Beautiful and Damaged: Hong Island and Railay

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.

Longtail boats in Thailand

Longtail boats in Thailand

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.

I saw at least four Navy ships guarding the perimeter of the waters near the royal residence--we'd be shot on sight if we got too close!

I saw at least four Navy ships guarding the perimeter of the waters near the royal residence–we’d be shot on sight if we got too close!

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.

Tiny Deng Island

Tiny Deng Island

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.

In the lagoon, pre-speedboats

In the lagoon at Hong Island, pre-speedboats

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.

Here I go!

Here I go!

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.

In the lagoon

In the lagoon

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.

West Railay Beach

West Railay Beach

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.

Yes, lingams are phallic representations--you are seeing dozens of penises

Yes, lingams are phallic representations–you are seeing dozens of penises

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.

Impressive free climbing at Pra Nang Beach

Impressive free climbing at Pra Nang Beach

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.

Baby monkey!

Baby monkey!

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?

See, I still had fun

See, I still had fun

Big Times on the Big Island, Part 3

I might eventually write a piece on the many terrifying obstacles to smooth driving the Big Island presents, but I’m still too traumatized to attempt it. Suffice it to say I was relieved every time we passed something we wanted to photograph, because it was a chance to pull over and release my death grip on the steering wheel. Of course, there were a million such photo opportunities, because the Big Island is 4,028 square miles of visual perfection.

I mean, really

We were reluctant to leave Puna; the house was so lovely, and we hadn’t been to the hippie spa yet, or gone to one of the Wednesday night beach parties, or ventured onto the nude beach nearby. But we packed up on Sunday and drove through the drizzle to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory. The factory is set three miles off the main road, and you drive through groves of nut trees dotted with Burma Shave-style signs to get there. After careful deliberation, we each chose a can of nuts to buy, and while the white chocolate covered nuts were good, the butter candy ones were deemed best after an extensive taste test later that evening. The factory building has a wall of windows on one side of it, so you can walk along and look inside as the nuts get sorted by machine and by hand, and then salted, and then packed up. We saw Mauna Loa nuts sold everywhere we went in Hawaii, so it was neat to see where they all start out.

On the factory floor

We drove through Hilo and up the coast, and this part of the drive was tough not so much for the road conditions as for the stunning valley views we passed every few minutes. I had to will myself to look at the road and not the deep crevasses of green spilling into the blue sea below. I put Heather on photo duty, and she made a valiant effort to get in-focus pictures while going 50 miles per hour.

Driving to Waimea

After a while, we passed into another ecosystem, a grassy area called Hamakua that’s been used for farming for centuries. We were passing into the region of the kings of Hawaii. Somehow, the hills got even bigger, and we passed fields of cows and horses as we climbed them. We eventually reached the Waipio lookout. I’d thought about hiking down into the valley, but it was even steeper than I’d expected, and there were several signs asking visitors to consider not descending, as this was a sacred area. So instead I stared out into the sliver of valley visible from the lookout, and saw why you’d establish this as the seat of your kingdom.

Waipio

We made a stop at a local souvenir shop, where Heather attempted to buy one of everything (lucky for her friends back home!), and then we drove on into yet another ecosystem. It didn’t take very long for us to pass out of lush farmland and waterfall central into a desert. I actually shook my head in amazement when I realized we were looking at something very similar to the American Southwest, mere minutes after seeing the Heartland.

I was driving across a burning desert…

Kona coffee comes from this side of the island, although I’m not sure where in this dry place they grow it. We didn’t see evidence of coffee plantations, but we saw many signs of other people who’d driven through here before us. The ground was all a dark gray, and there were lots of little white rocks scattered around. People gathered them up and spelled out their names, big hearts, little messages to photograph and send back home. We’re so fond of leaving our mark.

Kailua Kona is a fun little beach town, and as we went down the main drag, we checked out the shops and restaurants to see where we might want to visit the next day. Monday morning, we went snorkeling, which you can read about here. It was so fun, and mesmerizing; it’s easy to spend hours at it without realizing how much time has passed.

That evening we strolled across the street to Huggo’s on the Rocks, a beachfront bar, and had cocktails and dinner. A couple guys played classic rock covers on acoustic guitars as the sun set, and Heather and I toasted each other with our pina coladas and mai tais. Later on, some girls from a nearby dance school did a little hula show, much to our delight.

Big night out on the Big Island

On Tuesday, we took it easy after snorkeling, so that we’d be all ready for our big night out. We’d ponied up the money for a luau, and at 4:30pm we lined up on the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel lawn with about a hundred other smiling tourists. We bought leis—a flower one for me and a kona nut for Heather—and then wandered to the pre-dinner area. Heather got some tough tattoos, and I took a hula lesson. Everyone was laughing and scooping up more mai tais from the punch bowl, so it was a relaxed and happy group that sat down to dinner. Heather immediately made friends with the whole table, of course, so that was fun. We chatted with our neighbors as we ate poi, ono (which was ‘ono!), Hawaiian sweet potatoes, pork from the imu, and fruit.

The royal court arrives

The entertainment featured the same 10 or so dancers going through various Polynesian styles of dance, while a live band played to the side. We had good seats right in the center, so we could fully appreciate the athletic jumping, shaking, stomping, and twirling of dances from Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand. Apparently it’s normal to end with a fire dance. Since I’ve never been to a luau before, I don’t know what’s normal, but the fire dance was pretty great, and what a way to finish. Heather and I went back to the condo fully satisfied with our immersion in tourist country.

The next morning we drove back across the island to Hilo and caught a plane to Honolulu, for the last part of our vacation together. Tune in soon to read about Pearl Harbor and island living!