Diving the Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

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Top on my list of things to do while in Krabi–other than lounge on a gorgeous beach with David and drink mai tais–was to dive the Phi Phi Islands (amusingly pronounced “pee pee”). The Phi Phi Islands consistently get top marks as a world class dive site. All dive shops I’d found going to the islands were in Ao Nang, and that was a 20 to 30-minute ride from our hotel, Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort. I’d made some inquiries prior to leaving the U.S., but was frustrated by their requirement that we come into Ao Nang at least a day before to “show our dive cards, sign forms and try on equipment.” This sounded ridiculous to me and I had no desire to take time away from a coveted beach day traipsing into a town I’d deliberately avoided and back…Not to mention the pointless expense added insult to injury.

I tried emailing the resort to see if they worked with any dive shops that would pick up at the resort, but got no response to either my emails or my attempts to message them on their Facebook page until they miraculously responded to the FB message nearly 6 weeks later. Oh well, better late than never. They informed me they could book a 2-tank dive trip to the Phi Phi Islands, including pick-up at the hotel and we wouldn’t need to go in ahead of time.

Sure enough, when we got to the resort and asked, they could book us the dive trip we wanted with Local Diving and they’d pick us up. The price was exactly the same as with the dive shops I’d found previously which did not include pick-up, i.e., 3500 baht ($100) per person, including equipment, lunch and the 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang.

We had time for a quick breakfast before our ride arrived at 7am on our second morning at Tup Kaek. Our Local Diving “limo” was quite a sight: a battered red “SUV”/station wagon sort of vehicle with a red leather interior and red leather facing seats in the far back. The driver’s seat was broken so that it leaned a good 6″ back from the level of the front passenger seat (and into my knees). Hand cranks rolled down the windows…except on David’s side where the crank had broken off. Hmm. A questionable start, but the vehicle seemed to drive OK.

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The “limo” in front of Local Diving
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Driver’s seat “reclining” into me
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Rear seating

In twenty minutes, we were in Ao Nang. We made a quick stop to pick up a Norwegian sheep farmer, Per, who would be the only other diver to join our group. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Local Diving shop. Small and not impressive, they quickly produced qood-quality wetsuits and fins for us to try on. No one cared about seeing our dive cards; they just had us sign statements that we had them. So much for that other dive company wanting us to come a day early to present cards and try on gear!

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Local Diving in Ao Nang

Our guide then led us on foot across the parking lot and through a park to where a fleet of long tail boats were docked. We waded out to one, full of other divers, that tendered us to a larger, two-story dive boat anchored just off shore.

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It turns out that Local Diving and several other dive shops share large boats so that there were 3 or 4 groups of divers on our boat. Everyone did basically the same dive, shared the same fruit snacks, the same lunch, same everything. There were several of these larger boats operating in the area and this is apparently the same system for dives at the Local Islands as well as at the Phi Phi Islands. I seriously doubt whether it makes much difference which operation you pick so long as the equipment is good and the dive master attentive and knowledgable. (Big items, I understand; I just mean that the basic set-up will probably be identical so–once you verify reviews re safety and quality of equipment–it makes sense to choose by price.)

The trip to the Phi Phi Islands from Ao Nang takes 2 hours, but that’s only because the boats go incredibly slowly. We kept waiting for our boat to kick it into gear, but it never happened. Our dive mate, Per, said he loved the boat ride, but we were a little impatient going out and bored going back. It’s beautiful, but I could have enjoyed the beauty in an hour rather than two…and been back on our gorgeous Tup Kaek beach.

A dive master on board was pushing seasick pills claiming some “magical” properties to Andaman waters that induce seasickness. The water was very calm and we ignored his advice with absolutely no ill effects. If we could survive 3 hours crossing the Sea of Japan just above a typhoon without feeling sick, the Andaman held no threat at all for us.

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Relaxing on the upper deck of our dive boat

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We reached Hin Klai, just east of the Phi Phis, for our first dive right at 2 hours out of Ao Nang. A preliminary check of my gear revealed a damaged octopus so our guide quickly changed out the whole first stage and attachments. The new first stage set-up was in good condition, but surprisingly we had no depth gauge. We made our first descent into a curving school of silver and yellow fish that numbered in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Breathtaking! The sheer numbers of tropical fish were the most remarkable thing about this reef. We saw squid, lionfish (which we’re very familiar with as an invasive pest in the Caribbean), mantis shrimp (like small lobster with “wings” instead of claws…and very, very powerful front “legs”) and more, but it was the huge schools that really blew me away. They let me swim into their midst, so thick I could barely see out of the cloud of shimmering bodies. I felt like a kid playing among them, reaching with my hands to have the nearest dart just out of reach. We ventured off the reef into some pretty barren terrain where our guide later explained he was looking for black fin sharks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any although Per told us he’d seen a lot of them on an earlier dive to a nearby reef. Next time!

