The question that had bugged me for several months was, where do we go in 2012 for our summer holiday?
Planning: Many exciting months were spent poring over travel forums before deciding on the locations.
Firstly, we decided on Thailand. Second, we were sure it was not going to be the Bangkok - Pattaya - Phuket - Crowds - Bars - Shopping type of a holiday, rather, we wanted a quieter holiday. The southern coast was a definite choice. The other region was the mountainous Chiang Mai - Chiang Rai area. Well, it had been exactly 20 years since I had been up in those areas, and had not been back since. It was my OH and 14 y/o son's first trip to Thailand, so the idea was to briefly explore at least two regions. We wanted a dose of snorkelling, though we are absolute amateurs at it. Considering the above factors, we decided on Khao Lak and the Chiang Rai areas.
This post is a summary of our memories at Khao Lak from April 5 to April 9, 2012.
Airlines: We assessed an all-Thai route vs the part-Thai and part-Air Asia option. The mixed option won hands down. Bangalore to Bangkok to Bangalore was on Thai Airways. Bangkok to Phuket to Bangkok to Chiang Rai and back to Bangkok was Air Asia, with a significant price advantage over Thai.
Visa: Though we are eligible for Visa-On-Arrival, we opted to get our visas in advance. I have experienced long VoA lines at Bangkok on several occasions over the years, and wanted to avoid that, since we had a bit of time on hand, having completed our planning a month in advance. Our visas came in less than a week, and we were all set, with hotel confirmations and all.
Arrival: The immigration process took about 10 to 15 minutes at Bangkok, after which it was a trek up to Level 4 over the long escalators, and the long Air Asia departure lines.
April 5, 2012. Our Air Asia flight descended over Phuket around noon. Oh yes, there's the sea, and the little islands. The taxi driver from our resort was waiting, smiling, holding up a placard. Sawasdee Krab!
We stopped at a little village on the way and bought a GSM mobile phone and SIM card. We passed several clean little villages, with small businesses and homes along the highway, not a speck of litter or garbage in sight. The quality of the infrastructure is amazing. Considering that the area and the people had been ravaged by the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, I salute the determination, hard work and the smiling, yet indomitable spirit of the Thai people. The short afternoon shower is typical during April, so we were not too worried.
Nang Thong Bay Resort 1 (NTBR1) turned out to be a super little resort. Polite staff and service, neat property. In addition, the location of the resort is unbeatable. Our villa # 115 was set in the garden, overlooked the sea, was comfortable and well appointed, with closets, TV and an outdoor shower at the back. My OH's first statement was, can we stay here and not go anywhere else? NTBR1 is located at the southern end of Khao Lak beach, where the beach turns gradually, resulting in a calm area of water, ideal for popping in and out of, between the sun beds and the sea. April is the pre-monsoon period. We gazed at the clouds coming in across the Andaman Sea, and experienced a few short, afternoon showers. Hardly disruptive, though.
Highway 4 runs across Bang La On and leads north to Bang Niang. NTBR1 connects with the highway via a little lane lined with several tour agencies, souvenir stores, optical stores, tailors and a few restaurants. Though most of our dinners were at NTBR1, we chose a Thai run restaurant for dinner one evening, called 'Happy House'. We just had to sample food not easily available outside of Thailand, like Massaman curry, besides Coconut based soup and a Veggie dish for my OH. Food options are described in the menus section. When in Thailand, do as the Thais do. That called for a swig of Sangsom rum, reputed to be the Thai favourite. A meal for 3 at Happy House set us back by a huge sum of 440B, the highest contributor being the Sangsom rum.
The large number of optical stores and tailor stores in Bang La On was remarkable. Seems to be a favourite spot for getting glasses and suits made. As you walk by, you are greeted with "Where you from?" and "How many days you stay" type questions. Ladies get the occasional attempts at flattery through "You very pretty" comments, as well.
Time to mention the "Boss" of "Cheaper than Hotels" fame. I had emailed him while in India. His Blackberry powered response came in within 5 to 10 minutes along with his contact details. Since I had already arranged for a hotel taxi, I did not wish to change that to the Boss taxi. I called Boss from NTBR1 and told him about our desire to do a 1-day snorkelling trip. "Ahhhh yes, I remember", he said, about our email exchange. "Tomorrow morning pickup between 07:40 and 07:50, ok? 1500B per person. Good tour company. How many people?". So our snorkelling trip was arranged, as easy as that.
The view from our villa at around 7AM in the morning was gorgeous. The mild morning sun, blue waters, calm sea, all barely 50 metres away. Our lunch and dinner options were invariably Thai food. Rice soup. Noodle soup. Rice. Veggies. Coconut curry. Red curry, Green curry. Phanaeng curry. Pad Thai. It was full moon during the times we were at NTBR1. One morning, I ventured out at 05:30AM for a stroll on the beach, and stopped in my tracks as I stepped out into the garden. What on earth is that? Turned out that it was the full moon setting in the west. Run, run, back to the villa, wake up the family. "Quick, come out, with the camera, don't ask why".
