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Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Krabi: the next 'last paradise'

In southern Thailand, Elysium recedes as tourist tide rises


Special to The Japan Times

KRABI, Thailand -- The idea of an unspoiled, untroubled, untouched land has become necessary in our polluted times -- a space where nature as it was is still to be discovered and where we may once more become natural as well. It is a pleasing prospect, this visitable paradise.

And it is an increasingly necessary one, since it was we ourselves who, in our search, touched, troubled and spoiled earlier paradises. Our very numbers endanger what we seek. Paradises are polluted when we tourists swarm.

Take Thailand. A country never colonized and thus spared the worst of colonial blight, it still contains pockets of unspoiled shore and sea, places where man and his surroundings seem to exist in that happy symbiosis which is one of the qualifications for a bone fide paradise.

The rising tourist tide has, however, taken its toll. Pattaya, a former paradise, is now an Asian Atlantic City, commercialized, its waters polluted, its inhabitants quite tourist-weary. Phuket, which only 30 years ago was still in a state of nature, is now inundated. The international airport can handle the largest, fullest planes; resorts erupt to house these numbers; development rampages; the expanse of beach dwindles.

Even the islands of Ko Phi Phi, still paradisiacal from a distance, now have high-rise hotels, Internet cafes and "international" cuisine. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio was hosted here when he starred in the movie "The Beach," with a film crew that was accused of taking some of the scenery in hand in order to make it more paradisiacal. (The film's makers, of course, contended that they left the beach cleaner than they found it.)

Not that tourists are solely responsible for the devastation. They are merely the opportunity for it. It is the Thais themselves who are responsible for inviting in travelers, making them feel at home, and turning a profit. Tourism is a major industry in Thailand, an economically necessary one. Faced with the choice of preserving a paradise and not having enough to eat I doubt that many of us would hesitate.

In the event, few do. One guide to Phi Phi says that anyone from the government's environmental-protection office attempting to enforce the ban against developing national-park land would probably be driven out by the locals who are making such a killing on the tourists.

And now, I am told, the section of the government responsible for tourist traffic is contemplating a full development of the area south of Phuket, down toward the Malaysian border, and this includes Trang, Kantang and Krabi.

Krabi Province contains a number of interesting natural sites. There is the Ao Luk National Park, which holds Hua Galok Cave with its 5,000-year-old cave paintings, and the nearby Lod Cave through which runs a navigable stream. The Wat Tham Seua is the most famous of southern forest temples, but the Phanom Bencha mountain range has barely been explored. At Klong Thom there are natural hot springs in the jungle, and the islands of Koh Hong and Koh Phak Bia hold large tidal chambers surrounded by steep cliffs where swifts build their valuable nests.

At first glance, the region around Krabi town itself does not seem too tourist-tempting. Located along a river lined with mangroves, it has a pleasant riverfront but little else. Once in the launch, however, and proceeding to the further headland, the attractions become first apparent and then overwhelming.

The nearest peninsula, the Phra Nang headland, much resembles Phi Phi. It is a landscape of karst pinnacles, immense limestone towers, the bases scooped by the sea into fantastic waterways, hidden lakes, flooded caves. Among these are radiant beaches of white sand from which one can look out at standing islands, all soaring straight up from the Andaman Sea while beneath the waves lies a whole coral kingdom with deep caverns and shoals of multicolored fish swimming in the undersea jungle.

Here is the marvelous Phra Nang Beach, with its two caverns, its cave-lined walks, its solid walls of climbing stone, and its jungle of virgin coconut trees. Facing west, it is a sunset beach and as the declining orb turns the rocks gold, then russet, one sees again all the beauty our world once held.

Here then is a paradise, even an Eden. Overhead, forest birds soar, while gibbons swing through the trees below. Large but harmless monitor lizards stalk the paths and hundreds of butterflies swirl in the morning air. One thinks of the ancient Islands of the Blessed -- or of Maxfield Parrish, Steven Spielberg or James Bond, according to one's tastes.