After our first dive, we had a 50-minute break during which we moved to our next dive location, Koh Bida Nok, just south of Phi Phi Ley. We anchored near one of the under-cut rock islands that give the Andaman Sea its exotic and unique appearance. Upon descent, we found ourselves on another beautiful reef. More large schools of fish swirled around us and we also came upon cuttlefish, a large barracuda, a turtle and more lionfish. As at Hin Klai, we saw lots of clownfish tucked in among sea anemone as if they’d been pulled straight from “Finding Nemo.” I half-expected to see the large schools of fish form themselves into shapes and talk to us!

The only real negative to the actual diving part of this trip is that there are just too many other divers around. The Phi Phis draw multiple dive boats to each of their reefs and we frequently ran into other groups of divers below, both from our boat and from others. Newbies are particularly bad about stirring up the bottom and visibility suffered in places.

Lunch was set out in the galley of our boat after the second dive and people served themselves then sat wherever to enjoy the Massaman curry and vegetarian noodle main dish with plenty of steamed rice. More fruit supplied dessert. Then, we settled in for the puttering 2-hour ride back…except it was closer to 2.5 hours on the return trip. It’s hard to believe that’s all the engine power the boat could muster, but apparently so. Again, it was beautiful, but too long for David and me.

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Our dive master–and pretty much everyone else–crashed out on the long ride back to Ao Nang

Then, it was back on a loud, exhaust-spewing long tail boat for the tender back to shore and the walk to the Local Diving shop and our red leather chariot.

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On the long tail tender

 

Local Diving did a professional job (even though they didn’t check dive cards) and I’d dive with them again. I’m super glad we dove the beautiful Phi Phi reefs, but I’d have loved a faster boat. You can find out more about Local Diving at: http://www.localdivingkrabi.com.

Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort near Krabi, Thailand

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I don’t usually do straight-up lodging reviews on Wanderwiles unless something really stands out. Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort is one of those:

I’d always wanted to visit the beaches of Thailand, but I originally didn’t think it would be possible on this trip because we’d be there during rainy season. I’d originally thought to go directly from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, then travel through Thailand, ending up in Cambodia, from where we’d fly home. When Luang Prabang, Laos, found its way onto my radar screen, I discovered flights that allowed me to reverse my original circuit. Flying home from Bangkok rather than little Siem Reap had the added benefit of bigger and better Korean Air airplanes for our much-anticipated First Class flight home. (We would have had to forego First Class entirely and settle for Business Class on the Siem Reap to Seoul leg of our journey home.) So, after Kuala Lumpur, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and from there to Luang Prabang where we caught the Mekong boat to northern Thailand. This allowed us to push the south of Thailand to the end of our trip, and that meant we could add a detour to the far south beaches in November when the area would just be moving from the rainy to the dry season. Cheap direct flights were available from Chiang Mai. We had a shot a good weather and we decided to take it.

I considered Phuket or one of the islands, but opted for Krabi instead because I wanted somewhere less touristy, less nightlife-geared, and quieter. I also didn’t want the hassle and extra travel steps of getting to and from an island. Krabi (pronounced “kra BEE” rather than “crabby”) is the name of both the city and the region. The city itself is inland with gorgeous beaches not far away on the coast. The nearest beach town is Ao Nang where I found some pretty resorts, but descriptions of street noise, young crowds and bars led me to look farther afield. I researched lots of options up and down the coast before settling on Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort 45 minutes from the Krabi Airport. (Tup Kaek rhymes with “cupcake.”) It turned out to be the perfect choice for us.

Once we got past the AirAsia chaos at the Chiang Mai airport, the flight went smoothly. We arranged a transfer via the resort and our driver was waiting with a sign, as promised, when we exited the baggage claim area. The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle that ended during the drive. David and I were the only passengers in the brand new silver van and we marveled at the dramatic landscape of steep rocky cliffs that jutted straight up from the jungle as we left Krabi proper and sped through Ao Nang. The shops and restaurants gave way to a rural landscape as we neared our destination. I worried when we spotted a tanker at a long pier, but our van turned inland, skipping that small commercial stretch to arrive on the far side and our hotel.

A smiling Thai lady greeted us in the open-air lobby, offering pottery cups of chilled tropical fruit juice to enjoy while she made quick work of check-in. A waiting golf cart then whisked us to our thatch-roofed beachfront bungalow. I relished the pleasure of expectations fulfilled when we stepped inside: The room was spacious with sliding glass doors facing the incredibly gorgeous beach, gleaming teak floors and furniture, a vaulted ceiling made of woven bamboo.

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The bathroom was sleek and modern in a back-to-nature sort of way with a big tub and a pebble-floored rain shower open to the sky above and a cut-out window facing the beach.

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Looking out our shower window

Beyond the sliding glass doors, two cushioned lounge chairs on a large roofed teak porch faced the beach where the still waters of the Andaman Sea lapped against white sand only 20 meters away. Rocky little islands and outcroppings dotted the blue water, improbably beautiful. There was no mistaking this beach for more-familiar beaches back home or in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. My parents had given us a generous 5th anniversary gift in July and we’d decided to use their present on this portion of our Asia odyssey, so we were considering this a late anniversary celebration. It was perfect!

