Krabi, a province in the south of Thailand, is on the Andaman cost, an area famed for its beautiful sandy bays and a magnet for both foreign and domestic tourists alike. One of the most stunning parts is the Railay peninsula where the beaches are backed by towering limestone cliffs. There the beaches and the resorts that line them are accessible only by boat, so, after a late afternoon flight from Suvarnabhumi I found myself on a wooden boat crossing the open sea in the dark, guided only by the lights of distant villages.

The boat grounded itself on the gently sloping sands of Railway West, some metres offshore. A tractor then hauled a trailer next to the boat onto which my luggage was loaded and I leapt. The tractor then mounted the beach and a stepped ashore, feet still dry.

The resort I stayed in was nothing to write home about – not that that will stop me here. The bungalows were fairly basic, little more than an aircon’d box with bed and TV with an attached wetroom. The shower was feeble and everything a little chipped and faded. Still, it was clean and perfectly adequate.

Daylight unveiled the cliffs in their full awesomeness

Railay Cliffs

and in their fantastical detail.

Craggy Limestone at Railay, Krabi

It also revealed the tiny islands that dot the bays.

Railay panorama - thumbnail
Click for larger view

There’s not a lot to do here – just a handful of minor attractions. One is Phra Nang’s cave, named after a legendary princess whose spirit inhabits this place. She has an interest in curiously-shaped wooden offerings.

Phra Nang Cave, Railay

Local fishermen, both Moslem and Buddhist come here to leave their carved oblations. Similarly shaped rocks attract similar attentions.

Stone lingam, Railay

Another attraction is a pool on top of one of the cliffs. To get here one climbs almost vertically up a craggy slope, making toeholds of exposed roots and hauling oneself up on strategically-placed knotted ropes. (Yes, that improbable scrabble is the foot of the path on the left.)

Foot of climb to Princess Lagoon, Railay

300 metres or so later – vertically – one reaches the top where a path to the right leads towards the pool. A similar vertical descent becomes increasingly treacherously slippery with mud. Eventually one gets a view of the pool through a cleft in the rock. (Really not worth the effort – hence no photo.) The pool itself, so it seems, would only be accessible with mountaineering equipment.

I hauled myself back up to the top and followed a path which led to a viewpoint from which one could see the Railay peninsula and the bays on both sides.

Railay peninsular from viewpoint

The climb down was almost as arduous as the ascent. However, I made it with all limbs and skull intact. Frankly, this was one of the more foolhardy things I’ve done in my life.


A morning walk on the beach showed the place to be alive with thousands of tiny crabs – no lager than a fingernail. As one approached they scuttled for the nearest hole in the sand. The occasional crab, unable to find a vacant hole, would hare off at great speed, sideways, of course, ultimately to take refuge in the sea.

A less vibrant creature on the foreshore was this dead puffer fish.

Dead puffer fish, Railay

Crab, along with other seafood – features prominently in the menus of the local restaurants, all of which seem to offer the same range of central Thai dishes and farang favourites (burger & chips, pizza or English fish & chips, anyone?) – all of which are prepared to the same miserably low standard. Doubtless the backpacker crowd and package tourists think they are eating authentic Thai food, and no less doubtless consider it both exotic and delicious. I found it simply incompetent and showing utter contempt for the clientèle.

One day I took a trip back to the “mainland”. Here there are distinct areas for farangs, with their bars, pizzerias, Indian restaurants and places all claiming (fraudulently, I’m sure) to serve the best, authentic Thai food. The Thai areas have large, swanky resorts and simple restaurants. I had lunch at one such place that had been recommended. From the outside it looks like a tiny shop, but beyond is a massive restaurant with trays of various sea foods on ice. This being lunchtime there was only a handful of customers, and service was prompt. I greatly enjoyed clams stir-fried with green peppercorns, garlic and soy sauce, small conchs steamed with lemon grass, and a very spicy sour orange curry (more like a soup, really) with slices of coconut shoots and slabs of fish. It’s in a totally different league from the food available in the areas catering for foreigners.

It was in the restaurant that I saw one of only two signs that this whole area had been devastated by the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004; here were photos on the wall showing the wreckage of the restaurant’s former incarnation.

The other sign was a memorial, with a small, touching sculpture by Louise Bourgeois of a pair of praying hands in the embrace of a similar pair of hands, arising out of a turbulent sea.

