Island hopping through the Andaman Coast, Thailand

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We had quite different plans for our time in Thailand than what eventuated. We had planned on working our way up the Andaman Coast, staying at Hat Yao, Koh Kradan, Koh Lanta and then Ao Nang for the water festival and lastly finishing our Andaman amore at the rock climbing mecca of Railay. From there we were to continue our trip further north where I was keen to show Damien Erawan Falls, which had stayed in my mind (over decade later) as the most gorgeous waterfalls I had ever laid eyes on. We would spend another couple of weeks heading further north until we reached Chiang Rai, where we had booked four decadent days at the Le Meridien. In the planning  we had relished the thought of a lazy stop over here where we could rest and bliss out in lavish surroundings, after what we thought would be a few weeks of roughing it in bungalows and less salubrious accommodation.

However the accident on 11 April threw a massive spanner in the works and dictated that our sojourn in the land of smiles was to be all about the Andaman Coast, and in some parts of it that we had never thought we’d go to, much less devote nearly a month of our time to!

I decided to write about our time at all the different islands as an example of one the hundreds of different routes one could take up the coast. I for one was quite overwhelmed when I began reading Lonely Planet all those months ago at home. There are so many islands that it is really hard to narrow it down to a short list of potential options that tick all your boxes. I actually think we did alright with our choices, and here is where we went and how we went about it. I would love to go into immense detail about every exciting and interesting thing about our island time but I would need to write a short story to tell it all! I mean even the sometimes insanely mundane weeks we spent while I were recovering could be be a short story on all the TV series and movies we watched alone… because, mate, we watched a lot of TV!

So without further ado, here ’tis:

Koh Libong – 30 March 2012

How we got there

We were staying on the Andaman Coast in a small fishing village called Hat Yao. We arranged our day trip around Koh Libong via the front desk at our accommodation. It was a longtail boat with a local driver.

The cost of the trip

THB 3600 (A$120) for two; four people is THB 4800 (A$160)

Highlight

At the conclusion of our day trip we casually asked about how to access the secluded beach of Hat Apo on the mainland, and our longtail driver was happy to drop us off there at no extra charge. We enjoyed a number of hours on a spectacular private beach that we will never forget.

Lowlight

We were led to believe that we would have an English speaking guide, as the purpose of the tour was to spot and learn about the elusive dugong in the area. Instead we got a longtail driver who didn’t speak any English at all. We were also, due to the language barrier, unable to suggest a different location for our lunch on Koh Libong. It was a wildly beautiful island with many tempting potential picnic sites, but our guide picked probably the most dull and uninspiring spot of all! We were also advised before the journey that we would be able to snorkel through the seagrass, but we were taken to an area of seagrass that seemed to be affected by algal bloom and the water was murky and not suitable for swimming. We also didn’t see any dugongs on the day (but this is really up to nature, when it comes down to it).

Accommodation

Haad Yao Nature Resort, Hat Yao. We had a large room with a lengthy balcony overlooking the water. It was a pleasant spot to watch the sun rise, and the goings on of the local fisherman. Although not an overly flash accommodation option and overpriced for what it was, it was by far the best of what we saw elsewhere in the area. Breakfast was included in the cost, and the dining area sat out over the water and was a wonderfully chilled place to relax and eat. The staff were friendly and helpful.

Cost of accommodation

THB 1350 (A$45) per night

Best eating options

There is a small brick building behind the large casuarina trees on the edge of Hat Yao beach (approx. 10 minute walk from Haad Yao Nature Resort). Make sure you go to the restaurant that is closest to the casuarina trees, on the left hand side of the dirt road to the beach. The food is outstanding and very cheap, but make sure you eat before dark or you’ll get carried away by the mozzies!

Tip

I wouldn’t recommend staying on Koh Libong if you’re after a typical Thai beach experience. It seemed very basic and more a local’s island, but it could be tempting to those who are into camping or a more rustic experience. If however your whole purpose is to see dugongs, it might be worthwhile researching to see if any of the accommodation options have canoe hire so you can spend as many hours as you like each day floating in the seagrass in search of the duges. It would be too expensive to do multiple day trips for this express purpose.

Koh Kradan – 31 March to 9 April 2012

How we got there

We arranged a ferry transfer from Kuantunku pier via a tourist office in Trang (Happy Trip Tours), one or two doors down from the Sri Trang Hotel. We had to get our own way to the pier because of our stay at Hat Yao; normally you can get a direct connection from Trang. We caught a local minibus from Hat Yao to the pier, the pickup point was just outside our accommodation. The only available minibus left at 8am which got us to the pier hours before our departure time scheduled for 12pm. When we arrived a local approached us and asked to see our ticket, and then advised that he was the one who would be taking us at 12pm. Instead he offered to take us immediately there by longtail, which we jumped at!

