happnin' The West, Thailand - climbing, diving and too much beachlife

Yolanda’s bit
Krabi was the center point for exploring the area (Ko Phi Phi, Lanta, Ao Nang,...)
We went for AO Nang, good strategy point and less touristy than others. We found super rustic super cheap wooden bungalows five minutes from the beach in friendly garden place.

The town -one street- was OKish but of not much interest. Main features were the three beaches accessible by ten minutes boat trip. Rai Leh west beach was the most upmarket holiday resort type, quite silly but good looking. Another five minutes boat trip took you to Pra Nang beach, a mysterious curvy one framed by amazing rock walls, caves and grottoes within swimming distance of a high rocks mystic island.

This beach and surroundings were part of a National Park. The big cave at the end of the beach had a strange altar set up at the entrance. The offerings at its feet were about a hundred wooden phalluses of different shapes, colors and sizes (with an impressive 2m. one). There was a Thai couple guarding it and a sign on the rocky wall explaining that contrary to what many people said, this was not part of a Buddhist cult, nor was it some kind of sex related rite, but simply a pagan altar from ancient times whose origins were unclear but its finality was something to do with good luck, fortune and abundance.
There was lots of climbing going on in the area. Twenty minutes walk through the rocky caves took you to Rai Leh east beach. Hippie groovy place lined up with mangrove trees growing out of the sea.

The other attraction in AO Nang was the really good value PADI scuba diving courses. Mine was an awesome experience.

Next boat trip to the cinematographic Phi Phi. Charming little island. We were entering the tourist low season by now and the place was not too crowded, though still expensive in comparison to other places in Thailand. We found the cheapest meapest bungalows, very comfortable solid stone built with a terrace and all the facilities.

The town beach is pretty but nowadays more resembles a port full of longtail boats and ferries. On the other side of this part of the island (the strangled neck bit) there's a more desertic and more liberal one. Boats can take you to further beaches -like the popular long beach- any time of day or night.
Once more well catered for tourists, the center offers you everything you may wish to enjoy your stay. Shop 'til you drop, excellent and varied cuisine, all sorts of bars, concerts, parties, drugs, and the popular she-boy Thai shows performed by astounding looking specimens who all they needed to do to gather their late night audience was to walk around their magnificent costumes and make up in the main street a few hours before.

We went round the island on a boat with Londoners Imogen and thingy boyfriend plus three Irishmen with the words beer and more beer deeply engraved on their foreheads. It was beautiful. The movie site feels exactly like you are entering a movie scene without camera as you came in and out between the high cliffs.
We visited some huge cave where some birds built their laborious nests out of their own saliva and Thai people collect them -sometimes risking their lives trying to reach really awkward places- for sale as an exquisite and very expensive dish to other countries like China and specially Japan.
We stopped for lunch in a remote and beautiful beach with no tourists or accommodation of any sort, just a few locals, and went snorkeling in the afternoon.

Imogen and thingy were doing a similar trip to us (cut off a few continents) and it was interesting to compare impressions on India. Thingy was third generation Indian in the UK and he was a bit cynical about his ancestors' land which he'd visited for the first time. Adjectives like disgusting, stinky, unbearable filled his accounts of the country and its people. A bit young and spoilt to appreciate, I reckoned.
In the evening we went for a few drinks with them and the Irish sponges at the "Rolling Stoned" with a hyperenergetic Thai band playing anything you named. Masters of imitation, natural charisma and tops image.

We tried some climbing on one of the high rocky cliffs at the end of the beach. The small, skinny and muscly Thai instructor was like an elastic spider devil working his way up swiftly and effortlessly. The Scottish blokey was like I'll make it no matter what, and again and again. Climbing is definitely not my thing. What a crazy and awkward thing to do. Once you get to the difficult bit there's no way you can get a grip on anything, the top half of your body bending backwards and your legs shaking trying to keep their feeble grip in a vertical stone surface. Your toes are uncomfortably bent upwards and getting numb in the squeezing tiny shoes, your hands and fingers become the ultimate wrong and useless extremities to have, your neck is about to snap from looking up to that impossible to reach spot, and you're painfully held from your groin by a few straps and a piece of string hanging in the abyss like a vulnerable baby who's being tricked by laughing big ones. And it's not gonna happen. And you fall.
It was fun though. It's sexy. It was also fun to say no, I don't want to climb that other horrible unfriendly cliff.
We were spoilt with a beautiful Thai Massaaage...? afterwards. Ummmh!

