DAY 21 – Climbing up to the Tiger Cave Temple near Krabi Town

Today was one of monks, monkeys and mountains.  Monks and mountains are two of my favourite things about Thailand – monkeys are not.

Any intrepid mountaineer will tell you that a hearty breakfast is essential to maintain the energy required for the ascent, so we went to May and Mark’s House café around the corner from our hotel and I conquered the Full English.  As ever Hollie went for a more modest selection, opting for the omelette – which she’d come to regret later in the day when it failed to provide the calorific content to get her to the top of the mountain.

After stocking up we wandered the streets and quickly located a songtheaw with the words “Tiger Cave Temple” emblazoned on the side.  The songtheaw was being driven by a beaming old man who charged us 100 baht – he took the note from my hand and passed it to his Mrs, who was sat in the passenger seat preparing various fruits for their lunch.  They were both well into their seventies and appeared to be very happy with their lot in life, and in a way I envied the chilled out lifestyle that they’d carved out for themselves, cruising around Krabi with the windows down, taking 100 baht here and there for making journeys that they’d probably make anyway just for the pleasure of it.  We climbed into the back and they drove us out through the suburbs towards a formation of karst mountains that loomed large in the distance beyond Krabi.  As we passed a posh-looking gated house, a stray dog with teets the size of udders was barking at someone’s pampered pet pooch which lazed around on the driveway behind the gate.  I imagine their conversation went something like this:

“OI! OI! OI! OI! OI….OI! OI! OI!………………………………OI!”

“WHAT?”

“You wanna go out? I’ve found a pile of bones behind the butchers that we can share…”

“No thanks, my owners feed me.”

“Daddy’s boy.”

“Tramp.”

“OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI!”

We turned off the main road through a golden arch and stopped in a car park next to some souvenir shops that sold little statues of the Buddha – something which is technically illegal in Thailand, but happens absolutely everywhere.  We agreed to meet our driver back at the car park at 3pm – something which took some time to communicate.  After a couple of minutes of him speaking to us in Thai and us smiling politely without understanding a word, our driver got out the van and pretended to be a giant clock, using his arms as the hands, before raising three fingers.  We nodded our agreement and shook his hand to seal the deal.

The wealth of the Buddhist religious establishment in Thailand can’t be understated.  Buddhists can make merit and secure themselves a superior reincarnation in their next lives, or even achieve enlightenment (liberation from the cycle of life and death), by being a giving and generous person.  As a result, vast sums of money are donated to temples and monks.  Some of this untraceable cash seems to go in to funding the decadent lifestyles of rogue monks, but equally vast sums go in to building elaborate new temples.  The cynic in me feels that the money would be better off going in to building schools and hospitals, but there’s no denying the beauty of the temples that they build.  Before getting to the Tiger Temple itself, we craned our necks to look up at a huge tower which is under construction in the grounds.  Whilst the ferocious tiger statues that guarded the front gate had been painted, much of the shopping mall-sized temple was still a concrete skeleton with construction workers crawling around in it’s ribcage.  It looked like a giant airfix model, half-painted and half put together.

We walked on and caught today’s first glimpse of monkeys.  A gang of them had surrounded a little girl with an ice cream and proceeded to circle her until her Dad picked her up and carried her inside a café.  We took our shoes off at the entrance to the Tiger Cave Temple, placing them in a rack and wondering if we’d ever see them again.  The temple was dimly lit with candles and the aroma of incense hung heavy in the air.  We allowed an elderly lady with a shaved head to place a cotton bracelet on our wrists in return for a donation.  I didn’t have much change, and as her arthiritic hands struggled to tie off the knot I felt increasingly guilty that I could only shove 20 baht in her tin.  Across the room, on a platform in front of a sheer rock face, four monks sat in silent judgement.

The Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea) is so called because it is built around the entrance to a cave in which a tiger used to live.  In 1975 a wandering monk went in the cave to meditate and found that he was surrounded by tigers.  Rather than running away screaming never to return, he decided to build a temple on the site.  The tigers haven’t been seen for decades, and the only evidence that they ever existed there is the footprint of a tiger which seems to have become something of a holy relic.  We climbed some steps into the heart of the cave and peered through some bars into a shadowy corner, where we squinted to make out the print of a tiger’s paw.  Out of the hundreds of temples that we’ve visited in Thailand, I have to say it was up there with the best in terms of atmospheric, spiritual vibes.

