Written by Mary Guck and Marc Micatka
We took a longtail boat to Krabi province so we could check out Ao Nang, Tonsai, and Railay beach. Railay is often referred to as the top climbing destination in Thailand. It’s a small beach but loaded with massive limestone cliffs with hundreds and hundreds of bolted routes. Before heading there we read and heard mixed reviews of Railay climbing. Some commented it was much too crowded and there were long waits for routes. Others noted the routes were polished, or worn down and slippery from climber after climber. Still others couldn’t leave their bed to even review the routes thanks to the infamous “Tonsai Tummy”… Our mindset continues to be that there is a reason for every place that’s popular, for good or ill. In our travels we keep seeing signs that read “never try never know” and we’ve tried to take that motto to heart. In the end we decided to check it out for ourselves, never try never know.
Now up until this point things have gone very smoothly travel-wise. We haven’t gotten ripped off, we’ve improved our haggling skills, and even language hasn’t been too much of a barrier. Finding bus stops, making transfers, catching taxis, making it to our flights on time, all have been pretty uneventful. But Krabi was where we started getting “shit on.” Pardon the vulgarity but it is truly what we felt.
It happens often in our island locations that the port of entry is pretty far from anything of interest. So it went in Krabi. Once we got to the pier, we needed to find a way to Ao Nang beach. It was about a half hour drive into town. A taxi would cost about 900 baht. Taking local buses would be a fourth of the cost but take twice as long. Naturally we chose the second option. We found another couple waiting for the local bus at the pier so we joined them. A gangly guy came and offered to drive us to Ao Nang beach for 700 baht. We declined and continued to wait. A few minutes later he came back and said the bus wouldn’t be here for another hour, he knows because he is here every day. He offered another ride, this time 500 baht to our hostel. We silently mulled it over as he walked into a nearby building. We decided to take the offer because it was a good deal for a ride straight to our hostel. We found him again walking back to his car, he held a large birdcage with an exotic bird in it. This is strictly irrelevant but it helps to visualize the character of the man. We told him we wanted the ride. He went and talked to another guy and then came back to us, motioning us to go with the man he had talked to.
This is often how it goes. We call them “pimps.” The guy who speaks the best English talks to the travelers and offers the transport, tour, etc., but then gets one of his minions to actually do the driving. As a rule, be wary of those that speak good English in Southeast Asia.
We went with this new driver to the car and Marc pulled up the map on his phone to show him where our hostel was. He said “Ao Nang beach, Ao Nang beach!” We said yes, and again showed him where the hostel was.
Halfway through the ride Marc showed him the address and location of our hostel again on a map. The man waved it away and said “Ao Nang beach.” Our location tracker showed our car missing the turn for our hostel and heading toward the beach. Oh no…
Once we got to the beach he parked the car and said “500 baht to Ao Nang beach!” So this is how it’s going to be. We were suddenly on the defense. We felt pretty confident we were in the right, the issue was with this guy! It’s worth noting here that it was about 150 degrees outside and our hostel was 3 km uphill. That might sound like something a crotchety grandfather would say but it’s pretty accurate.
We told him the deal was 500 baht to our hostel. He looked away from us for a moment and then turned around and said “500 baht to Ao Nang beach!” a little louder this time. Again, we explained to him that the pimp we originally talked to said our ride was straight to our hostel, which was about 3 km from where we were. The driver visibly grew angrier. We asked him to call his ‘boss.’ Like all seasoned travelers, we had downloaded the Thai language package on Google Translate. Aha! We thought. This will solve our all misunderstanding! Marc typed in a simple message and showed the driver. The man stared at the screen like it was the most irrelevant thing he’d ever seen. He wouldn’t or he didn’t understand. Instead he insisted on calling our hostel. Why?
We were getting upset, especially because if the driver continued down the road we would eventually pass our hostel. It was the same road he needed to take to return to the pier, when he left he would drive up the hill and right past our place. We must have been parked by the beach for 10 minutes, more than enough time to bring us to the hostel. He called our hostel and spoke with the owner for a few minutes. About what? At one point, he passed the phone to Marc who had a bewildering conversation with a rightfully confused receptionist. Marc apologized for the weirdness. We asked him again to call the pimp to confirm we indeed should have a ride to our hostel. Eventually we got him to go another kilometer up the road. After a bit he parked again, turned around at us red in the face and sweat dripping from his brow, and growled, “500 BAHT TO AO NANG BEACH” once more. I looked at Marc, rolled my eyes, and we scrambled out. He took off down our road as we lumbered behind, sweating profusely already with our bags sticking to our backs. We watched him pull back into traffic and head up the hill. Right past our hostel! Ironically the man dropped us off right where the public bus would have.
