As our trip comes to a close, we’ll try to maximize our snorkeling and shopping time. Eating will not be neglected, however, as we’ll have some of the finest meals of our trip. Can we have it all?
Friday, February 10, 2017
The view of the beach from the Anda Lanta breakfast buffet is one we’ll remember fondly as we head North to Krabi, where we stay at a boutique hotel in town. If we weren’t on a mission to hit as many good snorkel spots as humanly possible, we could spend a relaxing day or two more here. Oh well!
Our first stop on the way to Krabi is the Emerald Pool, a natural spring-fed pond in a park with a nice nature walk. Not that anyone is looking at the trees, butterflies, or dragonflies as they speed toward the pool. Advertised as part of “Unseen Thailand,” the large number of tourists refreshing themselves here suggests otherwise. I’m taking a “dry toe day” so I wandered and took photos. A friendly dog accompanied me down the walkway (an elevated concrete walkway with handrails replaced the old path of uneven stumps several years ago), and suddenly stopped and stared intently into the brush. At first, I only saw a dragonfly, but eventually I noticed a large lizard on the other side of the stream. Good dog!
We paused at a large restaurant just at the edge of the parking lot for a quick one-plate lunch. I chose the mixed seafood stir fried with Thai basil, topped with a fried egg, a classic traveler’s lunch served with a generous mound of rice. Kasma treated the group to ice cream afterwards, but having finished a bag of fried bananas, there just wasn’t any more space in my stomach. (I know some people claim to have a separate stomach for dessert, but I must have used mine for extra snacks.)
Nearby, we stopped at the entrance to the Waterfall Hot Spring, a series of pools carved from the rock that leads from a hot stream down to the cool river. They recently revamped the grounds and now recommend a golf cart to get to the springs. Considering the size of our group, our schedule, and the huge tour bus in the parking lot, it seemed best to forego this second opportunity to get wet and press on to Krabi.
In town, our first stop was Varich Krabi Batik, known on Google Maps as Krabi Batik Center. They make beautiful hand-painted shirts, t-shirts, sarongs, scarves, and handkerchiefs, among other works of art. In addition to the traditional cotton fabrics, they had a selection of rayon items for the ladies. We purchased more than our share, as the fish and flower themes make for iconic gifts for family, friends, and coworkers back home. Some also placed orders for different sizes or patterns, to be picked up in a few days.
We also visited a batik boutique which uses a different technique. Rather than draw freehand, they use elaborate metal stamps to apply the hot wax that preserves the white color of the fabric, before dipping the fabric in dye (or painting on the dye) to color between the lines. Prices are loftier here and we didn’t make quite as many purchases.
Our hotel, Srisawara Casa, is one of many multi-story boutique hotels near the river in Krabi, but importantly, it has an elevator, which is essential for our group at this point in our journey, needing to do a serious bag consolidation in a few days. For now, we are enjoying being adjacent to an afternoon market, across the street from a 7-Eleven, and having a saxophone serenade as we cool down and dress for dinner. The nearby nightclub, on the other hand, is a bit of a detraction for those who do not pass out readily after dinner.
We drove out of town to Ruen Mai, known both for its excellent Thai food and its picturesque garden setting. It’s more picturesque during the day, of course, but we were guided to a private dining area that easily seated our party of 18 under a palapa, as though it were built for us. There is no shortage of delicious things to eat here, and in fact we won’t even cover the entire list of good things in our three dinners here. We started with a dish of pork belly batons, stir-fried with garlic cloves, and generously sprinkled with tiny (but mighty) Thai chillies. These ingredients are lightly enrobed in a deep red sauce, colored by fermented tofu. The crispy fried king mackerel steaks in a puddle of soy-based sauce and the seafood larb were as expected. A unique dish on this trip is yum sadet, a delicious salad with lemongrass, shallots, cashews, and mysterious fried bits that turn out to be cuttlefish. Those who didn’t know the secret ingredient thought of it as a cashew salad with a tangy lime-based dressing. Shrimp and sadtaw beans were stir-fried in a shrimp paste sauce, which is something of an acquired taste. To counter a spicy seafood salad, pak miang rainforest greens were served in coconut milk, which helps soothe a chilli-tortured tongue. Dessert brought a choice of various ice creams, sweet sticky rice with durian, and one of my favorites, stewed bananas topped with coconut cream.
