Exploring The Andaman Sea – Phuket, Phi Phi and Railay

Looking out into the harbor of Koh Phi Phi through pink flowers

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Our journey through Thailand and quest for the best scuba diving in Thailand took us to the Andaman Sea where you have undoubtedly heard of Phuket, Krabi, and Phi Phi. We island hopped from Phuket over to Krabi, stopping to stay and play along the way. What we discovered amazed us. The reputations surrounding these iconic destinations were only somewhat accurate. Often times, there was more peace and beauty than expected. Other times, a higher price point didn’t translate into amenities or cleanliness. The Andaman Sea is truly amazing and well worth a visit, but daunting in possibilities.

The skinny: We traveled from Phuket, through Phi Phi to Railay and out Krabi Airport

The fat: Check out our cool embed map just below the gravy. If it doesn’t load try refreshing your browser. We embedded all kinds of pictures and we are still working on tuning our caching apps.

The gravy: We have so many pictures and details to share that we decided to use our enhanced slide show format like we did in 10 Tips for an Epic Thailand Bike Tour. If you like a side of gravy, play around with the sliders for more pictures and stories.

Everything Started with Phuket

Phuket is an island, but only by the slightest of margin. It has an international airport, an excellent road connection to the mainland and really, a bit of anything that you are looking for. It also provides the natural break wall that shelters the Andaman Sea from the surrounding Indian Ocean, creating a paradise of small islands surrounded by warm and gentle water.

We reached Phuket by private taxi from Khao Sok. It was about $50 for two hours of travel for the both of us. It’s hard to imagine that the driver covers wear and tear on the vehicle if he doesn’t pick up paying passengers for the return trip. Knowing what we know now, we can recommend a 13-day adventure itinerary that links together the included transportation from our bike tour and our elephant encounter glamping trips. This will drop you off in Phuket (or Krabi) and get you started on the island hopping in style. If you’re looking for a lower cost option, you can book a bus to Phuket. Tickets on the Bangkok to Phuket route are about 23$, and can be arranged overnight so you don’t have to book an overnight stay.

We didn’t have high hopes for Phuket. The raucous reputation Patong Beach preceded it and colored our expectations. What we found surprised us. We stayed at the Tint in Phuket Town for easy access to the ferry. The hotel was clean and cozy, especially at its price point. The town was clean as well. We took a walking tour through the old town square and explored the Sunday market. We also visited our first cat café in Thailand which was super fun!

We found out that Phuket offers excellent access to many of the popular attractions: Phi Phi island, Phang Nga Bay, and even Krabi. The competition in town keeps the prices down, even if you hire a faster boat. The downside is that you are here, right among the hustle and bustle. To get away, all you need to do is hop to an island.

Just outside of our room at the Tint Hotel was the Hai Leng Ong Statue (Golden Dragon Monument). It showed up on Google Maps so we went there and took a picture. We were stuck in the bus all day so we wanted to wander. The city park seemed like a good destination. It seemed well laid out, and like it really provides value to the locals. It didn’t seem to strike awe in the travelers, though. Still, there were these dinosaurs and, who doesn’t like dinos? Walking back from the park we had all kinds of offers from tuk tuk drivers to take us to the Sunday market. We passed on their offers, having seen this market setting up on the way out. The entire “Old Town” was filled with vendors when we came back. Score! Who doesn’t enjoy a little squid on a stick… I know – Jenn. Although we did not partake, we enjoyed the sights and smells of the exotic food for sale. We knew we wanted to see a cat cafe and we were certainly missing our fur babies at this point. We wandered by and had to stop. For the prices of fancy coffee we got to play with these cuties. They were soft, cute, playful and appreciative cats living the high life. Tick told us the story of these fitness parks. The king wanted Thai citizens to be fit. He ordered one of every kind of exercise equipment and asked his engineers to make them for his people. This is what they made. It looks almost functional. It’s even fun but it doesn’t have a mechanism for providing resistance for your workout. Close, so very close.