We got to our hostel, “Mr. Longs,” and Mr. Long himself came out to greet us. He must have been 50 years old with long blonde dreads and a braided beard. This is when Mary learned what “Rasta” meant. The place was quite cool with a pool table, garden terrace, patio seating, and fire pit. He gave us waters and we cooled down a bit, taking in the surroundings. He gave us a short introduction to our new jungle abode, saying we were “back to nature”. About 15 minutes later another couple came to the hostel to check in. We introduced ourselves and waited for Mr. Long to take us to our rooms.
Mr. Long came up to Marc and me and apologized saying he couldn’t give us the private room we booked because there was only one left. We would have to sleep in the dorm. I turned to the other couple and asked if they booked a private room, too. They said yes, just this morning. Now in my head I’m thinking, we booked our private room three days ago and also got here first. And we’re the ones that have to move? I shrugged and mouthed “whatever” to Marc and he did the same. Mr. Long tried to get us to pay the rate for the dorm (which was more than the cost of the private room) but we were adamant that we weren’t paying another dime. We already got stepped on once today, never again!
Mr. Long ended up doing this to another two couples over the next few days. Couples that were already settled in their private room had to move to the dorm sometimes at 10 or 11 pm.
We left early the next morning to take the public boat to Tonsai Beach to climb. The twin beaches of Tonsai/Railay are cutoff from the mainland by the mountains (the same ones we got to climb). As there is no way to drive or walk there, you are stuck taking a boat from the beach (posted as being 100 baht, about $3) to get there – this is called “foreshadowing” and you’ll read more about our trials and tribulations, with accompanying visuals, later.
Now for some climbing pictures:
After a full day of climbing and eating next to nothing, we were so ready to head back to Ao Nang and to our hostel for a shower, food, and cold beers. We hiked from Railay beach to Tonsai beach, the next beach over from Ao Nang. Railay and Tonsai are connected by a 15 minute trail through the jungle. Use the map below to follow along with this story. This is going to take a bit of explaining, but it’s crucial that you are on our side here!
We approached the boats on Tonsai at 5:45 pm and a man immediately asked us “Ao Nang?” We said yes, and he motioned to a log for us to wait on. We needed six people before we could leave. We were pleased to have arrived before 6 pm thinking we would pay the daytime rate of 100 baht. After 6 pm it would cost 150 baht per person. We sat down and waited patiently, I began scrolling through the awesome pictures I took throughout the day. About 15 minutes later a French teenager (Isa) showed up and also needed a ride to Ao Nang. Sweet, one more person! Shouldn’t take too long to fill up. 6:30 rolled around and I was getting very hungry and tired of waiting. All this time the boat driver was sitting around yelling “Ao Nang Ao Naaaaang?” To people walking around or approaching the local restaurants. Everybody shook their head no. We thought it was funny at the time. At one point we asked for assurance from the driver that we would pay the daytime rate of 100 baht, seeing as we had arrived with plenty of time to spare. He gave us a small chuckle but never actually responded.
The boat driver told us we could keep waiting to fill the boat up or pay 900 baht to leave now. We were shocked. 900 baht?! Wasn’t the rate 150 baht after 6? We even thought that was unfair since we showed up before 6 pm to begin with. The man said we’d pay 150 baht for a FULL boat, otherwise the going rate was 900 baht. Split three ways it would still be double what it should be. We said no way, we’ll continue to wait. The three of us were getting antsy. Isa had an 8 pm dinner reservation with his family. “Traveling with family is so borrrrring,” he said. He had only 200 baht on him anyway. If we were to leave now we’d need to haggle.
The boat driver turned down our offer of 600 baht and countered with 750. Still, 250 baht each to go 10 minutes to the next beach? I understand that we sound cheap right now. It’s true, and we were more than a little self-aware as this was going on. 250 baht is a little over $8. I think it’s important to consider the context. Thailand is maybe 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of living as the US. It would literally be cheaper for us to get a room for the night at Tonsai than pay $16 to get home. We considered walking, but of course there literally was no way we could walk because of the mountains. We considered swimming, but that was us trying to be creative and optimistic. In reality, we definitely would have drowned. We continued to wait. An hour passes. FINALLY, a family of seven approaches and to our surprise they need to go to Ao Nang! We hooted and hollered while grabbing our bags. They spoke French so Isa told them of our struggles and they were so happy to help. That’s when it got interesting. The family shared with us that they had actually hired a boat two hours ago to bring them back to Ao Nang. They had subverted the normal process and hired someone who would take them back after 6pm for 100 baht per person. Now that is savvy! They said they didn’t mind us going with them, we’d just pay 100 baht each to split the cost of the boat. What a deal!
