. Such rock formations have been conspicuously sporadic up until now. Prachuap Khiri Khan had a few keeping sentry over its rough bay (this didn’t stop the Japanese from overrunning the place on 8 December 1942) but other than that I’ve only been aware of such topographic relief from a distance.
We arrive at Ao Nang without having thought much about accommodation. Songthaews are never in cahoots with guesthouses the way minibuses or taxis often are, so there’s little need to plan ahead by means of defence. However, it soon becomes apparent that the rates here are rather high, although this does seem to be in appropriate proportion to the standard of build. In other words, there are no rudimentary wooden huts for the traveller on a tight budget here.
We work our way up the strip and eventually find an available room, a substantial bungalow as far away from the beach as once could possibly be, but which does have its own fridge. Of greater interest is how this reflects on the sort of people who holiday in Ao Nang.  There are even real hotels, so perhaps it’s not too surprising – if a little perturbing – to find that family vacations are as pertinent here as travelling endeavours. In essence, my colleague and I are not Ao Nang’s top priority.

It’s fair to say that we fell into something of a routine in Ao Nang, but it was a positive routine: the sort of routine that M and E probably fell into when they bedded down somewhere for few days. Breakfast was had at Jinda for three days in succession, whilst evening drinks invariably involved Sea of Love, a mellow sort of bar playing a mellow sort of music (St Germain’s Tourist featured heavily), and with free access to the internet. Our drinking was light in nature, though, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of a hangover on the four mornings we awoke there. I had finally found my sober sanctuary.
            This general air of conviviality was only slightly spoilt by the rain. Rain, rain, rain, there had been plenty of it, and for the most part accompanied by big bangs and bright flashes. I did not mind at all but there were days where there were no accompanying pyrotechnics: just a steady stream of falling water for hours on end. It was under these conditions that I was pleased I had my Ron Hill anorak with me. We had tolerated similar conditions on the islands but our geographical predicament had been so localised as to render the use of my anorak unnecessary. We were renting along the borders of the resort and if we wanted to pop to the shops for a paper, or go out for something to eat, then we needed some protection, regardless of the ever-present warmth.

It’s on the third day that the weather finally begins to gladden and I decide that, after breakfast at Jinda, I may as well spend some time on the beach. It is a pretty beach, although the long-tail boats constantly leaving and arriving disturb the idyll somewhat. After about an hour – maybe less – I’m bored and so drag my companion to check out Nopparat Thara Beach that lines the neighbouring bay. I’m not really bothered about what it’s like: I just want to have a nose around. There are plenty of bars along the way and I earmark a few for later.  The odd thing is we never really persist with any of them. I’m actually more interested in where we might eat, my appetite having reasserted itself in heavy drinking’s absence.
Our dinner at the relatively upmarket Welcome is… most welcome, and it is here that the family-friendly ethos of Ao Nang really hits home: fresh faced 2.4 children dressed in cream-coloured linen, enjoying a night out with the folks. But it’s fine by me. Fine by me, this more civilised way of being, because nothing is so expensive that I need worry about it much.
I am certainly mindful of the cost of things, because it’s hard to know how quickly one gets through money in a travelling situation. You can keep a tally on your withdrawals to some extent, but exchange rates are in a constant state of flux, and I have no idea what I’m being charged for using the local ATMs. My parents are trying to keep me up to date, relaying my balance when they receive my bank statements, but by the time that’s caught up with me almost a month has elapsed.  In any case, accommodation has been as inexpensive as I have been led to believe, food and drink too, and transport often more so. I have a month in New Zealand to account for, of course, and there’s no doubt that’s a concern, as is returning home with at least something to tide me over.
What is a little more exorbitant are the boat trips to the nearby islands – James Bond Island amongst them. Or are they? My reluctance to engage in this sort of activity may be attributed to a number of other factors. Firstly, I’m not that keen on open water, and long-tail boats are pretty narrow vessels that look very capable of capsizing should some joker decide to, quite literally, rock the boat. Secondly, there are the ‘body-beautiful’ travellers I would have to keep company with, skirling loudly in a most disagreeable fashion, jumping into azure-blue coves, freshly inked ethnic tattoos adorning their bronzed, toned physiques: gap-year beasts assembling their credentials. They’ve been nothing more than lurid wallpaper up until now, because I’ve been able to keep these types at arm’s length most of the time. But to be stuck in a boat with them… Perhaps it’s my problem?
I’m not getting off the hook that easily. My companion wants to go elephant trekking, and only the rain is capable of stopping us. We’ve had a fair bit of it of late so the chances are that this recent sunny spell will hang around for a day or so yet. We’re booked in to go tomorrow.






