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The Beaches of Southern Thailand

Or at least a few of them.  As most of the world is well aware, southern Thailand is renowned for its epic white sand beaches.  And epic they are, if you don’t mind sharing them with the rest of the world.

We only had 5 days and were using airline points to travel, so finding paradise within a few hours of Phuket was imperative.  As were good beaches.  Of course, the first destination in my mind was an isolated, white sand beach with Leonardo DiCaprio prancing about – Koh Phi Phi to be exact (though the movie was filmed on Koh Phi Phi Le, which is totally protected with no development).  After two seconds of research, I realized that Koh Phi Phi was the antithesis of isolated and mobbed out by young backpackers (did I really just say that?  I’m an old hag).  However beautiful, the stories of debauchery and lack of proper infrastructure to handle such crowds had me looking elsewhere.  Naturally, I want off-the-beaten-path which first led me to the Surin Islands, north of Phuket – too cumbersome of a journey with kids, deal breaker.  Then I found Koh Lipe – a newly overrun paradise and a 12 hour ferry ride (or so) from Phuket, deal breaker.  Then I researched Koh Yao – great sleepy vibe with so-so beaches, deal breaker.  Then came Koh Lanta – again, a bit too far, deal breaker.  And finally, Coral Island – too close to Phuket to not be absolutely overrun with people, deal breaker.  After receiving some advice from a friend, I decided to put Krabi on my map – even though it was on the other side of the Andaman Sea, it was still within 4 hours ride from Phuket.  Railay Beach, in Krabi, has most of the characteristics you find on Koh Phi Phi, but with a mellower, less frat-party feel.  But clearly, I wasn’t satisfied with only seeing ONE place in southern Thailand, at least TWO needed to be notched off the list.  My mind kept wandering back to photos of Koh Phi Phi and I was determined that a resort had to exist away from the party hustle-bustle that cost less than $200/night.  I must have looked at every hotel option available outside of Tonsai (where the tourist shit show happens).  In the end, we decided on 2 nights on Koh Phi Phi, two nights in Railay Beach, and our last night again on Koh Phi Phi.  And then we jumped, with hope that no matter where we landed, it’d be worth spending 100,000 airline points on the flight ;).

Do I still have our attention?  Can you imagine what it’s like to be me researching a trip?  That there rant wasn’t half of it.

We flew into Phuket at 1:30 and headed straight for a 2:30 ferry to Koh Phi Phi out of Rassada Pier.  I had booked all of our ferry tickets online through a third party, hoping it would make the trip .5% more efficient and in retrospect, my advice is to book in person.  We were there in high season and even then, the ferries didn’t book up.  The pre-booking was efficient enough were it not for the a-holes on Koh Phi Phi when we went to get on the ferry to Railay Beach.  Too many annoying tourists make locals apathetic and the men at the ferry ticketing office let me know it.  Needlesstosay, book in person.

After a two hour ferry ride to a longboat transfer to our resort, we landed in paradise.  Phi Phi Relax Resort is everything you’d hope it would be from the name.  Set on it’s own beach (which in all honesty is a crappy swimming beach), cabanas speckle the hillside and the sounds of macaque monkeys and birds permeate the resort.  The workers on the boat, on every longtail boat we rode on actually, got such a kick helping carry the kids from the boat to the shore.

From the moment we landed ashore, the kids began scavenging the beach and exposed (but sadly, dead) corals for sea creatures.  And they literally didn’t stop the entire time we were in Thailand.  The little miss is so enamored by anything that moves that she’d quite seriously spend day and night playing in the sand and the tide pools exploring.  They were the only children at the resort the first night but the second brought in a 2 year old friend from Russia.

