Thailand’s pristine, white sandy beaches attract millions of tourists every year. Many come with fantasies of swimming in the calm, turquoise waters in peace and seclusion. But do such places really still exist in Thailand? Surely the scenes on the postcards can still be found somewhere, right? Craving a dip in the ocean, I decided to take a break from hiking and temple-hopping up north to find out.
Basing ourselves in the beach town of Ao Nang, my travel companions and I wasted no time and headed straight for a longtail boat that would take us directly to the little island of Koh Poda.
While the island is part of the typical “island hopping” package tours, we heard that if you went there on your own, you could find a perfect secluded beach away from the crowds. And so we went to find out if the rumors were true.
But we immediately encountered something you often leave out of your mind when you fantasize about relaxing in paradise: a rainstorm. After a rocky boat ride, it was still pouring rain when we set foot on the island. We decided to take shelter under some trees and wait it out.
As the rain finally started to let up, we walked away from the seemingly endless groups of tourists in the central part of the island and walked toward a quieter area. And to our astonishment, we encountered a beautiful beach with not another soul in sight. The rumors were really true.
I didn’t think it would be so easy to find a completely secluded beach like this, but here we were. The water was not ideal for swimming, and it was incredibly shallow, but at least the scenery and tranquility made up for it. But as tempting as it was to lay back and forget about everything, we couldn’t let ourselves get too comfortable.
The return boat was scheduled for 3pm, and with almost no infrastructure on Koh Poda, missing the boat was not an option. It also took us awhile to find a boat in the first place, meaning we had no more than a couple of hours on the island. And out of that, the rain only let up for 30 minutes.
Koh Poda was great and all, but just a little too inconvenient to get to considering the mandatory 3pm return. My friends would have to fly out the next morning, but I was determined to continue searching for more beaches on my own the following day.
Railay Beach is probably the most well-known beach on the Krabi mainland. That’s why I was surprised to see so few tourists, at least compared to what I was imagining. The beach is surrounded on either side by the Andaman coast’s trademark limestone cliffs, which also attract lots of rock climbers to the area.
While I was far from alone, there was plenty of space on the beach and in the water away from the crowds. Furthermore, the height of the water and rhythm of the waves make Railay ideal for swimming. But with the sun in hiding, I decided to leave the water and explore the rest of the area.
Railay’s stunning Diamond Cave is a relatively easy walk from the main beach and shouldn’t be missed by anyone visiting the area. The name comes from how the stalactites resemble glistening diamonds when shined with light. You can enter the cave for a small fee of 40 baht per person. Diamond Cave isn’t huge, but there’s still enough to look at to occupy thirty minutes or so of your time.
Another popular activity at Railay is climbing up to the Railay Beach Viewpoint. Though I’d been considering it, as I walked past the start of the almost vertical “trail,” those coming down were completely caked in dirt and mud. I decided instead to move on to the “Princess Beach.”
That’s right – Railay has more than one beach. While part of the mainland, Railay is actually a peninsula with a beach on either side. As Railay can only be reached by boat due to tall limestone rocks cutting it off from the rest of the province, it feels very much like a small island even when it technically isn’t.
The main attraction of the Princess Beach is a peculiar one. The Princess Cave, known as Tham Phra Nang Nok in Thai, is a shrine inside of a small cave completely full of wooden phalluses. Looking a little closer at the mystifying sight, you’ll see a little shrine dedicated to Shiva.
The shrine starts to make sense when you compare it to ‘Shiva linga’ found all throughout Hindu societies. Though depicted in a much less graphic form, the phallic imagery of traditional Shiva linga is said to represent the power of nature itself. The Princess Cave has traditionally been prayed at by fisherman before going out to sea, and is just one of many examples of the often overlooked influence of Hinduism in Thai society.
Aside from caves and beaches, another way to pass the time at Railay is to look out for wildlife. The area is teeming with monkeys, some monitor lizards, and who knows what else.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with Railay, and with so many restaurants and hotels on the peninsula, I’d like to stay there in the future. If you’re considering where to base yourself on your trip to Krabi, there’s no denying that Railay is a nicer looking area than Ao Nang. Generally speaking, though, everything in Railay seemed to be about double the price.
Though using Ao Nang as my base, I hadn’t yet visited the beaches nearby my hotel. I was closest to Noppharat Thara Beach, but after a few minutes there it was clear why there were so few other visitors. The beach is dirty and I nearly stepped on what seemed like a long rusty nail sticking straight up through the sand.
To view the sunset, I headed over to the main Ao Nang Beach where a small crowd had gathered with the same idea. The sunset was spectacular, and I wondered if I hadn’t been giving this nearby beach a fair chance.
I only had one full day left in Krabi. Tired of all the rough longtail boat journeys, not to mention always having to worry about catching the last return boat, I was tempted to sleep in and spend my last full day taking it easy on Ao Nang.
But after managing to negotiate a good price for a boat tour to Ko Phi Phi, my curiosity got the better of me. I ended up opting for yet another busy day of island hopping.
Ko Phi Phi
The morning of my last day in Krabi, I found myself surrounded by about 30 random strangers together on a fast boat to the Phi Phi islands. Though it was hardly the relaxing, lazy day I’d envisioned, I was at least happy to be on something other than one of those nauseating wooden longtail boats.
Admittedly, I knew very little about Ko Phi Phi except for the name, but it turns out that it’s actually made up of 2 main islands. Phi Phi Don is the larger island where the hotels, restaurants and tourist resorts or located. Phi Phi Leh, on the other hand, is a protected island that lacks any accommodation or tourism infrastructure whatsoever. I’m sure you can guess which one is the prettier of the two.