The cost of the transport

Minibus from Hat Yao to Kuantungku pier THB 100 (A$3.35) per person, 30 minutes. Boat transfer from Kuantungku pier to Koh Kradan THB 350 (11.65) per person, approx. 1 hour.

Highlight

Staying on a small island that was the epitome of my island fantasies. No crowds, no roads and golden sandy beaches with warm azure waters, the stunning vista of surrounding islands, gorgeous sunrises and lazy, quiet days.

Lowlight

Around the time of the full moon there are king tides and at low tide the water creeps away so far from the shore that it makes swimming at that time of day an unattractive option.

Accommodation

We spent our time at Kalume Resort which is positioned at the northern end of the island (away from day tripping boats and their passengers!). It is an Italian/Thai owned resort and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there. There are the basic bungalows which we stayed at or there are slightly more upmarket options for those who want something better. It is worth mentioning that at the time we were there they were also constructing a new set of bungalows around a pool area which I assume will cater to those with even more cash to burn. Although our bungalow consisted of no more than a bed (with mosquito net) and a separate bathroom area (with cold shower) it was extremely well maintained and a nice place to call home. There was also a hammock and built in benches on the balcony for when you felt like lounging somewhere other than the beach or the well appointed hammock pavilion (where I spent many an hour devouring the pages of my book). There is wifi at the resort.

Cost of accommodation

THB 900 (A$30) per night.

Best eating options

We actually only dined at Kalume and its neighbouring resort but this was because we were completely satisfied with the food there. Kalume has mostly Thai dishes but also some western/Italian. Coral Garden next door serves Italian food and we had a rather odd pizza from there one night that had all of the four ingredients neatly positioned in their respective food groups on a quarter of the pizza. A definite “what the?” moment for us! However, we went for some pasta dishes another evening and they were fabulous and as good as any Italian meal we’d find in a decent  restaurant back home.

Tip

Don’t come here if you are after night life, bars and shopping. There is none!

Koh Mook – 2 April 2012

How we got there

We arranged our own longtail boat via the staff at Kalume Resort. We were specifically going to Morakot (The Emerald Cave) and wanted to go early in the morning before any other tourists arrived so we could enjoy the serenity all to ourselves. We were successful :D

The cost of the transport

THB 1000 (A$33) which included an hour in the cave itself. We noticed somewhat smugly that the other tourists who came after us were there between 10 – 30 minutes maximum as they had arrived as part of a big tour group.

Highlight

Without doubt, entering the breathtakingly beautiful cave to the sounds of birds and insects singing and not another soul there. God was showing off when he created this place.

Lowlight

Can’t think of one!

Tip

I think this is obvious, but if you can get there early in the morning you may be rewarded with having the place all to yourself. The other is if you are claustrophobic the entrance into the tunnel to get to the cave is not very high. However, once you swim into the cave, even though it is dark the cave roof is high and with a torch you can spy the bats hanging from the rocks.

Koh Lanta – 9 to 23 April 2012

How we got there

We arranged a ride on a ferry boat from Koh Kradan via a tourist desk located out the front of Kradan Beach Resort. The ferry stopped at a few other spots along the way as it also served as a “Four Island Tour” for people wishing to do some snorkelling. We didn’t opt for this, but aside from not having a set of snorkels, I was able to jump off the boat and swim with the fishies and enjoy the sights. The water was so crystal clear that I soon ditched my swimming goggles (that kept filling up with water) as I could see all the coral and fish as if I was looking through glass anyway.

The cost of the transport

THB 550 (A $18) per person

Highlight

On our first full day on Koh Lanta we had a ball. Part of what made it so much fun was hiring some scooters so we could go up and down the coast and stop wherever we pleased. It is very cheap to hire a scooter (TBH 250/A$8) and the traffic is not too busy so you feel fairly safe getting onto the road with the locals. We enjoyed a very tasty meal at the Diamond Cliff Restaurant, which has wonderful views of the coast and what looks like a great area for cocktails to watch the sun go down. The Thai massage I had at the outdoor pavilion at Kantiang Bayview Resort was awesome and I had every intention of going back the next day before the accident changed our plans. And if you enjoy a good cover band then you can’t go past the Why Not bar at this resort.

Lowlight

Well the second full day was the polar opposite of our first. We got caught up in the fear and the panic of a tsunami evacuation on the island and I was hit by a motorbike and that put an end to all our plans for the following month and a half. However, if I was to pick a less dramatic lowlight I would say our room at Kantiang Bayview Resort. It had a rather unpleasant odour of urine/mould and we resorted to purchasing incense sticks to disguise the smell until we could exit stage left to a new location the next fateful day.

