The bar on Phra Nang beach

Top image: Rayavadee bar and restaurant, Phra Nang beach, January 2012. Photos: Ian Were, unless otherwise credited.

The bar on Phra Nang beach

It’s a warm Saturday evening in mid-January and I order a glass of wine at the best sunset bar on the most perfect beach in Thailand. I ask for the Monsoon Valley rosé (the company does a fine blended one) but the bar doesn’t have it. Their Colombard however, is crisp and good for sipping on a night like this. It’s the kind of bar on the kind of beach where bright Thai pop or dark European classical could be equally fitting. Tonight they’re playing barely audible American crooners but it’s 6.30 and the music pales before the panorama of the now fast-deepening sunset. The modest-sized bar has a thatched roof and a few solid timber stools are embedded in the white sand; some wooden shelves support a selection of wines, spirits and glasses. I learn later that this outpost of a bar belongs to the five-star Rayavadee hotel which is set low and back from the beach, well beyond view.

Bao, my friendly bartender — we exchanged names as I was leaving — serves me two Colombards over an hour or so. We talk a little about Thai wine and he mentions that most come from vineyards around the northern city of Chiang Mai, which makes sense given it’s a cooler region. I read later about the ‘floating’ vineyards south-west of Bangkok on the Chao Phraya delta, possibly unique, where rows of vines are separated by narrow canals and are cultivated, pruned and harvested from small boats. I also read that the Monsoon company’s vineyards are actually on a hill-side near the southern city of Hua Hin on the gulf coast and, because of recent developments in Thai viniculture, a range of grapes are now being successfully harvested in this warm and humid region. Bao, whose name is relatively common in Thailand, is young but probably not as young as he looks. He speaks English with a charming sing-song voice and while his lively dark-brown eyes seem ready for fun, he remains resolutely professional, mixing and shaking cocktails with aplomb. Bao and his fellow bar-staff are dressed in lightly embroidered beige tops and tan pantaloons, a nod to traditional Thai garb. While I’m the only one sitting at the bar, small groups are gathering at the adjoining open-air restaurant and are ordering mixed drinks, cameras at the ready. It’s 6.50pm and the sky is an explosion of deep-red and orange.

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Phra Nang beach, January 2012. Image: Wikipedia/Kallerna

The beachscapes in Krabi province are famous for their steep limestone karst towers rising, often vertically, out of the slightly milky, shallow waters or emerging from mangrove-fringed tidal flats. The dramatic Thaiwand Wall, rearing 200 metres up from the Andaman Sea, dominates both Phra Nang (Princess Cave) beach — where this bar is — as well as nearby Railay beach, where I’m staying. Rock climbers from all over the world say it’s the finest crag in South-East Asia. I’ve also heard women say that coming here is often ‘about the climbers’ hot bodies’. The white painted bar and nearby restaurant tables, nestled at the base of a similar but more modest cliff, are surrounded by small caves with damp stalactites and large-leafed trees; above me a family of monkeys gently chatter in the low-hanging branches. About 100 metres directly off the beach is another undercut limestone tower, 25 metres high, called Koh Rung Nok (Bird’s Nest Island), close enough to wade to at low tide, which many climbers do. Some say if you fall off here it’s OK because you land in water, but this advice somehow sounds unwise. There are several other small islands further to sea. In the gathering vermilion and charcoal dusk these forms are more darkly impressive than they were a half-hour ago.

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Rayavadee bar and restaurant, Phra Nang beach, January 2012.

Over the last few days of frequent ocean gazing — and seeing several new-looking ‘Emergency Evacuation Route’ signs — I’ve been thinking about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and, with a seaward glance, I ask Bao how much damage had been done here. Pointing to what seems to be a reasonably substantial limestone clump some distance to sea, well beyond Rung Nok, he says that that island was inundated, as was the bar and restaurant of the hotel. ‘The tsunami came early in the morning, but no one died here’, Bao tells me. He says the hotel had a warning system and an evacuation plan where guests and staff were moved to nearby higher ground. I take this to mean that no lives were lost on this or nearby beaches. I’m unsure about this and want to find out more, but I’m reluctant to throw too many questions at Bao all at once. I try to imagine a wave as high as the small island out there moving in at 30 or so kilometres an hour sweeping almost everything with it: guests, bottles of wines and spirits on the bar’s wall-shelves and the restaurant’s chairs and tables and, I assume, the thatched roof of the bar. ‘Maybe they had time enough to remove the bottles as well as the people’, I thought.

