In 2013 we decided to travel to Asia. We had heard that it is a fantastic location for budget travel and until then, we'd never been to Asia accept for flight layovers. Unfortunately, things weren't quite as budget as we'd hoped as we had no choice but to travel during a peak season - Christmas - due to Justin's school schedule. This also wasn't helped by the fact that we chose to go to Thailand, which isn't as affordable as some Asian countries such as Vietnam. Despite this, we had a fantastic time traveling between islands and the Railay Peninsula.
We started our trip by taking a ferry from the Rassada pier in Phuket to the island of Koh Phi Phi. Sadly, our bags didn't make that trip with us as they were still stranded in China. We always keep our important items in a carry on bag so at least there was no reason to panic. Prior to the trip I pre-booked all our ferry tickets from Phuket Ferry. The site worked well and I was e-mailed e-tickets which we had no problem using. Depending on the length of the leg the tickets cost anywhere from 10-20 USD per person. It's quite possible that like everything else, ferry tickets are cheaper during the off season.
Koh Phi Phi... we knew it was going to be really touristy, but we wanted to go and see what all the fuss was about. The fuss is justifiable. It's a fantastically beautiful place. A sliver of land between two shimmering bays with verdant hills and limestone cliffs rising up on either side. Knowing it would be packed with people we sought peace at Phi Phi Relax Beach Resort. Using the word resort in their name is definitely a stretch, but simple and quiet is what we were aiming for and I couldn't recommend this place more. When we arrived they were waiting to pick us up in their boat to take us to the small private cove on which their facility is located. We were greeted by a lovely sandy beach (which you can snorkel off of) and thatched bungalows with balconies. Our bungalow was very basic - a simple bed draped with a mosquito net and a small bathroom. There was no AC or TV but with open windows and doors things stayed cool and breezy (mosquito nets are provided) and we're of the opinion that watching TV in paradise is rather shameful. As far as food goes, Relax Resort runs a decent little restaurant right on the beach, which they lit up beautifully at night with lanterns. We're vegetarian and found that our options were pretty limited, but the fried rice was so delicious that we ended up eating it for every meal with no complaints. Our second day there we were thrilled to spy our bags being unloaded onto the beach from Relax Resort's boat. The fact that they made it safely without us from China to Phuket, Phuket airport to the Rassada pier, then onto the ferry to Koh Phi Phi, and finally onto Relax Resort's boat is nothing short of miraculous! We had already resigned ourselves to buying some cheap clothes in town and bidding our bags a sad goodbye. We filled each day with books and the beach and on a few days we hiked across to the town on a nicely groomed trail that runs there from Phi Phi Relax Resort. The hike took about 45 minutes and each time we sweated bullets and once nearly got attacked by a troop of belligerent monkeys (after that I stopped wheedling Justin about going to Koh Phi Phi's famous monkey beach), but it made for a nice diversion. P.P. Relax Resort will take you to the town for a fee, but we always like to save money. Besides saving money the trail is worth hiking just to get the spectacular view of the two bays (refer back to first photograph of this article). When we got to town we always went straight to the beach as it was much larger than our private one and enabled us to soak in more of Koh Phi Phi's iconic views. On one of our last days I convinced Justin to snorkel with me off of the Relax Resort beach, but straight away he insisted he was getting bitten by some of the fish, and swam back to shore. I was a bit miffed since I felt like he was looking for an excuse to go back to his book in the shade, but the coral was pretty much all dead so I followed him shortly thereafter.
