Photo: Late light on a popular beach.

Eat and meet

With so many choices (read: so many bad choices), food recommendations come in handy in Ao Nang and surrounds. You’ll see a bazillion all-in-one Indian/Italian/Thai restaurants that all look identical and all have pushy “hosts” out on the street to persuade you into coming in for an overpriced bite. Many of these are best avoided, though we did find exceptions. Food prices are generally high, and most kitchens water down the Thai food for Western tastes. If exploring authentic local food is an important part of your travel experience, consider staying in Krabi town.

Ao Nang: the beach road
Addressing your eat-while-lounging needs first, roving vendors carrying baskets balanced by long rods on their shoulders will stop and grill up an ear of buttered corn or slice up some watermelon for you right on the sand. At the far southern end of the pedestrian beachfront lane, a few stalls collectively known as Beach Fruit Bar churn out burgers with fries and som tam with grilled chicken to the sun worshipers, who often wash down the grub with an iced coffee, fruit smoothie or 100 baht takeaway mojito.

Keep strolling to the end of the beach lane and you’ll hit an oddly placed brick arch; it looks like the gate to some exclusive resort but in fact takes you into The Last Fisherman, one of Ao Nang’s most popular restaurants thanks mainly to its terrific location for sundowners. Most go for the average and rather pricy seafood barbecue to go with cocktails served to tables set up directly on the sand. An extensive Thai/Western menu is served all day, including decent burgers, baguettes and salads. Staff is slow but this isn’t a fast food joint, and for a sunset ambiance it really can’t be beat. At the opposite (northern) end of the beach, the Longtail Boat Bar’s terrace perched over the sand is another go-to spot for a sundowner.

The beach road has its share of “international” restaurants serving Indian, Thai, American, Italian and other European cuisines. On the inland side of the road near the main drag, the popular Jeseao Restaurant is one that actually does a good job on many different types of food. We were very satisfied with the crispy brick-oven pizza, and the nearly full dining room appeared happy with everything from chunky burgers to chicken vindaloo curry and fresh prawns, fish or squid from the sidewalk grill. Prices are typically high but the service is snappy and the voluminous menu built to satisfy all tastes.

For a romantic splurge at sunset, White Elephant Restaurant at the swanky Villa Resort appeared to be a good choice. It offers a selection of wines and cocktails to go with a thoughtful Thai menu that includes regional Thai dishes like gaeng hang lae curry from the north, and gaeng liang, a southern specialty that features a locally grown leafy green. Expect boneless meats, professional servers, white tablecloths, flickering candles and a high attention to detail -- all for prices that reach up to 500 baht for mains. For dessert, you might head over to Movenpick for a scoop of creamy (and pricey) Swiss ice cream.

There isn’t much cheap food on or near the beach apart from the roving vendors, but a handful of classic street food carts set up along the beach road as it cuts from Ao Nang to Haad Noppharat Thara, a bit north of the entrance to Krabi Resort. Here you can munch on cheap grilled chicken, pork skewers, kebabs and roti, or sit down for a plate of pad Thai, kee mao, pad krapao with rice or noodle soup.

Ao Nang: the main drag
The strip is packed with open-air restaurants that often focus on seafood barbecue. You should be able to score a decent whole grilled fish at any of them, but for cheaper prices and bigger portions, head inland past the mosque to A-Hud restaurant, on the left before Full Moon Guesthouse. They do raw oysters on a half shell along with tom yum seafood soup and fresh crab stir-fried with yellow curry powder and egg, all cooked with minimal watering down for Westerners.

Further east on Ao Nang Road, a good half-kilometre past Ao Nang Backpacker, is where you’ll find the Ao Nang night market. Patronised almost entirely by locals, it starts buzzing daily at 17:00 and is a good place to indulge on finger foods like moo ping (grilled pork skewers) and hoy tort (fried oyster omellete) along with curries and chilli pastes for takeaway. You’ll also find an abundance of fresh fruit and Thai sweets.

Across the road from the mosque, Salameeyah Kitchen (open morning to afternoon, look for the green sign) is a good opportunity to sample authentic Southern Thai-Muslim curries on the cheap. Similar to what you’ll find in Krabi town’s Maharaj Market, they dish out gaeng som (orange sour curry) and gaeng tai pla (painfully spicy fish curry) among many others displayed in trays under glass. They also do dim sum, sala bao and milky chaa yen (Thai iced tea).

A bit further east up the drag and on the same side of the road, you’ll find a couple of other similar curry shops and a hole-in-the-wall specialising in khao man kai (chicken rice) and khanom jeen, fermented rice noodles with an assortment of spicy/fishy curries. A few roadside shacks also do straightforward Thai dishes, some specialising in spicy Isaan-style salads. We had a tasty krapao neua, beef stir-fried with garlic, holy basil and chillies, at one of them.

Moving gradually back towards the beach, Boat Noodle Ao Nang had expanded since our last visit to include a spiffy counter where you can slurp down bowls of the specialty beef boat noodles in a rich broth tempered by the juices that drip from roasting meat. They also do pad Thai, stir-fries and simple veggie dishes like pak-buung fai daeng (wok-fried morning glory) for a seemingly pricey 100 baht, though portions are large.

Nearby, a group of street carts set up all day and late into the night near Adam Bungalows. These mainly cater to local resort workers and offer spicy som tam, grilled chicken and fish with sticky rice, and noodle soup. A few footpath tables are available for eating on-site.

