Thailand Island Adventures: Phuket, Khao Sok and Krabi

In the first season of the (hilarious) musical parody show Crazy Ex Girlfriend, there’s a scene where the main character is so excited to have friends to invite to her party that she sings an overly peppy song with the simple lyrics, “I have friends, I definitely have friends!”. In the weeks leading up to our friends from Wisconsin (Phil and Liz) joining us in Thailand, Tim and I sang this song a lot!

After 5 months of hanging out mostly just the two of us (with the exception of people we met on the road) without any other familiar faces, we were stoked to finally reunite with our friends. And also prove to my Instagram followers that Tim and I have friends in real life, promise!!

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-5: Phuket
  • Days 6-8: Khao Sok National Park
  • Days 9-14: Krabi

Dates: June 17-30, 2018

Our Odyssey:

Phuket

Tim and arrived to our Airbnb in Phuket, near Patong Beach, a day before Phil and Liz did. They arrived in the middle of the night and we were ready and waiting with welcome Changs (Thailand’s signature beer). This was mine and Tim’s second (technically fourth of you’re actually counting entry and exit passport stamps) trip to Thailand, and our second time staying in Patong Beach. Known for being a place to drink, dance and eat, we knew it was a good place to reunite before traveling to a few other spots in Thailand.

After a few hours of sleep, we were all awake and ready to explore, despite the rain. We grabbed lunch and walked around Bangla Street, a great place to grab a few casual beers and food during the day, and a really wild party scene at night.

Since it was raining, we decided to initiate Phil and Liz into the world of Thai massages. While many hole-in-the-wall spots offer them very cheap in brightly lit salons surrounded by chatting locals, we opted for a higher-end location to get a more peaceful experience. The “Let’s Relax” spa, conveniently located next to our apartment, offered welcome drinks, refreshing aromatherapy towelettes, and foot washes before the massage itself even began.

A small Thai woman led us into a room where four mats lay on the floor. She gestured to the garments we should change into (basically large pajamas), and left the room. We changed and each lay on a mat, ready for the experience to begin.

Once we were settled, the four masseuses arrived. The best way to explain a Thai massage is that it’s like doing yoga without having to do any work yourself. Over the course of the hour, the women push, pull and press on every part of your body. It’s painful at moments, but overall amazing.

They also used amazing smelling menthol oil which gave me a tingly feeling on the back of my neck. I ended up buying some since it’s recommended for headaches, altitude sickness, alertness and congestion (kind of like Viks Vaporub!).

Happy and relaxed, we went back to our apartment for a bit before getting ready for a night out on Bangla Street.

When Tim and I visited in 2014, I described Bangla Street as a kind of Vegas Strip. There are bars, restaurants, and hustlers trying to get you into their clubs (which offer various kinds of “entertainment” that are definitely illegal in the US). I won’t go into details here, but if you’re very curious and not shocked, you can Google Image search “Bangla Street shows”.

And for the record, we stuck to the standard bars with generic cover bands playing hit songs.

The next day, we battled through our hangovers and visited Green Elephant Sanctuary, about a 40 minute drive from our apartment. It was a good day for it too, since once again it was raining and the beach wouldn’t be a good option.

Thailand is a bit notorious for unethical animal tourism, especially with elephants and tigers. Many places offer elephant “trekking” where tourists ride on top of tortured elephants for their amusement and Instagram pics. I genuinely think most people who end up at these unethical spots where elephants are beaten as part of their “training” and chained up every night actually really like elephants. The problem is that people don’t know the realities behind the scenes or they block it out and prefer not to know.

Thankfully, people are becoming more aware and speaking out about the abuse. Once popular on social media, elephant riding photos are now marked by platforms like Instagram as portraying abusive behavior towards animals.

Just since 2014, when Tim and I last visited Thailand, we see a huge difference in how elephant experiences are marketed. Now more and more places are proud to say they do not offer riding or chain their elephants. Last time Tim and I were in Thailand, the only place that was truly ethical was Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I’m so happy to see more places rescuing elephants from the dark side of the tourism world and providing a safe sanctuary for them.

