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Krabi - Island Paradise

If you came all the way from Scandinavia, about to enter the frigid, wintery months of long, chilly nights and dark mornings, a holiday on the white sandy beaches of southern Thailand would seem like heaven, shangri-la, paradise. Indeed, Krabi, a fishing town off the Andaman Sea would be a perfect destination for those looking for a relaxing beach vigil or a jaunt in the south to catch the suns rays whilst perhaps doing a spot of rock climbing, scuba diving and snorkelling.

Krabi's scenery is certainly breathtakingly beautiful. Nam Ao Bay has 300-metre limestone outcrops that jut overhead with incredible ostentation. The cliffs cut off all access to the peninsula by land, making the headland hard to get to except by longtail boat.

North of Phra Nang Beach is Ao Nang beach. Accessible by road, it is used chiefly as a jump-off point for outlying islands. From Phi Phi Family Pier, along the Krabi River you can island hop to popular Koh Poda, 6km to the south. Beyond Poda is Chicken Island, its limestone head shaped like (you guessed it) a chicken. More beautiful and farther on are Hong Island and Bamboo Island. Shaped like a horseshoe, Hong Island is about 40km northwest. Its beautiful lagoon is best reached at high tide. And 35km south is tiny Koh Mai Phai, Bamboo Island. Fine white sand rims 95 percent of the island. Farther afield are overdeveloped Koh Phi Phi Don (45 minutes south by speedboat) and its sidekick Phi Phi Le.

Across the way from Ao Nang is the prize of Rai Le beach, a white-sand crescent that is part of Had Nopparat Thara National Park. But this being Asia, even the national parks are not off limits and this once virginal and pristine beach has been overrun with bungalows, restaurants, shops and hotels, catering to a burgeoning tourist industry that seems limitless. Although still gorgeous and definitely dramatic in terms of both scenery and natural wonder, Krabi's best beach spots, Rai Le in particular, have lost that mystical 'untouched' appeal that many a traveller searches for in a beach vacation.

Discriminating travellers will notice the changes that have taken places so quickly here. When we first visited 6 years ago, Rai Le was quiet, a haven of peace and hardly crowded, with few bungalows and a loyal following of professional rock climbers who sought out the beach for its famed cliffs and well-known climbing trails. The average visitor was a climber, a back packer on a budget holiday staying in a 200Baht bungalow or a very upmarket tourist staying at the Dusit Rayavadee Resort. Over the years though, the discovery was no longer a well-kept secret and travellers started to picking their way over to Krabi from Samui and Phuket ensuring the end of a once paradisical island retreat.

Now, small wooden thatched bungalows make way for the concrete bunkers with air conditioners and modern amenities that mid-budget tourists seek, lower budget travellers have moved on to Phangna and Koh Tao as prices have surged to all time highs and once great deals have soared into the realm of 'over valued' and 'over priced.'

With the increase in demand comes the increase in island pollution and a wear and tear on the natural resources and habitat that must come hand in hand with over population and usage. Every year the tide goes out farther and farther so that we must wade for 15 minutes before the sea reaches our hips, this is because there is no longer any live coral to hold the tide at bay and the mangroves are dying in a plague of shrimp farms.

Lying on pretty Rai Le can still be a treasure if you go in the low season when the tourist rush is non-existent, the un-muffled longtail boats that shriek across the water at all hours are at a relative minimum, the price gauging is kept to a reasonable level and there is still that sense of island calm pervading the atmosphere.

But since the Krabi Airport now links the beaches to Bangkok and Singapore by PB Air, and it takes only about an hour to reach the resort by car and speedboat transfer, this calm may not last long even in the low season. So, is it still an island paradise? Well if you just came from Stockholm in the dead of winter, this place is heaven. But if you knew what heaven used to be like, you would wish that this bit of paradise was still a hidden jewel in the Andaman Sea, undiscovered, untested and untouched.

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