Krabi, Ao Nang, Railey, and Ko Phi Phi

It was time to switch coasts. With the monsoons winding up in the gulf, the weather was getting messy. I crossed from the gulf islands to Krabi via Surat Thani which turned out to be a full day of traveling aboard cargo ferries, motorbike taxis, a handfull of tuk-tuk trucks, and one very cold bus. An air conditioned bus sounds like a fantastic idea when you're hauling around a fifty-pound backpack under a blanket of heat and humidity. But when you're immobilized beneath a jet of icy air for five hours, you start to forget what you were so excited about.

Krabi Town itself is friendly but somewhat unremarkable. It straddles the wide and slow Krabi River as it opens into the Phangnga Bay, functioning as a water and land transportation hub for the surrounding area. It's a perfect a gateway to a slew of isolated beaches and a launching point for several popular islands off the Andaman coast. On my list were Ao Nang, Railey, and Ko Phi Phi. I really had no idea what to expect at each of these places - I was making decisions based on on vague recommendations, guidebook entries, and pure speculation. These three places sounded the most legit.

Ao Nang is a series of broad, straight beaches broken by sheer cliffs that rise and fall almost vertically with no warning. Like the dot-dash of morse code, these sequences of beach-cliff blipped down the coast farther than I could see and in an order I couldn't predict. Of course the most popular section of beachfront is heavily developed, as it's the only section of coastline in the area easily accessible by car.

Railey, on the other hand, is only accessible by boat, despite being a part of the mainland. It sits where the inside curves of two beaches meet, creating a narrow spit of sand and jungle. Pushed onto the peninsula are walls of rock the size of skyscrapers, rimmed by dripping limestone caves, framed in dense rainforest, and undercut by a sapphire ocean. Vines, roots, and plant tendrils tie down the rock, as if it would fall over or lift off into the sky without these support cables. Railey West is almost uncomfortably postcard perfect and lined with resorts, while Railey East is a swampy mangrove forest where the cheap huts and good times are.

I spent a few days here on the east side of Railey, rock climbing and hopping around jagged outcroppings to get good shots of the cliffs. One day I hacked up through the jungle to see the legendary 'lagoon' crammed away inside the peak of one of the limestone monoliths. I spent the better part of two hours scaling rocks coated with slippery red mud, clinging to frayed ropes dangling from well worn tree roots, and skirting mud pits that would have swallowed me whole. It was nearly a vertical climb at parts. I was expecting some Fern Gully-esque jungle paradise at the end of all this, but what I got was a glorified muddy pond. It wasn't even really worth photographing. The sights can be pretty hit-or-miss.

I hit Ko Phi Phi next, along with everyone else, right on the cusp of high season. The tiny island has a steep reputation, and justifiably so. As our ferry pulled into the emerald cove of Tonsai Bay, I could stand on the top deck of the boat and make out individual fish swimming around the coral. You know all the photos in the guidebooks and magazines with impossibly blue water and white sand? This is where they were taken. And everyone knows it, which is why they come here in droves.

The SCUBA diving on Phi Phi was top-notch. We took a boat south to some uninhabited rocky islands, Bida Nok and Bida Noi, which looked like two enormous fossilized eggs placed carefully into the sea. As soon as I hit the water, I was overcome with the clarity and vibrancy of the colors that surrounded me. The wall of the island we swam up against was dotted with anemones that represented every possible hue on the continuum of color, and the countless fish that swam amongst them only added to the palette. We saw cuttle fish, color shifting cephalopods, cousins of the octopus, which put on a show of ever-changing patterns and hallucinatory color spasms. Up close, I looked into the eyes of one cuttle fish and caught a glimpse of its bizarre W-shaped pupils before it darted away and rapidly camouflaged itself amongst the coral. We also saw a black-and-white ringed coral snake as its flattened body slithered up and down the rock face. These snakes are highly venomous, and we had to keep our distance.

On Ko Phi Phi, it seemed like every night was Spring Break. The crowd here was young and affluent, two prime ingredients for outrageous partying. Concession stands lined the streets, blatantly selling packages that included a flask of liquor, a can of soda, a bucket to mix them in, and a communal jumbo ice tub. Bars and clubs hire attractive westerners to hand out flyers to whatever event or party was going on that night. I could really rail against the ridiculousness of this situation, but it's hard for me to maintain any legitimacy when I'm technically part of the problem. I'll save the cynicism for another post.

[gallery link="file"]