Island hopping to  Phi-Phi

We booked our ferry tickets at the Tint desk, which also included a free shuttle to the dock. The ferry ride was a little chaotic and unnerving, in that it combined a day tour boat with the transportation shuttle. The timetables they gave for the trip varied greatly as they often included the snorkeling tour into their response to “when will we arrive”. Also, despite the size of the boat, the only available seats we could find were on the sun deck. We did meet a really nice girl who gave us sunscreen and told us about getting certified to dive in Phuket. This confirmed our suspicions about staying in Patong.

We were expecting Phi Phi to be a little too busy for us. What we found was a well kept little island that was priced just a little higher than our Koh Tao experience. We paid a small dock fee at Ao Tonsai pier for island upkeep. Some of the vagabond backpacking crowd took offense to the fee, but the island, and particularly the pier looked to be in great shape because of it. The diving was about $10 more per person, but they served a real lunch and didn’t ask us to wash their gear. Everything was just a little more expensive, but we felt we got our money’s worth.

The Phi Phi lookout is on a hill overlooking the town. You can tell that somebody thought this would be a great place for a photo op. In fact, a lot of people did. I just couldn’t get a clear frame here, but, this will have to do. The lookout is a pretty good hike up a half mile of stairs. You are rewarded with amazing views. Also, there was a smoothie stand on top! How many hikes can say that? Dang good smoothy too 🙂 I am hardly mature enough to write about Phi Phi but I’ll try. There were about 100 people or so gathered at the viewpoint waiting for sunset. Everybody was polite and chill and there were enough views to go around. The viewpoint was on private land with a nominal entrance fee. In return, you got access (and preservation). They also put in attractions like this garden. The cats came for free. The JJ Residence was modestly priced, but loaded with luxuries, like this magnificent pool. There were swim up rooms on the ground floor. I also appreciated the pool secluded in the courtyard providing nearly full day shade. No sunburns are good. Walking South and East out of Phi Phi the road was filled with restaurants and shops. Between every shop was a view like this. We had to play with the framing through the bougainvillea. This was our lunch view. Pretty amazing. The food was good. The service was ok. The view… Man the view… Long tails and emerald blue waters. Must be Thailand. Is there any more iconic scene than this? This is what Christmas looks like in Thailand. A little underwhelming perhaps, but truth be told, it’s a nicer tree than I would have set up at home. Temped to make a long wang joke, but I’ll resist. The structure here is for the workers to live here to harvest birds nest for the Chinese soup. I would love to park here and climb the ropes to the top. Wouldn’t that be fun!!! Yes, that is ‘The Beach’. Even early in the day it was full of people. I can only imagine the chaos midday in peak season. Perhaps this is why people have a negative view of Phi Phi…. but you don’t have to stop here. There are countless tours that take you to deserted sandbars for a beach day. Stopping here is by choice and you see what you’re getting into.

Rocking Railay

We had great hopes for Railay. It was our highest priced accommodations of the trip, but we wanted to be there in all its beauty. Why Railay? Because the caves and karst towers start right at the beach and extend in all directions. In fact, Railay is technically on the mainland but the rugged terrain keeps any overland routes from reaching the town. The rock climbing here is world class and abseiling tours are readily available. We were ready to get our rock on.

We were expecting luxury with the price point, but I really think we were paying for seclusion. The ferry stopped and we were loaded onto long tail boats to reach the beach. (No pier for you) The town had dirt roads and dusty shops. And despite our efforts to eat only at well-reviewed restaurants, Jenn and I both had some pretty intense GI issues after (and during) this part of the trip.

Jenn went first and couldn’t leave the hotel room. She had booked this section of the trip to be our 2 days of romance and pampering in the lovely 4-star rated Railay Bay Resort and Spa. Needless to say, that room saw no romance, however, Jenn was thankful she had somewhere pretty and comfortable to be sick in. She was totally guttered she missed out entirely on diving and exploring this beautiful island, not to mention the romantical stuff. Her only consolation was the adorable orange kitten that continually snuck in the room to snuggle with her. That kitten came this close to moving to San Diego.

I fetched her some rice and carbonated soda and went on to the diving trip we booked before the fateful dinner. The trip was even more expensive than Phi Phi and the equipment was only ok. My fins were designed to have booties but they didn’t bring any for me. My toes were pretty well chewed up for the remainder of the trip because of this. We dove from a long tail boat at the local islands which was neat. It was also just the DM and me since the other couple who had booked were also confined to their rooms following their dinner (from a completely different restaurant). After returning from diving, I got to explore the area and see the caves and monkeys (check out the slider for details).

