Day 179 – Thailand

Next we went to the Russian holiday resort of Ao Nang, on the Krabi coast. I’ve only known one Russian before: Anna, who I worked with in a fudge shop in North Carolina. To call her workshy is something of an understatement, but she was very fond of blow-pen tattoos. Anna was a treat, though; if I could remember her surname I would definitely social media stalk her.

I can’t say that the thousands of Russians holidaying in Ao Nang are treats (or tricks) because I didn’t get to know any of them over the course of 6 7-hour shifts a week. But they seemed sort of like the worst idea of Brits abroad crossed with the worst idea of Germans abroad. Which is to say that they guaranteed for themselves the best spot by the pool, and spent all their money on a woman free-pouring knock-off liquor down their throats.

Look. We knew that Thailand was rough when we booked it. We’d read everything there is to read about how gross, and overrun, and spoiled it is. Our Lonely Planet had barely anything to say about Ao Nang, dismissing it as a Faliraki-esque cesspit apart from a brief note about ‘the beaches, framed by limestone headlands tied together by narrow strips of golden sands’. Here is a picture of the sunset from our first night in Ao Nang, which I think speaks for itself:

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Roland was reading The Beach while we were here (what a book) and it seems like Leonardo DiCaprio and Lonely Planet have the same problem: paradise can’t be paradise if you have to share it. But why do we feel this way? Why is the most stunning view only truly stunning if we’re enjoying it on our own. This niggle clearly irritates many of Ao Nang’s tourists, who pile onto boats every morning to find some other beach on some other paradise island. Except, of course, the same people they want to escape are on the boat with them, and the paradise they find can’t be paradise because they’re not alone.

I am not immune to this. On our first night, after watching the sun set, we took a walk along what, were we on the British coast, would be Ao Nang’s promenade. I mean, it’s truly a disaster; the glare and boom of Siem Reap’s Pub Street but without the naive good intentions. This is row after row of opportunistic business owners churning out barely satisfactory fare to people who have nowhere better to go.

Except there is somewhere better to go. Just around a huge rock, over a bridge, is another beach. This is Nopparat Thara and, somewhat deceptively given its adjacency and the fact it runs along the same road,  has a completely different section in the Lonely Planet to Ao Nang. Nopparat Thara is a lot less built up than Ao Nang (for now), has restaurants selling genuinely delicious (and authentic, but I hate that word and please don’t judge me) Thai food and an actual beach bar. I can hardly describe my relief at finding this haven from blaring Ao Nang. If anyone with an aversion to Blackpool-esque resorts finds themselves in this part of the world then fear not, there is a safe place for you.

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On our first full day in Ao Nang, or to be Lonely Planet specific, Nopparat Thara, we took a walk along the long, narrow, white sand beach. Yes there were some diggers building a wall, but we just kept going until we couldn’t see them anymore. The beach curved around to some rocky outcrops, one of which was connected by an isthmus. I’ll say it again: an isthmus. Yes – an isthmus. Imagine my joy at having a genuine reason to say the best word in the history of the world. Isthmus isthmus isthmus. Anyway, here we swam and then, in the shallows of the low tide, walked back towards our hotel. I should add that this happened between 11am and 2pm, thus ensuring the traditional first-day-at-the-beach full-body sunburn.

This set the tone for our days in Thailand; we were there for the beaches after all. Nopparat Thara and the Isthmus (ISTHMUS) in the day; Ao Nang for sunset;  maybe some pool time in between, Russians permitting. It was an easy life, but we grew restless. Midway through the trip we decided to pay a visit to Railay, which is basically the next beach along but only accessible by boat. This gives it something of a more exotic air, and I think it’s generally more expensive to holiday there. But also, and most importantly, it has a place called Princess Lagoon – where surely reside mermaids – which could be reached by a short uphill hike. Exactly what we needed to stretch our legs a bit.

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The Railay beaches (East and West) are beautiful – nicer than Ao Nang/Nopparat Thara, if smaller – but of course are packed to the hilt with daytrippers, so it was really just as well  this little hike existed to avoid the crowds and midday sun. Or not. The entrance to what the Lonely Planet calls ‘a strenuous but generally manageable, brief hike’ was, literally, a sheer cliff face with some ropes dangling down it. A daunting sight, but other people were doing it and we both hate to miss out on experiences, so we decided to give it a go. The way was immediately slippery – recent rain had loosened some of the vivid red clay that coats the rocks, and soon was coating most of us. I was grateful that we were following some people – younger, lither people, perhaps – up so that we could follow their route; there was very little in the way of a clear path, and at all times it felt like a misstep could lead to instant death. At points we had to squeeze past people making their descent, but some of these people were a bit fat, which gave us extra confidence that we could reach the summit.