I once had a very vivid dream that I was stuck high up on the branches of a gnarled tree on the African savannah, and an elephant offered me its trunk as a means of escape. I awoke feeling a strong fondness for these beasts, albeit the African variety. But you hear stories of maltreatment and exploitation, although one is also told of how the trekking elephant is a relatively fortunate one. If they weren’t taking tourists for a spin then they’d either be gainfully employed in the logging industry – not the worst scenario for a strong, bright creature such as the elephant – or they’d be squeezed into an urban conurbation, forced to perform like the proverbial monkey. One tends to believe what one rather would in such cases, but I’ve no moral scruples; you need to see these things for yourself.
I am pleased that the elephant trekking bureau is located next door to Jinda. This is no coincidence for it was over breakfast that the idea came to fruition, but it is good getting up early knowing that the first meal of the day is catered for.
By way of an introduction, we stop off at a rubber plantation. I think we’re supposed to be impressed, and my companion actually is, but it’s a shame the way trees are planted in regimented lines, betraying their natural habitat. Given that the rubber here is hand tapped, it’s also completely unnecessary. Anyway, ‘elephant trek central’ is surrounded by them, as if some budding entrepreneur came up with the idea to bring in a bit of extra money.
The trek itself seems to back up this supposition. Everything is very low-key. There is a modest hut where we are offered refreshments. The only other tourists are a European family who accompanied us on the journey here, the employees are young, relaxed and friendly, and the elephants seem to be in tune with that.
Our trek begins with it the navigation of a stream. Slowly and deliberately, there’s almost a grace to how the elephant surmounts this obstacle. One feels surprisingly secure perched upon the bamboo, sofa-like structure strapped upon the animal’s back, although I wouldn’t like to experience some sort of stampede atop this contraption.
The river traversed, we meander about 20 metres through a wood, into a clearing beneath a limestone outcrop, and… that’s it, we turn around and make our way back. The whole thing takes no more than 40 minutes. After, we are encouraged to reward our elephants with bananas, and one of the young guys offers me illicit substances. The youth of Thailand are enterprising folk, but at a pace that suits.
I decline his kind offer.


05/01/03: Return to Krabi Town; May & Marks for lunch; sort out transport; book back into Chao Fah; go for a stroll along the river; May and Mark’s for dinner; drinks at Murex, in which we are the only customers; Old West bar where we drink with a couple of lads from Hounslow and the Isle of Dogs, former stomping grounds of ours both.


Our visa covered us for 60 days and we’d been here for over 50. We had no fixed itinerary but it had been agreed that Laos would be our next port of call, and possibly Vietnam thereafter. Putting these plans into action asked that we repair to Bangkok to sort out visas and arrange the appropriate means of peregrination. I liked the idea of squeezing or Thai visa dry but we didn’t know how long all this would all take.  In any case, we’d exhausted Ao Nang and had spent an inordinate amount of time indoors, reading newspapers and filling in crosswords.
Research into the subject suggested that there were two routes back to Bangkok. We could catch a VIP Bus from Krabi Town itself or we could ride a Public Bus back to Surat Thani and board a train from there. Both routes provided for an overnight option, which appealed if only because it would save a night’s rent, effectively halving the cost of the journey. I didn’t see the point in taking a bus all the way to Surat Thani, because in my mind that was going out of the way, so we settled on the VIP Bus, deciding that we’d return to Krabi Town for a night and make our arrangements there. This also afforded us a final blast in the Old West Bar, which had quickly become one of my favourite bars in the whole of Thailand.


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