As Highway 4 switches from the east flank of the Thailand peninsula to the Andaman coast it enters a markedly different country: nourished by rain nearly all the year round, the vegetation down here is lushly tropical, with forests reaching up to 80m in height, and massive rubber, palm-oil and coconut plantations replacing the rice and sugar-cane fields of central Thailand. Sheer limestone crags spike every horizon and the translucent Andaman Sea laps the most dazzlingly beautiful islands in the country, not to mention its finest coral reefs. This is of course the same sea whose terrifyingly powerful tsunami waves battered the coastline in December 2004, killing thousands and changing countless lives and communities forever. The legacies of that horrific day are widespread (see Tsunami Museum), but all the affected holiday resorts have been rebuilt, with the tourist dollar now arguably more crucial to the region’s well-being than ever before.
The cultural mix along the Andaman coast is also different from central Thailand. Many southern Thais are Muslim, with a heritage that connects them to Malaysia and beyond. This is also the traditional province of nomadic chao ley, or sea gypsies, many of whom have now settled but still work as boat captains and fishermen. The commercial fishing industry, on the other hand, is mostly staffed by immigrants – legal and not – from neighbouring Burma, just a few kilometres away along the northern Andaman coast.
The attractions of the northern Andaman coast are often ignored in the race down to the high-profile honeypots around Phuket and Krabi, but there are many quiet gems up here, beginning with the low-key little sister islands of Ko Chang (quite different from its larger, more famous East Coast namesake) and Ko Phayam, where the hammocks and paraffin lamps offer an old-style travellers’ vibe that’s harder to find further south. Snorkellers and divers are drawn in their hundreds to the reefs of the remote National Park island chains of Ko Surin and Ko Similan, with many choosing to base themselves at the mainland beach resort of Khao Lak, though homestay programmes around Khuraburi offer an interesting alternative. Inland, it’s all about the jungle – with twenty-first-century amenities – at the enjoyable Khao Sok National Park, where accommodation is on rafts on the lake and treehouses beneath the limestone crags.
Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, is the region’s major resort destination for families, package tourists and novice divers; its dining, shopping and entertainment facilities are second to none, but the high-rises and hectic consumerism dilute the Thai-ness of the experience. There’s Thai life in spades across on the quiet rural island of Ko Yao Noi, scenically located within the spectacular bay of Ao Phang Nga, whose scattered karst islets are one of the country’s top natural wonders, best appreciated from a sea-canoe. The Andaman coast’s second hub is Krabi province, rightly famous for its turquoise seas and dramatic islands. Flashiest of these is the flawed but still handsome Ko Phi Phi, with its great diving, gorgeous beaches and high-octane nightlife. Mainland and mainstream Ao Nang can’t really compete, but is at least close to the majestic cliffs and superb rock-climbing of the Railay peninsula at Laem Phra Nang. Offshore again, there’s horizon-gazing aplenty at mellow, barely developed Ko Jum and the choice of half a dozen luxuriously long beaches, and plentiful resort facilities, at Ko Lanta Yai.
Unlike the Gulf coast, the Andaman coast is hit by the southwest monsoon, which usually generally lasts from the end of May until at least the middle of October. During this period, heavy rain and high seas render some of the outer islands inaccessible, but conditions aren’t usually severe enough to ruin a holiday on the other islands, or on the mainland, and you’ll get tempting discounts on accommodation. Some bungalows at the smaller resorts shut down entirely during low season (highlighted in the text), but most beaches keep at least one place open, and some dive shops lead expeditions year-round.Read More
The Kra Isthmus
The Kra Isthmus
Thailand’s Andaman coast begins at Kraburi, where, at kilometre-stone 545 (the distance from Bangkok), a signpost welcomes you to the Kra Isthmus, the narrowest part of peninsular Thailand. Just 44km separates the Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea’s Chan River estuary, and Burmese border, here. Though a seemingly obvious short cut for shipping traffic between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, avoiding the 1500km detour via the Strait of Malacca, the much-discussed Kra Canal project has yet to be realized, despite being on the table for over three hundred years.
Activities around Krabi, Ao Nang and Laem Phra Nang
Activities around Krabi, Ao Nang and Laem Phra Nang
Any tour agent in Krabi town, Ao Nang, Klong Muang or Railay can set you up on these snorkelling day-trips and other activities; prices usually include transport from your accommodation. Diving and rock-climbing are also available.
By far the most popular organized outings from Krabi, Ao Nang and Laem Phra Nang are the snorkelling trips to nearby islands. The main islands in question are Ko Poda, Ko Tub and Chicken Island, all of them less than half an hour’s longtail ride from Ao Nang or Railay. There are various permutations, offered by numerous companies, including the number of islands you visit (usually three, four or five) and whether you go in a longtail boat, a larger wooden boat or speedboat; prices start as low as B450 for a longtail trip to three islands, including packed lunch and snorkel set. In all cases you should be prepared to share the experience with dozens, even hundreds, of others, because pretty much everyone congregates at the same spots. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds though – so long as you’re not expecting a solitary experience.
It’s also possible to organize your own boat trip with the longtail boatmen on Ao Nang waterfront. Their prices are fixed, but don’t include snorkelling equipment or lunch: for the return trip to either Ko Poda, Ko Tub or Chicken Island (8am–4pm), they charge B300 per person, minimum six people; for Ko Hong it’s B2500 per boat per full day, for Bamboo Island, near Ko Phi Phi, B3800 per boat per full day. Krabi town is quite a bit further away so its boatmen charge B1800–2300 for the three main islands.
From some angles, one of the pinnacles on Chicken Island does indeed look like the scrawny neck and beaky head of a chicken. There’s decent snorkelling off its coast, with a fair range of reef fish and quite a lot of giant clams, though most of the reef is either bleached or dead. Its dazzlingly white-sand northeastern shore, which has a food stall, toilets and kayak rental, is connected to the islets of Ko Tup by a sandbank, which is walkable at low tide – quite a striking sight as you arrive to see other visitors seemingly walking on water. Nearby Ko Poda, which sits directly in front of the Ao Nang beachfront, is encircled by lovely white-sand beaches and clear turquoise water. There’s a restaurant here and plenty of shade under the casuarina trees, so this is the typical lunch stop; sandwich-selling boats dock here too. Though you might get three hundred people lunching on the shore here at any one time, it’s big enough to cope. Some itineraries also feature Ao Phra Nang and its cave, on the Laem Phra Nang (Railay) peninsula, and this is the one to avoid unless you enjoy scrambling for your metre of sand on this overrun little bay.
Half- and full-day rides into the Krabi countryside, or to Ko Klang, Khao Phanom Bencha falls or Khlong Tom’s Emerald Pool, with Krabi Eco Cycle, based about 2km inland from the Hat Nopparat Thara National Park visitors’ centre on Route 4202.
Nosey Parker‘s Elephant Trekking, 7km north of Ao Nang, has a good reputation. From B800 for an hour’s trek along the river and elephant bathing.
Guided and self-paddle trips around the spectacular karst islands and secret lagoons of Ao Phang Nga, usually focusing on Ao Luk, Ao Thalen and Ko Hong in the eastern bay. Dozens of companies offer this, including Sea Kayak Krabi, Soi 2, Thanon Maharat, Krabi town, who offer a multitude of day and multi-day trips, charging B1500 for a full-day trip to Ao Thalen, for example.
Thai cookery lessons
Ya’s Thai Cookery School, about 4km inland of Ao Nang off Route 4203, runs morning and afternoon courses.