Gazing out over the beach from the Anda Lanta’s breakfast buffet, it is easy to understand the attractions of this island. Yet we must continue North: more reefs need to be snorkeled, and more delicious Thai food awaits. Krabi, here we come.
Friday, February 8, 2019
We loaded our vans and wound our way off the island to our first stop of the day. The Emerald Pool (Sra Morakot) is a refreshingly cool spring-fed pond amidst a series of streams. As recently as 2010, we seemed to have it mostly to ourselves. But the park has become incredibly popular, with tour buses and school groups pouring in throughout the day. Instead of parking within a few yards of the entrance, you now pass a dozen shops and restaurants before reaching the ticket booth. The secret definitely is out.
Kasma surprised me by asking me to take charge of the group, buying the tickets and getting everyone back for lunch. The first 0.5 kilometers I managed to keep everyone together, but shortly before we reached the pool, we had some people heading for the bathroom, others a remote clump of trees, and those of us who headed to our usual quiet spot found it full of other people already, so we had to improvise places to drop our stuff. By then, who was where? These cats were not going to be easy to herd today.
The water in the Emerald Pool is a lovely blue-green color, but it is ringed by banks of slippery yellow algae so entry and exit can be a bit tricky. Once into the chest-deep waters, we headed to the end with a small waterfall where we waited our turns to experience a pounding shoulder and head massage while our companions captured an embarrassing photo. Once this essential element was completed, we relaxed a bit before struggling back onto dry land. While I couldn’t quite account for the entire group, we headed back toward the front of the park, trusting that everyone would find their way.
On the way in, we had walked on a wide, straight road without much to see. By contrast, the nature trail is a concrete boardwalk that roughly follows a meandering stream through a forest of thin trees. Aside from a few wildflowers and the occasional lizard, there isn’t much nature to see on the walk, and most people seem to pass it as quickly as possible. Even stopping for the occasional photo, we were roughly on time for lunch. Kasma expressed her appreciation: “You didn’t lose any of them.” At least, I’m pretty sure she meant that in a positive way.
After a change back to dry pants and a quick plate of noodles, we drove on to Krabi. Our first stop was at Krabi Batik Workshop, also known as Varich Batik Krabi. In past years, I’ve purchased fun, hand-painted shirts in vibrant colors featuring undersea scenes, elephants, and flowers. Unfortunately, the inventory of men’s wear was very low this year, so I mostly tried to stay cool while the ladies considered sarongs and negotiated custom orders. I didn’t fare much better at our second stop, Dahla Batik, where a shirt I liked was $50, which is a little too pricey for something I only wear a couple times a year. Oh well, I have a pretty good supply of tropical shirts back home to fall back on.
We checked into our home for the next four nights, Srisawara Casa, a boutique hotel with a tiny elevator. My corner room had a good view across and down the street, but I kept the heavy curtains drawn again the fierce sun until we met for dinner. We would be heading to the outskirts of town, to Kasma’s favorite restaurant in the country. Ruen Mai has several open air dining areas covered by thatched roofs, and one is sized just right for our group. It’s far enough from the other tables to feel private, and has its own wildlife (a bird tonight, and geckos other nights). Here we would conduct the very serious business of eating well.
Ruen Mai has a very extensive menu, and I have many favorites here. Yum sadet is an unusual salad combining lemongrass, shallots, dried shrimp, crispy dried cuttlefish, and roasted cashews with a spicy lime-based dressing. Chewy, crunchy, tangy, it’s so fun to eat, especially wrapped in a wild pepper (bai chaplu) leaf. Lardons of pork belly fried and lightly coated with a red fermented tofu sauce are mixed with garlic cloves and tiny but powerful chillies. I’ve never seen it anyhere else (except for Kasma’s cooking class). Two coconut milk curries, one with crab meat (yellow curry?) and one with fried fish (choo chee), brought the richness up another level. Two Southern dishes rounded out the set, a stir-fry of shrimp and sadtaw (stink beans) in shrimp paste sauce, and rainforest green boiled in coconut milk.
I didn’t save room for dessert, and I couldn’t imagine prowling the night market for sweets or bargains. Maybe tomorrow? For now, time to rest up for another day of snorkeling.
Saturday, February 9, 2019
Today we snorkel the world renowned Phi Phi islands. Through my many visits, I have seen a wide range of interesting sea life, but often been chased by storms. With the promise of clear weather, it could be quite spectacular.
For breakfast, we stopped by a local noodle shop because our hotel isn’t equipped to prepare food in volume. Roasted duck with egg noodles was tasty, and not too filling. We soon were headed to the dock at a new location, Tubkaek. Unlike Noppharat Thara, we didn’t have to climb over three boats at a crowded marina. On the contrary, ours seemed to be the only boat at the end of a floating (plastic block) pier. Soon we were all on board the speedboat in our life jackets bumping along on the waves toward our first stop.