On that fateful day witnesses said there were three or four successive waves in this region, rolling in at intervals of up to 30 minutes, with the second or third often the tallest — three or so metres high maybe, depending on the local geography. But the reports vary. Some said the first wave was the highest and others refer to a huge surge rather than a wall of water; yet others say the water reared up as it approached land — several accounts refer to waves of eight to 10 metres high in some locations. One source reported that the mean height of the tsunami — across the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea — was 7.3 metres.

Later, I see a post-tsunami photo of the bar (dated 9 January 2005) that reveals the white concrete structure intact and the heavy bar stools still anchored in the sand but at slightly strange angles. The thatched roof, while unkempt, mostly remains suggesting that the wave may not have been as high as I had imagined, although the hotel was closed for a short time. While Krabi’s tourist beaches around the Phra Nang peninsular (Railay East and West, Phra Nang and Ton Sai) as well as the long Ao Nang to the north, were not nearly as badly affected as other beaches in Thailand, there was significant inundation in several locations and a heavy teak long-tail boat ended up in the popular Sunset Bar of the hotel that I’m staying at.

Bao, almost matter-of-factly, tells me his brother and sister died when the waves hit Koh Phi Phi Don, about one-and-a-half hours by slow boat to the south. The small isolated island of Phi Phi is made up of two landmasses joined with a low-rise, sandy neck separating bays on either side. Phi Phi town was, and has been rebuilt, on this isthmus. Reports say that as the tsunami approached at about 10.30 in the morning it wrapped itself around the island and entered both bays. Apparently the wave in the southern bay (Ton Sai) was around 3 metres high, while the wave into the northern bay (Loh Dalun) was 6.5 metres, sandwiching the population between the two. The latter wave was catastrophic, sweeping people, structures, boats and debris back across the village and depositing all in Ton Sai bay. Photos taken the following day show only the concrete structures of two hotels remaining on the isthmus. It soon became apparent that Koh Phi Phi bore the majority of losses in Krabi Province, with lists showing that of the 722 identified deaths, 590 were from the island, including Bao’s two siblings.

Across Thailand approximately 8000 people died and about the same number were injured, but figures remain unreliable. Bhumi Jensen, grandson of HM King Bhumibol Adulydej, was among those lost at a resort in Khao Lak in Phang Nga province north of Phuket, where the greatest number perished — in fact 80% of Thailand’s tsunami casualties occurred here. Apparently Jensen was on the beach when the tsunami hit and his minders were unable to reach him; they found his body the next day. Across South Asia combined an estimated 250,000 people lost their lives, making this tsunami one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.

By the time I’ve finished my second Colombard, the refrain, ‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea’, floats briefly to mind. But these words from the old British hymn were written with the North Atlantic in mind, not the Andaman Sea. Here in Krabi province, at the eastern end of Phra Nang, is an ancient limestone cave; a wonderful shrine used by fisherman, both Muslim and Buddhist, on which they place red-tipped lingams in order to receive a blessing from the cave’s spirit for a bountiful life. Legend has it that a royal barge carrying an Indian princess foundered here in a storm during the 3rd century BCE and her spirit came to inhabit the cave, granting favours to all who came to pay respect. The last time I was here, in this cave, and on other beaches in Krabi, the Gulf War had just erupted. (It was January 1991 and, on the morning of the 17th, scores of tourists, including myself, gathered around a small, dusty TV in some now forgotten beach-cafe to watch the first couple of hours of Operation Desert Storm, the first war to be covered live from the front lines, courtesy of CNN with a Thai voice-over.) On this visit, the cave and its contents look much as I remember them, but this is unlikely; I read that the tsunami flooded most of the shrine.

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Thai food vendors, Phra Nang beach, January 2012.