Newly opened Green Elephant Sanctuary is one such place. While we were there, we were able to feed and bathe the elephants. The animals seemed happy and clearly enjoyed the showers and baths. After all, they were just doing what elephants do anyway.

ethical elephant sanctuary Thailand

Tim and I at the Green Elephant Sanctuary

The next day was our most adventurous. We rented two scooters and with Tim and Phil driving one and Liz and I each on the backs, we set out to explore neighboring beaches. We stopped at Karon Beach first, which was my and Tim’s favorite from our 2014 trip. It’s big, sandy and the water is a perfect bathwater temperature.

Karon Beach

Fun with friends at Karon Beach!

After swimming for a while, we got back on the scooters to find Big Buddha. Aptly named, this Buddha statue sits on top of a mountain overlooking Karon Beach. It’s still under construction and has been since before 2014, but the views of the sea are good. Admittedly, my favorite part was the cold coconut we had for a snack afterwards.

Big Buddha Phuket

Phuket’s Big Buddha

From there we headed into unknown territory, venturing beyond where Tim and I had been before to Rawai beach. The real highlight, though, was a perfect little cove at Nai Harn Beach that we found on our ride back towards Patong. Tucked under the cliffs, with a large rock jutting into the water, the small beach beckoned us.

There were a few other tourists there, but it was a relatively quiet pocket of Phuket. We swam, swung on the little wooden tree swing, and climbed the rock over the water. It was a perfect last stop.

Nai Harn Beach

Being silly on the swing

After a while the sky began to look overcast. We decided to leave so we could get back to Patong before it got dark or rained. We were only half successful in this endeavor. Not even ten minutes into the ride home did it start pouring buckets. We had rain jackets at least, but in rain like this it hardly matters. Besides, we’d just been swimming anyway! The rain definitely made the ride home an adventure!

Phuket monsoon

Phil’s not bothered by a little rain!

That night, since it was our last in Patong, we went out one more time. This time we started at Hooters in a failed search for ranch dressing. After a few beers there we walked through a street lined with kiosk-like bars. Most had an Aussie theme and a chunk of wood for playing hammerschlagen. We ended up hanging out at one for a while, taking turns trying to hammer the nail into the stump.

Of course, like any big night out in Patong, we ended up back on Bangla Street for a repeat of our first night on the town.

Khao Sok National Park

The next morning, only mildly hungover, we took a van up to Khao Sok National Park. It’s only 3 hours north of Patong Beach, but a world away from busy Phuket Island. I’d had my eye on a treehouse-style accommodation there for over a year. I originally booked a treehouse at Our Jungle House for all 4 of us. A few days before, however, we got a message from a friend’s sister, Kayla. She was also traveling in Thailand. We’d been messaging with her for months and we were finally crossing paths! We invited Kayla to join us in the treehouse for a few nights since we had an extra bed!

Treehouse Khao sok National Park

Our treehouse in Khao Sok National Park

Phil, Liz, Tim and I got to our treehouse in the early afternoon. The setting was everything I’d hoped it would be. Our treehouse sat in the shadow of steep limestone cliffs overlooking a river. Nearby, tree branches shook from the impact of monkeys leaping from limb to limb. Back up at reception, resident cats napped among a collection of old books and travelogues. I was ready for a bit of the Swiss Family Robinson life!

Cats and books!

Cats and books!

We had a few hours to spare before Kayla would arrive, so we indulged in another Thai massage and a quick trip to some nearby (excruciatingly) hot springs. We didn’t last long in the near boiling water, but the massages were great!

When we returned, Kayla was there waiting for us. Admittedly, I thought it might be a little awkward having someone we hardly knew joining us for the next several days. You never know what the group dynamic will be like. Kayla meshed with us naturally, though, and getting to know her and building a new female friendship was a highlight of my time in Thailand.