As we walked on Khao Lak beach, admiring the moonlight reflecting on the western sea, the sun begun to emerge behind the trees. The sky turned into a variety of gentle lavender and pink hues. The moon lost the battle and began to fade as the sun got brighter. The sea gradually turned colour from pitch black to a light, yet warm blue. The clouds did not seem to want to lose out on their share of gentle fireworks displays. The waters of the Andaman Sea turned a brilliant, light blue, with a few clouds on the horizon.
After walking up and down along Khao Lak beach in the dark, we decided to cross the tiny creek just north of NTBR1 and head further north as the sun rose and it got a shade brighter. The sun beds under the trees at NTBR1 are an ideal spot to digest your breakfast, aided by paper and digital reading aids. NTBR1 is a neatly maintained property, with a small canal that runs along, filled with fish of different types and sizes. We used the modest sized pool on a few occasions. A few lazy mornings were spent alternating between the sun beds and the sea, as the tide starts to come in. High tide was during mid-day those days.
Long, slow walks to Bang Niang beach and leisurely lunches followed. The beach shack at Green Beach Resort just north of NTBR1 past the tiny creek was one of our favourite lunch spots. After a hard day's work of not doing much, it was time for another marvellous sunset. Sunsets were invariably accompanied by Coconut water and Thai salad (Som Tum Papaya or Green Mango). Yum! The low tide during sunrise and sunset was a good opportunity to walk across ankle deep water over to the sharp rocks around the beacon. Kids from the area used screw-drivers to pry loose mussels wedged tightly between the rocks, exposed by the low tide.
We hired a taxi from Boss for half a day to go around the area. The Tsunami Memorial where the Police Boat was washed ashore is a very simple thatched structure, quietly details the statistics and presents a few images of the Boxing Day 2004 tragedy. The Police Boat 813 that was guarding members of the Royal Family staying at the La Flora Resort was anchored off the coast at Bang Niang. A giant wave washed the large boat ashore at this point two kilometres inland. We noticed some construction going on at the site. Perhaps a permanent memorial is being built. The Sai Rung (Rainbow) Waterfall is located about 10km north of Bang Niang to the right of Highway 4 as you drive north, in an area containing very dense vegetation. The drive is extremely pleasant, and it is quite tempting to stay a while in the area.
The temperature gets perceptibly lower as you walk up along the path from the parking lot to the waterfall, past a little store selling refreshments. Sunlight barely reaches these parts, due to the thick cover of vegetation. The path is a rather rough and strewn with slippery boulders of all sizes across which you need to hop over quite often, making it unsuitable for those who find it difficult to walk on uneven ground. Pakweep Beach is an incredible stretch of white sand and turquoise water. It was high tide when we reached around noon. We asked our driver to drop us off at Bang Niang by La Flora Resort. The skies were relatively clear, the water was calm and blue, as we strolled along Bang Niang beach looking for a shack to settle in for lunch. Lunch was the mandatory combination of several Thai Chicken, Seafood and Veggie dishes.
We walked back slowly from Bang Niang south to Khao Lak beach. There is a not so little creek between the two beaches with a unique transportation system. A 'bridge com boat' type contraption is tethered with ropes, and pulled by the 'boatman' who stands on the 'boat'. You need to drop in 10B per person in a little container. As the 'boat' reaches either end, the rollers under it make contact with and rest on the soft sand, and the passengers need to jump off. A dry or a no-splash landing is not guaranteed, however it is quite an effective system that ferries people across the 20-feet wide creek with rather fast moving water. You cannot wade across. We actually saw a tourist jump into the water and swim across, perhaps wanting to keep fit and save 10B.
After a short post-sunset stroll in town, and a quick look at the EPL soccer game at the 'Running Deer' pub near NTBR1, it was time for dinner by the sea. Dinner consisted of barbecue Snapper and Veggies. We lingered on for a long while that evening. We would be far away the next night, up in Chiang Rai. We had travelled very light. Laundry rates are rather attractive. The food menu at NTBR1 was priced just as much as most restaurants in town along the highway, add to that the bonus of eating by the sea. The combination of warm water and an outdoor shower runs the risk of seriously depleting the world's water resources, in addition to creating rifts between members of the family who accuse others of 'hogging the bathroom'. Well, such accusations and rifts are a small price to pay for the rare pleasure of a warm water bath in an outdoor shower. It's close to noon, and time to head out to Phuket Airport, a little sad to be leaving our new found 'slice of heaven' behind, yet at the same time a little excited about the experiences that lie ahead at Chiang Rai and the mountains.
You can read this and related blogs starting here: http://feni-and-amok.blogspot.com/2012/04/khao-lak-slice-of-heaven.html