I had a mixed experience in paradise. The islands of Thailand are gorgeous, no question, but they’re also woefully underprotected and poorly maintained. For as long as Thailand has been a vacation destination, you’d think there’d be more regulations in place to protect the delicate ecosystem that everyone’s excited to see. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are a few islands that are national parks, but those aren’t watched very carefully, and new (illegal) developments go up all the time.
Tons of tours go out to the islands every day, and there aren’t enough trash cans or port-a-potties for the number of tourists that tear through there. Trash literally piles up on the beach. Pools of motor oil form in the bays as longtail boats maneuver in and out of the tight spaces. Snorkeling reveals little in many places, as the water’s cloudy with pollution. Way too many people amass on each tiny beach and spoil the view and the experience. And of course, as I was always aware, I was part of the problem, just by being there.
And yet, it’s still beautiful, worth visiting and admiring. I went on a tour to Hong Island, which included stops in the shallows of Deng Island and the bay of Paradise Island, and a detour past some ships guarding the princess’s summer residence. Probably about 40 of us piled on to a longtail boat with a driver and a guide (whose name I forget, unfortunately) and off we went into the bright sunshine.
Deng Island was a tiny rock with some scrubby bush upon it, and we anchored next to it for a quick snorkeling session. But the sea was choppy and most people didn’t last long in the water. At one point, we heard a scream from a woman who, turns out, doesn’t know how to swim but had jumped in with her life jacket anyway; she found the rough waves too much to handle. Just before we got back in the boat, a huge school of yellow-white fish swirled up around us, causing everyone to exclaim that now would be a good time to snorkel. But when you’re on a tour you don’t have time to delay, so we carried on.
Paradise Island turned me off initially with the piles of trash not far from shore and the tourists sweating sunscreen into the water, but once I swam a little away from the crowd, I liked it much more. I snorkeled in the space between the island and the rock form next to it, and found lots of interesting colored coral–waving red ferns, shocks of purple stalks. It was a nice little stop, although I’m sure it’s vastly different from what it was even five years ago.
We had lunch at Hong Island and then split up; most people set up on the beach for some sunbathing, and about 15 of us who’d paid a bit extra got into kayaks. They were two-person kayaks, but the guide decided I was too heavy to share, so he had me sit in the middle and pilot one on my own. I could have shared no problem, but you do as your guide says. It was difficult to keep up, since I’ve never kayaked in the ocean before and I was doing the work of two people, but I’m proud to say I managed it. We followed the coast of the island around a couple of curves until we reached the lagoon on the other side. We paddled down a short, narrow passage that opened up into a large cove surrounded by limestone cliffs covered in foliage. The water was a bright, light green of the exact shade called “seafoam” on paint samples.
We were in maybe 2 feet of water, and our guide reached down to the sand and pulled up large white starfish to show us. It was an idyllic spot, but almost the whole time we were there the serenity of the moment was broken by the speedboats that forced their way into the lagoon, despite being far too large for the shallow water; they’d noisily move around the lagoon, then get stuck in the sand and make even more noise revving their engines to get unstuck.
My other day trip out of Krabi Town was a visit to Railay. To get there, I took a songthaew to Ao Nang Beach (a small, uninspiring beach backed by an unrelenting strip of shops–I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a place to base yourself in the area), then a longtail around the coast to West Railay Beach. I think my expectations were a little high, because I was disappointed. Everything at Railay was overpriced (water was four times what it was anywhere else I’d been in Thailand), and there seemed to be few places to set yourself up on the beach since so much space was taken up by longtails. Also, it was super crowded. I walked around to Pra Nang, which was a small beach boasting a cave full of lingams and a pile of rocks to scramble on, and I was overwhelmed by the number of people packed into that tiny space.
I’ve talked to people who stayed at Railay, and they had a much better time; they were able to find hidden areas to sunbathe and swim, so they could focus on the undeniable beauty of the limestone cliffs and calm blue-green water without getting distracted by crowds and a need to catch a boat back before prices went up at sunset.
I did get to see some monkeys on my walk to and from Pra Nang, including a baby! I also stopped by Tonsai, a popular climbing spot, and watched several people clip in and maneuver up and down those sheer cliffs. It looked terrifying, but they had smiles on their faces, so well done them.
I’m not sure what the solution is for the conservation-minded tourist who wants to visit the Thai islands. There are some tour groups out there making an effort to be eco-conscious, so you can give your dollars to them. You can also go to more out-of-the-way islands, although those are becoming harder and harder to find, so you’re not adding to the overcrowding of the popular ones–but does that mean you’re just speeding up the exploitation of an otherwise untouched place? You could just not go at all, but missing out on the beauty of this part of the world would be a shame. I took a visitor survey at the airport and made a big deal about the lack of conservation efforts, so maybe if enough tourists do that it’ll catch a government official’s eye. I don’t know–what are your thoughts?