Louise Bourgeois Krabi Tsunami Memorial

It’s entitled “Hold Me Close”.

Requiescant in Pace.


Sunset at Railay West beach


Chiang Mai is very much the spiritual capital of Thailand. There are many highly revered temples, and the atmosphere is a little more spiritual, and the way of life a little more relaxed. Thai people here even speak more slowly than in Bangkok.

I suspect that the way of life is somewhat changing under the massive influx of tourists here. Great swathes of the city are now given over to the tourist industry, and you can find restaurants reflecting almost any kind of cuisine from Mexican to Indian to Lebanese. Fortunately, you can still find good Thai cuisine, too, if you know where to look.

Anyway, on my final day in Chiang Mai I summoned up the strength to visit four of the city’s famous temples.

Wat Chiang Man
Wat Chiang Man is thought to be the oldest surviving temple in the city, though the exact date of its founding isn’t known. It has an impressive gilded exterior

Facade of Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai

And charming gilt lacquer window shutters

Window shutter at Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai

Wat Phan Tao

Roof of Wat Phan Tao, Chiang Mai

This little-touristed temple doesn’t have the flashy gilt of many of the temples around here; it’s a much simpler affair made of teak. The walls and windows have a simple, rustic charm:

Window at Wat Phan Tao, Chiang Mai

Inside the viharn you can see the 24 large teak trunks which support the building and the temple’s main altar. It’s a simple place with a crudely-tiled floor.

Interior, Wat Phan Tao, Chiang Mai

Wat Chedi Luang

Exterior, Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

However, the temple is dominated by a massive chedi, partly in ruins, dating from 1441 (i.e. predating any surviving temple in Chiang Mai). The chedi has naga staircases on each side, and supporting elephants – though only one is original. The rest are modern cement reproductions.

Chedi at Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

One of this temple’s claims to fame is that it used to house the Emerald Buddha figure which now lives in at Royal temple, Wat Phra Kaew where the figure is given a change of costume three times a year at the change of each of Thailand’s three seasons. The costume is traditionally done by the King, but given the current King’s advancing years his son now performs the ceremony on his behalf.

Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Sing is another temple with an ornate gilded façade.

Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai

The interior has a large Buddha figure.

Interior, Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai


Wat Phumin

Nan’s Wat Phumin has an unusual cruciform ubosot, built in 1596.

Ubosot at Wat Phumin, Nan

Inside there are four Buddha figures in bhūmisparśa mudrā. This posture reflects the moments after the Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment when he was challeged by Māra (the leader of a horde of demons) to prove that he had indeed achieved enlightenment and found a way to end all suffering. The Lord Buddha touched the earth, proclaiming that the earth was his witness.

Buddha figures at Wat Phumin, Nan

The inner walls of the temple are covered with vibrant murals painted by Thai Lü (an ethnic group, originally from Yunan in China) artists in the 19th century. They’re a wonderful reflection on life in those days.

Murals at Wat Phumin, Nan

Murals at Wat Phumin, Nan

Murals at Wat Phumin, Nan

Nearby there’s a strange domed building.

Building at Wat Phumin, Nan

I was a little surprised by what I found inside.

Hell at Wat Phumin, Nan

Hell on earth.

Wat Phra That Chang Kham

Nearby is Wat Phra That Chang Kham. (“Phra That” indicates that the temple houses a relic of the Lord Buddha.) It’s unknown when this temple was founded, but the vihara was rebuilt in 1458 CE. The gilded chedi dates from the 14th century.

Chedi at Wat Phra That Chang Kham, Nan

And has elephant supporters.

Elephant supporters at What Phra That Chang Kham, Nan

Inside the temple there’s a massive figure of the Lord Buddha.

Buddha figure at Wat Phra That Chang Kham, Nan

The walls have some faded murals. It’s said that the abbot ordered the murals to be whitewashed over because they were distracting the congregation from his sermons. Now they’re slowly being restored.

There were many novices hanging around in its grounds, some sweeping the paths, some buying shaved ice desserts, some just talking. Here are two playing a board game.

Novices playing a board game at Wat Phra That Chang Kham, Nan

Wat Suam Tam

This temple, dating from 1456, has an interesting 40 m high chedi dating from the 1600s. It’s clearly influenced by Khmer architecture, though also has strong Sukhothai influences.