As I walk slowly back from the bar on the perfect sand I’m only one of a handful on the beach. A few hours earlier it had been very busy with a multitude of day-trippers with groups of Thais selling food, drinks and trinkets out of a line of long-tail boats anchored in the sand. It’s now 7.20pm and a faint dark-red glow is all that remains of the day. I pass an older couple walking comfortably, hand-in-hand and, coming towards me out of the shadows I see a young couple, arms around each other. When we are almost level, they stop to kiss and, as I pass I hear the feint sounds of wet lips on wet lips. I recognise them as the couple I’d noticed earlier that day on the beach, sunbathing and talking: from what I’d heard I took them to be Italian, both good looking, 20-something and deeply tanned. She’d been wearing a two-piece, the thin strip of a black thong neatly dividing her buttocks; he more discrete in bright red and white coloured designer board shorts. Half-dismissing prurient thoughts I keep walking, noting to myself that, at this time of year, these beaches are full of eager, youthful Europeans from all over including Germany, the UK, France and Sweden — although for several years now the majority of tourists have been from Asian countries. Most seem very comfortable, confidently soaking up that unique, somewhat contradictory, style of Thai-Buddhist-beach-culture that you see along the coasts of Thailand. Long days of sunning, swimming, eating, drinking, laughing and touching — often a kind of all-day foreplay. Anyway, as the Thais demonstrate so well, sanuk (the art of enjoying life in the moment) is what you should be open to. The relatively newer, middle-class tourists from Russia and China seem a little less comfortable, keeping more to their own groups. But that will change soon enough; sanuk is so infectious and exhilarating.

At the other end of the beach from the bar, near Princess Cave, a barely lit pathway leads to Railay East beach. The path, busy during the day but deserted now, winds between the Rayavadee Hotel’s fenced perimeters and curved, overhanging limestone caves and impenetrable cliffs with dripping stalactites and occasional monkey. By the time I’m back across the narrow isthmus it’s 8pm and I go to have dinner at the well positioned restaurant Rayavadee has on beautiful Railay West beach. I take out my glasses to read the menu that’s posted outside the restaurant but, before I can see much, a slightly plump and kindly security guard asks me if I’m staying at the hotel. I say ‘No’. He says: ‘I’m very sorry sir, this restaurant is only for hotel guests’. ‘Kop-khun-kráp’ (thank you), I say in my less than impressive Thai, and leave disappointed, imagining how fine the food would have been.

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Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festivals, Chiang Mai. Image: loikrathong.net

I retreat to the more modest restaurant at my hotel on Railay where a female Thai singer, who introduces herself as Malee, is crooning a bittersweet version of Don McLean’s American Pie, accompanied by a male keyboard player. With the absence of good diction the lyrics gently merge giving it a strange appeal. I sing along to myself for a few lines, but give up. A blonde woman a few tables away is also mouthing the refrain — ‘and they were singin’, bye, bye Miss American pie . . .’ — between sips of Singha, but she too loses interest. Except for some light from the restaurant, the beach is now dark but I can make out the figure of a young Thai man who’s just launched a hot air balloon, the type you see all over Thailand these days — around Krabi or on the gulf from Hua Hin to Koh Samui. I first saw these khom fai (sky lanterns) 20 years ago in Chiang Mai at the traditional twin festivals of light and water (called Loi Krathong and Yi Peng). A sky light is made from a cylinder of rice paper about one meter high, braced with wire circles with a wad of cotton soaked in kerosene suspended underneath which is lit to heat the air inside enough to launch the balloon. It’s a simple and beautiful sight on a balmy night with a gentle breeze when 20 or more arc around the sky all with a similar trajectory, their yellow flickering lights gradually dying in the far distance. It’s believed that launching a balloon can send a person’s bad luck away into the air, especially if it disappears from view before the flame goes out.

Tonight, just in front of my restaurant, the man on the beach is selling them to tourists; selling insurance against misfortune. There are just a few heading into the night sky; but it’s still a wonderful sight. After a grilled red snapper and a Chang beer I walk along the well-kept garden path to my small, solid bungalow with its white, pristine room. I set the satellite TV to ‘sleep’, lay down and stare at it for a half-hour or so. As I drift off I think of the bar on Phra Nang, of Bao the barman and his lost siblings, and dream imperfectly. Thankfully, no images of perilous waves loom out of the darkness.

[© Ian Were 2012-14]

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