Feb 152015

Our last three swimsuit days involved a dip in a hot spring, a splash in a pleasantly cool crystal-clear pond, and two boat trips to picturesque islands. Strenuous undersea workouts were followed by lavish Thai dinners. Really, it’s impossible for you to have any sympathy for my minor annoyances.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Breakfast buffets are unpredictable, but today the Anda Lanta had a pleasant surprise for us: local papaya with slices of lime on the side for adding just a touch of tartness. Great combination, perfect with some extra caffeine.

I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep because at 2:55 I was awoken by the sound of crashing water, as though a typhoon were overflowing the downspouts. When I opened my door to check the weather, I saw water sheeting down into the hallway of the neighboring building, seemingly from the ceiling. Finding this troublesome, I wandered around the front desk building looking for a maintenance person, or anyone, to take a look at it. Eventually I concluded that no one was available, and that whatever the source of the deluge, it seemed to be the design of the building that it run off in this way. By morning, the excess water was a mere memory, as the Koh Lanta heat simply added it to the background humidity.

After loading up our vans we headed North and passed through the island traffic and both ferries in relatively short order. Around 11:15 we arrived at the “Hot Stream” in the Khlong Thom district, which unlike the saline springs we visited the other day contains fresh water. There were about a half dozen people relaxing in the warm water; an older man was getting a shoulder massage as part of his visit. There was plenty of room for our group because the rocky hillside has been carved into a series of mostly smooth-sided pools, three to five feet deep, each of which can hold several Americans (or many more Thais, since they do not seem to have our cultural preferences for lots of personal space).

Waterproof cameras in hand, we took pictures of one another with small waterfalls cascading around our heads as we worked our way down to the stream at the bottom of the falls, where the cool water was at least slightly warmed by the springs. Climbing back up the rocks was a bit more of a challenge, but swimming downstream to the platform would have meant getting much chillier so we managed. Of course, by this time, dozens of tourists from Thailand and around the world had joined us in the pools or were attempting to do so. It was just the right time to sneak away for lunch.

There were many more vendors outside the entrance to the springs than I remembered, calling out to us to come buy cold drinks. We headed for one of the open-air restaurants and crowded into a large picnic table under a tarp for a one-dish meal of fried noodles. We also shared plates of flame-broiled boneless pork neck, sliced and accompanied by a spicy Northeastern-style dipping sauce. Cuts of pork are confusing, as the neck often is sold as part of a Boston butt along with the shoulder. What? The main point is it’s fatty, and when grilled, a bit chewy. For that reason, unlike the tender belly, it’s hard to eat pork neck to excess, although we certainly tried. We will need that energy for our next stop.

When we pulled into the immense parking lot for the Sra Morakot park I was stunned. Just three years ago there were hardly any vendor stands here but now it’s like a small town. You are spoiled for choice on t-shirts, ice cream bars, grilled meat and seafood, and anything else you can imagine (except nice bathrooms). We embarked on the 1.4 kilometer nature walk, which is an elevated concrete walkway though a lowland rainforest. Most of the path passes through trees and a few stands of bamboo which are growing in flooded ground. Unlike the old days when most of the path consisted of stumps, your feet stay clean and dry, but I didn’t see the old pitcher plants or any birds or lizards, so the new “expressway” does not offer the same experience.

I assume that most visitors don’t care much about the walk because they are headed directly for the Crystal Pond AKA Emerald Pool which forms the heart of the park. The water here is pleasant and refreshing, about four feet deep, and there is a small cascade at one end which feels like a jacuzzi jet on your shoulders (or head, if you submerge yourself a bit). Unfortunately, there are a few tripping hazards in the waist-deep pond, and entry and exit are complicated by slippery algae that grows on its banks. Other than that, it’s a peaceful retreat, at least until the tour buses full of uniformed school children started arriving. It was time for us to dry off and head to town.

(My camera battery expired before we reached the pool, sorry.)

When we reached Krabi, our first stop was Varich Krabi Batik to pick up our custom-made shirts. Most fit well; only one (neither of mine) needed to be taken in a bit. We celebrated by making a few more purchases. (If you are looking for the shop, it is near the Riverside Hotel, on the opposite side of the street, just a bit further away from the river.)

In past years, I’ve stayed at the Maritime, which is at least a 20 minute walk from downtown. This year we will spend four nights at the Srisawara Casa, adjacent to the night market in the heart of town. With our vans double-parked, we unloaded our large volume of luggage and took turns waiting for the tiny elevator. (Most nearby hotels have no elevator at all, so this is one of their selling points.) I found the local 7-11 and wandered through the packed night market. Wow, this feels more urban than Bangkok.

The new location of Ruen Mai is a lengthy drive from the hotel, which means we will only be coming here three more times (after that, our vans return to Bangkok to meet our flight on Tuesday). It’s not enough visits to explore the entire menu, but there’s always “next time.” Tonight I tried an unusual fruit shake (fruit blended with ice) made with green mango. It had a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but the blender was not able to completely break down the fibrous unripe mango flesh so it had little chewy bits that sometimes clogged the straw. Worth a try during one of its rare appearances.