We enjoyed gratefully a few bloody heavy short rains that allowed us to have nothing to do but relax and watch the coconuts fall. To get to our bungalows you had to cross a long narrow path lined up with high palm trees heavy hung with coconuts ready to drop on your head at the first blow of wind or just because it was their time to fall. And they are huge and very heavy. After the path, the bungalows themselves were situated among palm trees, the closest being above your roof and the next, one step away from the door. Beautiful. Every now and then you heard a loud dry sound "THOMP!!!", and there it was, one meter away from you, saying "hello, I'm here!"

We kept looking up to the twenty meters high palm tops every time we walked to and from the bungalow and jumping sideways every now and then. We wondered which were the statistics for death by coconut. We made some research locally and on the Internet but only found the answer in KO Lanta island (coming soon!).

Time to move on.
To the amazement -which we'd only understand an hour and a half later- of the long-tail boatmen, we took a small long-tail boat instead of the bus to KO Lanta island.

t was going to be a 2.5/3 hours easy trip from island to island with the boat driver and the co-pilot-entertainer. It was all going well (well includes the revolting feeling that provokes a tiny boat moving in all possible directions in a VERY wavy sea -the stormy wet season was starting- and the uncomfortable flat piece of wood as a seat) for the first hour, when the copilot brought to our attention the front of heavy dark clouds in the far distance and started making mimics of how the storm would catch up with us in no time and we all would drown. We laughed with him and in no time a huge storm was on top of us and we couldn't see two meters ahead.

The coastline and our target island had disappeared and there was only water everywhere. The waves threatened to make us capsize and the driver kept surfing them majestically with a expressionless expression. We put the life jackets on, wrapped up precariously the electronic equipment as best we could and I would have prayed if only I could.
The copilot nodded at all our precautions and kept giggling, soaked in rain and sea waves.
In less than an hour we reached the shore miraculously, completely soaked and shaking with cold. Still pouring with rain like mad, the boat started its way back! and we got an offer for accommodation with lift included. We didn't know where we were going but didn't think about it twice.

In a bit we were on a beautiful deserted beach half way down the west of Lanta, to the land of nothingness (and a soaked bed).

And nothingness was good for a few days. The sea was very rough, so apart from a couple of courageous swims it was nicer to contemplate from the pretty bungalow terrace.
Two friendly Swedish girls next door and the Thai people running the place were everyone we saw on our stay.
We worked on the website and played games with the occasional lift into town for e-mail and shops. The food at the bungalows restaurant was terrible and I thought I wouldn't survive on raw onions and cabbage until I discovered the two dishes they actually knew how to cook.

To break the nothingness a bit we went round the island with the Swedish and two of the Thai blokes working at the bungalows. We visited the National Park in the south, nice. We went to a minority village which was a bit like going to the zoo and we felt a bit embarrassed about it;and the big exhausting expedition to the caves. The long trek started through the rubber tree plantations. It was interesting to see how the trunk is incised in spirals and the white rubber sticky juice bleeds to a half coconut attached to the lower part of the trunk until it makes a perfect white rubber ball. The path then became more and more intricate through the jungle and up the hill.
The caves were remote and hidden. Their interior narrow, dark and wet with unusual rock formations.

It's on this trip that Jai told us the secret of the coconuts. You don't have to worry about them falling on your head and killing you because coconuts have eyes. Usually three eyes, sometimes two or one. So, because they can see you, you'll be OK unless, of course, you deserve to be hit by one. That was very tranquilizing...
He also told us about the monkey school. Many people in Thailand and Malaysia employ monkeys to work for them (coconut grabbing, etc.) and so they have schools were they monkeys go to learn. I couldn't help imagining a monkey teacher but actually the teachers are humans, Jai said.