When our days in Koh Phi Phi came to an end, we hopped a ferry to Koh Lanta which is sadly sort of the ugly step sister to the other islands in the area i.e. larger but with less striking features. Nonetheless, we loved it because we came for one particular reason: scootering. Asia is brimming with electric scooters and for whatever reason we were determined to rent one. Koh Phi Phi has a strict walking and bicycles only rule and many of the other islands were simply too small to make scootering fun. And that's how we ended up on Koh Lanta. We stayed at Chaw Ka Cher Tropicana which was a delightful little boutique with tasty breakfasts included in the fare. If you decide to visit Koh Lanta and are seeking something more upscale then our open air bungalow at Koh Phi Phi, then I would highly recommend Chaw Ka Cher. The property was artistic, the rooms boasted outdoor showers which we loved, and there was a lovely pool. A decent beach (but definitely not as good Koh Phi Phi and Railay) is across the street from Chaw Ka Cher reached via a short path. Note that you can't see the beach from Chaw Ka Cher so that you don't arrive and find yourself disappointed if ocean views were what you hoped for. We were pleased to discover that we could rent scooters directly from Chaw Ka Cher for just 8 USD for 24hrs, allowing us to spend several days riding blissfully around the perimeter of the island. I was pretty happy to just ride behind Justin taking in the views, but he decided I should give it a go too. Cycling is the closest thing I've gotten to riding a scooter but it seemed pretty fail proof so I was happy to give it a try. With Justin watching I rode slowly up the road and then turned around and rode back. Super easy but I noticed that the throttle was pretty sensitive. As I coaxed the scooter slowly back across the road to where Justin was standing, a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) came around the corner. I was only about half way across and when Justin said, "You might want to get out of the road" I sort of panicked and gave that sensitive little throttle a bit too hard of a twist. Next thing I knew I was on the other side of the road laying in a ditch with the scooter on top of me and big scrapes down both legs. Justin inspected the scooter, spouting "when a horse bucks you off you have to get right back on" metaphors, while I sulked about the fact that he had scared me into gunning it. Fortunately, the scooter was perfectly unharmed and I did actually drive it again with Justin on the back - what a brave man. Later, I found pictures he'd taken on the GoPro of himself making scared faces while I was driving.
After awhile we started to feel that we should do something besides scooter and so we booked a four island tour with Opal Travel Speed Boat from one of the many tour booking agencies in Koh Lanta. The fact that we really don't like going on tours paired with a fee of 50 USD per person was a bit painful, but we decided it would be awhile before we return to Thailand so we should see as much as possible! When we booked we were notified that Opal Travel would be picking up all the passengers from their various hotels and take them to the beach where we would board the speed boat, which was pretty nice. The bus arrived on time and only stopped a few more times to pick up passengers before dropping us at a pleasant beach to wait. Within ten minutes the boat arrived and we headed out. We took the boat ride to get to know some of our fellow passengers and there were some real characters. Probably the most unique was a middle aged woman named Suzanne, who explained that she was a teacher at an embassy school in Denmark. Things seemed pretty normal until she took out a spring coiled stuffed monkey from her bag and proceeded to shoot it at several other passengers when they weren't looking. She would then burst out laughing while the rest of us exchange quiet glances that said, "Is this really happening?" After surviving the monkey ordeal we arrived at the first snorkeling spot to see what Thailand had to offer. We were pretty disappointed. I believe that there are some excellent places to dive and snorkel in Thailand, such as the Similan Islands, but where we went wasn't it. There were some beautiful fish but the vast majority of the coral was dead, leading to an overall underwhelming experience. Plus, it appeared that most of the group had never used fins so the splashing was enough to make you feel like you were in a mini typhoon. At one point I even noticed one person swimming around with just one fin on! When our snorkeling time was up we headed to Koh Mook, which involves swimming through a pitch black sea cave to reach a sandy little beach inside a sink hole. Getting out on that secret beach made us feel liked we'd stumbled into an unexplored world. It was a bit crowded though as we weren't the only tour boat docked there. After Koh Mook we headed to the lovely white shores of Koh Kraden for lunch - a simple buffet meal prepared by one of our guides. Koh Kraden was absolutely beautiful, so we were glad that they gave us some time after lunch to wander around the island. We ended the day with a final snorkeling stop and were deposited back on the beach we'd launched from. Final impressions? I wouldn't suggest this particular island tour if you're doing it because you're an avid snorkeler - you're bound to be disappointed. However, we were personally glad we took this trip because despite the crowds we found Koh Mook quite enchanting and I really enjoyed Koh Kraden. It was a way to squeeze in a bit more of the variety Thailand has to offer.
Our last stop in Thailand was the Railay Peninsula. Though not an island, it can only be reached by boat due to imposing cliffs that block access to the mainland. Railay is comprised of a tiny cluster of shops, restaurants, and lodging nestled at the base of limestone cliffs, so pretty dramatic scenery. One of my favorite parts of our stay in Railay was renting a kayak which we used to explore some sea caves and tiny isolated beaches. I think it was about 10 USD for an hour - a bit steep in price but loads of fun. My one regret from Railay is that we didn't climb. Its cliffs have become a well known climbing haven and we'd talked about doing some deep water soloing before going, but we were just feeling too lazy. If you go, don't be like us! Please climb!
In summary, we'd love to go to Thailand again. Next time though we're interested in heading north to Chiang Mai. If you decide to venture to southern Thailand, look at the rates for hotels to figure out what months fall into peak season. Going in a non-peak season may mean rain, but if you're looking to save some serious bucks then off season travel is the way to do it. Everything we booked was around triple the price because it was Christmas!