Saturday 28 October – Ao Thalem, Krabi Province, Thailand
My kayaking trip to Ao Thalem, a little way north up the coast from Ao Nang, started with the customary magical mystery tour in a songthaew (they don’t seem to use minibuses here yet, and the tuk tuks consist of little cages with seats built around a motor scooter) as we picked up the day’s cosmopolitan mix of folk – a Welsh couple and their two sons who now live in France, a retired Dutch couple in the process of moving to Thailand to live and more in other vehicles.
After a short wait for the tide to be right, we set off, most in double kayaks, but me in a single. I’d not done much kayaking before, but after a few minutes I felt right at home. We set off across a shallow estuary to the limestone cliffs (there seems to be no other type of geological feature in this part of Thailand).
The guides showed us some ‘sea gypsy’ caves – some where these people had lived and another where their bodies had been interred. To prove this, one guide disappeared into the café and reappeared with a clutch of human bones! Apparently these people – originally from Malaysia or Indonesia – have been resettled under the care of the King in Phang Nga Province, just to the north of here (although they have not occupied these caves in at least a century and possibly many centuries, according to our guides).
Then we entered an inlet that soon turned into a spectacular narrow gorge, which we paddled slowly up seeing monkeys and monitor lizards until it eventually opened out into a dense mangrove swamp. Utterly spectacular and beautiful, we paddled through the mangrove for some distance, apparently making a round trip. However a point came where the guides decided we’d have to turn back as the tide was not right for us to proceed.
The paddle back through the mangrove and bige gorges was fine, but by the time we reached open water, with its stronger current and breezes, my arms were feeling the strain. Once finally back to shore, we dried off as best we could and our guide cut up some pineapple for us.
The guides spoke quite extensively about the tsunami – one had been guiding a similar trip in the mangroves when it struck, but due to the mitigating effects of the mangroves on the tide, he and his party were all OK.
Worryingly there were dredgers working off shore of the shallow bay, according to the guides, to open it up to larger shipping. There is understandably some concern about the evenironmental impact this will have, with potential to damage the not insignificant tourist trade that has developed, not to mention the fishing. According to my driver, there were active protests against these protests.
Apparently I was the only punter booked to do the elephant trek as a double feature today, so on the way back to Ao Nang, I was dropped at a lovely local restaurant (as in no tourists) for my included lunch. It wa a gorgeous setting, a little outdoor place some distance from the road, set by a small but fast-flowing stream, apparently popular as a swimming spot with locals. There appeared to be a mix of natural jungle and cultivated vegetation, with a tall canopy of tree cover providing dappled shade. The only thing it lacked was a steady breeze, as it was quite warm.
I ordered a pork salad with ‘lemon sauce’ – in fact a spicy dressing of lime juice, garlic, chillies and shallots – quite delicious. The lemon sauce description confused me a little, so I ordered steamed rice with it. But the sauce was so delicious that it worked for me. On this occasion, and on some others (last night’s larb duck for instance), the salad dish has been served with a side dish of raw vegetables, so is a healthy as well as a delicious option.
My tour guide retuned after an hour or so and introduced me to the owner of the riverside restaurant before taking me the short distance (more or less across the main road) to the elephant trekking.
I was soon mounted on a large pachyderm and set off with my mahout in the company of another elephant carrying a young Thai lady and what turned out to be her mother. We set off on a slow, muddy (at least for the Jumbo) trek through an old rubber plantation, jungle and banana groves.
What can I say? I’ve ridden an elephant, probably a once in a lifetime experience, but I’m glad I’ve done it. Such power with such gentleness. When he headed down hill, I had to hang on, but it was quite restful in a funny sort of way. Although hats off to Hannibal. Given the time it took to travel the short distance (the trek lasted just an hour), it must have taken great patience and not a little intestinal fortitude to make it across the Alps on such beasts!
[Hindsight note: While not casting aspersions on this particular operation, in the time since I undertook this activity I have become aware that not all such elephant riding activities are operated with the welfare of the animals as their highest priority. Many responsible travellers and tour companies now recommend against elephant riding, suggesting instead that travellers visit reputable elephant sanctuaries that are operated for their welfare.]
The guides were obliging, stopping to take photographs of us mounted on our charges. I took numerous photos of the other ladies and they of me, and we swapped emails at the end of the tour to facilitate their exchange.
I returned to the hotel to clean up then to my tailor for a final fitting. The clothes do look like sacks, but then I am carrying too much weight around the gut and I did ask for them to be loose. The finished garments will be ready at 9pm, so I celebrated with a back and shoulder massage at a lovely open air pavilion just behind the beach in the no-traffic zone. It eased the labour of the day’s paddling nicely.
Then I wandered back to Potjawong’s Place for the third and final time. A triptych of classic Thai dishes (his menu refers to them as the three natural dishes of Thailand) – Tom Yum Talay (spicy soup with mixed seafood and coconut milk – quite salty and sour, but delicious); Pad Thai (unlike Ya’s, with both fresh and dried shrimp – but not tasting fishy – dried chilli flakes, lime and extra bean sprouts on the side – quite sweet to taste); and Som Tam, the classic green papaya salad – quite spicy and with large, sweet dried prawns. Every dish was a winner and a useful contrast to Miss Ya’s recipes.