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Beachfront bungalows at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort: all facing west, perfect for watching the sunset over the water

We were on the beach in no time, marveling at the bathtub warm water. Only a few small resorts shared this gorgeous beach and there were not many other guests in sight. At our resort, lots of cushioned lounge chairs and hammocks were free for the taking. Choosing lounge chairs near our bungalow, we ordered two mai tais to sip while we watched the sunset. The mai tais turned out to be the best of the trip: made with real juice, good rum, a little nutmeg and topped with a slice of fresh pineapple.

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First mai tais at Tup Kaek…but not the last!

We spent four nights at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort, enjoying mai tais every day save a day we dove the Phi Phi Islands, a world-class dive site a 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang. Breakfast was included with our room and was a generous spread of Thai and western food served in the open-air tented waterfront dining area. After trying a neighboring hotel, Tup Kaek Boutique Hotel, for lunch, we ended up eating the rest of our meals at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach. The food was good and the service excellent.

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Lunch at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort
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The tented open-air dining area; the only dining space while the main dining room is being renovated

The prices were much higher at Sunset (and at the other hotels on the beach) than we’d found elsewhere in Thailand as we were a captive audience and this was a higher-end hotel. There’s no walking distance town with food stalls and the usual little dive-y restaurants. Still, by American standards, the prices were very reasonable and much better than you’d find at a comparable resort back home. We could have hired a taxi or tuk tuk to try a little place in the closest town–or one of the six restaurants in the nearby Ritz-Carlton, but we simply weren’t motivated to leave.

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The weather turned out to be great. It was raining the first morning, but stopped by the time we got out of bed. There were a couple of other intermittent, brief showers and one impressive but not overly long deluge. We’d duck under our porch roof during those periods, then be back out enjoying partly cloudy skies and delightful temperatures for most of the day. Occasionally we heard a little thunder and saw sheet lightning on the horizon, but it only made for a pretty show. The water was warm with barely any waves. The bottom is soft sand, sloping very gradually so that you can wade far out before the water is chest-high.

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Cool water flowing into the sea from the mountains behind the resorts

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Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort has other non-beachfront rooms, including some very neat ones whose porches open directly onto a new blue-tiled swimming pool of Olympic proportions. There’s a pretty older pool as well and rooms that open onto small man-made “canals.”

Construction/remodeling is ongoing on a large, enclosed restaurant that is not currently open. It sits to one side of the resort complex, so did not really effect our stay. Construction noise wasn’t an issue, and the open-air beachfront dining suited us perfectly. Housekeeping kept the room spotless and were quick to respond to requests for things like extra towels. Two bottles of water were provided each day. We had a small minibar fridge with a few other food and drink items for purchase which we didn’t use. The hotel also provided a large safe, big umbrella, flashlight, robes and sandals. Local “long tail” boats pull up just down the beach and can be hired to visit the islands visible from the beach.

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View from our porch. Oh, the tough decisions: lounger on the porch or hammock?!

David and I have struggled to find negatives to this stay. The internet was sometimes–but not always–very weak in the room, but was always very strong and fast on our porch and in the dining area and other parts of the hotel. We did get some maybe-mosquito bites, mostly on our sandaled feet, although we only saw one while we were there. It’s a quiet, low-key location, especially during this shoulder-season, which we consider to be a huge plus, but it wouldn’t be for those looking for a party scene. (i.e., There were no backpackers and loud music.) We spotted a lizard or two in the room a couple of times, but they didn’t bother us and we just ignored them. There are several cats on the resort grounds and they’re happy to beg if you feed them, which we got a kick out of, but I guess if you don’t like or are allergic to cats, it might be an issue. That’s pretty much all we can come up with in the way of negatives. We loved the Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort!

We paid 28,420 baht ($812) total for our beachfront bungalow for 4 nights, including breakfast and taxes. Meals, mai tais and private transfer from and to the Krabi Airport cost another 8,270 baht ($236.29) total, including taxes and gratuities. (The airport transfer cost 800 baht/$22.86 each way for a 45-minute ride.) I consider the cost to be good value for what we got. Value is my goal whenever I purchase anything, often more important to me than the bottom line. You can find out more about the resort at: http://www.tupkaeksunset.com/en I had some trouble contacting them, pre-trip (re questions about diving companies that would pick up at the hotel), but was finally able to get a response by messaging them on their Facebook page. Also, I booked via booking.com this time, probably because they were offering the best final price and a rebate via Topcashback, one of my favorite sites. If you haven’t joined and are interested, please use my referral link: https://www.topcashback.com/ref/tcut It’s free to join and easy money for things you buy anyway. I always check it when I’m booking travel (or buying almost anything) to get rebates on hotels, rent cars, products and more.

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Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016