Written by David Leck
With soon-to-be-launched flights to Krabi – we look at the perfect gateway to Thailand’s southern coastal treasures. David Leck, a visitor to the country for more than 20 years, offers a guiding hand.
Dotted across the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, this kingdom’s portfolio of islands is a thing of wonder. Breathtaking in beauty and seriously family friendly, world-class hotels, hospitality, and indulgent pampering abound. The only inconvenience is in deciding where to start.
Setting sail to paradise
There’s an expression in Thai – sabai sabai – which roughly equates to ‘everything’s chilled’ and is a state of tranquillity said to perfectly define the Thai lifestyle.
You’ll find plenty of sabai sabai strewn across the country’s extended family of islands. And while many are now well trodden, there are still unspoiled gems ready to surprise and delight.
Typified by towering limestone mountains, expanses of emerald water, and shaded, verdant forests, the Krabi (the word means ‘sword’) province covers 4,709 sqkm with a coastline of famed beaches providing the starting point to some 130 islands – large and small, explored and untouched (well, relatively).
Archaeological discoveries date back to prehistoric times, making Krabi one of the oldest communities in Thailand. Mountainous geography is broken by the highlands and plains of the interior, and a natural forest cover of mangrove and cassia trees, with agriculture centred on rubber, palm, coconut, oranges, and coffee.
A manageable base from which to start your journey, Krabi town sits amongst the limestone karsts that are such a hallmark of this region and has a certain character together with a wide choice of guesthouses and numerous travel agencies.
The area of Ao Nang – once the default spot for tourists – has succumbed to a commercialised feel. However, the introduction of more international flights is unlocking this part of the world and providing such a choice – you’ll be plotting your next adventure before you’ve barely set sail on the first.
There’s no getting away from the reality that Thailand is a long-established magnet for travellers. Koh Phi Phi Don is the jewel in Krabi’s crown, with waters a swatch of turquoise and dramatic mountainous terrain. The scenery is stunning, and if you’ve a vision of a Thai island in your head, this is probably it. With that natural beauty, however, come the people.
Nick Pulley, managing director of specialist tour company Selective Asia (selectiveasia.com) and a traveller around Thailand for two decades, says: “Given the choice is so alluring and the crowds can run deep, a good option is seeking out an island or two that appeal to your taste and using them as a base. You can then easily hop between the others for a spot of beachcombing or, for those rendered restless by the sun lounger, there’s scuba diving, rock climbing, or kayaking.”
Two hours from Krabi, with a backbone of jungle sandwiched between an east coast edged with mangroves and a sandy, palm-fringed west, Lanta Yai has a definite charm. It’s an island equally beloved by families and honeymooners, where days revolve around relaxation, gentle exploration, and the anticipation of freshly caught seafood as afternoon fades into evening.
Forget the flash
Devastated by the tsunami in 2004, Koh Lak – on Thailand’s southwestern shore – had to be almost entirely rebuilt. It has now acquired something of a reputation as the more refined counterpart to its bigger, brasher sister Phuket. Aside from the natural charms that are easy to take for granted around here, this is a spot devoid of the excesses seen elsewhere, making it ideal for families – not to mention offering access to the Koh Similan National Park.
Located between Lanta Yai and Krabi, with a position that can make travel a challenge between May and October when the weather is unpredictable, Koh Jum is nevertheless one of this region’s quirkier options. It doesn’t do the whole ‘flashy’ resort vibe, but a sedate ambience has seen many a visitor arrive for a day or two and be quickly persuaded into staying longer.
Located around a vast lagoon, Koh Hong is a few kilometres off the coast and, according to some, among the most impressive spots of Phang Nga. It’s one of several hongs – secluded tidal lagoons within limestone outcrops often only navigable in small kayaks. If it’s ‘soft’ adventure you’re after, look no further.
The island of Koh Poda is 25 minutes from the mainland, and even the world-weary might concede it conjures up a Thailand of the past. The 1.1km stretch of sand, impressive coral reef, and general air of tropical idyll make it worth a visit, and it can be combined with smaller neighbours – Koh Tup, Koh Mor, and Koh Kai – which can be walked between at low tide. Tup is the key player and boasts lovely views across the archipelago.
That old favourite
Whether you arrive on Koh Samui (located in the Gulf of Thailand, on the opposite side of the peninsula) at its delightful airport or by ferry, the island remains something of a gem despite the march of development. While the main town of Chaweng is now popular with holidaymakers, Samui still has many quieter corners brimming with atmosphere and Thai authenticity. In fact, if you head to Bophut in the north, you can enjoy a flavour of the Thailand of old – and be utterly charmed in the process.
Stefanie Langley, originally from Miami, has lived in Thailand for 10 years, the last three in Krabi, where she and her husband Tik live with their daughter Mayom and run a climbing school. Her advice is to immerse yourself in nature, activities, and food, and you won’t go wrong.
