Photo: Late light on a popular beach.

Introduction

Packed along a lacklustre beach framed by limestone headlands, Ao Nang marks the centre of tourism in Krabi province. From tailor shops to boat tours to bars and all-in-one Indian/Italian/Thai restaurants, every convenience imaginable is at your fingertips here. If Ao Nang’s trashy side doesn’t sit well, head up the road to the lower-key beaches of Haad Noppharat Thara and Khlong Muang.

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The town’s official name, Ao Phra Nang, pays homage to a local goddess who collects piles of wooden penises in her cave shrine on the nearby Railay peninsula. It’s fitting that the honorific phra was dropped; today Ao Nang is more of a tribute to beer and bikinis than anything sacred. The main drag is awash with pushy touts, ugly signs and stalls overflowing with T-shirts sporting politically incorrect sayings. While this is not a sexpat enclave, things do get seedy in some of the side streets.

That the majority Muslim community puts up with the sometimes-drunken and usually scantily clad tourists is one of Ao Nang’s perplexing features. We’d guess that money answers this riddle: a giant modern mosque like the one that now towers over town requires a lot of it. Ao Nang is a place of ironies and oddities to go with the ups and downs.

For such a popular beach destination, Ao Nang beach itself leaves a lot to be desired. The rough tan sand practically disappears at high tide. All day long, a fleet of noisy longtail boats stirs up brownish-green water that’s no more than waste-deep for the first 200 metres offshore at low tide. If your travel agent insists that this is a white-sand paradise, you need to find a new travel agent.

Even Ao Nang looks good in the late light.

Even Ao Nang looks good in the late light.


Unless, that is, they’re talking about the spectacular shores of nearby Railay, Ko Hong, Ko Poda and Ko Gai, all reachable as affordable day trips. Staying in Ao Nang makes it easy to soak up these far better beaches during the day, returning at sunset for the comfy accommodation, lively atmosphere and enormous selection of food and drink. If you tire of the beach, Ao Nang also makes a fine base for hitting Krabi’s inland attractions.

Ao Nang will not disappoint if you count people watching among your favourite pastimes. From the 1980s to mid 2000s, it drew mostly Scandinavians, mainland Europeans and Russians on package holidays. While these groups remain prevalent, they now rub shoulders with American, Arab, Chinese, Malay and other Asian travellers, all targeted by resident entrepreneurs from all over the world, including a notably high number of Indians. It’s quite the mix of people.
All aboard!

All aboard!


Every local and their brother run a travel office, making it simple to arrange tours and onward transport. Even the local bus and songthaew routes are posted in English. Often hardened by the mass tourism trade, many of the local Thais stick around only for high season, strictly to work. Like Phuket and Samui, Ao Nang attracts its share of scammers, thieves and predators, both Thais and foreigners. Don’t forget to pack your common sense.

Just beyond an outcrop of shaggy rocks to the north, the longer beach of Haad Noppharat Thara is a breath of fresh air after in-your-face Ao Nang. The main eastern stretch of Haad Noppharat Thara is a favourite of locals who lay out their grass mats under the casuarina trees for picnics on weekends and holidays. Plenty of foreigners, especially families, are also drawn to the quiet atmosphere that still keeps all of those conveniences within easy reach.
Last man standing.

Last man standing.


Beyond an estuary with a pier that services boats to Ko Phi Phi and Phuket, Western Haad Noppharat Thara (or Long Beach) is a broad expanse of fine off-white sand with a more remote feel. All but one of the five small bungalow joints found here run electricity only at night. Perfect for those in need of some solitude, it feels like a different world compared to Ao Nang.

Head further north and you reach the thin but pretty Ao Siew Beach on the way to Laem Hang Nak, a hilly green cape that hosts a gold-pointed palace where a Thai princess comes to unwind. Beyond that stretches Khlong Muang, a small coastal town with a fine beach, where low-key fishing life harmoniously blends with low-level tourism. Back east of Ao Nang is Ao Nammao, another quiet beach that’s best known for its collection of prehistoric fossils.

Difficult to miss.

Difficult to miss.


Though Ao Nang is a relatively expensive destination in high season, budget travellers do have some options. In addition to stacks of air-con rooms in the 800 to 2,000 baht range, a handful of hostels are available. Precious few fan-cooled bungalows are found in Ao Nang proper, but some good ones are located in Haad Noppharat Thara and Khlong Muang. If you prefer a lively riverfront city to a beach town, you might shack up in one of Krabi town’s good-value guesthouses while hitting the beaches by rented motorbike or public songthaew.

High season in this part of Thailand runs from November to April, with the Christmas/New Year and Chinese New Year holidays being especially busy. Expect slashed accommodation prices, thin crowds, rainy weather and rough seas, including some riptides off the beaches, from May to October. The area is notorious for boat accidents; think twice before setting off onto rough seas.
A world away on East Noppharat Thara.

