Ao Nang, Railay Beach and the Four Islands – without the crowds
Ao Nang in the Krabi province is the jumping-off point for many of the Andaman Sea’s nautical attractions – including Railay Beach, the Four Islands, James Bond Island, Koh Phi Phi, and so on – which, by default, seemingly makes it one of the most ridiculously touristy spots in South East Asia. Ao Nang itself is essentially made up of one long street with everything you need, from bars, restaurants, massage parlours and laundry outlets to pharmacies, hat shops and – of course – the stands touting boat trips and snorkelling excursions.
I’d read in advance about how hideously crowded these could be. Many travel blogs and reviews talk of boats piled high with punters, poor organisation, little time to explore at each stop and, most disappointingly, no chance to take half-decent photos. If 50+ people pile off your boat and start trampling up and down the beach, chances are you have 49 random folk blundering in and out of your prized snaps. Not to mention the hundreds from all the other boat tours that pull up around the same time as you.
This is essentially my worst nightmare. If I’m going to travel half way across the globe to find the glorious Thai beaches of my imagination, I sure don’t want to find them strewn with rubbish and heaving with inconsiderate tourists. It was therefore pretty important to me that I found a way to see these sights in the least damaging and invasive way possible, on a small excursion that was eco-conscious and aimed to leave no trace – and so I stumbled across Thalassa Boat Tours.
As well as being refreshingly considerate about the impact that tourism – and, in particular, snorkelling – can have on marine life in the region, Thalassa also make a point of visiting some of the popular spots later on in the day. True to form, when we did stop to do some sea swimming and snorkelling, there wasn’t another soul in sight. They also offered either private tours or slightly cheaper ‘semi-private’ tours, the smallest group tour option I could find on offer in the area. On the day itself, there were only four of us on the tour in total, making our experience all the more special.
After setting off from Ao Nang around midday, we pulled up at Railay – which is every bit as gorgeous in real life as in the pictures. It’s almost impossible to take a bad photo here. It was also the most ‘touristy’ stop on the trip as, obviously, there are a host of hotels and restaurants here, with the beach being well-served by longtail boats from Ao Nang round the headland. This was our first experience of Railay (although we would return again under our own steam) and was an excellent introduction to the beach. We grabbed a quick lunch from one of the beachside cafes, and waded back out to our private boat.
From here we headed out towards the main stops on the typical ‘Four Island’ itinerary, but as you can see from the photos, there was hardly another boat in sight. No-one could be seen as we cruised past Chicken Island, and skirted Koh Poda.
We even pulled up at our very own ‘desert island’ for dinner. Apparently there was a good chance we might have some Komodo Dragons for company, but certainly no other humans. The tiny beach that we sat on to eat was surrounded by dramatic cliff faces, and as the light started to fade, it was the most gorgeous and surreal setting.
As the sun slowly dipped towards the horizon we made our way back towards Ao Nang, stopping to moor up at the stunning Phra Nang beach. Although there were folks around on the beach who were, like us, waiting to watch another jaw-droppingly beautiful Thai sunset, there was a definite sense of quiet and calm that I’m not sure would have been there earlier on in the day. The trip on the whole had been exactly what I was after – a once-in-a-lifetime experience not tainted by the effects of mass tourism, and run by people who understood and respected the environment in which they worked. Yes, you will pay more than if you grab a bargain on Ao Nang’s main road, but believe me – it is worth it.
Disclaimer: we were regular paying customers for our tour with Thalassa, and went on the Railay + 4 Island + Night Snorkel trip. All views my own.