We returned squinting into the daylight and were delighted to discover that our shoes hadn’t been nicked by thieving little tree-dwellers, which was good because we were going to need them for the hike that followed.  Above the Tiger Cave and up a flight of 1,237 steps, perched on the top of a caast cliff, is a second temple.  The quoted figure of 1,237 is probably an accurate figure – my brain became starved of oxygen and I stopped counting after about 200 – but what’s not taken into account is the varying height of the steps.  Some of them were bordering on 3 feet high and not deep enough for you to place your foot on.  Even as we climbed up into the shade of the jungle canopy, the sweat was running down my forehead into my eyes.

After about 200 steps Hollie stopped and announced that this was ridiculous.  She was still recovering from earlier poorliness, and the calories from the morning’s omelette were running out – she should have had the full English, but I didn’t tell her that because it seemed inappropriate.  “Okay love” I said.  “But I cannot let the mountain beat me.  I’ll be up there in ten and back in twenty.”  Then I leaned on the railings and watched her, wondering whether other husbands abandon their wives on their honeymoon to go mountaineering.

I pressed on to the 800th step.  The sweat was starting to drip off me as I walked, and wiping my eyes with my t-shirt became impossible because that was soaked too.  I paused on a ledge for a breather and tried to spot Hollie.  I could see tall, multi-coloured dots surrounded by tiny brown dots on the concrete, but I couldn’t make her out.  I hoped that she hadn’t been taken by the monkeys.

As I climbed to the top of another staircase the path evened out for a few metres.  There were a couple of German lads leaning on the railings.  Not wanting to show weakness I decided to soldier on past them so that I was out of sight when I collapsed in a heap for a breather.  As I put my foot on the first step of the next flight one of the Germans shouted “Monkeys on ze path!”  and I froze.  The steps clung to a cliff on the left hand side and fell away to a sheer drop on the right.  Sat sunning themselves in the middle of the 2 foot wide walkway were a dozen or so monkeys.  I considered turning back – I was almost at step 1000 now and that was a pretty good effort in the heat.  But the belligerent bastard in my head said “No.  You’ve flown halfway across the world for those little knobheads to stop you doing what you want? You’re not going to take it Tommy.”  Another more sensible voice in my head said “You’re more use to Hollie without rabies”, but the belligerent voice replied “You’ve had your jabs – bring them on.”

I flipped my backpack from my shoulder and removed anything remotely nick-able from my pockets, zipping them into the bag.  Then, standing as tall as I could I marched up the steps with purpose.  The monkeys didn’t move.  I came to within three steps of them and they remained impassive – it became clear that I’d have to pass within biting distance of the lot of them if I wanted to continue.  Not wanting to show weakness, I planted my foot on the step next to the biggest and powered past it – it watched me nonchalantly then returned to picking parasites out of it’s fur.  I climbed on past the rest – big, shifty-looking blokes with balls like ping-pong balls.  I held my breath and tensed for the attack, but none of them moved.  I passed the last of the group and unclenched my buttocks, but the relief was short-lived.  As I tried to put some distance between myself and the monkeys I heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the steps.  I turned round just in time to see a baby monkey slap me on my calf with it’s toddler-like hand.  I did a little girlish yelp and leapt on to the next step, raising my fist.  The baby stood up and pushed it’s chin forward – it was offering me out for a fight.  I stared at it intently, then glanced briefly at the sheer drop beyond the path.  My aim was to communicate the message “Touch me again, and there will be one less monkey on the mountain” to it.  After a staring contest that seemed to last an ice age, it turned it’s back on me and returned to the group.  Resisting the urge to fling a boot at it, I carried on up the steps.

At step 1,200, I was near enough hallucinating.  Every rustle of a bush was a king cobra, or a monkey come to implant the rage virus in my neck with it’s rancid fangs.  I felt a bit like Frodo Baggins as he climbs to the summit of Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.  As I leaned on the railings to catch my breath before the final push, a stocky Thai gentleman from Bangkok engaged me in a conversation about weight-lifting.  He asked me what I could lift, and I said “Well I’ve managed to move fifteen stone up this mountain” but he didn’t understand.  I let him take my spot on the railings, and climbed the final set of steps.  Setting foot on the threshold of the temple was a definite Rocky moment, but there were a few people around and I didn’t want to throw my arms in the air incase I looked daft.

The view from the summit was mind-boggling.  I took my shoes off and climbed up a little set of steps that led to a platform.  A huge golden Buddha sat surveying the land, and I decided to stand in front of him and look out to see what all the fuss was about.  Thick jungle surrounding the mountain gave way to a patchwork of paddy fields and perfectly square forests of rubber trees.  I could see the river widening into an estuary, and Krabi Town nestled in the armpit of land between the river and the sea.