Just offshore stand two karst islands dubbed the Happy Isles and looking like something in a Sung painting. At low tide one may slosh through tamed waves to the tiny hidden beaches or take canoes to paddle through the sea caves. Or you may make the steep climb up and into the Tham Phranang to reach a large salt-water lagoon, the Sra Phranang, which surges twice a day. And, all day long, at the Pan Mao Beach, the sunrise beach to the east, there is rock climbing for both expert and amateur.

Historically, the place is more Bond than not. It was an area of ancient violence, favored by pirates who hid in the coves and ventured forth to attack passing ships. One such held a beautiful Indian princess, a typhoon sank the imperial vessel, pirates swarmed and in the great Tham Phranang Cave now stand two spirit houses dedicated to the unfortunate royal and giving the beach its name.

For how long in our rapacious times can such a place continue, one wonders. As Joe Cummings, authority on the area, has written, "Latter-day pirates now steal islands or parts of islands for development." Sooner or later, all of this nature will disappear, but at present the Phra Nang area has a better chance of survival than others.

It is surrounded by national-park land and while this has not been enough to save some sections, it may save this one, because the queen mother has her summer palace nearby and a favorite view includes just this stretch of landscape. In addition, the major place to stay on the peninsula, the Rayavadee Premier Resort, is so eco-friendly that it has already won a number of awards, one of them the 1998 Office of Environmental Policy and Planning Best Hotel Award for Reducing Environmental Damage. Already one planned project, a highway tunnel through the mountain barrier separating the headland from the mainland, has been defeated.

The headland can be reached only by boat because it is set off by these enormous karst barriers and deep swaths of jungle. Everything, including all the food and amenities, must come by boat, usually from Phuket, and the tourist must also make interesting but inconvenient trips from Krabi by vehicle, transferring to a launch. All of this puts a brake on mass tourism.

This and the price. Though there are a few backpack-friendly areas on the headland, even these cannot be as cheap as those elsewhere. The rock climbers have to walk a distance and pay quite a bit, and their accommodations are subdued. No beach buggies, no power skis. There are beer halls and cheap grub places, but there are also a lot of signs that read "Please Be Quiet."

If one stays at the pristine, quiet, utterly beautiful Rayavadee one pays a price that is unusually high for Thailand (see box), but in return one gets a paradise. It is worth it since the bill keeps big tour groups out. If on the other hand you like your paradises populated, there are other places up the coast, and then there is always Pattaya.

Perhaps further paradises await. There are the islands off Trange and whole archipelagoes still innocent of Coca-Cola. But until these are rendered habitable, there is Krabi, the next last paradise.

If you decide to go to Krabi

It takes a little over an hour to fly from Bangkok to Karabi. There are daily flights, more during the high season, which is now just ending, and the airport is 25 km from Krabi Town. There are minivans, "tuk-tuks" (small, noisy, three-wheeled taxicabs), even a "samlor" (three-wheeled pedicab) or two, but no conventional taxis. The least hassle is to book a hotel that provides transportation.

Those going to the Phra Nang headland get off at the various piers and wharves serving this area. There are hourly, long-tailed "snake boats" that make the half-hour passage many times a day.

If you want to go to the places described in the accompanying article, you will need to go to West Hat Rai Leh, where the boats land in front of the Railay establishments ("village," bungalows, beach club).

If you are going to the paradisiacal Rayavadee Premier Resort, your limousine will have dropped you off where you will be picked up by your motor launch and brought directly to the front portal. There, accommodations include a private two-story pavilion, double accommodations, all amenities (canoes, snorkel gear, etc., free video library, enormous swimming pool and tennis and squash courts), airport transfers and all food except for lunch.

All of this is set in a maze of palm trees (not one of which was cut down to accommodate the architects), with fish-filled streams, jungle Thai restaurants, swinging gibbons and wandering lizards.

During high season it is now imperative, if you want to stay at the Rayavadee Premier Resort and elsewhere, to book ahead. One travel organization that is informed about Krabi is Executive Travel, Inc. in Tokyo, tel. (03) 3588-0971.



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