As our food started to arrive, I realized that in my rush to get out of my room, I had forgotten not just my camera but my entire backpack. I crossed my fingers that it was safe in my room and proceeded to document our plates with just my mobile phone camera. (My phone has many strengths, but the camera is merely passable.) Our favorites included crispy fried mackerel steaks sitting in a puddle of sweet, slightly syrupy black soy sauce; crab meat and wild pepper leaf in rich yellow coconut curry; and yam saded, a miang-style salad with crispy dried shrimp and fried cuttlefish pieces mixed with thin rings of lemongrass, chopped shallots, chopped limes, chopped Thai chillies, and cashews, with a sweet and sour tamarind-based dressing and wild pepper leaves for wrapping. A fiery kua kling (chopped beef stir-fried with crushed red chillies and potent green peppercorns) was balanced by pakwan (a local leafy green) and shrimp cooked in rich coconut milk. Absurdly delicious.

I usually fall asleep easily, or perhaps involuntarily, after long days in Thailand, so the over-amplified serenade of a nearby live music venue could not keep me awake. Some other trip members found downtown Krabi to be too loud for them; the fact that the same songs were sung, badly, every night probably didn’t help.

Tomorrow we embark on the first of our final two days of snorkeling. The world-famous Phi Phi islands will provide a full day of sightseeing, above and below the waves.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Srisawara Casa just recently began serving breakfast, and offers a choice of American, English, and Thai breakfast sets. Interestingly, the main difference between American and English is that English breakfast includes a choice of baked beans or mushrooms in addition to eggs, toast, and pork products. I’ll have to try that tomorrow, because to finish as quickly as possible, we are all having American breakfast today.

We drove from our downtown location to Ao Nang, the coastal part of Krabi where the boats are lined up in anticipation of innumerable tourist departures. The dock isn’t big enough for all of them: to reach our speedboat, we actually climbed over the backs of five other boats, where we had a major step down onto the back of our smaller boat.

The Andaman side of Thailand has been windy lately. As a result, the temperature on land has been a bit more comfortable, but boat rides are much more bouncy. It’s nice to have candied ginger on a day like this. When we reached our first spot, the reef off Mosquito Island, the water was quite stirred up and lacked its usual clarity. Still, we were able to find things to look at.

At one point I noticed an unusual creature that looked like a pincushion with sections of brown and royal blue. Maybe a closed-up starfish? It wasn’t very deep, but I dived down for a slightly better photo. While pivoting to the right I stroked back with my left hand and immediately felt the stab of sea urchin quills. I tried to pull them out but they simply crumbled, leaving two bits of the black spines below the skin. I massaged around the area a bit and the bleeding was very limited. Following age old advice, I swam to the beach, lowered my brilliant orange snorkel pants and “made shi shi” (as Snorkel Bob would say) on my wounds. Frankly, I don’t think this made any difference, but at least it didn’t take very long. Back on the boat, many had guessed what I was doing, and no one had any better ideas for immediate treatment. The mystery creature turned out to be a Globe Urchin.

(According to the internet, proper first aid for a sea urchin stabbing is a hot water soak of 30-90 minutes at about 115° to reduce pain and possibly deactivate the venom, and a soak in vinegar to dissolve the spines. In this case, the best thing would have been to pick up some vinegar back on shore and heat it with my immersion heater to apply both therapies at the same time. It just didn’t hurt enough for me to learn that until many days later.)

Our speedboat continued South toward the smaller of the two main islands, Koh Phi Phi Ley. We paused to ogle the famous Viking cave, where men climb rickety bamboo scaffolding to collect the nests used in bird’s nest soup. Then around to a picturesque lagoon within the sheer limestone walls of the island (photos here include numerous other boats, of course), and then down to our next snorkel spot. Rather than share the shallows with the crowd of other snorkelers, Kasma recommended crossing to a steep-sided karst which hosts a variety of less commonly seen sea life, including sea fans, large barrel sponges, and worm-like nudibranchs. Once you brave the boat traffic and your eyes adjust, there is a lot going on here. With the subdued lighting, though, I struggled to take photos that weren’t uselessly blurry.

We ate our box lunches on board to save time, and our third stop was Maya Bay, made famous by the movie The Beach. We once saw a turtle here, but this year, perhaps because of the murkier waters, I only saw turtle-shaped patches of coral. Our final spot was on the back side of the largest island, Koh Phi Phi Don. Ao Ling was full of boats, and we tied up near the entrance to the bay where there is a ledge with sea fans and innumerable anchovies. When you moved in toward the ledge, the overhead rock allowed a small space for the top of your snorkel; you wouldn’t want to raise your head too suddenly. I’ve always found this a difficult area for photography, but it’s so much fun to move through the swarm of anchovies and watch them react to you, other fish, etc., that a few snorkel scrapes seemed worth the effort.

When I reached the boat, my snorkel suddenly flopped into the water. The clip keeping it attached to the mask had finally given out, perhaps after one scrape too many on the overhead rock. It lasted about 20 years, so I can’t complain, but it means yet another improvised repair before I can snorkel again. (I would joke about my equipment failing in its old age, but…let’s not go there.) Our boat driver decided he didn’t care about our comfort and drove back as fast as he could; let’s not hire this guy again.

