Of course, almost everybody has heard of Phuket–the island on the west coast of southern Thailand, made famous by its beaches and its ubiquity in magazines and movies. But mention Krabi to the average person, and there’s bound to be a bit of head scratching and the vague–but mistaken–notion that this place must have been named so because of its flourishing crab population.
Now that might have been my reaction too, had I not skimmed through an article on Krabi from five years ago and learned about its limestone karsts, its 200 or so islands, its stunning blue sea, and the sleepy, small-town charm that characterizes the best-kept secrets of the travel world. That the rest of the world doesn’t know yet about this town, just 65 km or a three-hour drive away from Phuket, is enough for it to occupy an almost mythic, I-have-to-get-there-before-everybody-else-does position in my head. It was clear that Krabi was Phuket’s beautiful but shy and unassuming sister–the one who was enjoying her time in the shadows, a paradise for the better informed.
But as with many dreams, life somehow gets in the way, and they are shelved until they gather dust and grow dimmer with the passage of time. And so to be called out of the blue, a lifetime later, one bright May afternoon for the fulfilment of a dream long forgotten–a writing assignment on Krabi’s beaches–feels nothing short of a miracle.
We flew in to Krabi from Singapore, some 936 km away (from Bangkok it is 655 km to the south). Although it was the latter part of May, when the rains were to be expected on a somewhat daily basis, the sun was high and shining ever so bright. Krabi was welcoming us at its cheeriest.
As fate would have it, my Krabi experience was going to be by way of two of its most famous resorts: Sheraton Krabi and Phulay Bay, a Ritz Carlton Reserve. And so it was that my first experience of this long, dreamed-of destination was going to be shaped, in large part, by the resorts I would be staying in. They offered two, quite distinct, slightly differing, but equally captivating takes on the Krabi experience. The best of both worlds, so to speak. And slowly, it dawned on me, that for a first-timer, it may be the best way to do it yet.
The very first thing that the Sheraton Krabi resort allows you to do is exhale with undisguised relief. After being cramped in crowded cities, airplanes, and airports, the spacious, 40-acre grounds are, literally, a breath of fresh air. The resort is just forty minutes’ drive from Krabi International Airport, and immediately it welcomes you with its airy lobby, and its huge wooden pillars that open up to the gardens and on to the sea. This was where we first met Wandee Pattrawee, Sheraton Krabi’s Marketing Communications manager. She urged us to freshen up with the requisite ice cold water and cold towels, before bringing us via golf buggy to our room.
And what a nice room it was–one of 264 that sprawled across the resort’s grounds. I was immediately drawn to the big and comfortable bed which, I found out later, was Sheraton’s signature Sweet Sleeper bed. It was so snug because it was specially designed to eliminate “pressure points.” Now while the bed, with its soft linen, feather and down pillows, and private balcony that looked out to the gardens and on to the sea was so inviting, the idea of an Italian chef and his specially prepared lunch was also too impossible to resist.
There’s nothing very Italian about Thailand, nothing very Italian about the name Gecko’s, either. Some of the restaurants in Sheraton, Krabi had been named after anything that was found in the area. Located near The Deck Pool, the name Gecko’s just works for some reason. And it has a lot to do with its friendly Italian chef, Francesco Lollino.
When asked what dishes he could recommend on the menu, he just shrugged and said, “Well they are all special.” And indeed they are.
I unfurled the table napkin from the round wooden gecko that was holding it its place, and tucked into to tanginess of feta cheese and salty sauce of Spaghetti Bellini, the sweet and salty medley of the Crab Salad, the soft cheese and mushrooms of the Pizza Capricciosa, and the succulence of the Grilled Tiger Prawns. White wine washed down the meal, and satisfaction came by way of enjoying the contrasts of the experience, and how they just somehow blend seamlessly with each other–the very Mediterranean blue and white chairs of Gecko’s, the Italian touches of an open wood oven, a sad aria softly piped in through the speakers, and the very tropical setting of sunny Thailand.
Now if Sheraton seeks to transplant a bit of Western flavor–Italian with Gecko’s or a bit of a European pub feel with Coco Vida, which screens football games and movies (that week they would be showing, what else, but Leonardo di Caprio’s The Beach, set in nearby Phi Phi Lei island), it has also taken great pains to make sure that the resort will retain its most Thai traits. Particularly, in making sure that the construction of the resort was always around Klong Muong’s natural features, and never through it. Case in point: the preserved mangrove forest located at the back of the resort.
A short trip on a back walk way showed us the exposed roots of the thriving mangrove population that Sheraton has carefully kept intact. Here is where the mangroves’ most interesting residents thrive: the Mudskipper, or more popularly known as “fish with feet,” (actually, these are called pectoral fins that have evolved into muscles which the fish use for jumping) because they can amble about on mud in chase of insects.
But the superstar of the mangrove community is the Fiddler Crab. With its one oversized, brightly colored claw, it is easy to spot in its brown surroundings. This strange creature puts its one-arm to good use: to mark of its territory, and to attract the attention of the females. In any case, the kids staying in the resort love this area, this bit of science that doesn’t feel like a regular biology lesson.
The afternoon was spent strolling along the beach that stretched 1.8 km in front of the resort. While some couples prefer to splash around in the clear blue waters or frolick around in the soft cream sand, one could also rent a kayak, go parasailing, snorkelling, or scuba diving. But I found that the best way to enjoy this section of Krabi’s beach was through the dozens of blue-green lounge chairs that dotted the grounds facing the ocean.
