Most people have already discovered Phuket and Koh Samui but follow the backpacker crowd to Krabi, and you’re assured of something special
Backpackers have always set the pace in travel, finding new and secluded destinations that offer a ‘real’ taste of the country you’re visiting. And this is very much the case in Thailand. The film The Beach was based on a group’s experiences at a coastal backpacker idyll, and it was filmed in Krabi province.
Arriving at the ‘pier’ at Railay Beach West, I knew I’d come to a backpackers’ haven. Railay is only accessible by boat due to the impenetrable limestone cliffs that divide it from the nearby bay of Ao Nang. As the longtail taxi boat bobbed on the gentle Andaman Sea surf, our driver jumped off the back of the boat straight into the crystal clear sea. Then, pulling the boat down on one side, he helped us out. The word pier had given me an impression of at least a wooden jetty, but as I stood knee-deep in water, I realised that in Railay getting your feet wet was all part of the experience.
Now as much as I admire backpackers’ obvious zeal and nose for a hot destination, I’m a home-comforts kind of girl and don’t travel light. Dragging my suitcase over the fine white sand, I immediately realised the benefits a backpack could offer. Still, we were soon met by bell boys from our hotel, The Railay Bay Resort and Spa. This resort offers accommodation from garden bungalows to luxurious suites and villas, complete with Jacuzzi baths, private outdoor showers, day beds and wi-fi, but all rooms offer air conditioning, in-room safes, televisions and fridges with mini bars.
Railay is split into two parts. Railay Beach West hosts three- and four-star hotels and a great beach shouldered by impressive limestone crags, which have become rock-climbing challenges for tourists seeking a little adventure. Its younger sister, Railay Beach East, still tempts the backpacker crowd, with bungalow accommodation, cheap eats and bars for fun nights. But this is no party-crazed resort – even the larger, more touristy Ao Nang doesn’t offer wild nights. Railay is as laidback as it gets, with long-haired gap-year types setting the cool pace.
As one of Thailand’s many attractions is its underwater life, I joined a snorkelling trip to Koh Phi Phi. Actually two islands, Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh lie around 45 minutes from Railay, amidst the most beautiful aquamarine sea I have ever encountered. Phi Phi Don hosts high-end tourists at luxury hotels and a huge number of backpackers in beach bungalows.
Koh Phi Phi Leh is uninhabited, sits within a National Marine Park – an area of immense natural beauty - and is home to huge numbers of fish species. It was here, on Maya Bay, that Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach, and the crew couldn’t have picked a more awe-inspiring location. Our boat arrived at the bay around 10am, when thankfully the hordes of visitors that head there each day hadn’t yet built up. Get there too late and Maya Bay can resemble an airport car park with cheek-by-jowl tourists clamouring for their inch of beach and the smell of engine fuel filling the air. But come early or late in the day and it dazzles.
Taking a moment to observe Maya Bay’s beauty is one of those things that makes you realise how small you are as a human being, how awesome the earth’s power, and how the ebb and flow of every tide creates a poetic natural beauty. Maya Bay kept me transfixed, for a while hypnotising me with rippling waves and her sparkling white sand. But then we had to leave and it was back to the speedboat to find one of Phi Phi Leh’s offshore beauty spots.
Diving into the translucent sea with snorkel and mask, I found myself amidst a school of green-striped fish. The guide said they were tiger fish, although at five inches long and resembling something out of Finding Nemo, there was nothing fearsome about these little creatures. Next, a filefish flashed its ultraviolet markings at me while an angelfish pootled by with an air of indifference. I got the impression they were used to amphibious visitors, but then the sheer number and incredible beauty of the marine park’s inhabitants have put Koh Phi Phi Leh top of many divers’ wish-lists.
Back on dry land on Railay, I wandered a winding path to Phra Nang Beach,, encountering a family of monkeys posing for a small but appreciative crowd of camera-clicking onlookers on the way. If this region of Krabi is shaped like an upside down hammer-head jutting into the sea, then Phra Nang Beach is the flat part on the top of the hammer. On the beach, long-tail boats swayed in waltz-like fashion on the receding tide beneath the shadow of two marooned limestone stacks. Everything here seemed to slow in pace, urging you to stop and enjoy its majestic scenery.
This part of Railay is home to its most exclusive resort, Rayavadee, whose guests arrive by speedboat and are met by a mobile platform, which ushers them in comfort to butler-serviced cottages - but the beach is open to everyone. After a couple of hours enjoying the solitude of Phra Nang, I headed back to Railay West for sundowners at Bobo’s. The bar has become a Railay institution, coaxing people to beachside tables to take in the pink, red and orange hues of the day’s end as they ribbon across the sky.
Nearby a group of tourists and locals played their regular evening football match and a barefoot man strummed a guitar to an enthusiastic audience. I realised that there were many ways to enjoy life on Railay. The backpackers give it that relaxed air that slows the pace of life to a near standstill and though there is glamour in arriving by speedboat to a dry platform, it seemed much more fun to get your feet wet. In short, I’d enjoyed dipping my toe into this most blissful of tropical havens.