Brian W Fisher

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Kayaking in Krabi

Thailand is a country of many contrasts...having made seven separate tours to it during the past decade, I can vouch for that. Most UK citizens will have heard of Pattaya, Phuket, and Ko Samui, resorts very popular with tourists from all parts of the world, but Krabi has never been in that league.

That's precisely why I wanted to visit and discover the facts for myself. I chose the latter part of October running into early November, which offered me more price flexibility at the time of year when Thailand's 'low season' changes to its 'high' one.

Getting There

Long haul flying can never really be called 'exciting' or 'restful' but is a necessity, if South East Asia is the destination. Only two alternatives are available to British travellers, either non-stop 12 hour (ish) journeys, or via the one-stop airlines such as Emirates and Qatar, which land at their bases in the Gulf, disembark their passengers who then, after 2 or 3 hours, board another onward flight. There are of course, a number of charter flights operated by tour operators but these invariably encompass 'Complete Package Holidays', whereas this report follows the route of the independent tourist...a choice fast becoming accepted as the best way to ensure more flexibility at a more competitive price.

Having used all three methods prior to this tour, I wanted to experience what EVA AIR had to offer for their non-stop service Heathrow/Bangkok/Heathrow. So what was it like?

Check-in went smoothly and my pre-booked seat had not been allocated to another person (which so often happens).The aircraft was a Boeing 777 - quite a new one too. On board facilities were as good as any other major carrier, as was the choice of food. Cabin crew operated efficiently and were extremely polite. Touchdown at Bangkok was four minutes ahead of schedule, so no one complained about that. In fact the only complaint I witnessed, was from the Premium Laurel-Class passengers, who had booked what was advertised as 'Lay Flat' seats/beds, which turned out not to be so. EVA AIR should address this issue without delay as their claim is, in fact, false.

I spent a couple of nights in Bangkok before travelling south to Krabi. Air Asia, is the region's budget airline, one which is rapidly expanding. No frills, but who needs them for a hour's flight? The aircraft was spotless, the seats were leather and the cabin crew extremely slick and competent. I'd pre-booked the flights, my seat preference and my luggage size in the UK and on both flights (Bangkok/Krabi/Bangkok) each element was honoured. The airline runs to an almost unbelievable schedule, yet achieves it. That the total cost for the return journey was around £60 is astonishing but true.

Accommodation

As with all resorts, Krabi is well served with hotels of most categories. In my case, five star luxury was not important, as my main aim was to explore and experience the many attractions of the area. So, as per my usual practice, I researched the alternatives through that very helpful tool...the internet.

It doesn't take long to 'sort the wheat from the chaff' and identify two or three 'probables'. After direct contact with hotel managers and digesting the tone and content of their replies, it's not too difficult to select a favourite. In this case, I plumped for the Cha Wan, located a few minutes stroll from Ao Nang's promenade and beaches. My motto of, 'measure twice and cut once' had again paid dividends. From the moment I walked through the archway leading to the property, I knew instinctively that I had chosen well. It was a bit like discovering a fifty pound note stuck to the sole of one's shoe.

There, sited at two levels in a near circular shape, were ten villas, each built in the traditional Thai style and surrounded by exotic plants and shallow, fountain-sprayed fish ponds. Absolutely delightful. With only the merest of formality, the smiling receptionist handed-over my key and I followed another staff member along a curving path and over a tiny bridge that led to the door of my allocated villa. I have used the word 'delightful' to describe the outsides but once inside, needed to think of another adjective that would be meaningful. Let me tell you what I saw and YOU come up with one.

First, size. I actually measured it, (yes, I know, you're now asking, who carries a tape measure on such trips?)...well, I do...sorry but facts are important to me. Sixty-five square metres in total was the measurement. The main room floor of gleaming hardwood held my attention for longer than normal. Then I took-in the sight of a kingsized bed upon which lay two swans...well not real ones but snow-white bath towels twisted this way and that with imagination and skill.

Atop the minibar was the coffee making kit and in one of two capacious wardrobes was a valuables safe. Somewhat surprisingly, the bathroom sported a huge tub with an easy accessible hand-held shower and off to one side, a completely separate, enclosed shower cubicle. Then a thought struck me...where's the WC? The answer lay behind a pair of louvre doors. What a well thought-out convenience, especially when the villa would be occupied by more than one person. Very clever and a feature rarely seen in the most expensive, luxury hotels. Individually controlled air conditioning that performed quietly and efficiently, was much appreciated. A set of sliding doors led out to a very large (and private) balcony, where, having chosen from a menu the night before, breakfast was brought by yet more smiling girls. This morning routine was most charming and the perfect start to any day.

Outside, the surrounding and well planned gardens gave the whole place an ambience rarely found. Two small swimming pools...each sited on different levels catered for all ages and alongside the main one, a row of comfortable loungers was cleverly placed so as to be shaded by the overhanging trees...no need to constantly rearrange the position of a parasol. The hotel's outdoor but cosy restaurant was reached by a flight of steps. Each dish on the menu was freshly cooked to order while chilled local beers could be sampled.

Finally, on the subject of accommodation, I must say something about the staff. A mere fourteen in number, each one completely endorsing Thailand's claimed reputation of being 'The Land of Smiles'. All made me feel at home and like an honoured guest. Adding this benefit to that of the superior class rooms and the hotel's location, means that I have no hesitation in marking Cha Wan high on my list of favourites. I would be amazed if I read any disparaging comments about this place on any networking sites.

