Escaping to paradise

Bangkok bears good memories for me. I’d been to Thailand only a few years ago and some of my globetrotting highlights were experienced here. Why Thailand? A Whatsapp conversation with my ‘bestie’ Zaira on a lazy Sunday morning, led to this moment. Zaira, who’s recently emigrated to the desert heat of Abu Dhabi was desperate for a Christmas ‘vacay’ and suggested a beach bum break. I was already going to be in Asia, so there was no hesitation from my end.

It was great to see a familiar face and also nice to see her again after a few months apart. I warned her beforehand that our island hopping will require her to ditch her suitcase for a backpack, mainly for practical reasons but I also wanted her to get a taste for the lifestyle. I told her not to forget her mosquito repellent because we’d be deep in the jungle in some places. I knew I wasn’t going to evade the bites here after a few weeks in Asia.

After the brief excitement of our reunion calmed, we boarded a short domestic flight to Krabi. Our itinerary for the next seven days involved: Bangkok > Krabi > Railay Bay > Koh Lanta > Koh Phi Phi > Bangkok. This would be achieved by taking planes, boats, buses, tuk tuks and ferries. It sounds gruelling, but the transport is very efficient here.

Leaving Bangkok I joked that I’d get stopped by security. And I actually did. My bag was ransacked by a latex gloved ‘surgeon’ (because she was wearing a surgeon mask). It turned out that it was a snow globe given to me in India that scared them. Obviously Zaira snapped this for her Snapchat followers for amusement.

Once we landed in Krabi, we took a long bus journey and stepped onto a rickety old boat to Railay Beach. The sea was beautifully blue and it was incredibly hot. We were both already sweating with our backpacks. As we approached Railay Beach, I could see some stunning limestone rocks and green jungles scattered across the islands. It was very secluded and fitted the bill of escaping to paradise.

Our jungle hut was typically right at the end of the island. We were both melting by this point and our accommodation was quite high up, so we had a bit of a climb. Our room was a typical wooden hut, equipped with mosquito nets and a clay bathroom. It reminded me of staying in Fiji: jungles, sea, sand and geckos, so it was everything I expected. Zaira on the other hand was searching for a hairdryer – ‘first world problems’ as they say. She quickly got a reality check and realised that she was going to have to adapt pretty quickly to backpacking.

Railay Beach is a small island with two sides – East and West. You could walk from side-to-side in minutes. Once we’d navigated the hotspots we found a TripAdvisor recommended Mangrove Restaurant. I love Thai food, but with it comes great risk for me being a nut allergy sufferer. Last time I was in Thailand, I had a reaction to a pizza of all things! I came well-prepared with an allergy translation card for my meal. We went all out – spring rolls, pad Thai noodles, green curry and jasmine rice. The flavours were mouthwatering and we could see why this was highly recommended. And I didn’t have a reaction thankfully.

Walking back we stopped off at the aptly named Last Bar, it is the last bar on the island. It was Muay Thai night, so we watched a fight and saw a fire show which is synonymous with Thai beaches. As we returned to our hut, I received my first FaceTime call from home from my good friend, Ulfet. Again, it was nice to see a familiar face and like many others he’s been in constant contact.

The following day we hit Phranang Cave Beach in Railay West. It was quite possibly one of the most beautiful natural beaches I’d ever seen. People rock climbing around us, scores of others tanning and of course, many were swimming. And then there was me, with a coconut in my hand, I was grilling like naan bread on the sand. This was the life. The closest thing to paradise. This is what it feels like to hit the escape key. We just laid there for hours.

Once Zaira and I caught up on gossip we needed some food. Zaira mentioned that she’d not had a good curry in Abu Dhabi and wanted some home comforts. It turns out the most recommended restaurant on the island Kohinoor is an Indian. We liked it so much we visited twice in one day! After digesting our food we headed towards a ‘monkey junction’. As Zaira attempted to snapchat and selfie away, there was rustling sounds above her. There was a whole family of monkeys waiting to photobomb her. She stopped snapping straight away and escaped.

Along the island there are also many Thai spas offering the best “Thai massage.” In fact, there were more massage places than actual shops. Now I know what you’re thinking. We didn’t head to one of those ‘spas’. We went to a legitimate spa and it was great. For around £8 we both had a 90-minute massage. I dozed off for most of it because it was that good. Reggae music can be heard across the island too. There’s a big Rastafarian influence and there is a lot of hair braiding. Unfortunately for me, I could only listen to the music.

