Wed 9 Mar 2011 - Thu 31 Mar 2011
Any trip to Thailand would be incomplete without spending some time horizontal on one of its many sandy beach escapes. We were overwhelmed with choice and didn’t know what kind of atmosphere we wanted or what level of luxury suited us. When you have nothing but time, you can sample it all!
We spent three weeks in Southern Thailand and found some places that suited us perfectly. However, the majority did not. The elusive perfect beach does not exist, and all of the places that were hideaways in the ‘70s have gone upscale and commercial. Travelling on a budget means something has got to give – the beach may not be perfect, accommodation may be simple or the location may not be convenient. If the main beach doesn’t give you what you’re looking for, be adventurous and rent a long-tail boat to take you to see the other beaches – we wish we had done that more. Tourists flock to areas where it is easy to travel and it doesn’t get much easier than Southern Thailand. The downside to this is that the type of tourist we encountered in our travels in the South was often culturally insensitive or ignorant. They wanted a beach, and it didn’t matter what country it was in. Too many people come to Thailand and don’t learn any Thai words, don’t try Thai food, don’t respect Thai modestly norms (topless sunbathers are a common sight in Phuket although Thai tourists swim fully clothed), don’t keep their calm, don’t have patience for the English skills of Thai people, or don’t learn anything about Thai history. In a series of upsetting events we saw a spirit house with a sign indicating, “This is not a garbage can”, girls on a day trip who needed to be yelled at to return their snorkeling gear, passengers on a ferry who put their bags on seats instead of freeing them for the standing passengers, travellers who gagged at a Thai dish of food, travellers who refused to pay for a taxi because they failed to negotiate a fair price first, travellers who threw cookies overboard to attract fish and travellers who collected shells and coral from the beach. The effect of these behaviours is that many Thai people who work in the tourism industry in the South have little “affection” for their customers, something that is noticeable in other big cities in Thailand but pleasantly absent in other areas of SE Asia. Honestly, I don’t blame them.
If you do travel to Southern Thailand, I recommend a few essentials that you can purchase as soon as you arrive. Buy a bamboo mat for lying on in the sand, a heavy-duty waterproof shoulder bag for day trips, lots of sunscreen as everyone, including us, seems to get a sunburn, and sandals to be worn 24-7 in rain puddles, while hopping off long-tail boats into the water, and to slip off in shops and guesthouses.
I should also explain my use of the word “expensive” when describing food options. In other parts of Thailand, two people can have a cheap meal for $3. A fair-priced meal for two in a nicer restaurant is around $6. An expensive meal, in my mind, is over $9. I understand that, when compared to prices paid in North America or Europe, this is quite cheap, so take it with a grain of salt... or sand!
Northern Gulf of Thailand
Pattaya – As the closest beach to Bangkok, it offers a convenient bus to BKK airport. However, it feels completely taken over by expats and sex tourists. Walking Street is the infamous heart of the sleazy town centred on sex tourism. The beaches are not pristine; they have pebbles and no space. There is a distinct North American feel to the malls, food courts, and styrofoam take-out containers. The grocery stores feature imported products. Prostitution is out in the open along the beach at night. Not recommended for women, couples, families, or men with morals.
- We stayed at Chateau Dale. We paid 1400 baht (~ $47) for a suite by the gorgeous pool. Features: A/C, kitchenette, living area, private patio. It is off a main road, and is walking distance to Jomtien Beach, which has many restaurants to choose from.
Gulf of Thailand – East Coast Islands
Koh Tao – We stayed at Hat Ao Mae, south of the main pier. It was a convenient location for transport, eating, shopping etc. The beach, however, was developed and not conducive to swimming. It felt like it was still under construction with piles of debris. The main road along the beach has lots of small buildings close together. The island is known for scuba diving, so many places cater to divers. We went on a snorkeling day trip, which we highly recommend. The busy roads are full of farang on motorbikes and 4 wheelers. Tourism is seemingly the only economy on the island. Electricity regularly went out for brief periods.
- We stayed at Utopia Suites. We paid 600 baht (~$20) for a standard double room. Features: Fan, wifi. No view, not beachfront, but they do offer that in another building for a more expensive cost. Their expensive restaurant was below us, but there were many other options nearby. With only a single lock on the door, the cleaning staff walked in on us on one occasion. This also happened to our neighbour. Our room was especially hot due to the single window not providing much air circulation.
Koh Pha Ngan – While Koh Pha Ngan is known for throwing the party of all parties (Full Moon monthly parties on Haad Rin), we picked Haad Thien, a private beach for some quiet time. Since the pier is at the town (Thong Sala) instead of the beach, everyone ends up being shuttled around the island to their destination anyway. The West coast, where we stayed, has the sunset and still waters, while the East coast has the sunrise and rocky waters. In hindsight, the privacy and luxury we got here cannot be found on larger islands for the same price.
- We stayed at Haad Thien Resort. We paid 700 baht (~$23) for a double bungalow. Features: A/C, porch, TV, swimming pool, wifi. All bungalows have a decent view of the beach. They have an expensive, extensive restaurant (which is the only choice if you don’t have a motorbike), beside the attractive pool at the centre of the resort. The resort is down a long, private road, far from anything else, and surrounded by trees. It was very quiet and peaceful. We got the impression that many guests return every year. Highly recommended.
