Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mom's Visit: Ao Nang, Thailand

After a week in and around Kuala Lumpur, the next stop on my mother’s Asia adventure was Thailand. This was to be my third trip there this year, following my excursions to Phuket and Bangkok. This time, we flew into the small city of Krabi and took a 30-minute bus ride to the beachfront town of Ao Nang, which is itself about a three-hour boat ride across an island-dotted bay to the large island of Phuket. This region of Thailand is home to a great number of striking limestone cliffs, both in and out of the sea, each covered in lush tropical foliage, so here, excellent scenery abounds.

Our hotel was the Tipa Resort, a really nice place within very short walking distance of Ao Nang’s main beach. Since the high season wrapped up a couple of months ago, prices for everything were relatively low. We paid right at $50 each round-trip for the short flight to Krabi, the shuttle bus to Ao Nang was $4, and the room was around $38 a night. While it’s not jaw-droppingly cheap, it was a great price for such a nice room, and as an added bonus, we had a resident iguana thing wandering around posing for pics. Moreover, the resort gave us dinner vouchers for use in their restaurant every night we stayed there. The two vouchers totaled 200 baht, about $6, which was more than enough to cover our food bill; we only had to purchase our drinks. I rented a nice motorbike for $3.65 a day, and Mom was adventurous enough to ride pillion. The relative lack of traffic certainly helped her along with that decision, though. It was free and easy anywhere we chose to ride.

Someone told me Ao Nang is a lot like Phuket was before it got internationally famous, and that makes a lot of sense. It’s on the same bay and is just as easily accessible from KL or Bangkok, the main hubs in the region.

We had some rain our first afternoon there, but after that, the weather was fantastic. Most of the trip was spent relaxing and exploring the area (and eating the wonderful Thai food, of course), including an unintentionally humorous hike. From Noparrat Thara Beach, down the road a bit from Ao Nang Beach, some of the nearby islands are accessible on foot during low tide, so Mom and I walked out and wandered around for about half an hour or so. However, during that time, the tide started to come in, so by the time we headed back to the mainland, our once-dry isthmus walkway was submerged. I had on my regular shoes that morning (instead of my flip-flops), and after appraising the depth of the water in various places, had no choice but to take off my shoes and socks and wade through the warm water. Good thing we didn’t spend two hours out there or we'd have had to swim for it!

There is no shortage of things to do in the area, so on our last full day, we opted to go sea kayaking, which cost us $14 each for about a five-hour excursion. We considered a trip to one of the islands in the bay, but most were 2-3 hours away by boat, and while sometimes the adage, “Getting there is half the fun” is true, when you’re sitting in a tiny, rickety old boat with an outboard motor, chugging across a huge expanse of water, ehh, well… not so much. We already played that game when we took a water taxi to a small island off the coast of Belize in 2003, and that was only an hour and a half’s journey (if that). Two hours? Three? No thanks. So we saddled up in the back of a battered old lorry (small truck with a partially enclosed bed), picked up a few other tourists, and set off on a truly hair-raising trip to the launch point at Thalane Bay. Our lunatic driver was speeding with wild abandon down narrow, curvy roads and although the scenery really was quite nice, we were flying by so fast, it was hard to think of anything beyond hanging on and hoping we didn’t go careening off the road. I think our death-defying trip lasted about 45 minutes and we finally arrived at the bay where we would set off in our kayaks. The lot of us tumbled out of the back of the lorry, said a prayer of thanks, and collected our gear and had some hot tea before heading out to sea. In our group there were three nationalities represented amongst the seven people. Five of us were Americans. Apart from Mom and me, an older couple from Texas had come out to visit their adult son, who was living and working in Bangkok. He and his Thai girlfriend were also with us, as was a woman from Medan, an Indonesian city on the island of Sumatra. We all walked down to the dock, and true to form for the region, there was no safety briefing, no signing of waivers or notices of disclaimers or hazards, just a cursory introduction to the kayaks. (“Here’s your boat, there’s the pile of life jackets.”)