Tomorrow we begin our final two days of snorkeling. The hourly weather forecasts include some probable thunderstorms, but will that stop us? Unlikely.
Saturday, February 11, 2017
The hotel’s breakfast cooks cannot feed our entire group in a reasonable amount of time, so we stopped in at a nearby noodle shop for noodles with duck, or noodles with pork, or noodles with… you get the idea. Very pleasant, and we’ll be burning it off soon enough.
It’s about a half hour drive from town to the pier at Hat Noppharat Thara, a beach lined with longtail boats and speedboats, and a maddeningly tight parking lot ringed with numerous vendor stalls. Kasma had reserved a speedboat which would bring us near the Phi Phi islands in about half the time required by a longtail. That said, long tail boats, with their haphazard wooden construction and occasional need to bail water from under the floorboards, tend to offer much more space and more ways to get into the ocean, so we are making a trade-off. Our first preferred snorkel spot, off “Mosquito Island” was closed to help protect the reef, so we snorkeled nearby “Bamboo Island” instead. While I was watching fish closer to the boat, several trip members venturing further afield found a large leopard shark resting on the bottom and observing them. That sounds like something I would have liked to photograph, assuming the shark did not have any ill intent. We next stopped briefly South of Ko Phi Phi Don, the largest of the Phi Phi islands and the only one to have resorts. Its beach was incredibly busy, but that didn’t affect us too much since we were floating around over at a pile of rocks well way from the tourist fray.
On our way to a beach for lunch on Ko Phi Phi Ley, we peered into a cave where nests are collected for bird’s next soup, and paused in a lagoon for photos and a bit of swimming. When we finally jumped onto the sand, relaxing until the tide dropped a bit, we enjoyed a box lunch of chicken with yellow rice and various snacks. I resisted the urge to blog, considering the danger of sand gumming up the keyboard. After lunch, we headed back toward the entrance to the bay where there is a nearly vertical karst wall hosting less common fish, the occasional nudibranch, and colorful sea fans. This area is notoriously dark and difficult to photograph. Kasma brought a waterproof flashlight, so I’ll be interested to see whether that helped. Meanwhile, some movement gave away a few well disguised fish that I have tentatively identified as scorpionfishes.
Our boat rounded the Southern tip of Phi Phi Ley and tried to position us near “The Beach” in Maya Bay to snorkel in a cave. But it was just too busy with other boats, so we headed to the Northern end of Phi Phi Don, to Ao Ling, where the richest collection of sea fans can be found. On an earlier trip, we saw some dolphins in this bay, so you never know what you might find here. Under overcast skies, the light was poor, but the water was reasonably clear, so maybe something will appear in the images that doesn’t come readily to mind.
On our way back to our starting point, we were intercepted by a heavy rainstorm. With the boat driving over 30mph, it stung, but my main concern was my backpack and laptop, which were not well protected except by being wrapped in a beach towel. Turns out there was no obvious damage, but a damp backpack isn’t any fun. Regrettably we arrived at our vans drenched, and soaked the seats, which would lend the van a less pleasant aroma in coming days. Sorry!
After a proper shower and change of clothes, we returned to Ruen Mai for another feast. Succulent crab meat with mild yellow curry has been a favorite of mine and the group on every trip. By contrast, the fiercely spicy dry curry of beef known as kua kling was the most difficult dish to finish. My stomach burns just thinking about it. The soupy Southern sour fish curry gaeng som continued the theme. Having coconut shoots instead of bamboo shoots is a nice change, but doesn’t make it any less spicy. Fish steaks with rich choo chee curry provided a touch of cooling coconut milk, but the only truly mild dishes, other than the crab curry, were chunks of deep fried pork belly and stir-fried greens. I was too full for dessert, but there were many happy customers.
It only rained briefly during dinner — apologies to our wait staff who had to run things to and from our palapa on the open air walkways — and the forecast is looking a bit better for tomorrow. We have a little more beach time in the schedule, but I’m going to forego the possible productivity gains and leave my laptop at the hotel just in case.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
This morning, my backpack is infested with tiny ants. Perhaps they were attracted by the seawater, or motivated to move out by the moisture? Not sure exactly how to clean this bag; it might have to wait until I’m back in California. For now, I’m just shaking out as many of them as possible. After another visit to the noodle shop, and another drive to the beach, we climbed into two longtail boats to explore the nearby islands.
