Thailand's Andaman coast: Where sleeping giants lie
Longtail boats bobbing in the turquoise waters of Ko Phi-Phi Don. (Dallas Stribley/LPI)
The Andaman Coast is the land of superlatives: the tallest karst formations, the longest beaches, the softest sands, the bluest water. Along the coast, scuba buffs go deep down into the greatest dive sights around.
Further south, Phuket, the biggest island, is the region's hedonistic launching pad, offering a glimmer of what's to come. The Andaman's signature pinnacles of jagged jungle-clad limestone come to a stunning climax in Krabi. Ko Phi-Phi Don's beauty exceeds even the highest expectations. At Railay, climbers take in the scenery as they dangle like ornaments on a giant Christmas tree.
Although technically part of Surat Thani Province, Khao Sok National Park is much closer to the Andaman Sea, and possesses the classic Andaman topography: signature ferny cliffs that shoot straight up into the air. Khao Sok is a dripping, juicy jungle and part of the oldest rainforest in the world, where snakes, monkeys and tigers mingle in a tangle of lazy vines.
A short trip across the water is Khao Lak, where the big drawcard is live-aboard diving trips, which explore the stunning Similan and Surin Archipelagos. Of Thailand's beach destinations damaged by the 2004 tsunami wave, the area around Khao Lak suffered the most.
North of Khao Lak, the five gorgeous islands that make up the Surin Islands National Park sit about 60km offshore, a measly 5km from the Thai-Myanmar (Burma) marine border. Healthy rainforest, pockets of white-sand beach in sheltered bays and rocky headlands that jut into the ocean characterise these granite-outcrop islands. Clear water makes for great marine life, with underwater visibility often up to 35m. The islands' sheltered waters also attract chow lair (sea gypsies) who live in a village onshore during the monsoon season from May to November.
Dubbed the "pearl of the Andaman" by savvy marketing execs, Phuket is Thailand's original tailor-made fun in the sun. There is deep sea diving, high end dining and beaches that beckon your book and blanket. On its eastern flank lies Ao Phang-Nga, where more than 40 humpbacked limestone mountains create a dramatic interplay of land and sea. It also made a cameo appearance as the villain's tropical lair in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. Protected as a national park, the bay can be explored on day trips from Phuket.
Meanwhile across on the mainland, the Andaman's fairytale limestone crags come to a dramatic climax near Railay (also spelled Rai Leh), and it is the ultimate jungle gym for rockclimbing fanatics.
However, the most fantastic example of the area's dramatic scenery lies in and around the islands of Phi Phi Don and Leh. One glimpse of the islands' otherworldly crests and cliffs will turn brutes into poets and sceptics into believers. Ko Phi-Phi Don (usually just referred to as Ko Phi-Phi) is part of the Ko Phi-Phi Marine National Park, which also includes uninhabited Ko Phi-Phi Leh next door.
Leh is the smaller and scruffier of the Phi-Phi sisters, featuring rounded, soaring cliffs that cut through crystalline waters and gorgeous blooms of coral. Two lagoons hide in the island's interior, and Viking Cave is a major collection point for swiftlet nests.
Long and thin, and covered in bleachblond tresses, Ko Lanta is Krabi's southern, sexy beach babe. Ko Lanta is relatively flat compared to the karst formations of its neighbours, so the island can be easily explored by motorbike. Ko Lanta is technically called Ko Lanta Yai, the largest of 52 islands in an archipelago protected by the Ko Lanta Marine National Park.
The last of the sleeping giants lie around Trang, close to the Malaysian border. Here, skyscraping swells of iconic limestone start to sink back into the deep, but not before punctuating the coastline with a handful of anthropomorphic islets. Trang is the mystical stomping ground of the local sea gypsies, who cast their lines among the finest blooms of snorkel-worthy coral. This quiet getaway is the Andaman's best-kept secret (until now).