Koh Samui – This large island has been a tourism hub for a long time. Prime real estate is taken up by expensive resorts. Chaweng Beach is very built up featuring Western chains (e.g. McDonalds, Starbucks, Boots Pharmacy) and if you don’t stay on the beach it is difficult to have beach access. Fisherman’s Village is a cute boutique area with pricey restaurants. We stayed at Big Buddha Beach, which is close to the airport. The infrequent noise didn’t bother us at all, but helped lower costs in the area. Big Buddha beach is nice to look at but is muddy and not ideal for swimming. We took a day trip to Ang Thong Marine National Park, which would have been nice if the weather was better, but was pricey at $45 pp.
- We stayed at Samui Mermaid Resort. We paid 1400 baht (~$47) for a double room with beachfront views. Features: A/C, porch, TV, fridge, swimming pool, wifi. While we liked our comfortable room and enjoyed the view, we felt that $47 would get you more elsewhere. Many restaurant choices were within walking distance, while the hotel boasts two restaurants and room service.
Andaman Sea – West Coast Beaches and Islands
Phuket – As Thailand’s best known beach town, we had high expectations for Phuket, but this was our least favourite stop. Phuket is a large city surrounded by beaches, but each area, connected by highways, retains the city feel. We based ourselves in landlocked Phuket town, simply to save some money. The town boasts the most affordable accommodation and eating options, but other than some interesting Sino-Portuguese architecture, offers little to entertain. We took the public sorng-taa-ou to Patong Beach for a day. The beach is nice but is packed with tourists. Opposite the beach is an area packed with restaurants, shops, malls and resorts. The walking street was less shocking than the one in Pattaya. The public sorng-taa-ou stops running at 5 pm which means an expensive private taxi if you’re not staying in the area (300 baht, $10).
Next we moved to Kata beach to seek out budget accommodation near the beach. Unfortunately, the massive Club Med property dominates the beachfront, and while the beach itself is public, the walk around the Club Med property makes it very inconvenient to reach. The plethora of restaurants near our hotel were all overpriced, and due to the absence of local Thai people in the area, didn’t even offer a “plastic chair” option.
We took a kayaking day trip to Ao Phang Nga, featuring James Bond Island (one of the movies was filmed here) with Two Sea Tours. We highly recommend this specific company, as the crew was amazing, lunch was great and the boat was very comfortable. They went out of their way to make us happy, and it was the cheapest tour we found at 1200 baht (~ $40 each).
- We stayed at Phuket Backpackers in Phuket Town. We paid 700 baht (~$23) for a double room with an industrial, minimalist feel in their second building. Features: A/C, wifi in main building. This well-run place is a clean option, with an affordable breakfast, common area in main building and attached restaurant/bar for socializing. Public sorng-taa-ou leave from next door, making it a convenient transport link to the rest of the island.
- We also stayed at Jinta Andaman in Kata Beach. We paid 900 baht (~$30) for a deluxe double room in a brand-new building. Features: A/C, TV, balcony, fridge, kettle, wifi. This small, new hotel gets all of its business from internet booking, because it is tucked away from the main foot traffic of the area. The gorgeous room and helpful staff were the highlights of this uninspiring area.
Koh Phi Phi – This could be the perfect beach – but it isn’t. The karst peaks, jungle backdrop and clear water are appealing to the eye, but the thumping bass of a party every night of the week became a thorn in our sides. We were even willing to look past the garbage that litters the budget areas. Koh Phi Phi is one of the most expensive islands to stay at in Thailand, but does offer affordable food and has a very laid-back vibe. We took a snorkeling day trip around the Phi Phi islands, including Maya beach on Phi Phi Leh, the setting for the movie, “The Beach”. The rain was the only downside to this picturesque day. We paid 550 baht for a ferry boat, but would recommend splurging on the speed boat in order to have more time to spend at each beach and less time on the boat.
- We stayed at Good View Hotel. We paid 1300 baht (~$43) for a double room – with a good view! Features: A/C, TV (but it didn’t have cable), balcony, and free breakfast. This family-run hotel seemingly had the perfect location with the beach in front of it, mountain behind it, karst peaks beside it and views of the whole bay, but the acoustics of such an area meant that the music from a party on the opposite end of the beach felt like it was right under us.
Railay Beach – You could stay in Krabi town or Ao Nang, but don’t – come here! This beach features the same karst peaks as Phi Phi, but not as much noise, development or cost. There are no roads, a handful of beaches to choose from, and accommodation for every price range. The weather was rainy during our stay, but even the rain couldn’t hide the beauty of this place. If you have ever wanted to try rock climbing, this is the place for you.
- We stayed at Viewpoint Resort on the east beach. We paid 1200 baht (~$40) for a large room with wifi (it’s optional - you pay 200 baht less without it). Features: Fan, TV, balcony, swimming pool, free buffet breakfast. They have helpful staff, a good location, and something for every price range. For a splurge, try their BBQ dinner with salad bar starting at $6 per person.
- We also stayed at Hello KR Mansion in Krabi town due to transport delays from flooded roads. We paid 400 baht (~$13) for a double room. Features: Fan, TV. This place was a great change of pace – we got back to cheap accommodation, cheap food at their restaurant, and helpful staff. The town itself is cute and offers tons of tourist accommodation and travel advice, but is only a transport hub and not a beach town.