As I watched, a shadow began sweeping in from the sea and over the land.  The wind whipped up prayer flags and rang bells all around me, and it became obvious that a storm was approaching.  It was an ominous, anxious feeling to be watching the sky on the move.  As amazing as it was to see the clouds chasing shadows towards the mountain, it dawned on me that I was at the highest point for miles around, and that lightning tends to find the quickest path to the ground.  I filmed the storm approaching until the rain drove into my face, then legged it down the steps to take cover.  There was no lightning, but the storm drove in at right angles and soaked anyone who went close to the edge of the roof.

Getting down was less of a physical effort, although I don’t recommend that kind of steep descent for anyone with dodgy knees.  The monkeys were nowhere to be seen – perhaps driven under cover by the storm – there was a tense moment when an extremely rabid-looking dog came running up the steps towards me, but it passed without trying to bite or lick me.

When I reached the bottom I was a sweaty mess, but Hollie took a photo of me next to the “1,237 steps” sign so that I can add it to my scrapbook of “Achievements that mean a lot to me but would actually be a simple task to anybody who exercises and doesn’t drink too much”.  We sat in the shade with a coke and gazed upon the religious trinket shops that seem to pop up on the perimeter of any significant holy site in Thailand.

True to his word, our driver arrived to pick us up at three, and we were back in Krabi Town for half past.

To finish the day we had an early tea in a restaurant across the road from the river front.  I ordered the biggest tiger prawns I’ve ever consumed and immediately regretted the decision – they stared up at me with throughout my attempts to cut in to them with a knife and fork, and I finished the meal feeling guilty and hungry.  Hollie went for chicken with cashews – always a winner.  The ambience was spoiled not only by the busy main road that the restaurant was situated on, but also by an over-zealous traffic cop who enjoyed blowing his whistle at the passing public and placing traffic cones in an apparently random order.  We ended the evening by taking a turn around the market before walking back to the hotel with a chocolate crepe each.

Tomorrow we’d be heading to Koh Phi Phi to explore the island on which a certain Leonardo Di Caprio film was shot…

Advertisements

DAY 20 – Sunning it up on Railay Beach

Railay beach is picture postcard stunning.  A wide stretch of sun-kissed sand juts out from the jungle to meet the sea, overlooked by jagged limestone cliffs that surround it on all sides and prevent it being accessed by road – for this reason it remains relatively unspoiled.

Before we went there though, there was the essential matter of breakfast to attend to.  We walked to the Maharaj Market – the biggest in Krabi town, opening at 3 in the morning.  We didn’t get there until 10am, by which time some stalls were already closing up, but there was still enough hustle and bustle to make it twice as big as any British market I’ve ever been to.  We walked through lanes and lanes of weird and wonderful vegetables and had a look round the seafood section.  I love looking at the fishmonger’s counter – this goes back to when I was a kid and I went on holiday with my family to France.  I used to spend ages gawping at the live crabs and lobsters scuttling around in tanks at the supermarket – I remember being bollocked by a French fishmonger once for poking his prize lobster.  I managed to keep my hands to myself on this occasion as we walked past giant tiger prawns, octopi, grouper and tuna chilling in the ice.  A metre-long barracuda glared up at us from another counter whilst live spider crabs crawled all over each other and catfish swam around in a tank as big as a skip.  I don’t know how sustainable Thai fishing is – I’d suspect that it isn’t really, since nothing ever is these days – but a walk through the Maharaj market is a reminder of the incredible wealth and diversity of life that exists in these Andaman waters.

The food joints were closing up by the time we’d finished gawping at grouper.  We had to move quickly, and we bought a bagful of honey glazed roast pork with crackling.  We sat with a cocktail stick each, picking at this bizarre, gluttonous breakfast until we began to feel slightly sick, as if we’d sat picking at the leftovers of Xmas dinner – only in 30 degree heat.

We left the market and took a taxi to Ao Nang resort, where my scuba diving adventure had begun the previous day.  After being dropped off at the beach, we queued up for a ticket for the longtail boat taxi service, then sat on a bench for all of thirty seconds before we were called.  We were beckoned over by a scrawny Thai boatman (I’ve yet to meet any other kind), who attempted to hold the boat steady whilst a man three times his weight waded out and plonked himself onto the deck.  They crammed as many beach bums as they could fit into the boat, and it was pretty low in the water by the time he spun her round and plopped the longtail motor into the water.  Our helmsman made no attempt to compensate for the weight in the boat, and proceeded at full throttle towards the group of rocks that hid Railay beach from view.  Longtails are very graceful boats, until you overfill them.  Rather than carving through the water like a knife through butter, we smashed our way through it like an angry fat man in a football crowd.  The spray was everywhere, and by the time we rounded the rocks and the beach came in to full view we were absolutely soaked.  I tried to protect the backpack containing our phones and other electronic gadgetry, but it seemed as if nowhere on the boat was safe from the onslaught of spray.

