Roman Sturgis Take care of each other and make good decisions.

January 31, 2009

Krabi Part II

Filed under: Blog — Roman @ 3:11 am

On New Year’s Eve, we met Clay and Andrew, who had taken a taxi from the airport in Phuket. We showed them to their room at the Ao Nang Palace, gave them a quick tour of the surrounding area, and by 2:00 pm were on our way for the sunset snorkeling excursion that we had arranged. We traveled by longtail boat for the first half of the trip to three snorkeling sites.

A longtail is a long wooden boat, usually with an awning over the middle, and an exposed engine in the back. The “long tail” is the ten foot long axel the prop spins on, which the driver manipulates to steer. It’s very noisy, and the engine belches black smoke. The way the drivers steer is neat to watch; they’re quite expert. This is especially clear when a driver backs out of a crowded dock of other longtail boats, perhaps tilting his long tail just so, and splashing his friend in the boat next door with the spinning prop as it slices up the first layer of water.

We snorkeled on three different sites, all off shore and not accessible by beaches, which offers a very different experience than the beach-based snorkeling that Laura and I had done with an earlier tour. It’s probably a waste of your time for me to try and explain how beautiful these reefs are. Suffice it to say I was thrilled to see, for the first time in the wild, two lion fish, some clown fish (Nemos), and a sea serpent of some kind. Many many parrot and angel fish, urchins, and anemones. Sadly no nurse sharks; our group was very noisy. But we did get the chance to swim through a long tunnel cut out of the limestone by the wave action, and explore a dark cave. I noticed that our guides (both western women) wore the same neat bracelets that I’d seen on some of the long tail boat drivers. These look like a thin pipe of leather, but are shaped in a zig-zag. I was disappointed to learn that they were in fact a kind of coral.

For this trip we had also met up with some teacher friends of ours from Chiang Mai, who happened to be in Krabi the same time. Brian, Claire, Clay, Andrew, Laura, and I made up the biggest group of Americans by far on the trip. Lots and lots of Europeans and Australians. This has been the norm for us in SE Asia.

Before dusk, we left the longtail boats and boarded a much bigger boat with a second deck. We motored to an island the guides called Papaya island, but I don’t know if that is a recognized name or not. On the island we could easily walk from one end of the crescent to the other, taking pictures of the sky and coconut trees and each other along the way. At the far end we found a family that ran a small drinks and snacks operation, and their goose, which chased after Andrew when he got too close.

For dinner we ate a nice Thai seafood curry over rice and had the chance to buy a few cold beers from the tour guides. We watched the sun go down and chatted in the flickering shadows of the tiki torches planted around the food. It was exactly the kind of New Year’s I crave over the typically drunken debauchery that so often consumes the end of the year. But it would get ever better…

The tour’s major selling point, as far as I was concerned, was the night swim. After our dinner settled, we got back on the boat and motored around to a little cove where we were encouraged to jump in from the second story of the boat. Again, I was one of the first in the water and the last out. Once most of us had gotten into the water, they turned all but the running lights off on the boat, and suddenly we could see that every time we moved, we were agitating millions of bioluminescent dinoflagellates in the water, causing them to glow blue-green. Readers of this blog may remember a similar experience I had night swimming in Kerala, India. I never get tired of the stuff. It’s like playing with underwater sparklers that never go out. I wish they had let us use the masks, but they didn’t. If only I had brought my swimming goggles. What would it have looked like from ten or fifteen feet below? All those people above trailing fairy dust as they swam?

There was another treat of glowing lights later in the evening. Back on the mainland, hawkers were selling the paper candle lanterns that Thais send up during Loi Krathong. Our group stood on the beach, toasting the sky as hundreds of these yellow glowing blimps took off around us.

Laura had to return for a wedding on the 2nd, so I was left with the boys. They moved into my room (higher up, with a view of the ocean), we added a bed, and set up camp. Clay is a climbing enthusiast and rock climbs indoors during the winter and outdoors when it’s warm. I had never been rock climbing before, but I quickly learned from Clay that Krabi is one of the top winter climbing destinations. The tall limestone cliffs make for an excellent range of climbing difficulties, and the scenery couldn’t be more spectacular. I was resolved to try it out for at least half a day. Turned out, that was all my poor body could take. Clay had warned me that “you’ll be sore in muscles you never even knew existed.” This was true.

We had two very good Thai guides and I was happy to see that Clay approved of them, as I had no point of reference. After a short workshop on how to tie my rope (apparently very important), I was attached to it and told to start up the wall. They started us on the easiest of easy; the wall was maybe twenty feet high with the holds clearly marked by all the chalk left behind from previous climbers. My arms got tired very quickly. By the second or third climb, I could barely make a tight fist. Clay and I ate a lot of bananas, which he had the foresight to bring, and drank plenty of water, but by the fifth climb, the biggest, I was spent.

A beginners climb.
Photo by Clay Bedwell

I can see why climbing is so popular. Clearly, it’s an athletic sport, and looking at the musculature of those around us, one could tell who was more veteran than the others, and who preferred bouldering or “power-climbing” (backs like barrels of snakes) and who spent more time top-roping (lithe, wiry builds, like our guides, who preferred to be called monkeys than geckos). And then there were the girlfriends of the power-climbers, who generally made a nuisance of themselves, crying halfway through the climb about being scared of heights, and then later, sitting on a rock, pouting, smoking their Marlboro Lights, staring up at their beaus as they grunted and groaned up the face.