Wandee showed us her favorite spot in the resort, several steps from the pool area, and in front of the swanky Malati Bar (cocktails and lights in front of the sea!) It was a windswept green lawn, with a sprinkling of trees and lounge chairs. “Best place to catch the sunset,” Wandee said and, to prove her point, she showed me a stunning neon orange photo in her Blackberry, taken just the day before. And so the sun set beautifully on that first day, we ate dinner at another of its dining outlets–Mangosteen, where the pad thai was perfect, and the duck with crispy salad was divine. It was a wonderful but long day. And it was time to try out just how sweet that Sweet Sleeper bed could be.
Four islands in a day
The next day woke us bright and early for an exploration of nearby islands. At eight o’ clock, on the dot, the hotel’s bus shuttled us off to the pier, some 40 minutes away, where the Ko Phi Phi tour offered a choice of either the Four Islands Tour or Phi Phi Island. This tour could easily be arranged at Sheraton’s Tour desk, and costs around 1,200 baht (US$40). We piled on a big speedboat, a ragtag group made up of some 20 people–a Korean family, a Chinese family, and several Thai families and groups of friends. As the boat powerfully propelled through the teal blue waters, with limestone karsts looming stately in the distance, small smiles began to play on our face–the inevitable offshoot of being surrounded by such splendor.
The first island, Pranang Beach, is more popularly known as Princess Cave. Though the waters are clear and inviting, and there is the option of rock climbing in its craggy walls, the real draw of the island is the makeshift shrine built for the princess whose legend lives on in its shores. Toi, our affable tour guide, told me the story of a princess from a Muslim country whose travels in search of her long-lost brother have brought her to this particular island in Thailand. This was where her journey ended, for she died without ever finding her brother. And so it is that local fishermen believed that every year, a man would die mysteriously because the princess would take them. As such, they built a small shrine decorated with rainbow-colored scarves and strips of cloth, and phallic symbols to appease her, but also to petition her for everything–a mate, a child, and yes, good weather.
The next island, Tup, was just a dazzling white sandbar that connected to a nearby island, at low tide. Several of us took to that opportunity to cross to the other side; others lay on the beach and stared into the miles of calm blanket of blue, and onto the giant limestones. Others fell all over themselves taking pictures. Indeed, this is the island where you would want to take lots and lots of pictures, to show the folks back at home.
Back at the boat, we stopped in the middle of the ocean for two things. One was a photo opportunity of Chicken Island, so called because of a distended limestone rock, protruded just like how a chicken head would. The other was a bit of snorkelling, in an area that was rich with reef fish. Parrot fish, clown fish, idol fish, sea urchins–virtually the whole cast of Finding Nemo was out at sea that day. The last island was Poda Island or, in my head, “lunch island”, as all that snorkelling and island hopping was a sure-fire way to work up an appetite. We picnicked under the nipa hut shade, feasting on chicken with coconut milk, egg omelette, rice, watermelons, and pineapples. Korean, Chinese, and Thai languages mixed easily with each other; the small Korean boy, who, just minutes earlier was snorkelling with his father, was sleeping soundly in the middle of it all, not a care in the world. I knew exactly how he felt.
Our island hopping morning ended promptly after lunch, and the rest of the day was spent touring Krabi town, which again could be easily arranged through the tour desk. By around 6PM that day I got my first real taste of Krabi, in plenty of its aspects. Here you would see, located behind Vogue Department Store, is a gem of a night market called “Krabi Walking Street.”
Open from 5:00 to 10:00PM, Fridays to Sundays, Krabi Walking Street is a delightful network of street stalls, sidewalk vendors that offer everything from silk screened shirts, hand-painted art of Krabi scenery, locally made perfumes, oils, lotions, pretty sundresses, knives, axes, and, of course, food. We passed by a dreadlocked artist, sitting cross-legged on the road, drawing caricatures of couples, children playing traditional Thai gongs, and drums; people selling sushi, kebabs, fruit shakes, roasted bananas, fried quail eggs, baked mussels, lobster, prawns, pork barbecue, and roasted squid, among others.
It was organized chaos, one that I didn’t mind getting lost in.
It was very crowded and nearly impossible to find a seat in the big square that served an al fresco dining area. But one of the vendors created a makeshift table for us out of his ice cooler and his own chairs. We couldn’t get over how big, juicy, and delectable the mussels (120 baht or around US$ 4) were, and how we suddenly had prime seats to the stage show, which included a traditional Thai dance. The young women moved around the stage slowly and gracefully, and for a moment, the bustling night market almost stood still.
Home away from home
On the bus on the way back to the resort, I got to talk to one of the guests. Luca from Belgium was travelling through Southeast Asia–as a much-needed break from his real estate business back in Antwerp. He had spent the previous day in Pa Tong beach in Phuket, took one look at the party revellers who staggered home drunk at five in the morning, and jumped on the first bus to Krabi. He knew he wanted to stay at a Sheraton, based on previous experiences in these hotels worldwide. “I just needed a place to relax, to get my bearings, and I knew Sheraton would be the best place to do that,” he said.
Indeed, that is the overriding feeling of staying at the Sheraton Krabi–its laid-back atmosphere, its sprawling grounds, its family-friendly vibe, its comfort food add color and flavor to the ideal base from which to explore the richness of Krabi.