A bowl of green curry, rice, a bottle of beer. Maybe some spring rolls later. My plastic chair wobbles on the uneven ground. The plastic tabletop is stained. Behind us, steam rises from a large wok surrounded by jars, bottles, piles of green. Each small stall is lit with bare incandescent bulbs hanging overhead. Nearby, there's a line-up at a pad thai stall. Soup is sold at another. Fruit waits in sliced arrangements. The smell of curry and fish and spices hangs in the air. I taste the spicy steaming bowl of green curry, sip my beer. Ahhh. Thank you Thailand!
We arrived in Krabi a few hours earlier. The minivan dropped us at a roadside travel agent and we unloaded our bags while cajoled by a frenetic woman to look at her maps, her guesthouses, and to let her make a booking for us. Tired from the eight hour journey, we choose one of the guesthouses from her stack of pamphlets. She'll take us there, she tells us enthusiastically. So back into the minivan go our bags ... and soon we are driving around Krabi (stopping for some reason at a vegetable market where she argues with her husband in Thai) and eventually stopping at the guesthouse. Its full, we're told. So we are left to find a different place as the minivan drives away. I'm happy to avoid their commission charges and let them go.
A short walk and we're checked in to a pleasant enough place down the road. A shower later and we're on our way for dinner. After the expensive and often mysterious Malaysian food stalls (in which ordering was always confusing and the menus generally cryptic) it is so good to find a menu written in English.
After dinner, we find a bank machine and a used bookstore (the essentials for beach-destined travellers) and check our email. We emerge onto a street wet with rain and the gusting winds of a gathering storm. It strengthens as the night progresses. I wake several times to the simultaneous flash and sonic boom of lightning directly overhead. Rain batters our window and wind howls outside. It is a storm of the ferocity only the monsoon can muster.
The next morning finds us walking into the mid-morning heat to the nearby boat launch in search of a longtail boat. We've been warned that large boats won't leave without at least six people -- sometimes more -- and it being low season, we suspect it might be a while before we leave. The boat touts see us before we see the pier. "Where you go?" they ask excitedly. "Railay" we answer. "Yes yes! Go go!" they reply as if the boat is waiting for us and is about to leave. When we arrive at the pier, a boatman waves toward two men lounging in the shade. They don't look like tourists. "How many going to Railay?" I ask. He pretends not to understand and I repeat my question. Finally, he admits it: just the two of us.
We decide to take our chances at Ao Nang and what we've been told is a more popular pier. A songteow (basically a covered pickup truck with seats) is waiting (as they always seem to be). We board and are on our way.
About 15 kilometers later, we find ourselves on Ao Nang beach. The touts spot us again with their "where you going" calls. Again, we're waved to sit, relax, and wait. After travelling 15 kilometers from Krabi, we're no further ahead: its just the two of us and a long, empty line of shops and restaurants. There are hardly any tourists in sight and none look interested in joining us for a trip to Railay. It might be a long wait.
After a while, we're joined by a rather grumpy Canadian couple. We give up trying to make conversation pretty quickly and instead we all pay extra to charter the entire boat ... and leave immediately. At last.
We're wading ashore onto the beautiful white sandy beach at West Railay within less than 15 minutes. So close, but it feels a world away. It feels strange to carry our backpacks onto the beach while surrounded by beautiful bathing-suited people, most of whom are staying at the luxurious resorts overlooking the ocean. Not for us, unfortunately!
So off we go down a narrow path toward Railay East, winding between the resorts, around the basic concrete bunkers where the resort staff live, and through the sewery scents that linger in the back where the guests don't go. We emerge onto a muddy, mangrove-fronted beach lined with broken buildings, longtail boats beached in the mud, and the occasional resort. We start walking.
With no clear sense of where we're going, we follow a path away from the beach and discover little huts that are pleasant enough but with no screens for the mosquitoes. I don't relish the though of sweltering under a mosquito net all night ... no, we venture onward, sweaty and hot and tired from our heavy packs.
From one place to another we go. Some have no staff to show us a room and we look around then leave. Others show us places we don't really like. Then, back near the beach, we find a place: an air conditioned bungalow overlooking the swimming pool just a short walk from the muddy beach. Best of all, the price is right.
Our time in Railay quickly settles into a routine. We wake early and bring our yoga mats down to the pool. I listen to our recording of Eoin Finn's class on our IPOD and call out the positions to Laura who follows along. Then we change, have breakfast, and walk to one of the beautiful sandy beaches on the other side of the island. We relax in the sun for a while reading our books, then cool off by floating in the ocean. When we're hungry, we head back for lunch -- but not before I buy two slices of fresh, wonderfully sweet pineapple to eat on the way. After lunch, we return to our resort for a swim in the pool, a shower, and to relax watching a movie on HBO or reading before going out for dinner. Often the afternoons are cloudy and sometimes it will start to rain. Each day is similar, relaxing, and passes quickly.