We jumped out in the shallows and picked a spot on the beach.  It was busy, but the space was so vast that we were able to stretch out comfortably.  We lay down to sunbathe – something that I can generally stand for all of about ten minutes before I get hyperactive and have to go for a walk.  I managed my usual ten minutes then got up and walked to the shops to buy two fresh coconuts.  I returned to Hollie with (if you’ll pardon the Carry On film style innuendo), the two biggest coconuts you could ever hope to see.

As we sat draining these massive vats of coconut milk, we were approached by a short Thai lady with a sheet of laminated paper.  “You want massage? You need massage!” She waved the list of prices at us.  “I am Zayah! You want massage, you come to me!” Zayah then stretched out her hand to me and I shook it.  It was a soft, caressing kind of handshake, and I decided that they were the kind of hands that would provide a tender service.  I said “Okay, I’ll come to you later” and she seemed pleased with this.  She pointed to the number 21 that was sewn into the fabric of her t-shirt – “You come to 21! Zayah!” she walked off to drum up more punters.  A few seconds later, a different masseuse lady with the number 19 sewn onto her shirt came up to me and mimed massaging my feet.  “You want massage?” I explained that I had already agreed to go with Zayah, 21, and she moved on to the next tourists.  As soon as number 19 had turned our back on us, Zayah popped up out of nowhere and whispered in a slightly threatening manner: “Zayah, 21.  You come to me!” then disappeared again as stealthily as she’d appeared.

We went for a swim, picking our way between paddle boards and bikini clad girls taking selfies to find our own stretch of clear water.  In spite of the many longtails moving around on the other side of a safety rope the water was clean and clear – there were no repeats of the condom or turdgate incidents that curtailed previous forays into the sea.

When we got out again I dried off and went in search of Zayah to fulfil my promise.  I found her at the end of a row of masseuses, working the knots out of a girl’s back.  I sat in the shade of a tree until she’d finished then stretched out on the mat that she’d laid on the sand.  She was pushy in a charming way – trying for a good while to coax the full body massage out of me, before finally accepting that I wanted a foot massage and no more.  For a fraction of the price that we’d paid at the 5-star spa in Bangkok, Zayah worked miracles on my poor, crippled feet.  I sat resting my chin on my hands, looking out to sea whilst she worked the dead skin away before rubbing in aromatherapy oil.  After half an hour I paid my way, tipping her handsomely for her troubles.  For the next day or two I felt like I was walking on air, until the combination of cheap rubber shoes and hot, hard pavements took their toll on my pins again.

We took a longtail back to Ao Nang.  This time the boat was half as full and the tide was in our favour, so we managed to land at the beach more or less dry.  We were pretty hungry at this point, with the weird roast pork breakfast now a distant memory.  Ao Nang doesn’t want for restaurants, but I’d bet that a lot of them are overpriced and underwhelming.  We picked Tandoori Nights Indian restaurant – it was a shot in the dark which worked out very well.  We paid similar to what we’d pay in England for a curry, but it was delicious and hearty, and I managed to avoid getting too hot by washing it down with a few Changs.  I had a chicken tawa and keema nan whilst Hollie opted for the paneer korma with peshwari nan.

We took a taxi back to Krabi Town and chilled at the hotel, before taking an evening turn around the walking market, grazing on shrimp dumplings and crepes to tide us over until the morning.

DAYS 17 AND 18 – Ferry from Koh Yao Yai to Thalane pier, taxi to Krabi Town

We were up before dawn so that we could make the 7:40am ferry. We paid our host 500 baht to drive us across the island to the port, then we sat in the morning sun watching the tide roll in over the mud flats. Halfway down the pier a longtail was filling up with schoolkids in identical school uniforms – I assume the school must have been on a neighbouring island. As the boat was pulling away the class rebel came legging it up the jetty and leapt on to the boat.

When it was time to board the ferry we tucked ourselves away under the covers to escape from the heat. The return to Thalane was as spectacular as our outbound journey had been, as we passed within feet of collosal karst cliffs and watched baby barracuda launching themselves out of the water in pursuit of smaller fish.