Chedi at Wat Suam Tam, Nan

The vihara is absolutely ravishing in red and gold.

Vihara at Wat Suan Tan, Nan

Wat Hua Khuang

This minor temple has a beautiful wooden mondop (library), though it’s now used as a kuti (monk’s residence).

Mondop (library) at Wat Hua Khuan, Nan

Wat Phra That Chae Haeng

A couple of kilometres outside town is Nan’s most sacred temple, Wat Phra That Chae Haeng. The walk there’s pleasant enough, on a road through rice fields that gradually rises as it approaches the temple, which is situated atop a small hill.

Originally this wasn’t a temple, but was rather a chedi built in 1355 to house sacred Buddha relics.
Chedi at Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, Nan

The interior of the newer temple is, however, most impressive.

Interior of Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, Nan


In the 17th century a group of monks went on a pilgrimage from Thailand to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known then) to worship a footprint of the Lord Buddha at Mount Sumanakut. There they were told a similar footprint was to be found in Thailand. On hearing of this, King Songtham ordered his officials to scour the country for this sacred image.Meanwhile, a hunter in a remote part of Saraburi province was chasing a wounded deer through the forest when he found a rocky pool in the shape of a man’s foot on top of a small hill. Having heard of the quest for the Buddha footprint he reported his finding to the town’s governor, who in turn sent word to the King. King Songtham came to inspect the footprint, declared the site to be a shrine and ordered that an elaborate mondop be built over it.

The current mondop dates from the time of King Rama I; the previous mondop was destroyed by Chinese robbers who set fire to it in an attempt to melt the gold.

The temple, Wat Phra Phuttabaht, is a royal temple of the highest rank and attracts thousands and thousands of visitors. When I was there dozens of worshippers clustered around the footprint, most armed with digital cameras to record their visit.

Some visitors pressed small leaves of gold onto the side of the footprint depression, whilst others dropped money onto it.

To be honest, the ambience reminded me more of a wishing well at a country fair than a site of pilgrimage.

Nearby was another “fairground attraction”: Lift the Elephant. You express a wish, then attempt to lift a heavy metal elephant with one finger. Men use the little finger of their right hand, whilst women use the ring finger of their left hand. If you lift successfully, your wish will come true.

The temple is on the road between Lopburi (a town plagued by monkeys) and Saraburi (a town so lacking in tourist attractions it doesn’t even rate an entry in Lonely Planet), and makes a pleasant day trip from Ayutthaya.


About 20 km outside Ayutthaya stands Wat Kai – or in English, “Chicken Temple”. And, indeed, it does have chickens scratching about. However, it’s much better known for its monkeys than its fowl. They slowly loll across the temple grounds as if they own the place. Perhaps to keep them away from the main temple, there’s a man-made cliff on the opposite side of the road. Here visitors feed them fruit.

Unlike other monkey groups I’ve encountered, these aren’t aggressive; they won’t grab food from your hand or try to raid your pockets. They just wait to be fed. And by the number of banana skins littering the place, they’re fed well.

The temple is also known for its dozens of life size plaster figures, most of which feature the torments of hell. Whereas in the Christian tradition one is judged at the gates of heaven, according to Thai beliefs, one descends first to hell where one is judged and suitably punished until the penalty has been paid, before ascending to heaven, and later being reborn. Here’s the judge:

The punishment relates to the wrongs that one has done. Adulterers, for example, have to climb a spiny tree to escape from savage dogs, whilst having their genitals eaten by crows. Alcoholics have to drink from a red-hot bottle. The worst offenders get boiled alive.

Starving is another form of punishment; the tall figure on the right with the long tongue has a tiny mouth, so she can’t get enough nourishment. Other figures are being sawn in half, having limbs chopped off, bearing immense weights, and generally having a pretty bad time. The X-rated tableaux are all rather disturbing. Fortunately for you, dear reader, my camera battery went flat shortly after I arrived, so you are spared more gruesome pictures.


It was a Bank Holiday weekend here in Thailand, and now I’ve got my
car I can range far and wide. For my first long distance trip I’d
resolved to visit Khao Yai, Thailand’s first national park. It’s a
large area of pristine tropical jungle where wild elephants, gaur and
tigers freely roam. All commercial development is banned within the
park, so the local hotels cluster around the entrance.