It felt like hours – though I’m sure LP is correct and it was only 10 minutes – until we stopped climbing and found ourselves at a crossroads. The option presented to us was to turn off to a viewpoint, or continue on to the lagoon. We chose the viewpoint first , the path to which involved getting closer to the jungle than I’d preferably like (at most points on our climb I feared clutching the rope only to discover it was a snake). Also, it wasn’t worth it; we emerged at a rocky precipice to get a birds-eye view of the pool complexes of luxury hotels (and a bit of sea). There was also some unfortunate jostling with a French group which seemed unnecessarily reckless (on their part).

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So back to the lagoon we went, which involved a fun  new challenge in the shape of a surprise, steep, descent to reach the water, via a number of slippery bamboo ladders. By this point I was exhausted in the way that toddlers get exhausted, on the brink of a major tantrum and close to wetting myself (with fear). After 2 ladders, with at least 3 to go, we gave up. We could, at least, see the lagoon (it honestly did look brown and gross though I’m sure up close it was idyllic. Also I never would have been brave enough to swim in it (crocodiles; sea snakes; leeches; hitherto undiscovered lagoon monsters; mermaids)).

Journeying back to our starting point was as horrific as everything we had encountered thus far, if not more so. We had to do a sort of makeshift absail down, trying to avoid the children (why would you bring your children up here?) climbing up, slipping all over the place, while sweat literally streamed down my face. It was a disgusting experience, and one that  fully earned a further 3.5 days of unbroken beach time, not least because I could barely move the next morning from being so tense throughout the entire adventure.

Just as well then that Thailand’s highlight was its food. From mango sticky-rice and streetside pancakes for breakfast, to mountains of papaya salad and bowl after bowl of tom yam soup, the zing of the food here was everything I’d hoped it would be. I’ve always been sceptical of people who are like ‘you can only get truly decent Thai food in Thailand’, and while my experience clearly isn’t going to stop me from gorging on calamari at Busaba every now and again, the food I ate did have that something extra.

One night I forced Roland, a vegetarian, and Steph, a person who at this point had been suffering a tummy bug for a few days, to ride out of town with me to a seafood restaurant. Their dinners looked disappointing, but whatever – I had a pile of soft shell crab drenched in the most savoury black pepper dressing, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Inspired by such culinary delights, we decided to take a cookery course.This took place in the hillside home of a lovely lady and her husband and daughter. I’ve done a couple of cooking courses before and how good they are very much depends upon the quality of the people with whom you’re doing it. Luckily, we hit the jackpot.

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First up was a Chinese family of 3 – mum, dad and daughter of about 8. They were actually from Shanghai, which was useful because we could ask them where  in the city to buy each of the ingredients when we got home, which I’m sure they loved. Also their daughter became immediate best friend with our teacher’s daughter; they sat together on a hammock watching videos on a tablet, which was an adorable thing.

Completing our small group was an intriguing, but very game, older lady. She seemed to be speaking to herself in Russian – definitely Russian -and had what I would describe as a Russian accent. We asked her where she came from and she said Norway. Fair enough: I suppose northern Norway is a bit like Russia? She did admit to being originally from Russia – I’m not here to call her a liar, or out her as a spy – who had married a Norwegian man and raised her family there. She was also quite adamant that she never spoke Russian in her home, so I supposed that she was using this course as a means to practise some of her mother tongue under her breath. More interesting still was when she revealed her husband to be some sort of next level Norwegian purist, who not only would only speak Norwegian, but refused to eat anything but Norwegian beef. Quite what he was doing in Thailand therefore I’m not so sure, but one can only assume that he broke several customs and immigration laws to get there.

The cooking itself was fun – a highlight was when a spider fell into the Chinese woman’s soup pot; she loved it so much – and our results (I say ‘our’ – we basically did some stirring) were delicious and we got to eat tonnes and tonnes of food. Also, we were given certificates, which immeasurably improves any experience in my eyes.

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One thing I became strangely obsessed with in Thailand was looking at one star reviews on Trip Advisor for all of the things we did. There are a lot of them, for the most bizarre reasons. One man who had been on our cooking course seemed annoyed that he had to actually cook. A lot of people were furious at how busy the beaches were; a few less were convinced that the beaches were strewn with raw sewage (they weren’t). One woman was angry at the number of crabs on Nopparat Thara beach. To clarify: these are toenail-sized Sand Bubbles Crabs who cover the beach with millions of tiny sand spheres and bury themselves in little holes while the tide is out. They may be a marvel of nature, but how dare they interrupt precious sunbathing time! It’s not as if they’d been living peacefully on the beach for hundreds of thousands of years before Pat decided to rock up on her package holiday with her Kiss Me Quick beach towel.

As we prepared to leave Thailand for Malaysia, we asked ourselves if we’d come back to Thailand. The answer was no; not to the Krabi coast anyway. This was the first time we’d attempted a beach holiday, and they level of inactivity involved just wasn’t for us. Of course, it was beautiful – stunning, ever-changing, tranquil – but we’d watched the sun set every night and our eyes were full.

 

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