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


Guess who I found in my garden this morning …

Whip Snake

I believe it’s a Whip Snake, but I’m not sure which exact species. They live in trees and bushes and eat lizards and frogs. Whip Snakes are mildly venomous, with their fangs at the back of the mouth. Basically they chew on their prey to release the venom, which takes about 15 minutes to work. The venom allegedly isn’t fatal to humans, but I’m not proposing to test whether that’s true or not.


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


The choice of buses from Chiang Rai is staggering, from clapped out wrecks cooled only by broken fans to VIP buses with airline business class-like seats and in-seat service. Needless to say, I decided to treat myself to the VIP option. For less than 5 pounds for a three hour trip it seemed like a bargain. Indeed, the trip was very comfortable – if it weren’t for the TV screens playing a selection of karaoke songs and Thai comedy programmes. (There’s nothing less funny than a Thai comedy. They’re so pathetic that they beat a drum at every punchline so that you know when you’re supposed to laugh – you wouldn’t know otherwise. The regular parade of supposedly stupid, obese women, shrieking katoeys and midgets is sickening.)

The hotel turned out to be both a delight and an horror. It was a charming boutique hotel in the Chiang Mai old city, close to many of the main attractions.

De Naga Hotel, Chiang Mai

The rooms were attractively furnished in dark wood against light walls with a few Thai motifs. The bed was enormous with more pillows than any reasonable person could need and an attractive swag of brightly coloured Thai silk across it. Most agreeable.

So impressed was I by the hotel that I decided to take dinner in one of its two restaurants. I had some very tasty Vietnamese fresh spring rolls followed by a local curry and rice. I suspect that the term “fresh” with the spring rolls was a misnomer – at least with respect to the prawns within, for at five in the morning I was faced with a serious dilemma as to which end of my body I should position over the porcelain. So intense was my vomiting that after an hour or so I was bringing up blood and my muscles all over were aching. Needless to say I was out of action for a couple of days.


The journey from Nan to Chiang Rai was a gruelling one. The one bus a day leaves from Nan at 9:00 prompt, and then spends the next three hours following the tight-twisting road through forest-clad mountainside. In several places half the road had simply fallen away into a ravine, and in others the road was reduced to rutted rubble where streams crossed its path.

It was strange to think that in this, the 21st century, there are still people living almost naked in the forest to either side of me, building simple shacks covered with leaves; as the leaves turn yellow they move on.

The second half of the 6 hour journey was less arduous, through rice fields and dusty little towns.

In 1881 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive. On this occasion he was right. Getting off the bus I was surrounded by an aggressive bunch of touts promoting their respective guest houses and treks. (Intruding on the homes of various ethnic minority groups is big business here – not that the minorities benefit at all from the visiting grungy backpackers.)

On the streets there were more farangs than Thais. It felt as if I was in an horrible ghetto full of tattooed skinheads, obese Americans and scary-haired punks.

Still, in two days I’ll be moving on.

The temples here are nothing to write home about. In fact, I took but a single photograph during my sojourn, at Wat Phra Singh. It’s below.

Chiang Rai - Wat Phra Singh at dusk

Not really sure why I bothered.


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


Each city in Thailand has a guardian spirit which lives in a pillar known as the “lak meuang”. Somewhat surprisingly, this isn’t an ancient tradition. The first lak meuang was erected by King Rama I in 1782 when he moved the Thai capital from Thonburi across the river to Bangkok. The shrine built to house Bangkok’s lak meuang was in fact the first building erected in the new capital.

Nan’s lak meuang is an impressive affair, decorated with gold leaf and topped with the four faces of the Hindu creator deity, Brahma (known in Thailand as Phra Phrom).

Nan's lak meuang

It’s housed in a fancy silvery-white pavilion.

Nan's lak meuang pavilion

And is guarded by scary demons emerging from the mouths of nagas.

Guardian of Nan's lak meuang


One of my dark secrets is that I’m a closet Leonard Cohen fan. His witty, literate songs such as Hallelujah, I’m Your Man, Everybody Knows (“Shining artefact of the past” has to be one of my favourite lines ever) and Suzanne appeal greatly to me. Surely he must be one of Canada’s greatest exports ever.

Tonight I was reminded of another of his songs. As I looked up I saw tens of thousands of small birds perched on the overhead wires – small swifts, evenly spaced.

Birds on wires in Nan

During the day to find evidence of these birds one can look down and see the trails of bird lime.

     “Like a bird on the wire,
     Like a drunk in a midnight choir
     I have tried in my way to be free.”

Funny how he forgot to write about the poo.



As the aeroplane descended I could see the river snaking its way along the valley floor. To either side there were ox bow lakes. Seven of them I counted, but there could have been more. The houses of the small town of Nan clustered either side of the river.

For centuries Nan was an independent kingdom, isolated by the mountain ranges which surround it. Short stretches of the brick walls built to defend it still stand. Its isolation still gives it its own special character. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut haven’t made it here yet. Around town there are posters announcing stag beetle fights. And a few households still put out jars of drinking water for passers-by.

Water jars in Nan

Nan lies about 670 km north of Bangkok, close to the border with Laos, and is small, with a population about 20,000.

At the bus station the woman selling tickets had a small plastic bag full of cicadas. A short bamboo tube, too small for the cicadas to crawl through, was secured to the neck of the bag by a rubber band. A small crowd had gathered to admire her tasty snack.

The town looks much like any other town: ugly rows of concrete buildings, a tangle of wires overhead. However, there are a few large teak houses in the centre of town, and a number of shady gardens with moss growing over the walls.

The major attraction of the town, however, is its charming temples. I didn’t see another Westerner in my three days in here. I doubt, however, Nan will remain off the tourist trail for much longer.