Thailand post-tsunami: After the wave, paradise reborn

Normality has returned to a region devastated in 2004, writes Paul Chai.

Island-hopping around Krabi you are never very far from reminders of the Boxing Day tsunami, the day in 2004 when a 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra sent a series of destructive waves across the region.

These subtle reminders are woven into the fabric of the place now, from signs advertising the new tsunami early-warning systems on Koh Phi Phi to impromptu-cum-permanent shrines to the victims erected near the beaches.

Yet the people are well and truly back now. On Railay Beach climbers dangle from the stubbly karst rock face, colourful wooden longtail boats skim across the calm seas and at sunset crowds of partygoers feast on pad Thai and drink cold Singha beers stretched out on blankets on the sand set among a patina of flickering candles.

The scene is not dissimilar to what Canadian businessman Eric Seibt was taking in 10 years ago having just celebrated Christmas with his family on Railay.

"We were all together when the tsunami hit and some people were yelling and screaming," he recalls.

"We ran to the east side and headed inland jumping over fences and climbing up to a high spot. It was pretty scary, the kids stayed up there for the night but I came back down to the beach for some supplies."

Seibt found the swimming pools at the beachside resorts were full of beached and broken longtail boats and the cafes and restaurants were wiped out but fortunately there was no loss of life on Railay unlike on the outlying islands. For Seibt the tsunami was the start of a lifelong love affair with southern Thailand.

After his tsunami experience on Railay Beach, Seibt rallied friends in his home town of Banff and created a tsunami relief fund.

He stayed on in Thailand to distribute the money and helped rebuild houses and replace lost longtail boats, which many locals depend on for their livelihood.

It was through this relief work that he was introduced to Koh Jum, a tiny dot initially overshadowed by its more well-known, and worse-hit neighbours.

Seibt fell in love with the place and eventually bought a tract of land with some fellow investors that is now home to Koh Jum Beach Villas.

We will be heading to Koh Jum - via Railay and Koh Phi Phi Don - but our first port of call is Rayavadee Resort on Railay Beach. Rayavadee is like a modern-day Hobbiton, its charming, conical Hobbit houses hidden in the lush jungle; rocky pools dot the property and walkways weave through the verdant vegetation, with the dark langurs and some slightly more aggressive macaques making their home in the forest.

When we arrive at our stay, a family of charcoal-coloured langurs (and their rust-coloured infants) swings languorously through the trees and rebounds off the roof of our two-storey abode like furry pinballs, back into the lush foliage that blankets this tropical hideaway. We spend the afternoon in the infinity pool near Railay Beach, then wander along the sand, longtails swaying to and fro in the tide like fans at a rock concert.

We stroll the prosaically named Walking Street, a collection of shops, eateries and tour operators.

But the place to be at sunset in Rayavadee is The Grotto, a dining area assembled under a dramatic arch of karst, chairs and tables sprinkled through the sand.

The sun's last light first hits the pillar of rock opposite the grotto, a tiny isle that you can kayak to by day and explore the caves and wisps of sand, a bit too small to earn the title of beach. We stay for a couple of drinks and then come night we return to Railay, pull up a rug among the candles and eat dinner, grab a Singha, and let the kids run around in the dark waving ice-creams like swords.

The following day we take a longtail across to Koh Phi Phi Don and our next stay, Villa 360, one of the newest resorts on the popular Thai party island that took the second biggest hit in the area during the tsunami, behind decimated Khao Lak.

Our boat beaches itself beneath a stark, white modernist building three floors high and peppered with sun umbrellas and lounges.

We are taken up to reception - which juts out over the quiet inlet on a huge deck - where we get a warm reception and then another buggy to our even loftier apartment.

The rooms are compact, simply but tastefully adorned because who would try to compete with this view, a great sweep of sandy beach.

Feeling a bit like mountain goats, we spend the day heading up and down the steep escarpment to do lunch at the Bungha Yavhee restaurant which looks across to neighbouring Bamboo Island, then to the water's edge and finally to a sunset welcome drinks on the sundeck at the hotel bar, perfectly timed at magic hour. Even the sunset-jaded would get a kick out of this romantic Thai twilight.

The following day we get a Villa 360 longboat shuttle into Phi Phi town, mooch along the waterfront feeding fish and head back to 360 in the afternoon. To mix up our sundowners the following night we walk the half-mile of beach outside the Outrigger Beach Resort on Loh Ba Gao Bay on the suggestion that there is a small "town" located beyond the resort. Rounding the end of the beach we find a small shrine dedicated to the tsunami victims; it's a miniature of a local abode with a plaque naming those who were taken from this tiny stretch of beach.

Behind it we discover a ramshackle sandy alleyway of bars and restaurants made out of driftwood, weathered nautical rope, and various ephemera - from glowing lanterns to sun hats and car numberplates.

We select Mint restaurant, a cheery diner with colourful plastic tablecloths and a floral mural on the wall, where we order pina coladas and we really do get caught in the rain as the heavens open up. So we take our time eating our fish cakes and noodles to the drumming of water on a makeshift tin roof.

The following morning it is time to head across the glassy bay again to Koh Jum Beach Villas on Koh Jum, just off the Krabi coast.

"It is like Koh Phangan in the early '80s, it has that same vibe," Seibt says as we chat on the verandah of the villa he calls home [and office]. "There are a few paved roads now, but we only just got electricity four years ago."

Our villa is two pagodas separated by a private plunge pool, both rooms have a large bed draped in mosquito netting, and are decorated with darkwood carvings and Thai silk.

There is a huge kitchen and living room with a table piled high with fresh fruit that we cut up while the kids do some serious plunging.

I mean to make it to the beach, honest I do, but those couple of hundred metres seem immense, so inviting are the villas at this beautifully thought-out resort.

In keeping with an eco theme there is no air-conditioning, just lazy fans paddling at the afternoon air while the lapping of the waves mingles with the kids attempts to perfect their bombs.

These necessary skills are interrupted when my wife's in-house masseuse arrives and sets up by the pool. I take the kids up to the main bar and we have pina coladas (and virgin coladas) until the sun disappears and a more relaxed looking spouse appears for dinner.

The in-house cafe is run by a local family and doesn't serve your average resort food - it's fresh, spicy and authentic. For afters we take a "midnight swim" before tucking in the mosquito nets ahead of a tropical storm heralded by flashes of lightning.

To keep light to a minimum I stay up and have a quiet beer by candlelight; there will probably be a lot more candles lit around Krabi come Boxing Day this year, but it is nice to see the region back on its feet.

The writer was a guest of Rayavadee, Koh Jum Beach Villas and Villa 360.

GETTING THERE

Jetstar operates regular direct and non-direct flights to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne. See jetstar.com. Singapore Airlines has regular services to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne via Singapore. See singaporeair.com.

Connect in Bangkok with Bangkok Airways to Krabi. See bangkokair.com.

GETTING AROUND

There is a ferry between Krabi and Koh Phi Phi Don ($10), but direct longtail boat trips for all destinations can be negotiated (though prices are advertised on a board). Look for operators on Railay Beach.

STAYING THERE

Rayavadee Resort, 214 Moo 2, Tumbon Ao-Nang, Amphur Muang, Krabi, see rayavadee.com; villas from $980. Villa 360, 58 Moo 8 Ao-nang, Muang, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi; see phiphivilla360.com; villas from $350. Koh Jum Beach Villas, 320 M.3 T. Koh Sriboya, Nua Klong Krabi, see kohjumbeachvillas.com; villas from $230.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

krabi-tourism.com

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