Hoards of international people, schools of tropical fish, turquoise water, explosive fire hazards, wild monkeys, and dodgy boat rides – it’s a crazy ride in search of paradise on the islands of Thailand.

You’re not the only one searching for a stretch of soft sand and bright coral reefs. Everyone from every country in the world is too. Many people complain about the fact that there are too many tourists here, but they are clearly here for a reason. If you surrender to the chaos you start to look at the people as well as the fish and gorgeous scenery – the culture clash can be quite entertaining. This is a great place to people-watch.

As an American, I am sort of a minority here, which gives me the pleasurable advantage of not being able to understand most people’s conversations. It’s all just interesting sound, and I don’t get swept up into annoying conversations. It might as well be birds singing. It’s as good as silence. Throw in the fact that Europeans like to sunbathe topless or in tight speedos and you have yourself quite a free show, all day long. Include Middle Easterners who are covered up in 90 degree heat from head to ankles and people from northern Asia who don’t want to get sunburned, completely covered up in the water and even wearing booties and it’s just a fascinating feast of human wonder on parade. I love it.

We started from Bangkok and flew to Phuket, a huge island on the Andaman sea. We stayed on Kata beach which was a good choice for us. It was chilled out, there were restaurants on the beach including a reggae/ska bar. Our hotel was down a small side road so it was quiet at night with a nice pool and very friendly staff. We didn’t swim at Kata but instead ventured off to places we heard were the “best snorkeling spots.” The best that we tried was a tiny little inlet called Ao Sane, which had one restaurant and beach chairs for rent if you get there early. Go just a few feet into the turquoise water and suddenly you see coral on rock formations and lots of tropical fish. We saw cuttle fish and giant colorful star fish in hues of blue, pink and purple. We liked it so much we spent two days there.

We tried Kata Noi which is a big, beautiful beach, but it was quite hot with big waves, not that good for snorkeling. Unlike Bangkok, Phuket is a little hard to get around on. Taxis are expensive, but our hotel helped us arrange for them. The best option is to rent a scooter if you like to ride, still a little dangerous though.

We were all anxious and excited to see Ko Phi Phi, which we heard was good for snorkeling and is visually beautiful so we booked a snorkeling trip right away to take us there. It’s a 1 hour ride on a speed boat to get there from Phuket. But our tour was lackluster to say the least. For starters our driver was 45 minutes late picking us up, Daniel and I were in the unlucky seat on the boat and were pummeled with sea water the whole 1 hour trip and were soaking wet before we even got in the water. But our boat steered straight into a gorgeous lagoon on Ko Phi Phi Ley with karst cliffs and turquoise water as soon as we landed. It was a stunning sight to behold. Daniel took a leap off the top of the boat and dived right in like a sea bird. 

Paradise found. It’s no wonder why it is so popular. However we wanted to see “the Beach” in Maya bay, as our tour promised, but they said it was too choppy to go which left us a little disappointed and feeling like we didn’t really see it all. They took us to a snorkeling spot which was not that great, probably because the boats drop anchor right into the coral and so many tourists stand on it and kick it with their fins, they are all basically destroying the coral reefs and there does not appear to be any regulation or conservation efforts there. We saw a lot of dead coral on the trip. This brought a lot of sadness into our hearts. Not only because we came to snorkel there, but because we love the Earth and the sea life in it. 

We did lunch on Koh Phi Phi Don and they took us to “monkey beach.” When we pulled up there were hoards of people on the beach and a ton of boats, I thought to myself, “there is no way there are any monkeys on this beach.” But there were a bunch of monkeys, and they were breaking into people’s bags that were left lying on the rocks, opening their bottles of soda, chugging them and humping each other to the clicks of a thousand cameras. It was a mess of hilarious chaos. I’d pay money to hear David Attenborough do the voiceover for that scene, but he was doing it in my head for free! Then they took us to some really overrun, crappy beach and then finally home, thankfully. We went out again to Phi Phi from Krabi, more on that later… But in general, we think it’s worth the money to rent a private boat instead of going on a group tour.

New Year’s Eve on Kata beach was a sight to behold. We had a nice dinner on the beach and a bottle of champagne at the “Wave bar” which was mesmerizing, watching all sorts of characters surf, boogie board awkwardly and ultimately wipe out in a stellar fashion every few minutes to some bumping, deep house music. I could sit there for centuries watching it!

One night we had walked on the beach and sent a paper lantern up into the sky for my father’s birthday. It was a very moving ritual. When he had passed a few years ago, we tried to send one up in San Francisco, but were petrified of it burning someone’s house down so we stomped it out. I thought I could hear my father laughing at us overhead. But on Kata beach they have a nice breeze that takes the lanterns up and off over the sea. We got a marker and wrote some messages of love to dad and sent it off into the heavens. Word of advice, don’t attempt lighting it yourself, let the Thai ladies assist you for a successful lift off. We saw many DIY’ers crash and burn.

On New Year’s Eve there were thousands of paper lanterns going up into the sky, it was magical, but some were more successful than others. A beautiful ritual suddenly became alarming as it got crowded on the beach and some people were unskillful and inpatient for the lantern to fully expand and rise on its own and they would bounce and almost set people’s hair on fire trying to get into the sky. At dinner we saw one fall into the tree in front of us on fire! Somehow the Thai people didn’t seem concerned but we were worried we might have to evacuate. Pair that with little kids lighting fireworks on the beach and explosions going off and it’s total insanity. Toward midnight we thought if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So we lit a second lantern and it almost set two people on fire in front of us before launching into the atmosphere. We stood biting our white knuckles until a huge firework went off on the ground near us, our terrorist-era reflexes took hold and we grabbed each other and ran the hell out of there toward our hotel before we wound up in the hospital. We could see a sky full of fireworks and thousands of white and heart-shaped lanterns floating off into infinity. A beautiful and magical sight when it’s from a safe distance.