Taxis were easy to come by in Thalane, and we settled on 500 baht for the journey to Krabi town. Our driver was a football fan, and I had the standard conversation that I have with most football-loving Thais who speak little English:

“Where you from?”
“England.”
“Ah! London?”
“No, middle – near Manchester.”
“Ah! Manchester United! My team. You like?”
“No. I like Derby County!”
“Durrby Canty?”
“Yes, have you heard of them?”
“I like Manchester United”
“Okay, nevermind.”

We were dropped off in the centre of Krabi town and we called in at a coffee shop for some much-needed hydration before heading to our accommodation. Sleep Whale Express Hotel is a typically bizarrely named place, but it was probably the best that we stayed in on this trip – with the obvious exception of the 5 star Chatrium in Bangkok. For just over twenty quid/1000 baht a night it was clean, comfy and the aircon was so effective that on our first night there I woke up freezing and wondered whether I was back at home suffering a British winter – what a relief to step out onto the balcony at midnight and be hit by a blast of hot Andaman air!

I’ve blended two days in to one for this blog entry because we had a slow, chilled start to our time in Krabi and that doesn’t make for a very interesting read. Krabi is a wealthy town with everything you need within walking distance – we really liked the vibe here after spendng time on relatively remote islands. It put us in mind of the old town area of Chiang Mai up in the north of Thailand that we’d taken to our hearts when we visited last year – the big difference being that Chiang Mai is landlocked, whereas Krabi is built on an inlet from the sea.

The view from Krabi pier

Ferries from destinations all over the Andaman dock on the outskirts of town, and a strip of park follows the edge of the river. We walked down this path several times and spotted all kinds of creatures – at low tide mud-skipper fish were everywhere, sliding along on top of the filth like alien ice-skaters from another dimension. Tiny crabs with one underdeveloped pincer and one that was double the size of their body scuttled in and out of holes in the sand. There were thousands of these little creatures, each one looking like walking wounded who’s larger arm had been placed in a sling. In addition to the more unusual life forms the estuary was alive with all kinds of fish, jumping clean out the water to catch mosquitoes on the surface or to try and eat each other.

 

We also checked out a plush Buddhist Temple set on a hill in the centre of town – Wat Kaewkorawaram. This temple was only built about six years ago – another symbol of the wealth that’s come in to Krabi from tourism and shipping. The walls were a brilliant white and in appearance it put us in mind of the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Inside were the usual array of golden statues of the Buddha and intricate paintings on the wall depicting scenes from the lifetime of Buddha. Considering that Buddhism is founded on the principle of detachment from material things, it always confuses me that the temples are filled with more bling than your average Kanye West music video. Nonetheless, there’s always something very tranquil and exotic about them, and Wat Kaewkorawaram was well worth a visit – and the time that it’s just taken me to type the name twice in this paragraph without making a spelling error.

My favourite thing about Krabi town was the markets. Krabi has three permanent markets and whilst we were there another huge “Walking Street” market had been set up in the centre of the town. If you’re into your food (as I most definitely am), there’s no better way to sample Thai cuisine than to weave your way through narrow lanes with a couple of hundred baht in your pocket. You might see things that you don’t like the look of. You might see things that you don’t even recognise as food. You might even see things that make you physically wretch, but if you ask me it’s all worth it for the adventure, and for the times that you take a tentative bite and introduce your tastebuds to something tear-inducingly exquisite.

Over the course of our first two nights in Krabi, we tried some real treats, the best of which I’ll attempt to describe to you.

Fish curry – a potent package of white fish in green curry sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf. This little gem set me back 20 baht (or about 40-50p).

Quail eggs – These are sold on markets all over Thailand. The chef will crack the tiny eggs into a heated tray which looks like the kind of thing that you’d use to bake mini-muffins. You get half a dozen or so per portion, and they taste amazing with a splash of soy sauce.

Chicken satay – Is EVERYWHERE. every roadside stand in Thailand seems to have a ready supply of marinated poultry on sticks ready to go. The taste is usually very sweet but not as peanutty as you might get in a Chinese restaurant in the UK.

Sai Oua – is basically sausage, Thai-style. It comes heavily spiced, sometimes sweet and sometimes sour with a hint of kaffir lime – a greasy treat on a stick!

Enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon – Are just as delicious as they sound! I think they should be marketed as a kind of canape for the fry-up loving Brit abroad…

And after grazing on various delights, we filled up with curry and rice for 50 baht from this place…

We whiled away the best part of two days in the markets and cafes of Krabi, enjoying the hustle and bustle that had evaded us on the more tranquil islands. The next day would be slightly more active though, as I booked to go scuba diving in the nearby resort of Ao Nang.