We learn that there is a storm front in the Andaman sea and that boats may stop sailing back to Krabi. After five nights in Railay, we decide it might be best to leave. I'd considered taking rock climbing lessons (the towering limestone cliffs lure climbers from around the world) but never managed to get around to it. If I want to try climbing, there's always Squamish back at home. I've also had enough of the inflated prices here. We're trying to keep to our budget but its a struggle in this place filled with expensive resort restaurants. I'm getting restless. I'm ready to go.
On our last night in Railay, a movie about the tsunami is playing on HBO. Its strange that this place would have been hit by the massive wave, though its not something anyone mentions. A tall tower sits near the beach with loudspeakers pointing in all directions, but seems to have been placed as inconspicuously as possible. We walked past it several times without noticing. There's no markings about evacuation routes or information about what to do if the siren sounds. It feels like everyone just wants to forget it happened and not worry the tourists. Yet each day we walk past abandoned half-broken buildings and empty overgrown lots filled with debris. The mud-flats along the eastern beach are also strewn with construction debris. Is this from the tsunami or just leftover from construction and was never cleaned up? No one says and it feels like you're not supposed to ask.
We get a boat back to Ao Nang without much waiting. There seem to be a lot of people leaving, but maybe the crowd is normal. A songteow back to Krabi reverses the path we took to get to Railay almost a week ago. Before long, we're back at our Krabi guesthouse and settled.
Now we just need to decide our next stop.
It is with trepidation that I walk up the steep steps with my heavy bag on my back. I hope this bungalow is nice (the price certainly is - 250 baht!). The door opens and I step into a dark wooden room with a bed, a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling and an attached bathroom that could use a good sweeping. There is a gap at the top of the walls and I am imagining the mosquitoes swarming in as Matt and I sit huddled on the bed, under the net, as the fan attempts to create a breeze to cool us down. Thankfully when I turn to Matt he gives me the "let's keep looking" glance and we move on.
After another slightly improved version of this cheap bungalow, Matt volunteers to ask at the reception of the Diamond Cave Resort. We fully expect it to be far too expensive, but it never hurts to ask. I stand with the bags and he disappears around the corner and out of sight. I feel conspicious standing here all sweaty, disheveled and tired as hotel staff walk by and look at me sideways. I see people coming out of air-conditioned rooms headed for the nearby beach. Bikini-clad women laze on the lounge chairs by the pool and splashes rise from the water as frolicking guests enjoy this resort. I desperately want to be one of these people.
As the minutes tick by, I realize that Matt must be looking at a room. If the prices were too high, he would have been back by now. Then, I hear his voice telling someone he will check with me and decide. Ah - there must be good news! We have several options and I choose the best one: an a/c bungalow overlooking the pool for 600 baht ($18 CDN). I am so happy. The room is being cleaned so we take off for lunch and return in an hour.
We are sitting in the lobby waiting for our room and it seems to be taking a very long time. I am really eager to get settled in and finally Matt goes to check out how the room is coming along. He finds the cleaning woman in our room watching TV and he marches back to the lobby to rouse the staff there into action. A flurry of Thai voices, some running back and forth and then lots of apologies while we are ushered to our room. Finally! It takes me about 10 minutes to get my bikini out of my pack and to get into the pool. I can feel myself relaxing already.
And so goes the rest of our time here. We start by either sleeping in, or rising early to do yoga on the pool deck before the sun gets too hot. Then a breakfast to power us up for our 10 minute walk to the beach to work on our tans. We spread out the sarong Matt picked up on our way here and we read our novels while the sun begins to give our skin a coppery hue. When we find ourselves sufficiently heated up, we scurry across the white sands to the sea and float about in clear green waters. Our stomachs tell us it is mid-day and we buy either lunch from the beach stalls (women with tiny barbecues and coolers offering chicken, sandwiches, fruit) or from one of the restaurants by our hotel. We have an afternoon dip in the pool to rinse off the saltwater and to cool down after lunch, and then retreat to the coolness of our a/c room in the hottest part of the afternoon. As the heat builds, the dark clouds gather and a rain falls, sometimes accompanied by some thunder and lightning. We observe this while drinking a rum and coke and having a wee snack. Then dinner calls and we dine as surprisingly-healthy beach cats quietly mew under table for scraps. Then another days ends and we prepare to repeat the entire sequence all over again.