I’d first heard of Ton Sai from a friend’s Instagram feed. His photos of that place consisted mostly of rock climbing shots of his friends, well-built guys skilfully navigating the limestone cliff faces on the coast. It didn’t really pique my curiosity at first, but somehow I found my way there while searching for a little peace and quiet during my overland exploration of South Thailand.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
For any traveller who isn’t also a climber, Ton Sai bay in Krabi probably wouldn’t register as a blip on their radar. After all, compared to both its neighbours – Ao Nang, the definitive tourist hotspot and Rai Leh, one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand – Ton Sai was undoubtedly the least attractive destination, with same-y offers of dive operators and rock-climbing guides as all the other beaches.
Options for accommodation were basic and decidedly less “resort” than the ones around it, and electricity on most parts of the bay is only available from 6pm to 6am. Ton Sai is mainly accessible by water taxi, but if a person were particularly determined to get there, they could choose between an hour-long trek through the jungle or a hike over a rocky isthmus jutting out of the crag that isolates the bay from neighbouring Rai Leh. It was a small place and there was little to do other than climb and chill.
Day-trippers from Krabi town and the neighbouring beaches were common in Ton Sai, but those who choose to stay sometimes stay for weeks or even months. But what was it that enchants them so much about the place?
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
From the beach, the casual observer would notice nothing out of the ordinary; the cliffs were most prominent, followed by the jungle, the sole hotel on the right side of the beach, and a bar that everyone flocks to at sunset. The jungle starts out as a lush green thicket, only a few yards from the shoreline, and grows thicker as it goes deeper inland to meet the cliffs that cradle the bay. But with a closer look, there was a path amongst the vegetation that leads the curious explorer further inwards.
The jungle ends abruptly, cut off by a length of grey concrete wall that stretches from one end of the bay to another. Each panel of the wall was decorated with murals, quotes and poetry contributed by a myriad of travellers. The messages were uplifting and welcoming, the images, awe-inspiring… and mostly psychedelic. The murals spoke of mushrooms, of a higher consciousness, of being connected as One. They call the viewer to leave their shackles behind, to put down their phones and be present. They welcome the visitor to a place where all are welcomed.
Beyond that wall, there exists a global community that lives in sharing and mutual support. Nestled amongst the vegetation was a simple collection of huts, reggae bars and humble local eateries, places where climbers and travelers lived and convened. Ton Sai was a small place and a person could meet everyone else if they stayed long enough, forming a kind of adopted multi-national family with the other residents at the time, all living simply and contentedly in the jungle.
CHILDREN OF THE WORLD
There are many places in Thailand – i.e Khao San road in Bangkok, Haadrin in Koh Phangan, Bangla road in Phuket – where people gather to be ignorant tourists or make drunken nuisances of themselves. Ton Sai was not such a place.
Apart from the adrenaline-seekers, climbers and divers, there were the usual hippie-types of course, with thick dreadlocks and unwashed feral children running around. Some of these people have been there for a while, others were frequent visitors. Then there were also the happy wanderers like me, backpackers and budget travellers making their way through Thailand and South East Asia. There were people from all over the world; no place was too far or too foreign. The locals that live there were gentle and hospitable, most of them youths who were well-loved by every visitor. Everybody there is ridiculously nice, and to make things even more surreal, they were impossibly fit from rock-climbing all day. Seriously, I have never seen a place that densely populated with hot bodies.
In the evenings, people gathered around bonfires on the beach, or huddled together over drinks. Fire-twirlers provide some form of entertainment throughout the night, while slackliners take to the line to amuse themselves and those that gather to watch and cheer them on. Some nights the fire-twirlers even take on the slackline, which is completely insane to watch.
I met Monica while she was out climbing one afternoon. She came from New York and was a long way from home. Monica said initially she hadn’t planned on staying too long. “I was sleeping above this bar for the first month,” she recounted, “and then I found a hut, so I stayed longer.” Eventually she was offered a job as a climb guide. “So I decided to stay even longer – why not?” she finished with a laugh. Apparently most people find a way to stay in Ton Sai, if they want it badly enough.
The bar in question was a wooden and bamboo beauty with a second floor that housed vagabond travelers. The sign by the entrance reads “200 baht a night” but soon I learnt that it was purely perfunctory. Anyone was welcome to crash upstairs in one of the hammocks, or on any of the lounge cushions strewn about, for absolutely free! Or at the very least, in exchange for some love at the bar. The space was littered with bags and rucksacks and an assortment of shoes and laundry, left behind by travellers who would wander off in the day and pass out exhausted, deaf and dead to the live reggae or the psytrance beats coming from the bar below. No one worries about their belongings getting stolen. They all believed in karma and positive vibes only.
I spent my first night on Ton Sai purely by accident; I was a day tripper who had wandered into the unknown, got swept away by the magic and missed the last water taxi back to reality, or rather to Ao Nang, where my hostel was located. “Where you sleep?” asked one of the local bar boys. I shrugged. I hadn’t thought about that. “Maybe here,” he suggested helpfully, “why not?”
Another afternoon, exhausted from a challenging day, I ordered a drink and slumped low in my seat, staring blankly into nothing. A bar boy, noticing my disposition, held out a single stalk of mushroom to me, a cheeky smile playing across his face, saying the same words that have become all-too-familiar since I discovered Ton Sai – “Why not?”
I eventually noticed that the place has its own infectious motto: “Why not?” Everyone I’d met was saying it, punctuating the end of their sentences with it. The phrase was a testament to the easy-going and open nature of the place. Offer a stranger a place to sleep in your hut… Why not? Do absolutely nothing all day… Why not? I’d met Paola who’d flown 40 hours from Brazil to go straight to Ton Sai, and she too had said, “Why not?”
Ton Sai to me represents a freedom from my own expectations out of life, a place to retreat to and live simply. We often feel the desire to leave the world behind, and with it all the inhibitions holding us back. In a place so refreshingly cut off from the real world, there’s more time and space to reconnect with people, with nature, and most importantly with yourself.