Khao Yai lies about 2½ hours East of Ayutthaya (and a little North).
Though, if, as I did, you try to follow minor roads, it can take a
little longer; being stuck behind trucks trundling along at a
leisurely pace might have been frustrating, were it not for the
verdant green rice fields to either side. (And getting lost a couple
of times added even more to the journey.)

Ayutthaya is on Thailand’s central plain – hot and dry. Barely a
hillock disrupts the vast level expanse. So, as I drove East it was
somewhat strange to see limestone outcrops rising straight out of the
ground. Even stranger were the cement factories whose futuristic
pipework wouldn’t have looked out of place on the cover of some 1960s
science fiction novel, if accompanied by a similarly futuristic robot
or spaceman.

I checked in to a resort near the entrance to Khao Yai. There were
bungalows of various sizes and prices scattered over a large area, all
of them fairly basic.

Cottage at Rabiang Dao Resort

I had a hot shower, fridge, aircon, firm bed,
and a TV showing a handful of grainy Thai TV channels – that was about
it. Even though the price was comparable with a 4* hotel in Bangkok,
there was neither fancy soap nor shampoo – not even a kettle for
making tea. The decor was somewhat eccentric, too.

Inside the cottage - Santa and friend

After a long journey I didn’t feel like venturing out to find
somewhere to eat, so I tried the in-house restaurant. This was
probably a mistake. The food was pricy, and not particularly good.
But then, the local competition was from similarly pricy resorts.

Next day, the breakfast was no better.

A twenty-or-so minute drive took me to the entrance to the park. I
paid the 400 Baht farang entrance fee – plus an extra 50 Baht for the
car. (Thai people pay 40 Baht to enter.) There was then a long,
twisty drive rising up through the jungle. At first I passed through
deciduous forest in the drier valley areas, then evergreen forest at
higher, wetter levels. Being a Bank Holiday weekend, there was quite
a lot of traffic – but not enough to be irksome.

The enduring impression of is endless greenery, though there were a
few signs of mammalian life. I saw a furry sausage scuttle across the
road, an ape standing on the road, and a couple of deer. And I heard
the strange whoopings of gibbons (think of a chorus of demented swanny
whistles) and the background choruses of cicada and frogs. In the
south of the park there was evidence of the wild elephants (think
piles of brown, fibrous cannonballs on the road).

A highlight was a visit to one of the waterfalls, made famous by the
film “The Beach” in which Leonardo DiCaprio pretended to act. Of
course, this waterfall is nowhere near a beach – but that’s the
mystery of the magic lantern for you.

Heo Suwat waterfall from above Heo Suwat waterfall from below

Dinner was in a restaurant near the resort (I wasn’t repeating the
same mistake twice) – a place attached to a winery (the first in
Thailand, I believe). A perfectly delicious pizza (albeit with a
scattering of grapes on it), cooked in a wood oven, was accompanied by
a glass of Thai Shiraz and a fresh, green salad.

On returning to the resort, I found there was no water. After a day
in the jungle I was rather in need of a shower, but I had to retire
sticky. Still, I have major water supply problems in my house, so it
made me feel at home.

On rising, still no water. I headed for my rather grim breakfast
unshaven, smelly and grumpy. I was half planning on diving into the
pool with my bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap to render myself

Anyway, on my way back to my bungalow I had a nasty trip. My right
wrist broke my fall; and fortunately the fall didn’t break my right
wrist (though it took me a while to work out that it was simply a
sprain, rather than a fracture). I also badly grazed both my legs, so
I was horrified to find out that the water had been restored by the
time I returned to my bungalow. The sounds I made as I washed out the
wounds sounded like a dog that had been kicked hard. I’m sure my
yelping was audible across the valley.

The return trip to Ayutthaya was along faster roads (albeit with more
miles on the clock). And on the way I stopped at Chokchai Steak
House. Chokchai is a national institution; it was the place that
bought modern dairy farming to Thailand. Bottles of Chokchai milk are
on sale in every 7-11 and most supermarkets. And when I used to ask
my students to write about their favourite restaurant, a goodly
proportion would describe Chokchai. They (Chokchai, that is, not my
students) graze western-style cows (they look like Friesians) on the
rich grass around Khao Yai. The cows that don’t cut it on the
milk-bearing front (I believe they are called heifers) end up served
on hot iron plates with half a baked potato and a selection of veg.
Not that I had a tranche of cow – but the salad was jolly good.