Fantastic shapes dotted the horizon — craggy limestone spikes that soared hundreds of feet into the cloudless blue sky — as our long-tail boat skimmed across the Andaman Sea off southwestern Thailand.
The afternoon seemed idyllic, and I congratulated myself on becoming part of a living travel poster for paradise. Just then the boat's engine sputtered, popped and died. As we slowed to a stop, so did the breeze, bringing suffocating heat. Exit travel poster perfection. Enter outer rings of Dante's hell.
Long-tail boats are picturesque and ubiquitous in this part of the world, but they're often decrepit and powered by equally decrepit used car engines. Our boat's old Nissan seemed to have too many miles under its belts.
"Aha!" the boatman yelled as the motor finally sprang back to life.
"Aha," I thought as well. "Three cheers for the old Nissan."
I had come to this striking region of Southeast Asia chasing the travel-poster fantasy. Friends had visited the Andaman Sea and Thailand's southern beaches years earlier and brought back enticing photos. Outside of a little heat and a little rain, it was everything I hoped for.
The beaches here are among Southeast Asia's most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason. You can swim in warm, translucent waters, get a reasonably priced massage, eat seafood fresh from the emerald waters and stay in a bargain-rate lodge or in one of the nation's finest luxury hotels.
Bliss that's a bargain? Yes, please. But there are drawbacks too. Phuket (pronounced poo-KET), the best-known Thai beach town, has too many souvenir shops and beer bars, too many people on the beach and too many sketchy nighttime activities.
I breezed through Phuket on my way to another of the country's hot spots, Krabi Province, a 45-minute boat ride east of Phuket.
The region's setting on the Andaman Sea is as dramatic as Phuket's, and it has plenty of islands and towering islets. It's also tourist-friendly, with airline access and a variety of hotels, from backpacker variety to top-end. Thai food fans can learn how to prepare their favorite dishes at resort cooking classes. I stopped by two for some tips.
Most tourists gravitate to the beach town of Ao Nang, which has a boardwalk along the water, shops and lots of interesting seafood restaurants. You won't have any trouble finding a legitimate place where you can get an hourlong massage for $5.
But the best time to be in town is at sunset, when the sea and town turn shades of gold, red and purple.
"This is my 10th time in Thailand," said German tourist Anne Wiese, who was watching the sun set with her mother, Nicole. "I keep coming back. For scenery like this and because the people are so nice."
Topping the list for most visitors is exploring the nearby islands and soaring rock pillars of the Andaman. The jagged towers that jut from the sea here — they're called karsts — are the product of water trickling through limestone. Some of the karsts are as much as 1,000 feet tall; think of that as the equivalent of a 10-story building. Unlike an urban office structure, most of these are overgrown with tropical foliage.
The magical landforms aren't found in the United States or Europe, but you may have seen them before. They were the setting for the James Bond film "The Man With the Golden Gun" and were also a backdrop for the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach."
I spent a couple of days exploring the towers by long-tail boat, visiting islands where we could dive in the sparkling water to snorkel, paddle a kayak along a shore to a quiet cove or just sit on the sand and enjoy the dramatic scenery. (Long-tail boat tours start at $15 for five or six hours; powerboat tours start at $30.)
Our boatman also stopped by Railay Beach, where rock climbers were busily attacking massive cliffs that bordered the sea. Although it's on the mainland, Railay can be reached only by boat.
While I watched the rock climbers, the boatman was tinkering with the Nissan. I wasn't sure whether that was good or bad, but I tried to put it out of my mind.
On the way back, the old Nissan started to sputter again. I crossed my fingers and glanced at the boatman's sun-weathered face. He grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. The old Nissan made it back easily. I am hoping someday I will as well.
How to get to Thailand's Krabi Province and where to stay and eat
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO KRABI PROVINCE, THAILAND
From LAX to Krabi International Airport, connecting service (change of planes) is offered on American, Delta, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Eva, Emirates, China Air and JAL. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,512, including all taxes and fees.
To call Krabi Province, Thailand, dial 011 (the international dialing code) 66 (the country code for Thailand) and the number.
WHERE TO STAY
Le Meridien Phuket, 29 Amphur Muang, Phuket; 76-370-100, www.lemeridienphuketbeachresort.com. This Andaman Sea resort, three miles from hectic Patong Beach, is a good choice for people who want to explore Phuket Town but don't want to be in the heart of the craziness. Pools, spa, water activities. Doubles from about $185 a night
Phulay Bay, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, 111 Moo 3 Nongthalay, Muang, Nong Thale, Krabi Town; 75-628-111, www.phulay-bay.com. Luxury resort on the Andaman Sea draws honeymooners and travelers looking for a scenic seaside resort break. Accommodations include 54 villas, on the beach or hillside, each with a butler. Four restaurants, infinity pool, Thai cooking school, spa. Doubles from about $470 a night.
Sofitel Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort, 200 Moo 3 T. Nongtalay, A.Muang Krabi; 75-627-800, www.sofitel.com. Colonial-style garden hotel with 276 rooms and an enormous pool. Thai cooking school, tennis and golf. Doubles from about $190 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Tunk-Ka Cafe, Rang Hill, Phuket Town; 76-211-500. Open-air hilltop cafe overlooking Phuket Town is worth a stop for its panoramic view of the city and Andaman Sea. Curries, stir-fry dishes and noodles. Entrees from $8.
Carnivore Steak & Grill, 27 Moo 3, Ao Nang, Krabi Town; 75-661-061, www.carnivore-thailand.com. Meat eaters will love this steak restaurant in Krabi Town, which advertises "Our name says it all." Beef is the specialty, but other meats are also on the menu, along with burgers and sandwiches. Steaks from about $16.
Ao Nang Seafood Street, Seafood Street, Krabi Town; 75-638-093, Choose from six restaurants at this location, each offering seafood and excellent views of the northern end of the bay at Krabi Town. Visit the Longtail Boat Restaurant here for Thai dishes ranging in price from $5 to $9.
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism Authority of Thailand, (323) 461-9814, www.tourismthailand.org