Since this was only a day tour, I wasn’t shocked to learn we’d only get a half hour or so to enjoy our first stop – a beach on Phi Phi Don whose name I can’t even remember. The beach was a nice one, but there wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about it. Moving on, we passed by Phi Phi landmarks like the ‘Viking Cave,’ which wasn’t even accessible at the time, and Monkey Beach, which certainly lived up to its name.
Overall, the scenery was incredible, and the basic views from the boat of the turquoise water splashing up against the limestone rocks turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
We headed on to Maya Bay, Phi Phi’s most well-known destination due to its role in the 2000 film The Beach. The waves were too rough for us to get there, though. Maya Bay was clearly still accessible until just a bit earlier, as we could see from a distance that it was packed from one end to the other with hordes of tourist groups.
I had not seen the film before my trip to Phi Phi and Krabi, but I did get around to seeing it afterward. It’s only a mediocre movie at best, but the main characters’ motives closely resemble so many who come to this part of Thailand – to find the ideal beach. In the end, it was for the best that my group couldn’t access Maya Bay, as the alternative option was exactly what I’d been hoping to find all along.
Our Plan B was to visit Loh Samah Bay, a popular snorkeling spot. In fact, that’s what most of the group ended up doing, and only a couple of others aside from myself chose the option to see the beach. And once I got there, I couldn’t believe what the others were missing.
Tucked away in a small cove, Loh Samah Bay is a pristine white sand beach with breathtaking views in all directions. And despite the natural beauty of the place, most tourists get too preoccupied with either Maya Bay or snorkeling to come here. There were probably no more than 15 other people in total during my visit. Loh Samah Bay turned out to be the true perfect beach I’d been searching for.
But like every other beach I’d visited up to that point, time here was limited. With only 30 or 40 minutes in total to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, I spent my time walking in the water, taking photographs and taking a walk in the nearby forest. Before I knew it, the boat with the snorkelers had returned, and it was already time to leave this perfect beach.
After a group lunch at a cafeteria on Phi Phi Don, we were given time to explore Phi Phi’s main developed area. Wandering around, I discovered yet another nice beach, but with all the tour groups and development taking place all along the coast, it really couldn’t compare to what I’d just seen.
To end the day, we stopped for one more snorkeling excursion, and this time I also got in the water. With calm waves and plenty of colorful fish to see, snorkeling made for a nice end to an already eventful day.
So did I find the perfect beach? Yes. In fact, I found it multiple times. Though Loh Samah Bay was the clear winner, Koh Poda had already met my criteria on the first day. But perfection, in my case, was very fleeting – around 30 minutes total of clear skies on either beach. As far as overall balance and variety of things to do, Railay could also be considered near perfect as well.
If you’re looking for your dream beach that you can also have mostly to yourself for a day or two, you may want to look elsewhere than Krabi and Ko Phi Phi. But if you’re just happy with the search and seeing as many beautiful beaches as you can within a limited amount of time, Krabi may be the place for you.
Krabi is a fairly sizable town and its airport can be reached directly from many other airports in Thailand. You can fly there directly from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and even from cities abroad like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
If you’re mainly interested in Ko Phi Phi, you can also take a boat there from Phuket, which itself has a major airport.
You could also take a bus from Bangkok but it would be a very long journey of about 12 hours.
As mentioned in the article, many of the popular beach areas along the Andaman Coast have plenty of accommodation options. I stayed in Ao Nang, which is the cheapest town to stay in the region and also the most easily accessible from the airport.
My hotel was called Krabi Forest Homestay. For only around 500 baht a night, I had a spacious private room that was cleaned every day and an easy walking distance from the beach. I would recommend it to anyone traveling to Ao Nang on a similar budget, but higher end hotels are also abundant in Ao Nang.
Though pricier in general, there are also plenty of places to stay in the Railay area.
One potentially dubious aspect of travel in the region is the “national park fee.” All visitors to the national park areas need to pay 400 baht, which is not a scam in itself. However, even though the entrance “ticket” is supposed to last a number of days, you likely won’t be given any type of physical ticket or receipt. Instead, it will probably just be included in the price you pay either the longtail boat driver or your package tour ticket vendor.
While Ao Nang and Railay do not require national park fees, Koh Poda and Phi Phi do. Therefore, I ended up paying the 400 baht fee twice because I had no way to prove I’d already paid. Be sure to demand that you get a physical ticket before getting on the boat, although I’m not entirely sure that physical tickets even exist.
If you want to go on a single day tour of the Phi Phi islands as described above, there are plenty of tourist offices all around both Ao Nang and Railay. I visited three or four until I managed to find a deal of around 1,000 baht. The market is very competitive, so if you tell one ticket vendor about another offer you received, they’ll likely take your word for it and match it or go slightly lower.
The 1,000 baht price I found actually included the 400 baht entrance fee which I technically shouldn’t have had to pay (see above).
Would I recommend a single day trip to the Phi Phi islands? I was reluctant at first, because I’d been considering saving Phi Phi for another trip for which I would base myself on the islands. But now having done the day tour, I’m glad things turned out the way they did.
The reason is that the less pristine of the two islands, Phi Phi Don, is the only one you can stay on. I found it way too overdeveloped, crowded and overpriced and was glad that I stayed in Ao Nang instead.
One of the most popular activities in Krabi is a multiple island tour which often includes Koh Poda and some other famous islands like Chicken Island. I did not go on one of these tours, but during my time on Poda it was easy to see what they’re like.
The boats arrive at the main area of the beach and the tourists all have lunch in the same crowded place together before going for a short swim. Most visitors probably don’t have any idea that there’s a totally secluded area of the beach just around the corner. If you want to see Koh Poda, you’d be best off waiting for a longtail boat to fill up to take you there directly.