Our next hop-off point on our trip was Koh Lanta, a two-hour boat journey away from Railay Beach. Getting onto the boat was eventful. Zaira ‘frog-splashed’ her way onto the boat, banged her head and broke some wooden planks. I was crying with laughter. But not for long, I just about saved my flip flops from escaping into the Andaman Sea. We were the transferred from the wooden boat onto a bigger ferry boat.

Once we reached Koh Lanta, we jumped into a tuk tuk. We felt every blow and our comical driver was not slowing down. He found it funny hearing us wince along the way too. Koh Lanta already felt bigger, busier and developed than Railay Beach. Bikes seem to be the way to get about here through the various jungles, but we’d be using our feet. Neither of us can ride a bike 😳. From what I saw there is no age restriction on the scooters. Boys and girls of all ages get about using them.

We arrived at our resort and initially I was very overwhelmed. Zaira had booked this spot. She needed a hairdryer and also a dose of luxury by the looks of things. I’d converted her to a backpacker for all of two days! The Rawi Warin Resort and Spa was a luxurious place and worlds apart from anywhere I’d stayed over the past few weeks. We had to take a golf cart to our room. I said I was overwhelmed. This was because I was operating on a budget and had slummed it in some places. This wasn’t part of the plan. However, Zaira was on a deserved ‘vacay’ after all and if she wanted to treat us both, then so be it. We checked out the local area and large stretch of sand across the island. The sunset in Koh Lanta was one of the prettiest I’d ever seen. It was gorgeous and I had to share it with some you.

Koh Lanta saw us both get a lot darker too. In Zaira’s case, pinker! I dipped in and out of the pool and focused on some writing. It was the perfect switch off and allowed me to get creative. I felt so calm and relaxed. On Christmas Eve we were both missing home a little. The hotel had prepared a lavish Christmas extravaganza for all guests. A stage was set up, the place was decorated like a wedding and the spread was epic. There was all of the traditional elements, but also a fusion of fresh Asian cuisine. No one was going to go without.

As part of the intermission from the house band, a ‘ladyboy’ dressed as Elsa from Frozen performed ‘Let It Go’ to some excited children. It was very different to say the least. We both sent messages to our friends and family after dinner and took time to reflect on past Christmases. It is a family time after all regardless of faith, but Zaira is family to me so I was grateful she was with me.

The following morning we checked out and boarded a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. I rarely sleep whilst travelling but I was knocked out here and the only thing that woke me was the scary feeling of nearly toppling over! As we got off the ferry our hotel transfer involved a metal cart. Not for us, but for our luggage. A man pushed it for us all the way to the hotel. It was quite a feat. It’s the way things happen on this island. Food, luggage and sometimes people are transported in these wheeled carts. There are no cars or roads here. They’re all working their fingers to the bone and you can only respect their hustle.

We ventured across Phi Phi, through all of the narrow street markets and alleyways and decided to check out the island ‘viewpoint’. Now we didn’t know how long this was going to take and we were both wearing Havaianas. I wore a vest and shorts and was quickly dripping with sweat. Zaira started to lag behind and stopped off for her obligatory selfie. It got to the point if I stopped again, my legs would probably give way. So I left Zaira to snap to her heart’s content and met her at the top. What a view! It was worth all of the sweat. We had a beautiful view of the island and sunset. We both took a deserved rest on top of a rock to recuperate too.

After taking a much needed shower, we headed out for some local food. We considered what to do next and decided to hit the strip and I’ve been warned Phi Phi can be like Zante, if you catch my drift. I witnessed carnage and it reminded me of an episode of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents! There were some very interesting characters. That is all I will say on this matter.

Boxing Day marked the 11th anniversary of the tsunami. It’s great to see how the island has bounced back from such a disaster. We were taking to the waters early on this day. Not the best idea after late night out. We hired a private boat with our guide Ning to Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio shot the The Beach. Now I was advised about these boats beforehand by my friend Nikki in Nepal. I could see why. The water was very choppy and unpredictable. We hung on for dear life and got splashed every other second. I couldn’t stop having visions of Jaws and expected us to get chomped away at any minute too. Around forty minutes later, following several near misses we turned a corner and Maya Bay beckoned. There was understandably many tourists and boats queued up and it was obvious to see why.