I got my money back from the original boat driver who now just seemed like a devious asshole. I felt sassy saying, “give me our money back, we’re going with this other boat!” Man, we felt so good! We stuck it out and refused to play his game and we won!
(Negotiating boat fare shown above)
We walked with the family to their boat. It was a group of five adults and two young girls all dressed in white linen, like angels, like the saviors they were. I noticed that the new boat driver and the original driver hung back and were talking to each other. We got to the boat and the new driver stormed up and said, “only seven people!” He counted off the seven family members and then pointed to Marc, Isa, and me saying “NO NO NO!” The original boat driver was off to the side smirking. We were so frustrated. We told this new driver we would pay him, that he would make more money. Still he said no. If we wanted to go with the family, we would have to pay 900 baht between the three of us, money that would obviously be split with the other driver. We could not believe this! This culture is so tight knit, they wouldn’t take each other’s customers which was all the more frustrating because we weren’t even the original driver’s customers! The family of seven tried persuading their driver to take us but he was firm with his decision. He would not let us aboard.
At this point it had been two hours since we got to the beach for a ride back to Ao Nang. It was dark, we hadn’t eaten, we were smelly, and I was getting a headache from the stress of all this. Now, it’s important to note that we were aware 250 baht is only 100 baht more than the nighttime fare, a difference of $3. But we weren’t about to give into this jerk. We were too stubborn. Isa suggested we try Railay beach for a ride spitting out, “I am not giving this asshole any of my money!” Right there with you, Isa. Good thing Isa was a teenager with a healthy disrespect for authority or he might have patiently explained to us that hiking 20 minutes across the beach and through the jungle to maybe save $3 was a little silly.
The three of us stormed off and started the hike to Railay beach, which wasn’t far but we’d have to cross through a dark, rocky trail. I started to think we were taking this too far. We could get a ride from the asshole right now for 250 baht each and end all of this. Marc insisted he didn’t care about the money at this point. He’d rather pay someone more at Railay beach then give this guy our money! At this point I wasn’t hungry anymore because my survival instincts kicked in. I am glad to have packed my headlight for this adventure into the night.
Once through the trail we landed on Railay beach and could see about eight boats lined up on shore. Surely one of those would be headed to Ao Nang. As we got closer each and every one started peeling away from shore and taking off in all directions. My heart pounded harder and faster with the departure of each boat. NOOOOOOO!!!! Only one was left, and by this time Marc had sprinted ahead to catch it, hoping it would be going to Ao Nang. It wasn’t. It was going to Tonsai, the beach we just spent two hours at waiting. A small, paranoid part of me thought that the other driver had somehow called ahead and gotten all the boats to leave us…
There was a group of men up the beach sitting around. Pathetically we asked if any of them could take us to Ao Nang. They said yes, for 800 baht. We took that deal, glad to be paying a similar cost, more glad to finally be leaving. Not a minute later, two more guys showed up needing a ride to Ao Nang. We rushed them like this was some sort of war zone, telling them we had to get out of here as soon as possible, this is the best deal around! So in the end we split the boat cost of 900 baht five ways and saved 70 baht per person over the other rate. We thought those two boat drivers on Tonsai were so stupid. In the end neither of them got our money. Or were we the stupid ones?
When we landed on the beach we bid a fond farewell to Isa who had just enough time to clean up for family dinner. We started the long walk up the hill, figuring we could buy our onward tickets to Koh Lanta on the way home before catching a ride the rest of the way up the hill. As we were digging around our pack for money, Marc realized he lost his Nalgene. A fitting end, we thought. Nope! Not over yet! We found a cheap travel agency offering tickets to Koh Lanta for 350 baht per person. We talked him down to 600 for two and that’s when Mary realized that we didn’t have enough money or our debit cards. We literally shook out our money purse on the counter as this teen looked at these two sad “adults” dumping change on his desk. He took every last penny (about 560 baht) just to get us to leave. Marc was still tossing change when we walked away, the teen shaking his head.
I suppose we were walking again. On the way home we joked about our fake tips to save money. TIP! Save money by not bringing enough and begging teenagers to take your meager offerings! Oh well. We were safe, nearly home, and hopefully learned a thing or two. Here’s more climbing pictures.