“Krabi is Thailand’s sports capital, but if don’t want to climb, kayak, or mountain bike, you can simply sit back and marvel at nature,” she says.
“The food is seriously good, from amazing fish to my favourites such as a wonderful turmeric-roasted curry. For these – and numerous other reasons – I feel privileged to live in this really special corner of paradise,” adds Stefanie.
But she has one plea to visitors: “Please try and limit your footprint. There are many simple things you can do to protect the environment and wildlife and respect local cultures that will really enhance your experience.”
Consider it a courtesy
Thailand is steeped in tradition. Despite an outward sense of sanuk (fun), Thais can be shy, so mastering a few of the kingdom’s practices can add much to your enjoyment. The wai is the formal greeting and is delivered by placing the palms of the hands together in front of the face, accompanied by a slight bow. The head is considered sacred in Thai culture, while the feet are deemed ‘unclean’, hence you’ll always see a Thai taking off shoes before entering houses and other buildings. Thais revere their late king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch – a fascinating man whose life shaped modern Thailand immeasurably.
Into the jungle
Experiencing the majesty and wonder of the world’s largest land animal while travelling can be a controversial subject, but the luxury tented Elephant Hills camp (138km from Krabi; transfers provided) has impeccable ethical credentials and offers a programme that includes two- or three-day family jungle safaris that are educational, huge fun, and make for a memory-etched holiday adventure.
Who’s cooking dinner?
With exotic ingredients and a holy quartet of sweet and sour, spicy and salty, Thai is one of the world’s great cuisines, and joining a cookery class can be both informative and entertaining. The Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts is one of the region’s most respected. Although half-day courses are more suited to older children, SITCA has a passion for exposing fledgling chefs to the joys of cooking Thai food.
At the rockface
With a hypnotic landscape of limestone karsts rising from the sea and an interior of lush vegetation, the Krabi region is the perfect backdrop for rock climbing – and it can be tailored to those as young as five. Highly regarded for the standards of its safety, instructors, and equipment, Real Rocks Climbing runs half-day sessions geared towards a morning of family fun within a spectacular setting.
Thai island hotels
Luxury: The Rayavadee
Situated on the Phra Nang Peninsula and spread across 10 hectares of tropical landscapes surrounded by towering, jungle-topped limestone cliffs on the edge of Krabi’s national marine park, The Rayavadee blends a sense of community with impressive sustainability credentials. It also boasts everything you’d expect from one of the best hotels in the region. Its 96 two-storey pavilions and five luxurious villas, four superb restaurants, and obligatory top-of-the-range spa are flanked on three sides by beaches of white sand.
Classic: Anantara Bophut
Samui has a reputation for being a stylish island and is one that still boasts bags of appeal – the secret is in knowing where to head. The Anantara Bophut is just a few minutes from the charming setting of Fisherman’s Village (think fine dining and an altogether more sedate pace of life) and is a delightful beachside property as perfect for families as it is for romantic couples. Accommodation blends all modern comforts with frequent splashes of Thai elegance. The dining is good and the spa award-winning.
Timeless boutique: Tubkaak Resort
There’s not much to delay you in Krabi Town, but for somewhere close enough to the airport and yet offering plenty of atmosphere and style – not to mention wonderful sunsets across Phang Nga Bay – the Tubkaak Resort is a near-perfect choice. Gardens enveloped by lush greenery, accommodation in beautifully stylish villas typified by stone and teak wood (some feature plunge or private pools), and a beach at which you could successfully throw any sort of travel cliché combine to make this a pretty ideal starting point.
My Thai Islands
The sport of kings
Muay Thai isn’t merely the national sport; it’s also rooted in centuries of tradition and embedded in culture and respect. As well as being an adrenalin-fuelled spectacle, a fight is an opportunity to understand something that’s so much a part of Thai society. You can try your hand – and your feet, knees, and elbows – at Superpro Samui with an ‘all are welcome’ philosophy across group classes and private lessons, or try Emerald Gym in Krabi.
Spring into life
The spectacular Tamarind Springs on Samui regularly makes those lists of ‘best spas in the world’. Multi-award-winning and set within a stunning forest, nature abounds. Huge granite boulders provide both atmosphere and numerous delightful spots in which to unwind, while secluded pools provide respite from the heat, and the choice of treatments takes pampering to a whole new level of indulgence.
On your bike
If you really want to get under the skin of the peninsula of which Krabi is a part, then a biking holiday is hard to beat. Grasshopper Adventures run an excellent small-group, seven-day cycling journey (no previous experience required) from Surat Thani to Krabi, through dramatic landscape and with plenty of opportunities to meet friendly farmers and fisherfolk for whom life has remained unchanged for generations.
Distance: 5,359 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 40 minutes
Frequency: Beginning December 6, Qatar Airways will operate four flights a week