Ko Poda is a scenic island, and our early arrival meant we had it to ourselves. For a few minutes. By the time we left after attempted snorkeling (very wavy, water not very clear), photographing the local monkeys, and having a rice salad box lunch, there were several dozen speedboats and longtails nose in to the beach, rubbing one another’s bumpers. Crazy.
For our next snorkeling stop, we drove to the back side of “Chicken Island,” known in Thai as Spear Island, apparently due to a different interpretation of a prominent feature sticking up from one end. This area was still a bit wavy but offered the best local opportunity for snorkeling today under prevailing conditions. We stopped along the Railay Peninsula to check on the phallus collection at the Princess cave — to encourage fertility of the sea, of course — and to marvel at the complete takeover of the area by monkeys. A handful of monkeys is cute, but a couple dozen monkeys are a menace.
We had very little rain returning to land, and we arrived at the hotel with an urgent mission: separate everything that could be sent back to Bangkok in our vans so that we would be flying up with a minimum of weight and bags. Manic packing ensued, as well as difficult decisions about wet items. After delivering our nonessentials (for the time being) to the vans, we drove to Ruen Mai for our third and last dinner of this trip. Tonight we had another of the perennial favorites: grilled eggplant salad with a dressing enriched with coconut milk. Too bad we can’t get these firm, delicately sweet, long green eggplants in California, but the light purple ones make a reasonable (if somewhat soft) substitute. Kasma custom ordered catfish marinated with garlic and turmeric, which is then deep fried whole and topped with crispy marinade bits. Salty, crunchy, delicious. If you didn’t custom order, they normally make this preparation with smaller fish, and I find it just as tasty. Our crab curry was a bit different tonight, being cooked with wild pepper leaves, which lend the dish a slightly bitter edge. Hot and sour soup with large whole shrimp in their shells, fried fish chunks in spicy chilli curry, and mild stir fried ferns rounded out the set. Once again, no room for dessert.
Tomorrow is our “free day” allowing time for visiting the local market, temple, and shops, or venturing further afield, getting a Thai massage, or perhaps even relaxing. Cabbing it to Ruen Mai for one more meal, and maybe doing just a bit of work, are also possibilities to consider.
Monday, February 13, 2017
After a couple eggs and toast at the hotel buffet, I wandered over to the morning market to supplement my meal with moo ping (pork on a stick), fried chicken, and… oh no, I’m too late for kanom krok coconut pancakes. Maybe tomorrow? After a shower, I met some fellow travelers for some light shopping. We wandered the nearby stores, posed for pictures with Krabi’s crab sculpture (the town’s name is properly pronounced “gruh-BEE” not “KRAH-bee” but they’ve gone with it), and a multi-course lunch at a very disorganized little restaurant slash travel agency. We ended up at Varich Krabi Batik where we couldn’t help picking up more sarongs, scarves, and other goodies. In fact, after I left, some trip members custom ordered batiks to be shipped to their homes. It’s nice to see that some traditional crafts survive.
After doing some work that could not wait, I joined the group in the lobby to walk with Kasma to nearby Poo Dam, a popular restaurant with the delicious smell of fresh seafood on a charcoal grill at the entrance. The word poo in the restaurant’s name means crab, and that was the first dish to arrive, sautéed with yellow curry. The larger pieces were fun to eat, but numerous shell fragments in the sauce made for some undignified moments. We had two dishes from the charcoal grill: large whole prawns and squid (sliced crosswise). These shared a spicy, garlicky dipping sauce that I will have to start making at home. A whole fried fish with a somewhat sweet sauce, and pak miang cooked with eggs completed the set. For a decadent finish, we walked to the market (the one open only on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings) for egg and banana roti, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with granulated sugar. It would be difficult to stay awake and pack before carb coma set in.
Tomorrow we’ll fly to Bangkok, nibble and shop our way through one of the world’s best fresh markets, and have a final feast with entertainment. And of course, face the challenge of somehow packing up all of the various acquisitions we’ve made during the trip without exceeding the free baggage allowance.