Excursions

The province has much to offer its tourists. There are Buddhist temples perched atop mountains, cascading waterfalls that beckon the curious and naturalist alike, Trekking by elephant, top class rock climbing of sheer-faced limestone cliffs, the exploration of beaches...some hidden gems only accessible by boat...short or long trips out to sea, sailing to and around small islands, swimming in cool freshwater streams at the foot of surrounding hills, or, what I had travelled such a distance to sample and write about, sea kayaking.

At the outset, I urge those who wish to experience this quite unique form of exploration, to seek-out and select only the Company or Operator, that covers ALL the following essentials: -

* Fully insured by a reputable company.
* Uses kayaks that conform to international standards.
* Has guides and instructors who are trained and accomplished.
* Provide the CORRECT type of life jacket and ensures the proper individual fitting prior to commencement.
* Provides special waterproof bags for clients valuables (such as cameras).
* Will only operate when tide levels and currents are favourable

Now, this might read as being 'off-putting' but it's not...it's just sensible, so ask questions and choose wisely.

The Experience

The excursion begins with a pick-up from hotels and a 30 minute drive north to the kayaking base. The company I had chosen (Klung-Talen, located at Bor Thor and which fulfilled the list of 'musts') limits the number of kayaks per guide for all trips. On this one, there were five. By prior arrangement (at NO extra cost I might add) I was to be paddled by the guide so that I could be at the front of the double-seated kayak and concentrate on taking the photographs and video I needed.

We set off along a wide river expanse of brackish water banked on either side by lush forest and rising hills. After about an hour, the scenery began to change as we entered the mangroves. Soon, the only sounds were those made by the gentle 'plop' and 'swish' of  kayak paddles and the occasional twittering of birds. As the meandering river narrowed, our kayaks slipped carefully between the myriad of tree roots rising from the greenish-brown of the glass-like surface. Mysterious, would be a good way of describing this part of the journey.

Around every bend the view changed. Mangroves gave way to other flora, as we twisted and turned. Impossibly steep outcrops of limestone soared hundreds of feet into the air, their surfaces covered with seemingly impenetrable knots of trees, roots and closely clinging lichens. When my paddler eased our kayak to the right and aimed it at one of these formidable outcrops, I have to admit that my pulse quickened as the bow came closer and closer to the rock face. Only when a mere couple of metres away, did a gap appear...and not a very big one either.

Perhaps as wide as a small car, the hole gave us access and we entered the darkness beyond. What little light there was filtering in through the gap behind us, showed the average headroom throughout the hundred metre-long tunnel to be around half the height of that from the water surface to the top of my head. Eerie, was the only word that came to mind. Yet exhilarating indeed.

An archway of light grew larger as our kayak neared it and when we skimmed through, another wondrous sight enfolded. We were in a completely enclosed lagoon about the size of a football field. Not a ripple broke the water's surface when all five kayaks stopped to allow their crews to gape in amazement. Total silence reigned. No birds, no mammals, no reptiles, yet one could be forgiven for imagining, that at any moment, a flock of Pterodactyls would swoop in over the cliff's towering faces and make a screeching beeline for us. It really was like being back in pre-historic times - nature allowed to flourish without interference from man.Truly remarkable.

I don't think any of us wanted to leave, but our guide, with a broad smile, hinted that there was even more (I believe he used the word, 'fantastic') sights still to see, so our small convoy went back the way it came and the return journey through the dark tunnel was just as exciting. Back into the mangroves we played 'follow my leader' for a while until an even larger mountain of limestone came into view and towards which the guide paddled. 'Hmm', I was thinking, 'another tunnel leading to perhaps another hidden lagoon'...but I was wrong!

I was right about a tunnel (an even lower one) but not about a lagoon. This time we glided almost silently into an enormous cave. Judging by the charcoal etchings on various parts of the roof, it must have been inhabited by Neolithic man. Leaving the kayaks let us explore the cave's many features. Stalagmites and stalactites aimed their points at each other while other areas of the cave were demonstrating what millions of years of alkaline liquid can do to rock.

Adventure was in the air, some of us venturing upwards along rubble strewn and narrow paths to a vantage point at almost roof height. Even at my advanced age (don't ask - but past the proverbial 'three score years and ten') I managed the trek and began letting the shutters of my cameras click merrily away. More than satisfied with my physical efforts and pleased with what I had seen in my camera's viewfinders, I began the climb back down. Then yours truly slipped, fell backwards onto his posterior - and that was when gravity took a firm hold. Result, cameras held high and undamaged but a big toe broken. Ah well, that's bravado for you!

The return paddle to base, although by a very different route, was not as memorable - but how it could have been I know not? Nevertheless, blue skies were overhead, the river wide and slow moving and the sun sending its rays towards us. After clambering out of the kayaks and ridding ourselves of life jackets, we sat together  swapping impressions of our experience, while being served with an array of locally cooked and very delicious dishes.

One could sense a reluctance to board the minibus and be driven back to our various hotels but the adventure was over. This then, is my account my version of Kayaking in Krabi. Others will recount their experience differently, I'm sure.

The main question I always ask myself at the end of any 'Fact-Finding Tour' is...'Will I come back for more?'
In this case, that's guaranteed.

Written by:-

Brian W Fisher.

November 2010
 
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