We got into our four kayaks, with the Indonesian woman pairing up with our guide (who was delightful), and set out across the calm bay. A series of outcroppings and limestone islands keep this water very protected from the sea. We got to see vast swaths of mangrove forests and hidden island beaches, along with some very colorful birds and curious monkeys. We stayed out for about three hours, and it took about half that time for Mom and I to learn to properly synchronize our rowing efforts and even then, I doubt we'd have won any competitions. Fortunately though, nobody else was really very good, either, so no kayak ever got left behind and none of us capsized, which is always a plus. It was a great experience and one I’d absolutely recommend to anyone.

Among the more laughable highlights was one of our final meals. I was craving a good pizza, and more than a few places along the beach trumpeted “authentic” Italian food, “great pizza,” blah blah blah. We chose one and ordered a pepperoni pizza. It arrived with a meager scattering of pepperoni (though presumably actual pork pepperoni, something that’s exceedingly difficult to come by in KL) and an avalanche of green peppers, one of my least favorite things to put on a pizza. Mom is no fan of green peppers in general, so we both balked at this pepper-laden pie. I asked the waiter to explain, and he said that the menu was quite clear on this issue. However, they seem to think green peppers are called “paprika” in English. I went round and round with two people there, not getting angry or anything, but letting them know in no uncertain terms that paprika is a powdered spice derived from the red bell pepper, but not the pepper itself. In many countries, what Americans (and Canadians and Britons) call a bell pepper is called capsicum, and I’ve learned and accepted that. The waiter went so far as to bring a whole green bell pepper out from the kitchen to show me, as if that would clear up any confusion. “Paprika,” he declared plaintively, holding out the pepper to me like some absurd talisman. I was like, “I know what it looked like before you chopped it up!” I later discovered that, in some European countries, mostly the Scandinavian region, the peppers themselves are indeed referred to as paprika (although green peppers would almost never be called simply “paprika,” but would include “green” in the native language, such as “groene paprika” in Dutch), so I’m glad I didn’t lose my head completely. But come on! So let me offer this advice to any American traveling abroad: Ask about every ingredient on the damn pizza you order. I’ve now had to learn the hard way about capsicum and paprika. There’s even confusion about the sauce, because in many places, the sauce is called “tomatoes” on the menu. I like tomato-based sauces just fine, but have no desire to have actual whole or sliced tomatoes on my pizza. (When they say tomatoes, they usually mean tomato sauce, by the way.) I’ve read that Italians may have invented the pizza, but Americans perfected it, and the best pizzas in the world are to be found in America. So maybe we’re just a bit more particular about our pizzas. In the end, we just asked them to pick off all the green peppers and re-bake it for a couple of minutes. Needless to say, the final product was fairly craptastic, but at least it was insanely cheap, I suppose. Sigh.

So after a few days in Ao Nang, the consensus was that we both liked it, paprika pizza notwithstanding. Accessible, inexpensive, and enjoyable… hard to go wrong with a vacation destination if those three conditions are met. I certainly wouldn’t mind returning again someday. Three nights is a good amount of time there, too… one more night wouldn’t have been bad, but for me, at least I think it’s a bit too low-key (at least during the offseason) for a longer visit.

To be continued...


CY said...

Guess you enjoyed Krabi as much as I do. I always told my friends those haven't been there before, get there as soon as possible before it become too commercialised and being polluted by the 'massage girls'. Too bad that the rising tide doesn't allow many beach chairs, unlike Phuket!

We actually picked the same day-trip activity, kayaking through the mangroves. Shared a pineapple with the mischievous monkeys, did you?


barbmerchant said...

Ao Nang was a wonderful place and I would return in a heartbeat for more adventure! Just beautiful! Thanks, Chad!

Anonymous said...

Chad, I am Roger Jeffers, your Mom and I came to Colorado to visit you 20 years ago. Looks like you are still the adventurer. I envy you. The blog is fabulous. I found Barbara on facebook and we haven't stopped talking yet. Have fun for me. I'm in Tennessee. See you Roger

Chad M. said...

The joy of the Internet -- connecting people over great distances! Nice to hear from you all!