Ao Ling, more commonly called monkey beach, is a large bay on the Northern side of the largest of the Phi Phi islands, Koh Phi Phi Don. Kasma prefers to snorkel here at low tide when you can get a better view of the colorful sea fans along the rocky walls of the bay. There was plenty of fish life, and despite a few other boats in the area, it wasn’t too crowded. Our second spot was Maya bay, home to the beach of “The Beach” fame. The beach and the inner part of the bay is closed for recovery, but “Turtle Rock” in the outer bay is available for snorkeling and a few of us watched a large three-legged turtle nibbling on a jellyfish here.
We landed our speedboat on a small beach in Loh Samah bay where we took over the shaded end of the beach and enjoyed our lunch boxes and some tasty snacks while the tide gradually went out. Other visitors came ashore, including a couple with a selfie stick populating their social media feeds, a young sand castle builder and his family, and a boat full of people who seemed determined to return with serious sunburns. Soon enough it was time to stop people watching and return to fish watching. We moved our boat out into the bay and explored both the shallows and the sea wall habitat before heading home.
After another session of Shots at 6, we headed back to Ruen Mai to continue exploring the menu. Tonight’s Southern specialty is kua kling, an extremely spicy dry curry of chopped meat featuring the flavors of turmeric and kaffir lime leaves. Hot and sour prawn soup also was on the spicy side. By contrast, the crab karee and turmeric-marinated fried catfish were mild, and the deep-fried pork belly and squid curry were moderate. We had to save room for dessert tonight because one of the restaurant staff brought sweet and fragrant mangoes from her own tree to serve to us with multi-colored sticky rice topped with coconut cream. This was a wonderfully sweet and cooling conclusion to the meal. We left more than full; carb coma ensued.
Sunday, February 10, 2019
Today we would snorkel locally to Krabi, which has numerous karst island reefs, some more congested than others. But first, another visit to the noodle shop. This time I enjoyed their stewed pork leg over rice, so rich, so unctuous, with a small chaser bowl of broth. I could eat this quite often.
After our longtail boats tied up at our first spot, I reached overboard to dunk the foot pocket ends of my fins in the water so I could more easily slip them onto my feet, and a wave tugged them away. As I watched them drop into the murky depths, I realized what a bad idea it was to dunk both at once. Anyway, I borrowed a pair of fins from a fellow traveler and dived in. The first fin was easy to retrieve, but the second required swimming under the boat as it rocked in the waves. Once back on board, I took a break to catch my breath before going in. In past years, the shallows here were full of interesting activity, but with the strong waves today, it felt uncomfortably risky to explore those areas. If anything, our second spot was murkier and rougher than the first. A lunch break was very welcome. Our final spot on the back side of Chicken Island (Spear Island) was calmer and clearer. Some of the photos might come out.
On the way back, we made the traditional stop at Ao Phra Nang, the Princess Beach, which features tourists sizzling on the sands and a cave full of wooden phalluses (to promote the fertility of the sea for fishermen, of course). We nearly lost two of our party here when they wandered over to West Railay Beach after a wrong turn on the local foot paths. Eventually, through the magic of mobile phones, we all made it back to Krabi.
Back at Srisawara Casa, we sorted out the luggage and packages that could return to Bangkok by van from those we needed to keep with us and bring back by air. Everyone was reminded not to make the mistake I made in 2005 of sending my passport in the van. (I’m such a good example, of what not to do.) Before long we were headed back to Ruen Mai for a third pass over the menu. Our Southern specialty tonight was gaeng som, a brilliantly yellow, soupy, spicy sour curry with fish and coconut shoots. Grilled eggplant salad and green papaya salad brought the freshness, while a green curry with fried fish chunks, massaman chicken curry, and a third style of deep-fried pork belly provided richness. I can’t imagine eating this way every day, although I suppose I could try.
We wished our drivers well on their return to Bangkok, and looked forward to a leisurely day tomorrow.
Monday, February 11, 2019
Our free day is an opportunity to wander and explore the local temple and markets, to get a massage, or in my case, to beat the heat in an air conditioned room while I try to catch up on my blogging. The lady who makes delicious coconut and corn waffles was at the local market this morning, so I was able to get my fill of carbs. For lunch, I met a couple from our group at a Halal restaurant, where we tried the roti mataba (roti stuffed with seasoned chicken), spicy seafood salad with crystal noodles (mung bean threads), goat curry, and dessert roti. Service was slow, and the food wasn’t particularly special, but it was nice to demonstrate that we could order a meal for ourselves should the need arise.
For dinner, we followed Kasma a couple blocks to Poo Dam, one of a number of grilled seafood restaurants across the street from the river (Pak Nam Krabi). Although the restaurant is named for crab (poo) the undisputed star in my opinion is the whole char-grilled squid. Cut cross-ways, the tender rings are delicious with the spicy, garlicky, tangy, green chilli dipping sauce, a classic with seafood. We also had grilled prawns, a deep-fried whole fish with sweet chilli sauce, a winged bean salad, rainforest greens stir-fried with egg, and what looks in pictures like a stir-fried meat dish.
Was it only tonight at an “after party” that we finally killed the bottle of tequila? I must give thanks to all who assisted; it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me to drink the whole thing on my own.
Tomorrow we return to Bangkok for the final day of our trip which will, of course, feature a market visit and a feast, and an opportunity to end up on stage in various embarrassing dances.