The next morning we all took a trip out to Cheow Lan Lake. In the 1980s, the 385 families of Ban Chiew Lan village faced the decision to move their village and as many wild animals as they could in order to build a dam to save human lives every year during the rainy season. Despite the efforts to save the local wildlife some of the animals and many fish died as a result when the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand began construction of a dam in what is now Khao Sok National Park. They were able to relocate each family and 1,364 animals, but 44 animals died along with many fish who couldn’t survive in the stagnant waters.

Cheow Lan Lake

Cheow Lan Lake

In addition to preventing deadly floods, the resulting man-made lake generates power, aids irrigation, and is a fishery.

The history of Cheow Lan Lake is controversial, but its beauty is not. Hundreds of tourists visit every day to float on bamboo rafts or long-tail boats among the towering limestone karsts.

Exploring the lake and caves felt like something out of Jurassic Park. Even though the lake was man-made, the setting was rugged and prehistoric. We all agreed – visiting this idyllic spot was a Thailand highlight!

Cheow Lan Lake

We rode in one of these rafts to the nearby caves on the lake

The next day we opted for a more low key activity. Originally we had planned to do a hike up to a cave from the lake, but after our lake trip we realized that hike would be redundant. Instead, we slept in, relaxed and went tubing down the river for a few hours that afternoon. It was a blast, and when it began to downpour on us halfway through, it became even more magical. Imagine a lazy river ride at a water park with waterfalls and splash zones. Then put it in the middle of Jurassic Park and replace the dinosaurs with monkeys. Voila, this was our afternoon.

Krabi

From peaceful Khao Sok, we all went to Krabi, a province on the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand from Phuket. Phil, Liz, Tim and I stayed at Peace Laguna resort in Ao Nang Beach, and Kayla booked a room at a hostel a few blocks away.

Krabi ended up being a lot of fun. It has just the right amount of nightlife to be exciting, without being overwhelming or sketchy. We enjoyed dinner and drinks near the beach that night.

The next day, we rented a car to explore the region beyond the beaches. We swam in Emerald Pool, a natural swimming hole with a perfect green color, and relaxed in Waterfall Hot Springs. My favorite part of the day, however, was the visit to the unique Tiger Cave Temple.

Hot Springs Waterfall Krabi

The whole crew at Hot Springs Waterfall

Emerald Pool Krabi

Splashing around Emerald Pool

Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi is the only ethical tiger temple you can visit in Thailand because, guess what, there are no tigers there! Thailand has a handful of “tiger temples” or “tiger kingdoms” that hold tigers in captivity so tourists can cuddle on them. These places are notorious for mistreating and drugging the animals. It’s our responsibility as travelers to not support animal abuse! The Tiger Cave Temple, on the other hand, is a Buddhist temple set within a cave. It’s called Tiger Cave because monks witnessed a large tiger allegedly living there in the 1970s.

At the base of the mountain, a temple inside a cave houses a tiger statue and various talismans. It’s unique and kitschy, with the central Buddha statue sitting under a halo of flashing neon lights. Admittedly, it reminded me of a casino.

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Inside the Tiger Cave Temple, Krabi

After some debate on whether we really wanted to climb the 1200 steps to the top of the mountain, we set off on the monkey-lined trail. While cute at first, the monkeys proved malicious when one jumped on Phil’s back, grabbed his big spray out of his bag, and ran off to a tree.

As we got higher, the steps became steeper and narrower. The monkeys became more numerous and I felt a tension in my stomach every time I walked by one. After almost being attacked by a long tail macaque at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, my anxiety goes up whenever I am near macaques.

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Macaques at the Tiger Cave Temple

Eventually, we were higher than where the monkeys wanted to go. I felt better, but Kayla’s fear of heights intensified. We passed steps labeled 600, then 800. Eventually, with tired legs, we were only 200 steps away.

We all arrived, sweaty and euphoric, to the top of the mountain. After having cruised before limestone towers in Khao Sok, we now stood on top of one. Looking out from the temple at the mountain’s peak, we could see dozens of other karsts spanning the landscape around us. This time, we were at eye level with them.

