Review: Kayaking Krabi

Don't judge a tour by it's brochure!

Kayaking Bor Thor caves

Doug and I both ♥ the Krabi caveman. At least we ♥ him a lot better than we ♥ that other guy, the one with the fancy pants - or brochure - or whatever...

In Krabi we stayed in a charming little guesthouse. It had a box on the front counter stuffed with brochures for every kind of adventure/water sport you can imagine. They marketed activities like rock climbing, elephant rides, kayaking and caves, swimming in hot springs, snorkeling, speed boating, diving and cliff jumping. We sat down with a few drinkies to pick out a neat day trip. Doug has a bit of a thing for caves and pre-historic art so we settled on Krabi Caveman Kayaking's full day tour of the Bor Thor mangroves and limestone karst caves. It included a visit to Pee Hua Toh, Big-Headed Ghost Cave, the most decorated cave in Thailand with 3000 year old paintings.

Cave paintings at Pee Hua Toh (Big-Headed Ghost Cave)
Cave paintings at Pee Hua Toh (Big-Headed Ghost Cave)
Fishing hut on Bor Thor estuary
Kayaking Bor Thor caves
Pee Hua Toh: Big-Headed Ghost Cave
Kayaking Bor Thor estuary
...and rain starts to fall
The principal inhabitants of Very Sharp Beach
...and the island's prettiest find

The Bor Thor trip was brilliantly planned and exquisitely timed from start to finish. While the hordes on the half-day trips headed downstream, our guide, Mel, took us away from the crowds on an isolated upstream section of the river. It was peaceful and shady and we quickly found a pace that worked the arms but let us admire the towering karsts, bird calls and beautiful mangroves. Mel led us up the headwaters into Anaconda Cave – floating in cool, almost darkness hearing the drips and ripples was exhilarating, I loved it. Mel described the different mangrove varieties, how they survive the saline environment and the medicinal uses of the species. He seemed extremely proud of the estuary and the lifestyle of the people who live there and concerned about the conservation of the ecosystem. He used his hands to make a convincing monkey-call, but apparently the monkeys were taking a day off.

Lunch was the best vegetarian meal we could have imagined. It started with ice cold water, vegetable tom yam soup and a serious salad (not the revolting stuff they generally feed to tourists, like dry coleslaw and a tomato) then on to garlic vegetables and cashew nuts with rice, vegetable tempura with a couple of dipping sauces and fresh tropical fruit. How's that for an included lunch on a cheap package tour? Back home I would have paid more for the lunch alone.

Once we'd had time to digest all that, Mel took us downstream to the fish and oyster farms where he explained a few things about the village's traditional livelihood. The caves themselves and the parts of the river they graced were magnificent. Liquid shadows rippled across bizarre formations and deep green pools alternated with sunny, sparkling shallows. I noticed how keen Mel's sense of attachment to the area was when he explained what the cave had looked like when he played there as a boy. Each pillar and shape had a name given to it by the local children and Mel described their features with his torch. The dragon (spot him in the photos below), the hermit, the lovers. The paintings were amazing. In ochres and black the Krabi cavemen had created birds, matriachal shamans, buffaloes and fish. With my poor eyes I had to rely on Doug's work with the camera to see how strikingly they'd been depicted. The comparatively large skull of one of the cavemen was found there, hence the name "Big Headed Ghost Cave".

We paddled back on a high and Mel took us to a beautiful swimming hole 20 minutes drive away. The water was gorgeous - shockingly cold and the current deceptively strong - strong enough to keep me swimming hard to stay in one place! We felt cool and refreshed after exertions in the heat. It was the perfect day trip.

The swimming hole Pee Hua Toh: Big-Headed Ghost Cave Mel The dragon in Pee Hua Toh Kayaking the Bor Thor estuary

We reserved our next day in Krabi for cave temple adventures, but we'd enjoyed our first day of kayaking so much that we were lured by a company offering a different kayaking experience. These guys had a super slick brochure with an array of stunning professional photographs in which blissed out buffed people paddled a kayak through turquoise waters under great limestone arches. Sea-kayak Krabi offered a full day kayak and snorkeling tour to Hong Island - and if you believed the photos, you had never seen anything so incomparably beautiful as Hong Island. When we enquired about the price we found it was a little expensive but we figured what they hey – the brochure said everything was included and there was boating, kayaking and snorkeling to be had. We were so psyched we bounced out of bed at 6:30 for early breakfast with a smile.

