Thailand’s Andaman Coast has bounced back after being ravaged by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. In search of serenity, Ellie Dyer travels to the now bustling tourist hub to find that a secluded paradise is still well within reach.
Screams echo through the air, bouncing off barnacled walls to the accompaniment of frantic splashing. Were it not for a glimpse of luminous orange life vests and a pin prick of torchlight looming out of the darkness, panic could have ensued. But at the end of this pitch-black channel lies a secret.
As swimmers reach its end, the sea turns luminous green and the smell of lush undergrowth permeates the air. Sunbeams scatter off rocks, lighting up the hidden beach of Morakot (Emerald) Cave. Nestled within soaring limestone walls, it’s a taste of a paradise akin to Alex Garland’s backpacker thriller The Beach – albeit with more people.
For many, the 80-metre tunnel swim at Morakot will prove a highlight of southern Thailand’s Andaman coast, an area that has bounced back after being ravaged by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. For those wanting to escape the tourist traps of Koh Phi Phi and Phuket, idylls can still be found. Here are a few of Thailand’s lesser-known gems.
With its sandy coves and relaxed vibe, Koh Lanta proves popular with those wishing to escape from it all. Haad Phra Ae, or long beach, is the place to stay. A 3km stretch of sand comes complete with scores of child-friendly restaurants and chilled-out beach bars. But even during the peak season of Christmas and New Year the beach seems empty – except for a handful of holidaymakers testing out its shallow, pristine waters. Nevertheless, thrill-seekers in search of a night out are also catered for. Parties are held by Lanta’s bars on a rotational basis with a wide variety of tunes, from dub-step to pop and reggae, being spun.
Check out: Red Snapper Restaurant provides great food in lush garden surrounds, but be sure to reserve a table. Corner Bar is the place for romance, with small tables set on a rocky outcrop at the end of the beach for a perfect sunset view. Moonwalk Restaurant is a good option for families, with a nightly beachside barbeque offering shrimp the size of lobsters. Accommodation is both numerous and wide-ranging. Budget huts can be booked for US $12 per night upwards.
How to get there: Thai Air and AirAsia run flights to Krabi from Bangkok. A two hour shared minibus to Koh Lanta’s beaches from Krabi airport costs around 300 baht (US $10).
Pure white sand, crystal clear waters and lush tropical forests line the remote islands of Trang province. The waters off Koh Kradan, a quiet isle that lies around 40 minutes from the mainland, are gem-like. Nearby Koh Ngai offers a taste of luxury and comes complete with high-end bungalows, including the impressive Thapwarin resort at up to US $175 per night. Trang’s coastline is also home to top snorkelling and dive sites, including a sunken ship touted to be a Japanese Destroyer, and the aforementioned hidden Emerald Cave.
Check out: A four islands tour takes in the sights of Koh Ngai, Koh Mook and the Emerald Cave, Koh Kradan and Koh Chuek. Simply hop on the ferry or book through a local resort or travel agent for a day of swimming, sunbathing and sight-seeing.
How to get there: Long boats, speed boats and ferries visit the islands daily. Ferries are available from Koh Lanta’s Saladan pier, or fly to Trang or Krabi airports and travel from there.
The Andaman coast may be best known for its islands, but travellers in search of something more should head inland for a hillside adventure. In Krabi, rubber plantations and pineapple groves are intermixed with lush forest packed with wildlife and stunning mountain vistas. But watch out for the mosquitoes, which can attack in droves. For nature-lovers, Khao Sok National Park in Surat Thani province is also accessible from the coast. One of its most famous sights is Cheow Larn Lake, a huge reservoir created in the 1980s as the results of a hydrodam. Towering limestone peaks rise from jade waters and travellers can sleep in floating rafthouses.
Travel Tip: Krabi’s Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort has acres of landscaped fruit gardens and a hilltop natural pool nestled between soaring crags. It offers great food and trekking opportunities for as little as US $26 per bungalow in high season. In Surat Thani, Khao Sok Nature Lodge offers bungalows from US $22 to US $47 per night that come with waterfall-style showers.
How to get there: Phanom Bencha is a 20 minute transfer away from Krabi airport. Hotels can offer transfers to Khao Sok National Park from Krabi, Phuket and Surat Thani airports, or just hop on a mini-bus.