Thailand part 1 - The South

03rd March 2017
Keen to escape the withering weather of an Irish winter Jasmine and I went away to Asia for six weeks this year. It was a great trip, jam packed with adventure and excitement. I'm not the kind to sit on the beach all day so we packed a whole lot in to our time, to the point that I was fairly whacked by the end of it all. It's good to be home again and it's nice to know the winter's almost over, though the current climate hardly speaks of springtime. I'd be all year writing up a blow by blow account of the trip, which would be of no real interest to anybody but me. So here's a very general overview of what we got up to under all that sun.

The first third of the trip was spent in the south of Thailand, based from a place called Krabi. Our initial two days were spent around the town itself, which is quite touristy but pleasant all the same. Though it's not exactly 'genuine' Thailand it's a hell of a lot different to West Kerry. We visited a Buddhist temple called Wat Tham Seua up on a high hill nearby and had a day of kayaking around the sheltered waters and mangrove forests at Ao Thalane. It was great to be under some sunshine and be carried along by the newness and excitement of a place unknown.

There were truckloads of crab-eating macaques at Wat Tham Seua. They're tame to the point of boldness - if you left anything unguarded you'd be lucky to not have it stolen.

Temple details and the view from the top of the 1,200 or so steps.

Fist bump with a close relative. Those teeth are serious and they're not afraid to bare them if you do something they don't like. I was amazed how some people acted around the monkeys. Tame doesn't mean timid!

Kayaking at Ao Thalane. We were going a hell of a lot slower than this photo suggests but I like it all the same.

More monkey interaction in the mangroves. This one had no trouble hopping in for a nose around the boat and there was no hope of winning the fight for my water bottle. I figured I may as well help and keep the bottle from being brought back into the forest. Look at those little hands! It's pretty cool when wild animals are so unfazed by humans, though plenty of the humans in the group were fairly frightened when the same thing happened to them!

Next up was a week in Tonsai, the longest stay at any one place for the whole six weeks. This was because I wanted to get some climbing done, and the karst towers around this area have long been a sport climbing destination. We left Krabi after a morning of heavy downpours but it had cleared up to just spitting rain by the time our longtail boat pulled in at Railay East. The grey weather wasn't enough to take from the incredible scenery of the place. Tall towers of limestone shot up from picture perfect beaches and anywhere level enough for trees was thick with tropical forest. The cliffs themselves were incredibly beautiful, pocked with caves and dripping candlewax stalactites. After checking into our accommodation we rented a kayak at Tonsai and made the short paddle to a crag called Eagle Wall where a walk through exotic jungle took us to some fantastic routes. It was pure joy for me, combining all sorts of activities into an afternoon of adventure in a beautiful place. With a few pitches in the bag we carried on along the amazing limestone coastline until evening.

In the jungle...

My cousin Johnny came to visit that first weekend. He's been living in Bangkok for the bones of a decade and knows his way around this part of the world. We had a good time walking through jungles and in particular visiting the lagoon at Phra Nang. It's like a giant hollow column cut out of the cliffs and is accessed by a steep scramble through a muddy forest. It was a playground for adults like me who don't want to let go of that part of their childishness.

A spectacled langur at Railay East. These animals are far more placid than the macaques and don't really allow humans to get near. We often watched them in the trees while having breakfast.

Detail on the way to the Phra Nang lagoon.

This was the last cliff section on the way to the lagoon, which you can see below. It keeps most of the crowds away! I'm impressed by people who aren't used to climbing doing things like this.

Reflections in the lagoon. I didn't bring a wide lens with me on the trip and wish I had. Many of the most photogenic places we were in were caves or other enclosed areas like this. It's quite hard to get it all in without a wide lens, but at least it meant I probably spent more time looking at the scene and not the camera.

I had hoped to climb loads during our stay in Tonsai but didn't really end up doing a whole lot. Between Johnny's visit and Jasmine catching the dreaded Tonsai tummy there were four days lost, and I was mindful of not taking the piss with Jasmine's patience. She wasn't interested in climbing like I was and I didn't want to be selfish. Nonetheless I climbed some amazing routes and given how little rock climbing I've done over the past year or two it felt great to be knocking out world class pitches in such a spectacular location. I think you'd need to be climbing in the mid sevens to get the most out of the climbing here but even my weakened arms managed to get me up some great routes. I didn't get to climb any of the multipitch lines but they look superb.