I noted that the day looked a little cloudy but I wasn't too concerned, the sun was streaking through here and there and it wasn't cold. We were bundled into a minivan and greeted warmly enough, but after our guide had established that we didn't speak Thai he just yakked away to the driver for the next hour while we trailed around picking up people from the more expensive hotels. At the Sheraton the guests had to have a whole party of khaki-dressed men with semi-automatics and beaming little Thai hostesses see them off. I just blinked.

We finally arrived at the jetty and were left to our own devices for some time while the longboats were loaded up with kayaks. I was thrilled when we boarded, excited to just be getting on with it, even though the tour seemed quite crowded to me. The trip to the island was relatively short, though the lack of a muffler on the longboat was irritating. We pulled up to a beach that was quite pretty but not stunning by the standards we'd become accustomed to on Phi Phi. I leapt out of the boat and was anxious to get in a kayak, convinced that the magnificent scenery from the brochure photos must be just around the corner in the lagoon. Doug and I paddled off through the entrance into a wide pool so shallow we ended up feeling pretty ridiculous, decked out in our compulsory bulky life jackets, while stranded on a sand bar. It's not that there was anything wrong with the lagoon. It was pretty and there were lots of crabs I kept trying to catch with my paddle, but it kind of reminded me of camping trips to Noosa lakes as a kid, not the romantic Andaman Sea jewel we'd seen in the brochures. Doug barely had enough time to take some photos and a bit of video before we were called back to the beach. We sat around for about 15 minutes (more than half the time we'd been in the water so far) and I began to wonder what we were doing, because we hadn't had the itinerary explained to us at all. The group got back in the kayaks and began to follow the guide along the edge of the island karsts. Doug and I were thrilled, thinking that we were off to some exciting destination on the other side of the rock. Unfortunately we'd barely gotten a rhythm up when the guide struck out into open water where the longboats were waiting. Everyone started pulling their kayaks up to the boats and getting inside. Doug and I exchanged raised brow glances but followed. I doubt we would have spent more than 40 minutes in the kayaks.

We were then handed cheap snorkel and mask sets and waved towards a rock near where the boats (about 5 of them in a row, drivers and guides lounging around chatting to each other and ignoring the tourists) were tied up. The masks had not been treated and clouded up the instant they hit the water and no matter how I adjusted mine it continued to leak. The soft coral around the rock was truly beautiful and more colourful and various than any we had seen so far on our trip, but after less than 30 minutes we were called back to the boat and told we were going somewhere else for lunch!

Before we pulled up at the next beach (which to me looked very ordinary) the guide warned us that we should wear our shoes, because there were a lot of very sharp things in the water and on the beach. I found out quickly that wandering anywhere in bare feet was very painful. Lunch was cold rice and tasteless vegetables. My serving had a green and yellow caterpillar in it as a bonus.

The guide then promptly fell asleep under a tree and we were left to peer into the murky waters. 2 hours later everyone was lying on the beach looking thoroughly bored (noone had spent more than 10 minutes swimming) when it began to rain. The guide looked irritated to have his nap spoiled but he hustled us back onto the boat. A light sprinkle rapidly turned into a cold downpour and everyone was shivering in wet clothes as the longboat raced for home. By 3pm, an hour and a half before the day trip was supposed to finish, we found ourselves soaked and huddling under a restaurant verandah for shelter with a couple of wet, miserable cats. The guide and driver disappeared and returned some time later (when noone showed any interest in eating) to bundle us back in the van. I had to beg them to turn off the air conditioner!

40 minutes of kayaking, 25 minutes of snorkeling and 2 hours on the least inviting beach I've visited in Asia. I couldn't wait to get back to the guesthouse and have it all end! What a contrast to the nice surprise we got from the Caveman (the much cheaper option with a brochure that looked home-made using Word clipart). Don't be sucked in people, Mr Fancypants doesn't have anything to offer that a decent Caveman can't give you with less fuss.


Update April 6 2012 - Mel's Contact Details, tours and prices (thanks patmuk!)

58/20 Moo 2, Ao-nang, Muang, Krabi 81000 Thailand,
Tel/Fax: 075-695141
Mobile: 086-2711646
e-mail:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
OTD. Licence: 33/04113

He offers three tours:
8.30 - 16.30 Sea Cave at Bor-Thor (1,500 B or 1,000 B for a child)
8.30 - 16.30 Sea Cave & Elephant trekking (1,900 B or 1,400 B child)
8.30 - 13.30 Sea Cave (1,000 B or 800 B child)

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