Southern Thailand, I was told, has two seasons: mud and dust. However, the weather in February was blissful. The rainy season was finished, and the stretch of hot sunny days and warm evenings was interrupted only occasionally by brief downpours, which made for a bit of variety and damped down any threat of dust.
After about 29 hours of travelling from Toronto (via Hong Kong and Bangkok — the shortest and most direct route available at the time), I found my host waiting for me at Krabi Airport. A thirty-minute drive took us to what would be home for the next few weeks — a villa on the outskirts of a small resort town on the Andaman Sea.
Ao Nang was popularized by rock climbers who came for the superb opportunities afforded by the karst topography. It continues to be popular with climbers and back-packers, but visitors of all stripes will find accommodations and activities to suit their budgets and inclinations. The main street certainly matches my host’s description: “Grand Bend — Thai style.” It’s fun for shopping, people-watching, or just relaxing street-side (or beach-side) with a refreshing smoothie (made with local mango, or watermelon, or pineapple, or banana, or…). But perhaps you’d prefer a nice cold bottle of Chang, one of the few brands of beer available in Thailand. It’s ubiquitous. (And the elephant (chang) logo on a t-shirt makes a great souvenir.)
If beach time is really what you’re after, there are plenty of choices. Ao Nang’s own beach tends to be busy, unless you walk further down past the stores, bars, and resorts. But busy is fine. Take a table at The Last Fisherman, at the southern end of the beach. Sitting in the shade of tropical almond (aka deer’s ear) and coconut trees, with your feet on the sand (but never showing your soles — considered an impolite gensture in this Buddhist country), relax and enjoy the view. Not fine dining, but fine food (Thai and western), a wide choice of drinks (classic and original cocktails, smoothies, shakes and beer), good service, and, if you time it right, great sunsets.
In the other direction, Noppharat Thara Beach runs for about three kilometres past town and through a less built-up area. It shares the no-beach-chairs rule common to many beaches in the region. And beaches are accessible to all, even in front of the most upscale hotels and resorts. There are a number of other beaches up and down the shore. Railay, which can be reached only by boat, is an especially popular destination, both for the beach itself and also for the stunning limestone cliffs that tower over it — a climbers’ paradise. At other beaches you might find that you have the long stretch of sand entirely to yourselves. Depending where you are staying, some can be reached on foot, while others need a car or scooter, or are a boat-ride away. Get to know the tide timetables; high tide can give the best swimming opportunities, while low tide exposes more mud and rock, but can also reveal walkways to nearby islands.
The boats are most commonly the picturesque longtails. They can be rented on the spot in many areas, or through an agent. You can either join a tour and share a boat with perhaps a dozen others, or you can rent your own. For four people or more, a private hire affords more freedom, not to mention comfort. Our host set us up for a day of cruising, swimming and snorkelling among some of the nearby islands. If you disembark on nearby Poda, Chicken or Tub island, be prepared to pay a national parks fee of about fifteen dollars.
Kayaking is another memorable way to explore the area. Don’t expect anything strenuous, just some gentle paddling across the bay, through a mangrove forest, and down a canyon overlooked by limestone cliffs. You might see monkeys watching you from among the tropical plants, some tiny and vividly blue crabs scuttling at your approach, and starfish.
Dining options are plentiful. By our standards food is very inexpensive, except at the most upmarket restaurants. Traditional Thai food and various seafood dishes are, not surprisingly, the main draw. Whole red snapper steamed with lemongrass and soya sauce, and seafood custard curry are but two local specialties.
If your accommodations come with a kitchen, you can pick up groceries at one of the two supermarkets in Ao Nang, Tesco or Makro. (Alcoholic beverages are available in the grocery stores, from dedicated shops, and – with limited selection – in local variety stores. Be prepared for the laws that allow sales only between certain hours.
Much more interesting are the local markets. Held outdoors on different days and at different locations these markets offer clothes and handicrafts, toiletries and jewelry, and, most importantly, food! You’ll find fresh seafood and meat, locally grown fruits and produce, and a bewildering variety of prepared foods, to eat as you stroll or to take home. Pad thai comes in a range of iterations, but be adventurous; you might find skewers of charcoal-grilled octopus, vegetables wrapped in little banana-leaf parcels (ready for steaming), salad with mango or papaya, spicy fishcakes, and bite-sized, coconut-dusted sweets.
Don’t be shy to try street food. If you don’t have the language, just point. But this is a tourist town, and while not all the locals are fluent, there is a lot of English spoken.
Restaurants are everywhere, and appearances, like book covers, can be misleading. Even the less prepossessing have good food. Menus are nearly always posted, and usually include photos to help the foreigners.
There is a large Muslim population in this area of Thailand, and a proportional number of Halal restaurants, which can be recognized by the Arabic signage. No pork on the menus, of course, nor alcohol. Just good food. There are also a number of street vendors who sell Halal Thai food. Massaman Curry, mmm!
Expect to share the food among yourselves — dining is a communal activity in Thailand. Thai food is most often eaten with a spoon and a fork, although occasionally chopsticks might be provided for eating noodles. Don’t put the fork into your mouth; use it to push your food onto the spoon. Utensils together at the 6:30 position tells the server that you have finished.
We never had a meal that we didn’t enjoy. Favourite local spots included Korsoi, Hunney Seafood, and E-Sarn (specializing in the spicy cuisine of northeastern Thailand). The original Sabai Ba Bar is on the Klong Muang beachfront, and popular for sundowners, but if you have transportation, there’s a satellite location just 10 minutes away. Go to the Tree House Kitchen for lunch, and enjoy dining in the treetops. Try the phanang curry (salty and sweet, available with meat or with vegetables only) or yellow powder curry (redolent with spices, and creamy with coconut), or the delectable cashew chicken. All are guaranteed to please.
Ruan Thip is well worth a visit for classic and southern Thai cuisine. (The kitchen will turn down the heat if asked.) Located in nearby Klong Son, it’s more frequented by Thais than tourists. There are both indoor and outdoor dining areas. A small river runs past the property — watch for the colourful carp. Order the Tom Kha Gai, a traditional Thai coconut soup that is harder to find than it should be. Ruan Thip does not serve wine, but you can take your own.
Highly recommended by our hosts is Umberto’s. Umberto Barbieri, one of the region’s most well-regarded Italian chefs, has his restaurant into the ground floor premises of Alisea, a boutique hotel near the beach. Expect traditional Italian fare of consistently high quality, dishes made with locally caught seafood, and a good wine list. Go early to get a seat on the terrace. Among the best-known restaurants for fine dining are The Hilltop and Carnivore (yes, what you’d expect, with very good quality meats and a good wine list — neither easily found in the area). But for the best views, go to Lae Lay Grill or The Hilltop. Situated high on a hillside, the vistas takes in the town, the sea and the islands. And the sunsets are spectacular.
My regret at leaving Ao Nang was tempered by anticipation of a visit to Bangkok before heading home. But that’s another story…
Many of the restaurants mentioned have either a website or a Facebook page.
The villas of Baan Ping Tara are modern, comfortable, and simply but stylishly decorated. With western-style kitchen, wi-fi, pool, and other amenities, you might not want to leave. But get out on the complimentary scooters, and enjoy your time in Ao Nang. Contact Baan Ping Tara directly or through Airbnb.