Left - climbers at the Gibbon Roof, a crag deep in the jungle with a high concentration of hard routes. Right - White Hot Hernias, Fire Wall. I climbed this and can confirm with the guidebook that it's a classic! If you're looking for good routes in the sixes this is a fine crag.

My initial amazement with Tonsai gradually wore away as the week went on. It's a beautiful place, there's no doubt about it. But it's suffering for the attention it gets. The scene is pretty dingy. A significant proportion of the visitors seem there solely to get wasted, which is all well and good. I don't mind what people do with themselves as long as they're not hurting anyone else but it did make for a strange vibe. Parts of the strip are violently loud at night, which, again isn't my kind of scene (yes, I'm very boring), and some of the people who enjoy this kind of lifestyle seem totally intolerable (yes, I'm also judgemental). I can see how Alex Garland came to write the grim ending of The Beach.

Then there's the rubbish. Parts of Tonsai are fucking filthy. Litter is a big problem in every Asian country I've ever been to, and it might be silly to focus on one small area considering the amount of rubbish all over the world, but it seemed particularly bad in a place as small as here. Because of the surrounding steep mountains there's no road access and everything has to be brought in by boat. By the looks of things there's no issue with bringing in food, water, construction materials and endless amounts of useless plastic souvenirs but taking all the litter out obviously isn't a priority. It's a small area. It wouldn't be a big job for a few people to organise some kind of waste collection but at the moment it seems like nobody's taken up the torch. And given the fact that 90% of the people at Railay and Tonsai seem to be foreigners who are consuming the things that create the waste I wouldn't be against paying a small fee on arrival if it helped keep the place clean. I get the feeling the hedonistic lifestyle afforded by the place lets people forget about responsibility. But maybe I'm just a big buzzkill.

Top - the view from Fire Wall - not too shabby! It's easy to see why people are drawn here. The climbing is actually quite good too. I thought it might have been scenes like this that drew people more than the quality of the rock. Bottom right - sunset at the beach at Phra Nang. Bottom left - sweaty jungle hiking. I love the buttresses on those big tropical trees.

The week wasn't long passing. From Tonsai we took a boat to Ko Lanta, an island to the south. It was here that the strange scene at Tonsai became more apparent. I had enjoyed myself for the week but seeing the quiet and clean coastline of this island made me realise how sleazy Tonsai can be. We stayed in a pretty fancy hilltop guesthouse with amazing views. A day was spent driving a scooter to some of the sights on the island, including a refreshing waterfall at the end of a lovely jungle walk and a cool cave. It was great fun whizzing around the open roads with a warm breeze cooling our bared limbs. I'm not mad about hot sun but I was faring better than I'd expected and soon started to appreciate how easy life in warm climates can be.

On our way out of the jungle after a waterfall swim on Ko Lanta. The waterfall itself was a lot smaller than expected but the walk to get there was worthwhile in itself.

Sunrise from our guesthouse at Ao Kantiang, Ko Lanta. One of the few times I bothered with grad filters and my terrible travel tripod.

Unfortunately I spent our last day on Lanta between the toilet and the bed. We'd booked a snorkelling trip for the day so it was disappointing to miss that, but I wasn't laid low for long and felt fit enough to travel to our next destination the following morning - Ko Pu. When you see ads for the lotto that involve people swinging in hammocks on empty tropical beaches you're looking at something like Ko Pu. It's that typical view of paradise. As we approached on the boat we couldn't see any development on the west coast's long lines of sandy beaches, and there wasn't much to be seen on the wooded hills either. The better known name is Ko Jum, but this is just the name given to the southern end of the island. We stayed in a wooden chalet on the northern end and it was brilliant. An upcoming flight from Krabi meant we couldn't stay as long as we'd have liked, but our two nights there were among the best of the six weeks.

Coconut palms on Ko Pu. These trees back the beach pictured in the next photo. Apart from a brief visit from another couple we met nobody else at this gorgeous place.

I spent plenty of time in the sea on this trip. I've been home two days now and I'm not looking forward to resuming my regular swims in Ireland all that much.

A colourful sunset on our first evening. Our resort (a word that seems too grand for a few chalets in the trees) can be seen in the middle of the frame. We never climbed that mountain. It seemed a bit hot for that kind of thing.

While out kayaking we came across a big shoal of small fish so I hopped in to try and get some photos. It was hardly spectacular snorkelling but it was cool to be at the centre of a 3m wide shoal of fish all the same.

Small scale sunset fishing.

Two days here is not enough...

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