Stepping gingerly into the ‘long-tail’, our heavy tread rocking the boat alarmingly, two young children in the stern peer curiously through long- lashed eyes. Offering them my best wide-mouthed, friendly grin, they respond with bashful smiles. Gesticulating to their mother, who has now cranked up the enormous diesel engine and is manoeuvring cautiously away from the dock, she cannot hear my words, so I hold up my camera and point to her children, miming permission to take their photo. By now she’s donned a balaclava so I can’t see anything but her dark eyes, making her appear like a villainous baddy from a B grade movie. Quashing my fears of paranoia, thinking that I’ve stepped onto the wrong boat, I quickly learn that the balaclava is to keep the heavily polluted water from splashing into her face. I soon begin to wish I had had the foresight to bring my own. Taking her subtle nod of the head as approval, I snap away. Turning the camera around to show the children the LCD screen, they both roll simultaneously onto their backs, legs in the air, giggling in puerile delight when they see their own faces staring back at them. The crinkling of pleasure in their mothers eyes assures me that I’m on the right boat after all.
Before long though the throb of the engine has lulled the kids to sleep in the bilges and I turn outwards to marvel at the waterfront villages we pass. While in Australia waterfront property is highly sought after for its subsequent prestige, here at Damnernsaduak, two hours southwest of Bangkok, it’s simply a practical solution for those who live and work on the canals that flow maze-like through the coconut plantations. I’m taking one of the ubiquitous long-tail boats to the floating markets for waterfront shopping Thai style, having jetted over to Bangkok on the one hour domestic flight from Phuket.
What to Do
So much of Thailand’s, or at least Bangkok’s, attractions revolve around shopping, and with bargain priced treasures everywhere, it’s no wonder. But while it’s tempting to venture no further than the markets and shopping strips of Phuket’s Patong (and almost everywhere in Bangkok), I urge you to quell the shopping itch and take time to enjoy Thailand’s natural treasures. Phuket makes a convenient central base from which to explore the regions around Khao Lak and Krabi. And if you find shopping and sightseeing just a little too exhausting, allow at least one hour’s bliss at the hands of a skilled masseuse: Thai women are deservedly acclaimed for their adept ministration.
Departing from Ao Pier at Phuket it’s possible to combine stunning island cruising, sea kayaking and cave exploration in what is surely one of the most peaceful locations on the planet. Phangnga Bay was placed on travellers ‘must do’ itineraries as soon as James Bond sauntered devilishly across movie screens in the 1970’s. Today, the island known colloquially as James Bond Island, attracts hordes of visitors daily. The curious thing though, is that the whole 400sq km of picturesque Phangnga Bay is dotted with limestone stacks and craggy islands, most of them readily accessible by boat. So by joining a boutique tour such as John Gray’s Sea Canoe Tour, you’ll have an excellent chance of actually enjoying whole islands and lagoons all to yourself.
Krabi is about two hours drive east of Phuket, where you’ll find gorgeous five star beachfront hotels set below impressive towering cliffs. Many are only accessible by boat from the nearby port of Ao Nang, as are the secluded off lying islands, known for their sandy beaches and turquoise sea. Secluded, meaning remote. Not secluded meaning private, as it’s a popular day trip destination and can be overrun with visitors.
Two hours north of Phuket is the coastal village of Khao Lak, complete with long stretches of jungle edged beaches. Stepping onto the sand from the landscaped gardens of Le Meridien Khao Lak Hotel & Resort, I’m drawn warily to the water’s edge. Left behind and homeless, their families destroyed when the 2004 tsunami flushed their entire village out to sea, were many children, some of them just babies at the time. ‘Hands across the water’ was founded by Australian policeman Peter Baines to assist these orphaned children. A Police patrol boat still remains roadside, 2km inland, a grim reminder of the day the sea heaped destruction on this tranquil village.
Just beyond Khao Lak is the Khao Sak National Park, complete with ubiquitous limestone outcrops seen across southern Thailand. Award winning Siam Safaris takes nature tours through the thick jungle, combining elephant trekking with river kayaking. It’s my first experience riding an elephant and I awkwardly hoick my leg across her broad back. My mahout clambers more gracefully up my elephant’s coarse-skinned neck, tucking his toes in behind her ears. We bob and sway through the dense vegetation, with cooling sweat trickling down between my shoulder blades in the steamy heat.
But I’ve chosen to visit during the monsoon season, so tropical discomfort is anticipated. Next time I’ll visit during the cooler months between November and March when the rain and humidity has eased and the sun is shining, filling the beaches with sun worshippers.
Fiona Harper was a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand