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KRABI. Part 1.

Long Tail Boat in Krabi

Photograph taken by Clay Bedwell.

It’s no secret that my greatest aspiration in life is to be a professional beach bum. And though I hold tremendous loyalty to my home surf, Litchfield Beach in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, and for a variety of reasons believe it to be one of the best beaches in the world, I must say that the beaches in Krabi, Thailand are right up there. Outside of my strong opinion, beach bums of the world agree: Krabi’s limestone cliffs, Kool-Aid blue seas, and sugar crystal sand are magical and enchanting. But don’t expect them to be 100% clean and pristine; this is still Thailand after all, where everything comes in a plastic bag. Lonely Planets tucked under their arms, Western tourists flock to Krabi, and for good reason.

Beach Vendor
A beach vendor takes a break on Hat Noppharat, the “Thai” beach.

Laura and I opted to stay on the mainland, in Ao Nang, which is a long tail boat hub, and which offers more food and lodging options at mainland beach prices vs. island prices. We stayed at two different hotels during our stay, both right next to each other. J Hotel was lovely and recommended in LP, but we spent more nights at the Ao Nang Palace in a beautiful white tiled room with a good AC, hot water, and a great balcony for 1,000 baht a night (about 27 USD). Our J Hotel room was 50 baht cheaper than Ao Nang Palace, but had a smaller, less nice bathroom, and no balcony, which was definitely worth the extra buck fifty. We booked almost all our tours, and some return bus tickets through J Hotel’s travel agency, which we felt was honest and efficient. No hiccups, no complaints.

8 degrees North, 99 degrees East, Ao Nang is 750 miles from Chiang Mai in Krabi Province, east of the binge drinking hoards of Phuket. To get to Ao Nang from Chiang Mai, it takes two bus trips, first to Bangkok, and then onwards. That travel takes about 24 hours, and depending on the bus, can be a torturous or pleasant experience. I have heard that Xanex, which you can by OTC in Thailand, helps a lot.

After lots of experience with crummy budget buses run through private companies, Laura and I got wise and decided to take the bus the Thais take. This is the government bus, sometimes referred to as BKS. I’m not sure if BKS refers to all government buses or just some of them, or what BKS stands for, but boy oh boy, it made all the difference. Good AC, leg room, reclining chairs with blankets and neck pillows. Even a “flight attendant” who served drinks and snacks. And most important: a toilet. Psychologically, having one on board makes for a much more comfortable ride.

We had a very nice trip from Chiang Mai Bus Arcade, just outside of the city, to Moi Chit station north of Bangkok (no shit, pronounced Mo Shit), a short metered taxi to the southern terminal (Sai Tai Mai) and then onwards. Unfortunately, despite valiant research attempts, we were unable to find ways to book tickets ahead of time. If we spoke fluent Thai, I feel we could have done this over the phone. At Sai Tai Mai in the evening, our only option was a second class (no toilet) bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani. As far as most travelers are concerned, Surat Thani is strictly a layover town, which the locals seem to understand all too well.

We arrived in Surat Thani early in the morning. As we approached the bus stop, the air conditioning vents began to pour water, which we assumed was from the torrential rains that were flooding the streets. Meanwhile, down below, Laura’s bag was helping to keep all the others dry like a giant yellow Vera Bradley sponge. Our clothes soaked up the puddle water that seeped inside the bottom hold as the bus roared down the road, sending large plumes of dirty run-off up along either side. Lesson Learned: pack clothes inside of a plastic bag, as you would on a camping trip.

Bewildered and annoyed that we’d been woken up by an indoor rain shower, we gathered ourselves and stepped outside into the pouring rain where we were immediately and ferociously set upon by hustling taxi drivers. Laura sought cover under the terminal’s tin roof and began the bargaining process. I was quickly soaked while waiting in line to retrieve the waterlogged bag, which I soon found weighed about fifty pounds. Awesome.

We had researched that there was another bus to Ao Nang, but we were fuzzy on the details. On these kinds of trips, you can only plan so much, so we thought we’d feel it out as we went. Discouraged and upset about the state of our luggage, we made a quick decision to take a sungtow to the “bus station”. We were crammed in the back with Thais and Western backpackers alike, and if we weren’t drenched enough before climbing in to the bed of the pick-up, we certainly were on the ride to the “bus station” which took us on the highway. From our research, this felt like we were going in at least the right direction; we knew that the Sai Tai Mai bus took us to a station outside of downtown Surat Thani, and that the bus to Krabi left from in town, requiring a transfer. But when the driver took us to a travel agency instead, Laura and I approached him and requested that he take us to the bus station. This was not what the man wanted to hear. What followed was the worst experience I have ever had with a driver in a foreign city. In retrospect, he was probably drunk, or high on yabba (Thai meth), or both.

He screamed at us, pushed Laura, and grabbed my arm with his large hand. Being the guy that I am, I immediately bristled, and pulled my arm away from him. As my adrenaline spiked, I quickly debated the cost/benefit of politeness vs. the consequences of Thai prison for strangling a sungtow driver, which I very much wanted to do. Being the level-headed woman that Laura is, she stepped in, and with her much better Thai, explained in two languages that we would gladly pay him if he took us where we had agreed: the bus station–not a travel agency where he would get a small commission for delivering a pack of wet rat tourists.

