About a year ago now (how time flies) I spent three weeks vacation in South East Asia. A few days I spent down on Railay Beach, in southern Thailand. I love Thailand- the beautiful lushness of the landscape, the warmth and courtesy of its people, the intense balance of flavours in its cuisine, and the clashing diversity of life in its capital Bangkok.
The scenery around Ao Nang is spectacular. Railay is a peninsula but inaccessible from the mainland except by powered longtail boat, courtesy of a series of steep karst limestone hills hundreds of feet high which plunge with dramatic certainty straight down into the warm lapping seas. A mecca for climbers the world over, vast rockfaces hang above green-blue water, dripping with stalagtites. Tiny outcropping islands- made famous by and subsequently epynomous with James Bond following the release of The Man With the Golden Gun– stand like abandoned collonades amidst the currents, pocked with caves and begging exploration.
This was my second trip to the south of Thailand, but my first to the western side of Thailand’s south. My first trip, back in 2002, took me to Koh Samet, a little further off the farang cattle track and frequented by Thais on weekend trips from Bangkok. Koh Samet was overall a pleasant experience, during which I lived in a tree-house for five dollars a night. The island was laid back and relaxing, and the low point was being vomitted on by a kitten which had decided to share my mattress one night at four a.m.
Amazingly I showed enough self-control not to hurl said kitten from the tree-house.
I was less enchanted by Railay Beach and Ao Nang. While the landscape was far more beautiful on the whole, the establishment of western tourism has left an ugly scar- not just in the hordes of blotchy white westerners who throng on the beaches, but in the attitudes of the Thais themselves. In vast contrast to the courteous attitude you find in Bangkok, or the warmth and generosity you find in the north, I found the people I ran into around Ao Nang to be brusque, uninterested and generally lacking in any charm, typified by the bellboy who tried to sell me weed within two minutes of my arriving at our hotel.
However getting away from the crowds and onto the water (‘away’ assuming you could avoid being run down by a longtail), you could find some space to enjoy the landscape, so one morning Pam, Lori and I grabbed some kayaks and took ourselves for a paddle up the coast. We weren’t by any stretch of the imagination the only ones doing so, but it was nice to get intimate with the cliffs and caves of the little islands, and enjoy a slightly different vibe. The scenery was magnificent even if the light didn’t lend itself to photography (a little on the contrasty side with the reflections on the sea), and to see how Railay looks in more dramatic light, you’ll have to click here.
All up, I wouldn’t go back to the southern beaches unless I happened to be in-country for something else and some friends were going down for a few days. While you’d be hard-pressed to find more exciting beachside scenery, the vibe and over-the-top tourist presence left me feeling a little flat. Compared to the peaceful hill-country around Chiang Rai, the frenetic pace and colours of Bangkok or the chilled-out stylings of Mae Hong Son, Ao Nang was a damp squib, and I think Thailand- and indeed South East Asia- has far more to offer than this particular corner of the peninsula.