Accommodation

1.Kantiang Bayview Resort. We stayed in a rather run down bungalow with a fan and cold shower. The room had that rather unpleasant odour as I mentioned. I would not recommend staying here but the massage, food, bar and beach are all nice so it’s a bit of a shame. Cost THB 500 (A $17) per night.

2.Friendly Guesthouse. This place was next to the Blue Moon Cafe and we are not even sure if it was actually called “Friendly Guesthouse” or if that was the sign to let you know they were friendly! That aside, it was positioned on the northern end Klong Nin Beach. This beach has a lovely string of guesthouses and restaurants and the leafy street really has a wonderful appeal that drew us straight in. The Guesthouse rooms are very basic – a bed, a table and a light. It has a shared bathroom. But you cannot get more beachfront than this and the staff are friendly. Due to the tsunami evacuation and my accident the day we arrived I can’t say much more about the place except to say that if our circumstances had of been different I would have loved to have stayed there. Cost THB250 (A$8) per night.

3.Ban Kantiang See. This is a small group of palatial villas perched on a hill overlooking the bay of Kantiang. The view is magnificent and so are the villas! The villas all have two bedrooms, a huge deck area, wifi, flat screen TV and are self contained There is an infinity pool as well. We stayed here during the period when I was immediately recovering from the accident and I can’t think of a more perfect place to recoup. The cost was initially THB 4800 (A$160) per night but by the end of our stay they were charging us THB 4000 (A$130). In the low season (starts May 1st) it drops to THB $2800 (A$93) per night. This is a total bargain and split across two couples you would be congratulating yourself every morning for your decision to stay there! At night you might be lucky like we were to be treated to breathtaking sunsets of firey orange, pinks and mauves or perhaps watch the fireflys that meander through the villa. There are always a few cheeky monkeys wandering around as well.

4.Lanta Loft. Set back from the road about 10 minutes south from the wharf. The rooms are huge, have balconies, wifi and flat screen TV and are self contained. The décor has a modern minimalist feel about it. There is a small pool on the property as well. Cost THB 2300 (A$77) per night.

Best eating options

By far our favourite place was Alama a trendy joint newly opened in 2012 at Ao Kantiang. We got to dine at the restaurant once and upstairs they have low tables with cushions so you can recline, enjoy a wine or cocktail while you eat some seriously tasty meals. The upstairs area of the restaurant is open to the air and it adds to the atmosphere at night. I loved the tofu in gravy. This bland sounding dish was anything but! It was packed with flavour and lots of veges, mushrooms and prawns to boot. While I started my recovery at Ban Kantiang See Damien purchased the majority of our take away meals from there.

Tip

Most beaches on Koh Lanta are at least partly rocky at low tide which makes it not so great for swimming at that time.

Phuket – 23 April to 14 May 2012

How we go there

We arranged a ferry transfer that we organised from our accommodation at Lanta Loft. It is easy to arrange tickets elsewhere as well. We changed to a much bigger and much more packed ferry at Koh Phi Phi Don for the final leg to the wharf at Phuket.

The cost of the transport

THB $550 (A $18) per person. Transport to the wharves both ends cost extra.

Highlight

It may sound unfair to those who love Phuket but the highlight was definitely the day when the hospital gave us the OK to leave! Unfortunately for Phuket my impression of this island is tainted because we never intended on having to go there, and definitely didn’t want to spend three weeks there in total. You could easily forget you are even on an island as it is so large and it has become a tourist playground, and not always in a very flattering way. But it isn’t all bad and we did have some good times there and see some interesting sights. If I had to pick a single highlight I would say staying in Phuket Town. Phuket Town did not have the touristy feel that all the beachside areas did. There are some charming streets where the Sino-Portuguese architecture has been restored and you can easily while away a day in the various funky cafes and restaurants and end the night in a local bar sharing a drink with the locals. Here they let their hair down and you can pretend you are not the only falang in the joint!

Lowlight

Kamala Beach  gets our collective thumbs down. We hitched a local bus all the way up there from Phuket Town (It is a unique, if somewhat slow experience to save some dosh and do it the way the locals do) hoping to enjoy the surf but the beach was not at all appealing and to top it off the local taxi drivers charge a ridiculous amount of money to drive you the short distance to nearby (and much much prettier) Surin beach. Kamala just doesn’t have a nice feel about it. The streets are shabby and depressing and after experiencing Surin and Kata Noi beaches Kamala just can’t compete.