The man screamed and slammed his hand against his truck, yelling “WHY YOU NO PAY ME!!” which became a wonderful joke for Laura and I in the days following. Eventually we found some common grounds to communicate, and he whisked us away, tires squealing, spray flying. Literally 30 seconds later we were at the “bus station”. We paid him and caught our breath and realized, to great dismay, that in the excitement of the argument, we had left behind a crucial plastic bag that contained my sneakers, Laura’s I-pod, and our food. Double Awesome.

It’s times like these, I have found, that my wife and I really do belong together. After a minute of freaking out, we made a fast plan. First, Laura finds the bus times. Second, Roman ventures out to find the bag. Third, stay in communication with cell phones (thank God for the things, in times like these). Fourth, if it comes down to losing the bag, we’ll have to accept it. Okay break—go team go!

I didn’t want to lose my sneakers, but I really didn’t want to lose Laura’s I-pod, which I gave to her before she left for Thailand, and which has been an indispensable part of her travel regimen. One way or another, I vowed, I would find that damn travel agency, which was one of a hundred, and whose only details I could remember were the arrangement of pink plastic chairs around the counter on the left hand side, and the shape of the water streaming off the awning into a deep puddle along the curb. Let me tell you how many fucking travel agencies in Surat Thani look like this at six thirty in the morning in the middle of a downpour. ALL OF THEM.

No map. No sense of direction or location. I would get lost many times. I traveled in a spiral, moving outwards, my only hope being the quickness the driver had delivered us. It couldn’t be THAT far away, right?

Fifteen minutes passed and Laura called me. The bus times were sketchy. It might make more sense to get a mini-bus from one of the travel agencies. Karma, right? She advised me to give up the search. Let’s just go, honey.

No, no, no. I am a man on a mission. I will avenge my put-upon wife!! I’ll call you back in ten, I said. The rain is pouring down, I am soaked to the bone, and my flip flops keep coming off in the muddy water, two feet deep in places. Local Thais stand in their shop fronts or in their foyers, under awnings, smoking cigarettes, debating the weather and the crazy white dude (ting tong farang) sloshing past them. Sawadee, krap, I say. Yeah, whatever, they say back in Thai. I stop and ask for directions, I find the main road and walk up and down it. No clues, no leads. I resolve to return to the epicenter and become lost. I call Laura. Where are you? I don’t know, where are YOU? I don’t, know. I’m lost. What can you see from where you are? That giant Thai flag? No, then you must be somewhere else. I trudge up and down the streets. My khakis are so heavy with water, they’re falling off my butt. I have to stop and tighten my belt. Uh, honey, I say. I am totally lost. I have no idea where I am.

And then, suddenly, through the rain, I see a green awning and pink plastic chairs.

Could it be? The water streaming off the side looks about right. I approach. Holy shit, I say into the phone. I found it.

You did!?? Laura squeals with excitement. Are you sure?

Sure am, I say, as I talk to the shop owners, who apologize profusely for the driver. “He no have a good heart,” the man behind the counter says, and hands the plastic bag with our stuff in it. “We save this for you.” Okay great, where the hell am I, I ask.

They point at a map. I ask where the bus station is, where my wife is waiting for me.

Would you believe it was right around the corner? Literally go outside, turn left, walk fifty meters, turn right. I find my wife standing on the corner, waving to me. “You’re a Prince,” she says, which made it all worth it.

So then we took a long, uncomfortable mini-bus that was freezing in the morning, and turned scorching as the sun came up, to Krabi Town. There, we were mostly dried, and we took a sungtow to Ao Nang (fixed price, bless them) and found the hotel we had made a reservation with.

In the room, we unpacked our neatly folded, previously fresh laundered clothes, now soaked and beginning to smell musty. First order of business, get thee to a laundry lady. Second order, hot shower. Third, food. In our least wet clothes, the only things we had not sent to be relaundered, we set out to explore Ao Nang on foot—the cursory scouting mission to compare menus and prices of restaurants and tours and to get a lay of the land. The first meal is often times the worst. We had mediocre pizza—comfort food–and walked around a bit more, the charms of Ao Nang growing on us. We hit the mother lode when we walked south, down the boardwalk, past Happy Beach to Luna Beach, and found the Thai food stalls and a massive outdoor food court. It’s common knowledge that eating where the locals eat is cheaper and yummier. We also found the 7-11s and the grocery stores that sold ice and booze.

Over the next few days, Laura and I took a few different kinds of tours and visited many beaches. We left Chiang Mai the day after our first Christmas together. Our only firm plan was to meet up with two friends, Clay and Andrew, on the 31st, and to take a sunset snorkel trip as a group to celebrate the end of 2008. Other then that, Laura had to be back in CM for a wedding early in the new year, and I had a loose plan to stay with the boys for a few more days and then head back to show them CM.

Limestone Cliffs
Photograph taken by Clay Bedwell.

Krabi is a beautiful part of Thailand to visit, and comes close to winning my heart from Chiang Mai. Once we were in Ao Nang, we did not experience any more rain. The days were hot and the ocean was bathtub water warm. By the way, the water really is that emerald blue color you see in the magazines and in movies like The Beach (with Leonardo DiCaprio; the book, by Alex Garland, is actually quite enjoyable. Jealous aside: mother fucker published it when he was just 27.) We snorkeled a lot on our tours. I was often the first in the water and the last out, as it was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever encountered. Especially on New Year’s Eve night, when we took a night swim and encountered some beautiful, but quite unusual marine animals.

To be continued…

PS. Do I look like my dad in this photo or what?
Roman in Krabi
Photograph taken by Clay Bedwell.

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