The rising star of southern Thailand is an idyllic beach and nature destination minus the crowds, writes Christina Pfeiffer.
Thailand's largest island, Phuket, has long been one of the most popular destinations in the land of smiles. Now there's a challenger from across the Andaman Sea. Krabi, on the western side of the Thai peninsula, is an ancient landscape that has much to offer. It has a stunning coastline, with sandy beaches wedged between green peninsulas and soaring rock formations. Mangroves, tropical forests, rivers and natural hot springs keep active travellers busy.
Here are our top 10 things to do in and around Krabi.
1 CRUISE THE ANDAMAN SEA
Gaze at soaring limestone cliffs, snorkel among the colourful fish and sunbake on beautiful beaches. A boat cruise around the Andaman Sea islands is a pleasurable way to spend the day. The region has different types of boats for hire, including rustic longtails and glitzy speedboats. Most itineraries will take you to top snorkelling spots near Koh Poda and the strangely shaped Chicken Island, which has a rocky outcrop resembling a chicken's neck and head.
2 SOAK IN NAM TOK RON, A HOT-STREAM WATERFALL
Nam Tok Ron is one of Krabi's most picturesque hot springs. It's a natural outdoor spa with a tiered series of rock pools fed by water from thermal springs. The warm water (around 40 degrees) gushes into the pools from underground volcanic chambers. The hot-stream waterfall is located 45 kilometres from Krabi city and is popular with locals. The entrance fee is 90 baht ($3).
3 SWIM IN SA MORAKOT EMERALD POOL
Thailand's only lowland rainforest is located within the Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Reserve and is one of the richest biodiversity areas in the region. Set within the lush tropical forest, the Sa Morakot Emerald Pool's spring-fed water is a glistening hue of bright green. After hiking the wildlife reserve's nature trails, a dip in the pool is a great way to relax the muscles, given the water is around 30 degrees. The pool is a large basin with small cascades and is popular for families with young children. The entrance fee is 200 baht (about $7) for adults and 100 baht for children.
4 ROCK CLIMBING
The region's imposing limestone rock formations along the coastline are a magnet for experienced climbers from around the world. The main rock-climbing areas are Ton Sai, Railay and Phra Nang, where karst formations jut dramatically out of the Andaman Sea. There are also plenty of easier climbs for beginners, who may be safer trying sport climbing, wearing a harness secured with ropes bolted to the rocks.
5 KAYAK ON THE RIVER TO THE GHOST CAVES
A tranquil way to explore northern Krabi is to see the caves by kayak, paddling along the rivers in Than Bok Khorani National Park. The region is one of the earliest sites of human occupation in Thailand and rich in archaeological treasures and cave drawings. Ban Bo Thor (Big-headed Ghost Cave) is a limestone cave with impressive stalactites and stalagmites. On the walls and ceiling are 3000-year-old paintings of animals and people in earthy yellow, red, black and brown tones.
6 RIDE A LONGTAIL BOAT TO LUNCH
Dining on the banks of the Krabi River is a relaxing way to sample authentic local dishes, such as hot and sour fish curry (kaeng som) and the chilli prawn dip (nam phrik kung sot). The sleepy island of Koh Klang, which is at the mouth of the river, is home to a Muslim village and the Baan Ma-Yhing restaurant, which dishes up delicious, freshly prepared seafood. After lunch, a ride in a tuk tuk reveals rural scenes and local cultural activities, such as batik painting. Baan Ma-Yhing is located at 10 Moo 1, Khlongphrasong, Muang, Krabi.
7 VISIT TIGER CAVE TEMPLE
More than 1250 steps lead to a Theravada Buddhist temple, Wat Tum Sua, which has a large golden Buddha statue 278 metres high and sits on a mountain peak with lovely views of the region.
8 SHOP AT A MARKET
There are several local day markets in Krabi and two night markets, which are popular for a casual evening meal. The night market is also the place to sample sweet treats. Among stalls selling clothing and souvenirs, local artisans demonstrate painting, jewellery-making and their expertise on local instruments.
9 LEARN TO COOK
Learning to make curry pastes and to prepare popular Thai dishes such as lab kai (chicken mint salad), pad thai and massaman curry is fun for all the family. Having worked in Thailand and Europe, Cholaya Laothong (or Ya) speaks excellent English. The best part is eating the food you prepare together. Classes cost from 1000 baht ($34). Ya's Krabi Thai Cookery School, 269 Moo 2, Ao Nang, Muang, Krabi.
10 EXPLORE THE REGION'S HISTORY
Discoveries in this ancient region include pottery, stonework, cave drawings, beads and skeletal remains. The place to learn about Krabi's historic past is Wat Khlong Thom, which is both a temple and museum, with displays of stone and bronze tools, stone and earthen ornaments in the shapes of animals, and 5000-year-old beads.
The writer was a guest of Thai Airways, Ao Nang Cliff Resort and Crown Lanta Resort & Spa.
Thai Airways International flies at least daily non-stop from Sydney to Bangkok with convenient connections to 10 popular resorts and cities within Thailand. Thai's Thailand Companion Fare Sale starts from $879 return all inclusive (book by March 28 and travel by June 26); 1300 651 960; thaiairways.com.au.
Ao Nang Cliff Resort is located on a forested Krabi hillside with panoramic views across the Andaman Sea. See: http://www.aonangcliffbeach.com/.
SPOTS FOR A FAMILY HOLIDAY CHIANGMAI
Tigers, elephants and long-necked hill tribes are some of the attractions here. Although there are no beaches, there's plenty to delight families in Thailand's second largest city, including elephant camps, colourful villages, snake farms and zoos.
Visit three countries in one day: Ta Khi Lek in Myanmar; Chiang Saen, the ancient Lanna capital in Thailand; and Don Sao Island in Laos. The region at the convergence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Ruak, is also home to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which offers a variety of ways to get close to elephants.
This idyllic tropical island getaway offers luxury lovers plenty of choice, from five-star resorts to swanky villas. There's also much to keep the kids busy, from walks to waterfalls to butterfly gardens, elephant trekking and go karting.