It’s also a sport that requires intense concentration. And the feeling of making it to the top is exhilarating. I would equate it to the feeling one gets breaking a personal record for distance biked or ran or finally getting flexible enough again to touch the floor with the palm of your hands. But after climbing HALF A DAY, I was sore for the next three. As I hung out below, watching Clay and two Danes in our group scamper to the tops of their climbs, I noticed that a guide from another company was standing next to me smoking a giant joint. Moments later, he snubbed it out, stored it in his pack of cigarettes for later, and went back to belaying a tall German tourist. I was a little shocked, and if I were to ever go back to climb in Krabi, I would be sure to go with Moe and Ao, from Ao Nang Climber. Ask for Judith, the German boss-lady.

Clay, Andrew, and I ate a lot of really good Thai food, especially at dinner, when we sampled the local sea fare at the outdoor Thai restaurants. Recently I’ve been more picky about what seafood I eat, for no reason other than the state of our world’s fisheries is closer to collapse than ever before and our global fishing practices are unsustainable. Predatory fish like tuna, swordfish, grouper, and snapper are harder and harder to find, and farmed fish like salmon live in giant pens, eating their own shit and dyed food that gives their meat that appetizing pink color. (Wild salmon is dark red.) Seven pounds of by-catch (everything pulled up with the target catch) are netted for every one pound of shrimp, and most of that by-catch is dead by the time it’s been sorted.

In general, we’re over-fishing our oceans, polluting them with run-off and dumping, and using the resources up much faster than they can replenish. Did you know that a single healthy, adult Chesapeake oyster can filter 60 gallons of water a day? But it tastes so good, I know!! This is not an argument to boycott seafood. On the contrary, seafood is a healthy part of a balanced diet, and for many, a crucial source of protein. Rather, next time you eat that tuna sashimi, I hope it tastes even better than before, like a rare wine or a 30 year old Scotch which can never be replaced. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Finite resource. Wild tuna, by the way, will be extinct within my lifetime, so savor that bite as much as you can. The experts say that even if we were to cease and desist all tuna fishing, there probably isn’t enough critical mass of the population left to make a recovery. Enjoy it while it lasts!

That being said, on two separate nights we had seafood dinner feasts, with shrimp and snapper and mussels, and it was to die for.

Photo by Clay Bedwell

On our last day, we went on an elephant trek. These are all over the place in Thailand and you have to be a little picky about choosing them, because not all companies treat their elephants the same. The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand and not too long ago, elephants were used extensively in the logging industry. These days, the King of Thailand has drastically decreased the amount of legal logging in Thailand. One of the consequences has been out of work elephants. No joke. You can see them in the night markets; the keepers sell bananas to tourists to feed the animals. These elephants have a life expectancy of seven or ten years, compared to a wild elephant which can live well into its 40s. Trekking companies buy or “adopt” ex-logging elephants or pet elephants, and take tourists on rides around “preserves”. We found one that looked legit—recommended by Prakat at J Hotel—and the three of us set off one day to do it.

Elephant Portrait.
Photo by Clay Bedwell

You climb a bamboo tower and wait for the mahout to park the elephant close enough to climb on. They have benches strapped to their backs and the mahouts sit across the animals neck, or on their head, holding a short hook that looks like a lower case r, with a spike on the top and another sharp curved spike. They use this to smack the elephant across the head when it disobeys, but most of the time they use verbal commands and squeeze the elephants neck with their thighs to control the direction.

Clay and Andrew on an elephant.
Raja Andy with Clayton the mahout.

From my bench seat (Clay and Andrew shared another elephant) I took in the morning sun glinting through the rubber tree leaves as we walked around the preserve, looking for monkeys. There were plenty of opportunities to take pictures, and at one point my mahout got off the elephant, took my camera, and instructed me to sit astride the animal’s neck, as he had. The spike was left hanging off the elephants ear. I’m glad I wore pants, because even through my khakis, I could feel the wire bristles of elephant hair. The mahout gave verbal commands to the elephant and he started walking away, me sitting astride, a passenger in the fullest sense.

Roman elephant.
Photo by Clay Bedwell. (I am with the mahout here, not alone!)

The animal, I understand, had been raised in captivity it’s entire life, so perhaps it didn’t have the potential to be as wild as some of the others, but I knew that at any moment, it could toss me off it’s head as easily as I would squash a mosquito. Thankfully this did not happen, and eventually the mahout climbed back on and we made our way back to the disembarkation tower. After, we had a chance to feed the elephants bananas, which was actually a lot of fun.

Feeding an elephant.
Photo by Clay Bedwell

They point their trunks, cocked like a snake, waiting to pluck the banana from your hands. They have a little thumb on the tip of the snout, which looks and sounds a lot like a pigs, and with this, they grip the banana and curl it into their mouths. When they eat leaves, they wrap the trunk around the bunch of leaves, and whip them against their legs or a tree to break up the cellulose before munching on it. Their diet consists of a lot of rubber leaves, and they are a lot like cows. When an elephant poops, it is the size of a soccer ball, and it even bounces a bit, when it lands with a thud on the forest floor.

Clay and an elephant.
One of the best pictures of the trip, taken by Andrew Bedwell.

The following day, I took the bus back to Chiang Mai. Clay and Andrew spent their last night horsing around the beach before flying up to meet me and Laura, so that we could show them what has become a comfortable home for us over the last several months.

Photo by Clay Bedwell


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, its like you wrote my travel journal for me, and i took your pictures, this is something that could work in the future. Although I must say it may not be a bad idea to compress the pics, as they are huge, and the loading time is quite lengthy.

    Comment by ctb3 — February 3, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  2. CTB3,
    I hear what you’re saying about the picture size. Some of those, I just couldn’t resist.

    Comment by Roman — February 3, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

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