We floated around the bay and we were asked if we wanted to snorkel to see the fishes. Zaira was up for it and donned the gear pretty quickly. I wasn’t budging at first. I’d had a bad experience a number of years ago in Egypt. I naively thought I could dive into the Red Sea and once I hit the water I didn’t come back up. If it wasn’t for my good friend Vichal rescuing me, who knows what would’ve happened. Ning assured me it was safe and gave me the snorkelling gear. After a brief pep talk with Zaira, I slowly followed her in to overcome my fears. After a few minutes of floating around unattended, I dropped down into the sea. It was a breathtaking experience. All types of fishes and all sorts of colours circled me, minding their own business. It was as if everything stood still under water. It felt so peaceful and undisturbed. I was absolutely loving it. I’m so glad I did it and without Zaira’s encouragement I would have missed out on this highlight.

The problem with being underwater, it is inevitable that you’re going to swallow seawater. We both emerged feeling slight woozy. The thought of another hell journey was scary and I’ve never been seasick before. I told Ning to go SLOWLY. Did he listen? Three minutes later Zaira was heaving behind me and vomiting sporadically. I couldn’t help her either as we were both hanging onto the planks of wood to survive. I felt sick too, but survived the journey. Zaira was in a bad way. We needed a timeout.

After resting, we heard the Azan (call to prayer) from a nearby mosque. Everything is silent during this time on the island. In fact, there is a massive Islamic presence here, despite large parts of it being a party island. There’s also a flock of tattoo artists at every other shop. This seems to be the place for getting inked.

We grabbed dinner after we both felt slightly better, but opted for an early night due to our plans for the next day. During the night, there was a power cut across the whole island, which was pretty cool to be honest. Sitting on the balcony in pitch black and hearing nothing but the waves.
We checked out in the morning and loaded our bags onto the luggage cart. Our helper was struggling, so I had to help him push the cart up the hill. It wasn’t easy. We took a ferry to Phuket as we were flying to Bangkok from there. However, we had a few hours to spare. We asked the bus driver to drop us to a nearby beach, but after being made to change buses a few times along the way without any reason, we were driven straight to the airport. I was dark as a raisin so I wasn’t complaining. Zaira though, wanted her tan confirmed. But she had no option but to sit in the departure lounge.

We both had an opportunity to discuss our break and analyse our highlights. We both agreed that Railay Beach was our favourite spot. If I could’ve stayed there longer I would’ve. It was so intimate and secluded. Everyone knows everyone on the island and you have room to breathe. Koh Lanta wasn’t as impressive, although the resort was top notch and Phi Phi had nice spots, but was busy and quite manic at times. We also went through all of the Thai lingo we picked up, which was quite comical. Those of you that have been to Thailand will know what I’m talking about.

After a short flight to Bangkok, Zaira had a few hours before her flight to Abu Dhabi. There was enough time for a final meal and of course, selfies. My hotel was very cool too. My room had mood lighting with changing colours like a nightclub and was equipped with an electric blind. All of the staff were dressed in denim and very friendly, and all of this cost the equivalent of a Travelodge. We stuffed our faces and it was time for me to bid my bestie farewell. Seven days had flown by and there is that saying ‘time flies when you’re having a good time’. I’ll see her again soon without doubt.

I was in desperate need of a beard trim and haircut. The island life had left me looking grizzly. I found a barber online that bizarrely opens at 5pm and closes at 4am. David No. 5 is a street barber in a lorry container. There’s no music and no conversation. The waiting area is the pavement. But David or whatever his name was understood me as he understood numbers in English. I felt better after a £4 trim, although it cost me only £1.20 in Kathmandu! This place was definitely in a different part of Bangkok and I stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t stick around after and took a taxi to the EmQuartier shopping district to see a light exhibition. Bangkok is a city that just doesn’t sleep!

Thailand as a whole has something for everyone and I’ve been lucky to have had two different experiences, each time I’ve visited. You can experience the craziness of Bangkok and shop till you drop, see the sights or embark on elephant treks up in Chiang Mai. But the beaches are special. There’s nothing artificial about them. Each one has character. It’s a perfect place to switch off and live life in airplane mode. Now that I’d been a beach bum, it was time for me to head to my final location.
PS. I miss you Zaira x

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