We ended our last night on Phuket in style when Daniel booked us a table that overlooked Kata Noi beach in time to watch the first sunset of 2016 on the ocean at Mom Tri’s restaurant. A very classy, beautiful, seafood restaurant.

We took the ferry from Phuket to Ao Nang beach in Krabi. Another sketchy adventure on a boat packed to the gills with too many people and too much luggage. We got there okay, but had to change boats mid-ocean, and I mean throwing your leg over the railing of the boat and literally hopping onto another boat as it’s bobbing in the waves – we had no idea if our bags would make it, but like everything here, it’s a total mess, but it all works out in the end. I guess I really needed that bracelet that was blessed with “good luck” by the monk in Bangkok, for real!

Krabi was a very different animal than Phuket. Smaller, even more relaxed, gorgeous karst scenery. A bunch of tiny islands off the beach that you can kayak to or take a boat to. The transportation here was cheaper and more fun. You can take a long tail boat to various beaches and little carriages attached to scooters to get down the road. We headed out to Railay beach which we heard was beautiful. It was, but a word of caution, they strangely don’t do beach chair and umbrella rentals in Krabi. Luckily we found a bit of shade. This is the place to do rock climbing, but in 90 degree heat, all we wanted to do was swim. However we saw one or two souls braving the cliffs around us. The beach was not that great because it was very shallow for a long ways, so we rented kayaks and kayaked around the dramatic cliffs and over to Ao Phra Nang beach which was nicer. 

 We paddled around the small islands off the coast and under some spectacular caverns and grottos. There were also some fun boats with food on the beach and we ate some fresh pad Thai then jumped back in the ocean. You can take a long tail boat here too but kayaking from Railay was a really fun adventure.

We were contemplating another snorkel tour to the islands around Krabi, but after the crappy one we took from Phuket we were apprehensive. Luckily our parents gave us a gift to take a private speedboat tour. Thanks Mom & Dad! This was much, much nicer. We could go anywhere we wanted and come and go as we pleased. Our driver took us out to Chicken and Poda islands to snorkel. We saw some patches of nice coral and sea life, but still, a lot of dead coral too. I had to ask three groups of snorkelers to stop standing on the coral. Sadly they do not educate people that it’s a delicate environment. One girl scratched her whole foot up on it too. The boats are also still dropping anchor right into the reef. Ugh! Painful to watch!

We motored over to the Hong islands which was like a mini Ko Phi Phi with less tourists. There was a gorgeous hidden cove on one side of the island that we went to when all the other boats left and had it to ourselves, a cove to snorkel and swim in and a few periphery islands. One was called “Paradise beach.” It did not have the greatest visibility when we were there but had the best coral life we’d seen, probably because it’s in a protected cove. We saw a huge coral fan and giant tubes stuck to the sides of the island underwater. 

Highly recommend the private speedboat. We loved it so much we rented it again to take us out to Ko Phi Phi and do it right this time. We were still apprehensive though, had we seen the best already? Are we still searching for a paradise that doesn’t exist? Are going a little mad like Leo’s character in the movie? But no, it was much better with a private boat this time and we were able to ask him to take us exactly where we wanted to go. 

We started with Maya beach on Ko Phi Phi Ley. Yes, full of people and boats even at 9am, but no less beautiful. I would suggest getting there as early as you can. White, powder soft sand, turquoise water, gentle waves surrounded by karst scenery on all sides. Just jump in and swim and let it all go. You can’t have paradise all to yourself but you can frolic in the waves with all the dreamers who are just as silly as you are.

Then off to another hidden cove full of thousands of minnows and Yung island was great for snorkeling. Our driver dropped us off into a big reef full of lots of coral and sea life. Then off to Bamboo island which was yet another slice of paradise. At this point we were a little tired and just plotzed on the beautiful beach for a little nap. Then dove into the blue water to see yet another big reef right off the beach. It seemed to be doing okay despite being so close to the beach and the surface of the water. It may have been low tide though. 

Finally, we ended our time in Krabi checking out a “Lady Boy” show at the Blue Dragon. We just couldn’t resist these very cute drag queens hanging out in the street with their fliers. A one hour parade of fabulously, bedazzled outfits and lip syncing to music from every culture including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai and a medley of Beyonce’s “Survivor” mixed with “I will survive.” I couldn’t stop giggling and smiling so much my face hurt. It was a very fun, funny and luckily PG 13 experience.

We spent many nights watching the sun go down with a cocktail in hand at the lovely Ao Nang Villa lounge bar on the beach. Ahhhh yes. 

We took the bus / boat combo ticket to get from Krabi over to Koh Tao and Koh Samui. A long ride, but a relaxing one. Daniel is writing a separate blog post about Koh Tao which was the best snorkeling we saw amongst a younger, more adventurous crowd of tourists. We loved Koh Tao. Koh Samui was disappointing after all we had seen. Very built up, touristy and not as much snorkeling. We took a snorkel tour out to Ang Thong marine park which was a chain of islands that are quiet and desolate. Daniel took in a real Muay Thai fight and Koh Samui has a few temples with incredibly large Buddhas and Hindu deities. It was nice to get a taste of culture and one last blessing of good luck from a local monk before departing.

In the end the concept of Paradise is very subjective. Searching for paradise in the company of loved ones is preferred because hey, the good life is only good if you can share it with the people you love and oh yes, a million other international pleasure seekers. We left feeling many thanks to the Thai people we met who were friendly, incredibly helpful and smiling. Thanks for sharing your beautiful country with us.