Side note:  my biggest source of anxiety traveling in the tropics with kids are the bugs.  And namely, the mosquitoes and the no-see-ums (sand flies).  They love me and they love my little girl even more.  Not only that, but her body REALLY doesn’t love them and she reacts horribly.  I’ve learned through painful experience (think: traveling in tropical places for 6+ months with a no DEET philosophy, when bugs love the taste of your blood) that it’s worth the toxification of a little DEET to avoid misery.  Now that the kids are a wee bit older, I don’t feel quite so guilty inundating them with chemicals (read: I can still sleep at night), so while I most definitely still bring an arsenal of natural bug repellants (citronella, lemon, and eucalyptus based products), I’m not timid with whipping out the big guns when dusk rears its ugly mosquito ridden head.  The absolute best solution is to cover up with light-weight, light-colored fabric (linen and the like) and then spray the clothes instead of the skin.  And NEVER forget the feet.  You musn’t forget the feet!

At $65/night, Phi Phi Relax Resort was a deal… in Thailand, crazy right?  It was worth every penny though.  The restaurant in the resort, which is your sole food option, was fantastic.  It’s situated right on the beach, so we could order food and grab a drink while the kids continued to play on the beach.  The beach was LITERALLY our babysitter.  We only ate their Thai food, so I can’t vouch for their western adaptations, but almost every dish we ordered was either average or above average.  The last evening we were there they offered fresh grilled tilapia and IT. WAS. DIVINE.  Simple salt rub then grilled and Jesus Christo, it had me drooling to the cook about how delicious it was.

When the kids find true friends, they get attached.  It seems that every trip we take, there are at least a few “friends” that we hear about missing long after our departure from them.  In Thailand it was a couple from Sweden, who were on a 3 month trek of Southeast Asia and as sweet as cherry pie.

We couldn’t go to Koh Phi Phi without going to Maya Beach, where THE Beach was filmed, so we hoped aboard a longtail boat tour leaving from our resort in search of paradise.  But I knew better.  It would be beautiful alright, as long as you could look past the four hundred longtail boats and the day trippers bumping their music, and all the dead corals thanks to it all.  And it was basically that.  Fortunately, we arrived before 9am, so most of the Phuket cruisers hadn’t yet arrived, though, by the time we left at 10, it was glaringly apparent what it’d look like by noon.

Aren’t longtail boats so romantic?  They provide the livelihood for a rather large amount of locals and give tourists a rather cheap way to get around, but it comes at a great cost to the environment.  Every beach we were delivered to by longtail boat was full of dead corals.  Now, I’m sure that this is also largely to blame from pollution and human trampling as well, but the longtail boats surely don’t help matters any.  It’s one of the many catch-22’s of traveling: do you let ethics guide you away only to not fully experience a place or do you let you moral compass slide a little and play by the local rules?  I think it’s all a game of moderation and awareness.

When we left Koh Phi Phi the following morning, our excitement was tempered.  We were leaving paradise and weren’t sure what the next destination was going to hold, or if it would measure up to our experience on Koh Phi Phi.  Another two hour ferry ride later and we realized that paradise #2 awaited.

Railay Beach has a similar dramatic limestone coastline as Koh Phi Phi, but seems to garner an older crowd.  The resort we stayed at, Railay Village Resort,was full of families with young children.

Family travel has been quite an interesting perspective changer for me (and if you know me or have read another rant, you’ll know the self-inflicted complexities motherhood has brought me).  I look at young backpackers, many of which are my age, and I see myself.  But then my leg gets tugged on by two little people and I realize that I’m not one of them at all.  And every time, I feel one part disappointed and one part grateful.  In the moments that I see myself as a young backpacker, I feel much too young to have two children in tow.  But then one of them runs up to me holding a crab with the excitement of Christmas morning and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  It’s just adapting to a new perspective of myself – which belongs neither here nor there.  It’s sort of like the look on our faces in the picture below (we’re on a boat and the wind is slapping our faces).