Accomodation

1. Villareal Heights: This property is located on a hill, set back from the beach and main tourist areas between Kata and Karon. You can walk to the beaches in 10-15 minutes. The rooms are very clean, spacious and have good bathrooms. What sets the place apart is the unbelievably friendly and personalised service of the owners. We only met Phil as his wife was on holidays when we were there but Phil went above and beyond to help us. He took us for an orientation drive around town when we first arrived, gave us a mobile phone (with credit already on it) to use, offered use of his moto for short trips and as we couldn’t use this he personally drove us to places in Kata we wanted to go to on a number of occasions. Cost THB 1650 (A$55) per night.

2. Sawaddi Patong Resort: This is a lovely little resort set back in a quieter part of town so that you can sleep at night when everyone else parties to the wee hours on Bangla Road. Possibly the nicest pool we have come across on our trip and very professional and accommodating staff to boot. Cost THB 1650 (A$55) per night.

3. 99 Oldtown Boutique Guesthouse: This done-up old Chinese shop house was very comfortable, clean and in a central part of Phuket Town – positioned on the mainstreet, Thalang Road. The only thing I didn’t rate so much was the coloured panels of glass along the top of the walls between the rooms. If you have neighbours, as we did, who come home very late and fall asleep (probably pissed) with the lights on you will not be a happy camper if you sleep lightly like moi.

Best eating options

In Kata, for beautiful Thai food, you can’t go past Kampung Hill. The prices are reasonable, the food is lovely and the service is great. The setting is a winner too with tasteful Thai and Chinese artwork inside and a pretty garden outside. You can nearly forget you are on the tourist strip. For really great cocktails and wine (with the expensive Thai price tag for wine) to enjoy the gorgeous views of Kata with, either The Boathouse or Mom Tri’s are fabulous. The cocktails made with Thai flavours are the standouts. Both establishments are very upmarket (particularly Mom Tri’s) and receive rave reviews on Trip Advisor for their food, but we felt for the expensive price tag they were little better than what you would eat in most good midrange priced places in Sydney. The other “must eat” venue is the Pad Thai shop located on Karon Hill. The shop actually doesn’t have a name on the awning outside but it is on the righthand side of the road as you head north towards Karon, just past the “Ping Pong Bar” (classy). In Phuket Town we enjoyed a couple of really good meals at Suay. It does mostly Thai dishes with a modern twist and some very fine western options as well. The standout dish for me was without doubt the mango sticky rice spring rolls, flamed mango and black sesame ice cream. The wine list is small but well chosen and not too badly priced for Thailand.  For great Thai food we loved Gotum. The yellow curry was the best I have ever eaten. In fact, every dish was excellent.

For my birthday we dined at the award winning, Acqua which is a refined and stylish Italian Restaurant on the water at Kalim Bay. It is a quick taxi ride from Patong but far enough out of the mayhem. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal here and would have happily dined there a second time but it is a little on the expensive side so we stopped at once. They have an extensive wine list and we opted for an Argentinian wine which was lovely. The only thing that let the restaurant down was the cocktails. After enjoying some excellent cocktails elsewhere, Acqua definitely was weaker in comparison.

Tip

Don’t go to Phuket if you are after an “island” experience. This place is so huge that you really feel like you are on the mainland. Go if you love getting amongst it with the other tourists, partying, shopping and lying on beaches that are covered in deckchairs and umbrellas.

Koh Phi Phi – 11 May 2012

How we got there

We booked a speedboat tour from a tourist outlet in Phuket Town which included transfers to and from our hotel.

The cost of the transport

THB 1500 (A$50) per person. The price also included lunch and a snorkel for looking at the coral and fish.

Highlight

Phi Phi Leh (the smaller and uninhabited of the two Phi Phi islands) was what captured my imagination. Although Maya Bay was beautiful I was actually more blown away by the impossibly aqua blue waters of the lagoon. We vowed that if we come back to this part of the world we would ensure we hired a longtail so we could spend as long as we liked swimming in this water wonderland surrounded by gorgeous karst cliffs.

Lowlight

There was no real downers on this day trip. However, when we arrived at Maya Bay (of Leonardo Di Caprio, “The Beach” fame) so had everyone else. I think to fully appreciate it’s beauty we would need to do what we did for the Emerald Cave and arrive early in the morning before everyone else. We also noted that you can camp at Maya Bay overnight, which would ensure you would the first there – with the sunrise, no less. Bliss.

Tip

Go to Phi Phi in the low season to avoid massive crowds. There were still a lot of people when we went, so I’d hate to see it when the high season tourists descend.

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