Southern Thailand can be a tricky place to travel if you’re not really a beach person. For many, this part of the world is defined by picture-perfect islands, lazy days of sun-bathing and all-night full moon parties. But there is more to it if you look hard enough; while traversing the standard route, we took a break from the beaches to explore some inland culture and do a spot of hiking.
The islands in the region are scattered either side of the Thai mainland, in the Strait of Malacca to the west and the Gulf of Thailand to the east. To get from one side to the other, many travellers stop in Krabi Province to soak in yet more coastal beauty at spots like Aonang Beach and Railay Beach.
We sojourned in Krabi en route from Koh Phi Phi to Koh Phangan for a three-night island interlude, stationing ourselves at Aonang Beach. While many of the tours from here go to other beach spots around the coast or out to some of the smaller islands, we found there were also some options for inland exploration.
The national parks in the southern Thai mainland are awash with lush vegetation and rocky hills that sprout from the ground like great islands in the green wilderness. One of the vantage points for witnessing this scenery, and also a popular hiking trail, is Khao Hang Nak, otherwise known as Dragon Crest Mountain.
But it had been several weeks since our last strenuous hike, and so we decided to warm up a little before tackling the 500-metre ascent. What preparation could be better than traipsing up 1,237 steps of a single stairway to the summit of a local sacred site? That’s what we decided to do at Tiger Cave Temple.
The starting points for Tiger Cave Temple and Dragon Crest Mountain are each a few kilometres’ drive from Aonang Beach, and, as popular sites, they can be costly to get to. Our options were to either hire private cars, or to take the moped hire option, which would be much cheaper. After our recent experience in Phuket, we decided to play it safe this time and give the bike a miss.
It’s a prudent idea to shop around for private cars. On the main drag of Aonang Beach, there are hordes of agencies offering transport or guided tours to the inland sites. At the first place we asked, Dragon Crest was advertised as a return tour with lunch included for 1,600 baht per person. The woman at the desk soon offered it to us for 1,000 baht each, “including the national park entry fee”.
“How much is the entry fee if we don’t take a tour?” I asked her. She looked blankly, shrugged, clearly wasn’t expecting the question… “I don’t know,” she said. “But 200 baht maybe. The minimum is 200 baht.” This turned out to be a complete fabrication – we found there was actually no entry fee at all.
After scouring the various agencies and bartering as best we could, we booked a car to Tiger Cave Temple for 900 baht total, with pickup from our hostel and return included, and the same for the Dragon Crest trail on the following day for 1,200 baht.
Our car to Tiger Cave Temple was more like an open jeep, and we held on tight in the back for the 20-minute-or-so ride. Owing to recent experiences we were expecting to find tourist-trappery at the temple site, but we were pleasantly surprised; there were no hidden fees of any kind, just donation boxes for those wishing to make a contribution (which we did).
And so we commenced the arduous climb of 1,237 steps to the temple summit, realising quickly that our early-afternoon timing was far from ideal. In one section, each of the steps were over a foot high, and peak Thai heat did not help the matter. There were regular step-count markers as we ascended, however, which made a big difference psychologically; it’s nice to know you’ve clocked 1,000 steps and are close to the top, rather than being thoroughly knackered with no idea when it will end.
Before reaching those heights, we had an unexpected obstacle to overcome – monkeys! At the lower levels of the climb, packs of the little rascals swung about, causing mayhem and harassing tourists, in particular those with food. We saw one monkey steal someone’s salad box, prise it apart, shake all the salad out, swipe the sauce sachet, open it, and feast on the contents. We were relieved to make it past the monkey territory unscathed.
We took our time and eventually made it to the top in about 45 minutes. The pain was worth it. We stopped, breathed and looked around at a beautiful panorama, the ocean at one extreme, and endless grass and forestlands at the other. Towering over us atop the temple structure was the giant golden buddha statue, staring serenely into the distance.
We took our shoes off, as requirement dictated, and pottered slowly around the temple grounds, taking in the scenery from each viewpoint. For those with a depleting water supply, there was a free water station at hand.
In the first half of our travels, in South America and New Zealand, we had done a lot of serious hiking, but such exertion was several weeks behind us. As we descended the steps, both of our legs turned to jelly, quivering voluntarily, and we had to take several rest stops before making it to the bottom. When we made it, we felt a sense of achievement that been absent for some time.
Before heading back to Aonang Beach, we visited the cave at the temple grounds. Legend has it that a tiger used to sleep in the cave’s mouth – hence its name – and one day in 1975 it disappeared into the nearby forests, never to be seen again. Inside, we used our remaining time to look around the shrine and statues.
For the rest of the day we pondered whether we had overdone it; the Dragon Crest hike loomed large the next day, and the elevation gain would be almost double what we had done at the temple. But sleep was our greatest friend. After a good night’s rest we awoke fresh, recharged, free from muscle pain and ready to go again.
This time our timing was sheer perfection. We had noted that the organised tours set off from Aonang Beach at 8:30am. For this reason we arranged our pick-up for 7am, meaning we would miss the crowds, and we would also do the most difficult part of the hike before the sun could unleash its full fury.
The ascent was beautifully tranquil; we were alone with nature and the enchanting sounds of the forest for most of it. The terrain was not too challenging – our walking sandals were easily sufficient. With a few short rest stops we made it to the top in about an hour and 40 minutes.
A lack of signage or clear pathways at the summit required us to poke around for a while to find the main viewpoints, but once we located them we were met with a spectacle similar to what we had seen from the temple summit the day before. It was awesome, but this time a little terrifying; the viewing points were fashioned from large slabs of rock with scant footholds, and yawning slopes disappearing away into oblivion. We took our pictures, treading carefully and methodically, before making back for base.
About a third of the way back down, we heard a strange noise ahead of us, and it was getting louder. It sounded very much like a siren or alarm of some kind, and certainly didn’t seem like a sound of nature. Could it be a tsunami warning, perhaps? Not for the first time on our travels, it turned out to be much less dramatic than that. As we got closer we realised that it was indeed emanating from the trees. It was barely believable that such a ridiculously loud noise could be produced by something living; I Googled it later and it seems most plausible that it was a cicada insect, but I am still not 100% sure.
As always, the descent was quicker, and we arrived at the carpark just after our agreed meeting time of 11am. When dropping us off earlier the driver had tried to persuade us to agree to a three-hour return, which he said would be enough, but that was not the case. It turned out that three and a half hours was barely sufficient, and we wished we had insisted on meeting at 12noon, which would have give us more time to enjoy the summit and take meaningful rest breaks.
Nonetheless, it had been a highly satisfying undertaking, and we returned to the hostel feeling flush once again with accomplishment. It had been too long without a hiking fix.
“From now on,” said Lisa, “We should make sure we do at least one big hike every week.” Great idea, I thought, and the journey ahead would be ripe with opportunities for it: the jungles of Northern Thailand, the caves of Laos, the mountains of Cambodia and the rice fields of Vietnam.
Sometimes taking a break from something reminds you how much you love it. But we won’t leave it so long again.