A world away on East Noppharat Thara.


Orientation
The central Ao Nang police station is hard to miss on the main drag within a hundred metres of the beach, and a tourist police office is situated on Route 4023 as it runs between Ao Nang and Haad Noppharat Thara. Three medical clinics — Ao Nang International, First Standard and Krabi Hospital Clinic — are located along the main drag heading inland through Ao Nang, with the closest full-scale hospital located in Krabi town. ATMs and currency exchange booths are readily available in several parts of Ao Nang, Haad Noppharat Thara and Khlong Muang.

The name Ao Nang covers the town, bay and beach that all touch the Andaman Sea in Southwestern Thailand, a 20-minute drive west of Krabi’s provincial capital. Across Phra Nang Bay to the west loom Ko Yao Yai, and Phuket beyond that, with dozens of small islands, Ko Poda and Ko Gai being two of the larger, clearly visible (and easily reachable) from Ao Nang beach.
Beachside snacks out of a pickup.

Beachside snacks out of a pickup.


Just beyond an imposing limestone cliff to the southwest of Ao Nang beach stretches the Railay peninsula with its far better beaches and more cliffs that attract rock climbers from the world over. In between are two smaller bays, hippie-haven Ao Tonsai and another occupied by an exclusive Centara resort. All of these can be quickly reached by boat from Ao Nang.

The main road through Ao Nang is Route 4203, also known as Ao Nang Road. The stretch that runs for a few km from south to north, away from the beach, is where you’ll find the highest density of restaurants, travel offices, convenience stores and accommodation. This portion of 4203 is also known as Moo 2, though most simply call it the main drag. It’s not a pretty or relaxing place — expect lots of touts and traffic jams during late afternoon in high season. To escape the noise, head east down one of the side lanes that access half a dozen resorts set in gorgeous settings near the cliffs.
West Noppharat Thara - now we're talking!

West Noppharat Thara – now we’re talking!


Where the main drag hits the beach, a seaside pedestrian/motorbike-only side lane cuts for some 500 metres to the southeast, overlooking the best stretch of beach before tapering into a cluster of 20 or more beach massage shacks that also rent out plastic chairs in the shade of banyan and umbrella trees. Continue east and you’ll reach the southeastern end of the beach, marked by a closed-off wooden stairway winding up the steep limestone eminence that helps give Ao Nang its distinctive scenery. Macaques often hang around here, much to the amusement of snap-happy tourists.

With your back facing inland, a right where the main drag hits the beach puts you on another busy stretch of Ao Nang Road, known here as Moo 3, or the beach road. It runs past many more restaurants and trinket shops before cutting briefly inland after a km to avoid the headland that separates Ao Nang from Haad Noppharat Thara. Accessible from the far southwestern end of Ao Nang beach, a concrete “sunset walkway” skirts a portion of the headland.
A chilled out low-key vibe.

A chilled out low-key vibe.


Along the stretch of road that cuts through this in-between terrain (we call it “the hump”), Khlong Hang Road and Ao Nang Soi 8 cut inland and host a number of newish accommodation options — not a bad location that puts you within walking distance of Ao Nang and Noppharat Thara beaches. Khlong Hang (both the road and same-named canal) continue inland, eventually linking up to Route 4035, which can take you straight east to Krabi town.

After passing the hump and a small bridge, keep northwest on the beach road and you’ll cruise for two km alongside the sand of Eastern Haad Noppharat Thara, passing a few small resorts and restaurants, until you reach the best stretch of beach followed by the mouth of a river that hosts the area’s main boat pier. Along with loads of seafood restaurants, this is also where you’ll find the Visitor Centre for Hat Noppharat Thara – Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park.
Ao Siew: Do come visit.

Ao Siew: Do come visit.


The river separates Haad Noppharat Thara’s eastern and western halves, which can be thought of as two different beaches. To reach Western Haad Noppharat Thara overland, take Route 4203 as it shoots northeast from near the pier, then the second left, then right passing St Agnes Church, and left again to head west on Moo 4. This road will wind you over the canal before hitting Route 6024, which runs west past the turnoff for Western Haad Noppharat Thara, marked by signs for J2B Bungalow and others. Cross-river longtail boats near the pier can also take you to Western Haad Noppharat Thara for 50 baht per head.
Taking a quiet moment at Khlong Muang.

Taking a quiet moment at Khlong Muang.


Keep west for another five km on 6024 and you’ll arrive at Khlong Muang beach, where there’s a turnoff running south to Ao Siew. Continue north past Khlong Muang’s luxury resorts to find the budget accommodation. North of Khlong Muang and a large gypsum mine, the road ends at a national park trail after passing the five luxury resorts occupying Tup Kaek beach.

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