Top of tiger cave temple krabi

Super sweaty at the top of Tiger Cave Temple

Big Buddha at the top of Tiger Cave Temple Krabi

Big Buddha at the top of Tiger Cave Temple

Limestone karsts

Limestone karsts from the top of the Tiger Cave Temple

We spent about an hour at the top, taking photos of the shrines and Buddha statue, catching our breath and resting our legs. It was raining on our hike down, but there’s something about the adrenaline of conquering a mountain that makes you really not care too much about the weather.

Tim and I took the next day to rest. Phil and Liz beach hopped while we caught up on blogging and napped.

Thursday was our last full day and night together before Phil and Liz headed back to the US and Kayla went to the Phi Phi Islands. Phil, Liz, Tim and I booked an “early bird” boat trip to island hop the Phi Phi Islands and islands near Ao Nang Beach.

Tim and I had done a boat trip of the Phi Phi Islands in 2014 from Phuket and hadn’t been too impressed. Maya Bay, famous as the filming location of the Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach”, had been overwhelmingly crowded and polluted. Our guide had fed soda and cookies to wild monkeys on Monkey Island. We spent what felt like just a few minutes at each stop and with so many other people around anyway, it was all hard to enjoy. Needless to say, we weren’t particularly impressed.

That said, visiting the Phi Phi Islands is a bucket list activity for many people visiting Thailand. Since we could book a boat trip with Krabi Ezy Trails that promised to 1) avoid the crowds 2) treat wild animals ethically and 3) visit islands closer to Krabi that Tim and I hadn’t seen before, we decided to give it another try with Phil and Liz.

We are so glad we did. It was an early morning and we were on the boat at 6am. We first stopped at Maya Bay. The beach itself is closed for rehabilitation (a good thing), so we just pulled in for a quick look from the boat. I have to say, it looked rough, like a person strung out from days of ceaseless partying and no sleeping. It’s hard to describe what it was exactly that made it look so tired. Maybe it was the port a potties, or the blue tarp and barrier tape lining the shore. Either way, the visual impact made it clear that this place needed a break from mass tourism.

The next stop was a perfect little cove and beach at Pileh Bay. We were the only group there and were able to spend nearly an hour swimming and frolicking in turquoise waters surrounded by Koh Phi Phi’s characteristic limestone cliffs.

Pileh Bay

Me and Tim at Pileh Bay

Pileh Bay

Jumping into Pileh Bay

When we stopped by Monkey Island, I was eager to see how this company would treat the wild animals compared to the company we had been with previously. When our guide tossed a few banana chucks into the water, soliciting the monkeys to jump in and swim to their treat, I was a bit disappointed. I found myself in a bit of a Monkey Mia type predicament.

On the one hand, a few small bits of banana is way better than cans of soda and cookies. Bananas are part of the macaque’s natural diet. Additionally, our guide explained that the monkeys still forage for their own food. This means they don’t rely on the tourist boats for all of their food. That’s a good thing since it indicates the animals are still behaving in line with their wild instincts.

On the other hand, it’s just not ok for humans to feed wild animals. At best it teaches them to come to humans for food instead of their natural sources. At worst it introduces unnatural foods into their diet. In the case of tossing cans of soda to the monkeys like we saw in 2014, it also leaves trash in our oceans.

While this was better than what we saw in 2014, it’s still not ideal. Unfortunately, I think the only way to avoid this on the boat tours in Thailand is to hire a private boat and explicitly request to not visit Monkey Island or at least not feed them. The company we booked with is considered the most eco-friendly option, and they still fed them.

The rest of the day, we island hopped our way back towards Krabi. We had a delicious lunch on the beach on Bamboo Island and stopped to snorkel several times at various spots.

Read more: What to Expect: Krabi, Thailand- 4 Islands and Phi Phi Islands Tour

That night we met back up with Kayla at a Mexican (yep, Mexican) restaurant. A few of the people we met on our boat trip that day also joined! If ended up being a really fun night out and a perfect way to wrap up our time in Thailand.

The next day was low key. Liz and I returned to a spa for one last Thai massage. That night Phil and Liz flew out back to the US.

Once again Tim and I were on our own, and about to go from familiar Thailand to Myanmar, a land only recently opened for tourism…

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