This is the main beach at Railay. You might notice there is no pier. Don’t come to a tropical paradise if you want to keep your feet dry.   Railay had a couple of luxury hotels.  This is the Railay Village Resort. We choose Railay Bay, but this photo op was too nice to pass up.   There are two main caves surrounding Railay – Princess and Diamond. The path to Princess cave actually winds through karst features. You walk through a cave to get to a cave.   There were a many companies offering to take you to any number of climbing sites. Some looked like they were just loaded with newbie climbers hanging out in the fall zone. This one, looked awesome. It was right on the beach and you had a kick ass overhang move to deal with. One of the few times you really get to climb flowstone in good conscience. What’s up with this you ask? This cave was formed from a mystical princess who had a hiss up at her wedding. A wise shaman turned the fighting wedding party into the surrounding islands and rock features. If fisherman brought the princess gifts, she would reward them with a good catch. So these are offerings to the princess. The offering cave and the stalactite climb were situated immediately off of this beach. In 100′ area you had all this beauty. It was, in a word stunning.   There were monkeys everywhere here. These guys apparently forcibly removed these bananas from an unsuspecting tourist. Despite knowing this, I hung around and took photos. I did at least break out the telephoto lens so I wouldn’t have to get too close. All this cutie wants is that banana. Look how sweet he is. Surely he wasn’t the one who mugged the tourists. This might be the ring leader. Look, he isn’t sharing with the baby. Any greedy monkey that wouldn’t share with that little guy is up to no good! Diamond Cave is a National Park with an entrance fee. Inside, there is a relatively short trail that leads through some very decorated rooms. The artificial lighting provides excellent views of the formations and ample light for photography.   The red is enhanced by colored lighting, but primarily, it is from minerals mixing with the calcite in the formation.   One more cave formation because, it’s beautiful. Some theories for cave growth is that the main passages were formed about 60,000 years ago and the formations formed as a secondary deposition about 10,000 years ago. That means that this cave formation was formed before all of written human history. Don’t hurt cave formations. The diving at Railay was either off a long tail boat or a full size dive boat heading back to Phi Phi. Since we just came from Phi Phi, we opted for the long tail. The coral reefs in Thailand were healthy and full of fish. Often times, you would be surrounded by enormous schools swimming all around you. This guy was waiting for his meal to swim by.   Clowning around with the local wildlife. Who do you think was the victor of this stand-off? These guys mate for life. You always see them in pairs. They come in different colors too. Stay clear of these guys. They have poison barbs. This is one giant Puffer! I sea anemones. I see them everywhere. You might want to blow this picture up. The clown fish has the cutest little face. Cave diving is one the most deadly sports around. I think this was ok since there was almost no silt and a very short passage. Still, any time you enter a confined space, you better be careful. Swim towards the light……  

Closing out at Krabi

For us, Krabi was nothing more than an air shuttle to Chiang Mai. The only surprising part is how close Railay was. It was literally a 10-minute long tail boat ride to the AO Nammao Pier in Krabi. The car shuttle to the airport took only a little longer. We chose to have the Railay Bay Resort and Spa book transportation for us. They offered a reasonable rate and they also arranged for the luggage to reach the beach and taxis to be waiting for us. We might have been able to negotiate less if we pieced it together ourselves, but the car wouldn’t have been as nice and it would have been much more stressful.

It seems like just outside of Phuket or Krabi, there are a plethora of resorts you can reach by long tail boat. Some are backpacker paradises like Ao Nang just around the corner from Railay. Others are more luxurious like Koh Yao Yai or Koh Yao Noi off of Phuket. In all, there are 39 major islands in the Andaman Sea and over 100 minor islands.

You can choose the cities in Phuket or Krabi with easy access, competitive pricing, and the urban scene. You can choose to take a step off the beaten path to solitude and peace like Railay. Somewhere in between, both literally and geographically, is Phi Phi. An island that retains its natural charm while providing accessible service. No matter what you are looking for, you can find it in the Andaman Sea.

 

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