(Today’s GPS Track Note: The My Tracks app failed to record the true track between Mosquito Island and the exit to the lagoon, so a physically impossible straight line appears in its place.)

Back on land we showered and changed into batik shirts for another feast at Ruen Mai. Tonight’s crab was prepared “karee” style, stir-fried with Chinese celery, green onions, chillies and curry powder. We also enjoyed a fern salad, and pork belly stir-fried with red tofu, which I think we ate at our first lunch here. Fish was cut into chunks, deep fried, then coated with a tasty red curry. Our last two dishes were the hottest: a mixed seafood larb and a chilli curry with free range chicken. My chicken consisted nearly entirely of liver and skin; not sure who got all the other parts. But the important point is that chilli curry is one of the South’s hottest dishes, so a coconut milk dessert was in order tonight. The bananas (stewed in palm sugar, served in warm salted coconut milk) were surprisingly chewy compared with other versions I’ve tried, harder to cut and slower to eat. Still, the dish helped soothe my angry tongue, so mission accomplished.

Tomorrow we tour and snorkel some of Krabi’s picture postcard coastline and nearby islands. It’s our last chance to see fish and coral before we return home.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

This morning several of us enjoyed the Thai version of English breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, toast, and tea. We then headed back to Ao Nong, this time to take two longtail boats, since we had far less distance to cover.

Our first stop was Poda Island. On previous trips, we stayed at the resort here, but with the National Park’s takeover of the island, the resort was demolished (enough to make it uninhabitable). So we would be wandering the beaches as the “day trippers” we used to find annoying on “our” island. The hornbill photo ops were limited, but there were innumerable mina birds on display. In the waters, we couldn’t access the closer reef, and at the farther reef, the water was quite sandy, so overall not impressive today.

Famously photogenic beach on Poda Island near Krabi

At Chicken Island — that’s the tourist name due to a chicken head-like rock on one end; in Thai, it’s Spear Island — the better reef was so wavy that we circled around to the protected side and found that everyone else had done the same. We saw a few interesting things here, and hastily consumed a box lunch of basil chicken over rice with a fried chicken leg on the side. Hmm, maybe chicken island is the best name after all?

Our third snorkel spot was the best: a karst that had eroded in the middle so there was a shallow channel with lots of fish that like to prop themselves up on the sand and rocks. The clown anemonefish also were enormous here. The most peculiar find was a small octopus that was trailed by a pair of honeycomb groupers. Whenever the octopus settled into a hole, they rested nearby, sometimes right on top of it. Were they bodyguards? Actually, these fish are known to hunt for octopi, so they might have been trying to stake a claim to its tasty flesh.

After I could snorkel no more, I returned to the boat and we soon proceeded to our final stop, the Princess Beach (Ao Phra Nang). Here you could see the diversity of Thai tourism on display, although some of the bellies probably should have been kept under wraps. But we were here only briefly to visit the Princess Cave, which according to legend was an ancient bridal chamber. A dramatic opening in the karst with impressive stalactites, the ground level of the cave hosts a shrine and a huge pile of wooden phalluses. Whether one is a fisherman praying for the fertility of the sea, or someone else interested in their own personal fertility, this would be the place to visit. Just try to limit your time in the scorching sun if you haven’t reapplied your sunscreen.

(Today’s GPS Track Note: The Princess Beach is not pinned, but you can see the location where the track takes a detour to the Railay Peninsula.)

Returning to shore and showering were by now a familiar routine, but tonight we also needed to slim our bags and load everything that didn’t fit within our baggage allowance for our domestic flight from Krabi to Bangkok into the vans. How did I end up with so much “stuff” and how will I ever get it home? (These questions also have become routine: every trip here seems to have involved a struggle to find a good box, get it safely packed and taped up and back to California without outrageous extra bag fees.)

For our final night at Ruen Mai we reprised the grilled eggplant salad (I liked it better this time) and the steamed barramundi with choo chee curry, a thick red curry rich in coconut cream. Kasma special ordered fried catfish with turmeric and garlic. You slit the sides of the catfish in several places to allow the turmeric marinade to deeply flavor the flesh, then fry the catfish until crispy enough to eat most of the bones. Finally, you fry the turmeric and garlic bits until crisp and sprinkle those over the top just before serving. A touch oily, but delicious. Large whole prawns (with the heads) starred in a powerfully spicy hot and sour soup, and regular shrimp were featured in a green curry with an unusual cumin flavor. For those who need a little extra fat, lardons of pork belly were fried to a crisp and served with a little Sriracha sauce on the side (the Thai style, which is garlicky and a bit sweet, pureed completely smooth, unlike the “rooster” sauce commonly seen in California). I didn’t have any room left for dessert tonight.

Our remaining time is short: after a “free day” tomorrow, we return to Bangkok Tuesday and to the U.S. on Wednesday. I changed a lot more money than I have spent. Should I hold the baht as a currency hedge, or go shopping?

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