Krabi: Thailand's Shangri-La with white sand beaches and jungle

For those seeking a quieter seaside experience, there is another gateway to paradise opposite Thailand's famous name resort.

Krabi town is a pretty small place, with a single main road, despite being the capital of the province of the same name in southern Thailand. Its appeal as a gateway to the wonders of seaside Thailand, however, can hardly be overstated.

Krabi is located on shore of the Andaman Sea, opposite its internationally famous cousin Phuket. But Krabi is quiet and rustic, and much less expensive. The town has many tourist agencies and it is easy to book tours, even late into the evening before the day of departure. Bargaining on tour prices is customary.

About 38 kilometers southwest of Krabi are the incredibly beautiful islands of Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh, sometimes called Thailand's Shangri-La, featuring white sand beaches leading up to lush jungle growth. They are the top choice of many first-time visitors to Thailand. A one-day trip usually ranges in price from 1,000 to 2,000 baht ($28-$55; 26 to 51 euros), subject to seasonal changes.

In the morning, a van picks up travelers at their hotels for a 30-minute trip to Ao Nang port and a ride aboard a fast boat for the Phi Phi islands. Wearing a swimsuit under your clothes is recommended since there's nowhere to change on the boats.

People start to oooh and aaah as they pass small islands set in the crystal blue sea. As Phi Phi grows nearer, colorful coral and exotic fish become easily visible in the exceptionally clear water.

Maya Bay, sheltered by limestone cliffs on three sides, is famous for the 2000 movie "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and is stunningly beautiful. Inside the bay there are a series of beaches, small and large, with the main beach made up of some 200 meters of soft white sand.

Phi Phi is seductive. Boats wait in line to ferry visitors in and out. But the heavy tourism is affecting their fragile beauty and some corals are dying, bleaching out to gray.

Krabi also has other temptations in store, including hot springs in the jungle.

About an hour's drive from downtown is Namtok Ron Khlong Thom, hot springs waterfalls set in a shady forest. Walking along cobblestones deep into the forest, visitors hear the thundering sound of the waterfalls and see a verdant world shrouded in steam and fog as the sun sifts through the trees.

There are many lovely natural hollows. Hot springs and cool streams converge on a slope to form cascades of warm water. Soaking in one of the natural stone bathtubs, the water flowing past at a pleasant 40 C degrees gently massages and soothes the body.

A 20-minute drive from the waterfalls is Sa Morakot Emerald Ponds, characterized by large natural pools filled with pure spring water. This is in the Khao Nor Chu Chi forest reserve, where paths lead to the pools, the longest being 1.2 kilometers. Each trail offers a group of mini-pools, streams and waterfalls and plenty of exotic tropical trees and plants. Tiredness dissolves with a jump into a pool.

On weekends, after returning from a day trip, visitors find the small town transformed into a lively scene with food stalls and a stage for music and other performances. Unlike night markets in Chiang Mai and Bangkok crammed with tourists, the night market here is very local and the food is fresh and delicious.

The scene is loud, busy and tugs at all the senses as visitors wander around, surrounded by mouthwatering smells, jaw-dropping low prices and the visual delight of fresh food. In front of the stage is an area for chairs and tables, so there is no problem finding a place to sit down.

The idea is to do a sweep of all the stalls, get the smallest portion of whatever is on offer, and make sure to leave room for other goodies. Be a little adventurous with what you choose and it will pay off, locals say.