Anyways, West Railay Beach gloriousness.  The resort we stayed at was definitely an upgrade from Phi Phi Relax, in that we had A/C, screens on our windows, and power during the day – though, honestly, I’m not sure which I prefer more.  At any rate, it was a nice resort.  Worth the $100/night?  I’m not so sure about that.  The restaurant was so-so, we ate there the first night and never returned.  Next door, down what is called “Shopping Street”, there is a small bar and eatery that is much cheaper and offered a better selection for our family.

West Railay Beach is known for its sunsets.  At dawn, numerous groups of people grab beers from the local grocery and plop down on the beach to await the setting sun.  So clearly, we joined them.  For some reason, both kids, at dusk (or just after – when the mosquitoes had mostly vanished) wanted to take it all off and prance about the beach and glide through the water in the buff.  And who were we to deny them?  Nothing cuter than a little naked sunset sillouette.

The next two days were spent on the beach and nowhere but the beach.  Our resort had a gigantic, super refreshing looking swimming pool, but neither child wanted anything to do with it, not with thousands of miniature crabs to be caught.  West Railay Beach is PERFECT for toddlers as well.  With a VERY gradual incline and long, flat stretches of sand, it doesn’t get much better for the wee ones.

Just beyond West Railay Beach (and a short stroll past East Railay Beach), is the magnificent Pranang Cave Beach.  Totally unexpected were the large caves found nearby.  Yea, yea, should have known by the name, but I’m not Sherlock Holmes alright.  Railay Beach is also known for its rock climbing, which is a result of the limestone rock formations and underlying cave system.  We were all entranced by multiple rock climbers displaying their bad-assery along the cliffs.  And not only were the caves an unexpected surprise, but so was this fertility shrine.  Viva la falis!

The only (and partially deal-breaking) issue with Pranang Cave Beach is the crowds it draws.  This photo was taken at 10am, by noon, it was standing room only and we got the hell out of dodge.

All in all, West Railay Beach was just lovely and didn’t have us regretting our decision to move on from Koh Phi Phi in the slightest.  And after all, we knew had one more night to bask in the beauty of Phi Phi anyhow.  Our last day in Thailand was the day before the little man’s third birthday, which was, technically, the impetus for our entire trip.  Who doesn’t want photo memories of themselves on a beach in Thailand on their third birthday?  We’re just giving him something to impress the ladies with when he turns 32.

Our last night was spent on the busier side of Phi Phi, but on the somewhat barren Long Beach.  Strangely, next to our resort, there were three or four hotels and restaurants that were totally abandoned, giving it a bit of a ghost town vibe.  I really out to have trusted my instincts based on the name of the last resort we chose (and by “we”, I mean “I”).  Phi Phi The Beach Resort has great reviews and is moderately priced (I even heard a woman say that it was her fifth time there), so perhaps my expectations were just too high, but I arrived and left disappointed.  The room was eh, the food was eh, the beach was eh (and by “eh” I mean “I can’t complain because it’s still paradise, it’s just lacking”).  It’s set on a hill, so the rooms are a trek to get to, though that’s a pretty crap complaint because they do offer a complimentary shuttle up and down the hill.  The beach is beautiful by most standards, it’s just full of lounge chairs and heads.  Wait, really, this is what I’m complaining about:

But what the hotel lacked in charm, the bar next door made up for in charisma (pictured in above photo).  A teeny-tiny little shack of a bar, it seemed to be run by a group of guys who also doubled as the fire-dancing entertainers by night.  So the little man not only got to spend his birthday on Phi Phi Island, but he got to eat his first banana split and watch an almost-private fire dancing show [that was oh-so-impressive], which made the resort almost worth the price paid.

After our last ferry ride back to Phuket and an impromptu stopover for one last ocean dip, we headed to the airport to say bon voyage to paradise and head back to Hong Kong to prepare for the next days flight back to snowy California.  All in all, the beaches of southern Thailand are fantastic.  Will I ever go back?  Probably not.  There are too many other tropical destinations that don’t come with the costs and crowds of the Thai beaches – BUT, look at the color of this water, now that is hard to beat.