Miles’s bit
We sorted out transport (another overnight bus) down to the west coast peninsula a town called AO Nang which is a good center point for the surrounding beaches. The trip was OK, I actually managed to get some sleep for a change.

We arrived early morning, had breakfast and went to look for somewhere to stay. We holled up in a bamboo hut for 120 baht a night (about 1.80 UKP) and stayed about a week/10 days. There were a few things in the area to do, one of which Yolanda tried scuba diving. I kind of bottled out for one reason and another, but Yolanda proudly came back 4 days later with her PADI open water certificate.

The best beaches were only reachable by small boats, a couple called Rai Leh east and west and one in the middle called PRA Nang, reputedly one of the best in Thailand. More good seafood restaurants and a couple of cocktail bars made our evenings pleasant.

We moved on to Kho Phi Phi next, a couple of islands of the west coast. Getting there was straightforward on a ferry. Phi Phi is normally a massively popular and crowded tourist favorite but at the time of year we were there it was just entering the close season, many places were shut down and everything was cheaper. I don’t think we’d have visited if it were high season. We found a cheap bungalow near the beach in the middle of a large area of coconut trees. This turned out to be quite a hazard. It rained on a couple of days (we’re talking 2 hour tropical downpours here) and was a bit breezy as well. Coconuts would drop from 20 to 30 m with a tremendous crash as the hit the tin roofs leaving sizable dents. The thought of having our sculls crushed kept us looking up on our way through the trees every day.

As we had passed up the opportunity previously we didn't want to miss out this time on rock climbing. We went for a days climb on some fairly easy faces,(so we were told), rated 5 or 6 what ever that means. First we learnt a few knots and how to beelay then up we went. Great fun but really hard work. I only fell once! After a few climbs we were both too exhausted to carry on and had no shame in stopping for the day.

We took a day trip around the island by boat and did some great snorkeling loads of fish and good coral. We also visited Phi Phi Leh where the film "The Beach" was made.

Around this time we both had a bit of a crisis. We were both going through a stage of homesickness having been away for about 6 months. We miss family, friends, life in London and (for me oddly enough) even working. Beach Life can take a lot out of you. I wouldn’t call it being bored but its similar. We had some long discussions about it and got over it a few weeks later.

Our last Thai destination was a quiet and virtually untouched Island called Kho Lanta. Our journey from Phi Phi was a perilous one a 2 hour / 40 km sea crossing in a long tail boat (read - small wooden outboard "putput" boat). About halfway across a storm appeared on the western horizon. Within 15 minutes we’d lost sight of the horizon. 10 minutes later it was darkening overhead, was raining and we’d lost sight of the island we’d come from and the one we were heading to and also the mainland. The boatman was laughing maniacally and making strange religious looking gestures with his hands so we put on the small life jackets the boat fortunately had and clung to the seats as the waves stared to build. Within 10 more minutes the storm was over us. It was pretty damn scary. We were going up and down on the waves, apparently not moving for moments then zooming forward as the driver surfed the boat down the waves. After 20 minutes of this we could thankfully make out the Island of Lanta ahead of us and we breathed a sigh of relief. We moored and unloaded our stuff in the pouring rain (everything was waterlogged, except the Sony kit thankfully). The local people watching looked on bemused.

We stayed in some cheap bungalows in pretty surroundings about halfway down the Island. There were only 4 other guests. There was very little to do so we caught up with some web work, edited some video and played a lot of Tetris. We were quite cut off from everything so we ate in the one restaurant everyday. On the first day they had no seafood so we lent them some money to go shopping for squid and shrimps

On another day we took a lift in the back of their pickup truck for a tour around the Island some caves, a high viewpoint and a pretty beach. The time had come to leave Thailand.