One more spot worth mentioning on the Thai food front is Family Restaurant, a simple eatery fronted by a charcoal grill and with tables extending over a spacious roofed wooden deck on Soi 8, across from Green Park and Anawin bungalows. In addition to reasonably priced barbecue, they cook up simple stir-fries and noodle dishes starting at just 50 baht, making this one of the cheapest options in town for a proper sit-down meal.

Moving on to Western fare, The Smiling Dog Cafe (also near Adam Bungalows) sells good crepes to go with fresh coffee and smoothies. If you’re really hungry, try the American breakfast crepe, a mix of potatoes, bacon, cheese and eggs stuffed into a thin flaky pancake -- delicious. Across the street is Je Coffee, which does quality breakfasts with homemade whole wheat and Bavarian breads as well as strong coffee.

Jenna’s is a standout cafe and bar that opens early and keeps rolling well into the night. The a-la-carte breakfasts, bagel sandwiches and fresh coffee are some of the best ways to start the day in Ao Nang, and things stay hearty for lunch and dinner with barbecued pork baguettes, roast duck and Aussie ribeye steaks. They also present a good selection of wines and well-done cocktails. Located next to Starbucks and other Western chains, Jenna’s spacious terrace and Western servers might make you forget that you’re in Thailand. Air-con seating is available, and the prices will also transport you to Melbourne or Seattle. Neighbouring TJ’s Sports Bar is also worth keeping in mind for a deliciously messy burger along with a beer tower and some Premier League action.

If you’re in the mood for a steak, Divers Inn serves imported New Zealand ribeyes and filet mignon, perhaps finished off with a house-made creme brulee or German chocolate cake. With chunky wooden tables covered in dark plaid tablecloths, the atmosphere is classically Euro and the prices for the seriously hearty stodge are not cheap, but you won’t leave hungry.

A bit closer to the beach in a hole-in-the-wall that’s easy to miss, Little Italy has an Italian chef preparing pasta dishes that are far superior to what you’ll find at the “international” joints. The gnocchi and house-made fettuccine are wrapped in homemade sauces that are simple enough to not overpower the excellent pasta, but also very tasty. Leg of lamb, lasagna, pizzas, house-made tiramisu and baguettes with salami or mozzarella, basil and tomato all looked equally enticing.

If you’ve a hankering for Mexican and you can forgive the name, Crazy Gringo’s serves tacos, burritos, enchiladas and margaritas in a side lane that shoots off the main drag near the beach road. We didn’t try it, but a local American told us the food is very good, if a bit pricey.

Ao Nang: nightlife
A hopping nightlife scene explains why many put up with Ao Nang’s pricey accommodation and less-than-stellar beach. One of the wilder areas is a side lane that loops from the main drag to the beach road and hosts several bars, including the aforementioned Crazy Gringo’s. The Wild-West-themed Longhorn Saloon has a house rock-n-roll band that plays practically every night and will do their best to fill requests. The bar does buckets along with classic cocktails and beer. If you tire of the music, neighbouring options include a DJ-powered dance club and Irish pub. The other main nightlife pocket is Soi RCA off the main drag, a bit further from the beach, though note that it is seedier here.

Ao Nang also has plenty of options for a lower-key but still fun night on the town. Amid the cluster of cheap guesthouses that includes Jinda and J Mansion, The Irish Rover is a cosy spot where you can play billiards, munch on pub grub and pretend you’re in Dublin. Away from the beach along the main drag, Mr Long Bar is a ramshackle reggae-themed spot with live performers on most nights, while the adjacent Indie Bar reminded us of a dive bar in Manhattan’s lower east side. Further out along the main drag, Malibu Bar, Rick’s Bar and Boogie Bar are all fun spots to chat up some of Ao Nang’s resident expats while enjoying live music and a non-seedy scene.

Haad Noppharat Thara
Though it doesn’t have the same breadth of choices as Ao Nang, Haad Noppharat Thara’s restaurants face stiff competition for fewer customers, resulting in more affordable and arguably better food. If you want to see how the locals do it, head inland to the night market that sets up daily at 17:00 along Route 4203.

Just over the hump from Ao Nang, B&B Beach Coffee gets things rolling with excellent Thai brew and baked goods served on a seaside deck. It opens early and stays open through sunset, offering free WiFi throughout. If you prefer air-con to a sea breeze, head across the street for a Northern Thai Arabica at Doi Chaang, probably the best of Thailand’s coffee chains.

About midway up the beach road sits the Cuckoo’s Nest, a chilled out two-storey restaurant with sofas on an open-air patio just across from the beach. The cheerful staff serves sandwiches and chicken wings along with tasty Thai food, including a duck krapao with rice that was made as spicy as we had asked for it. They also have a free billiards table and offer beer, cocktails and smoothies. Next to Cuckoo’s is Potjawan, a no-frills Thai restaurant that appears to be a good bet for Isaan cuisine, whole barbecued fish and steamed crabs.

Following the beach road further northwest on the way to the pier, a line of stalls display picnic-friendly munchies like porkball skewers, som tam, fried chicken with sticky rice and grilled squid. Locals flock here on weekends and put together some serious spreads to be enjoyed gradually on their grass mats. Another group of street food vendors and open-air seafood restaurants is clustered around the pier parking area, next to the national park visitor centre.

Haad Noppharat Thara doesn’t have anything close to the nightlife scene of Ao Nang, but there are a few options. On the beach road, Hippie’s Bar sheds its depressing daytime atmosphere after dark, when the drinks flow and live band plays. Near the Laughing Gecko on Soi Noppharat Thara 13, Lazy Place also has live music and a small bar along with a lazier atmosphere. Think floor cushions and shirtless longhaired Thai dudes who will put down their guitar to make your cocktail. There’s also a kitchen at Lazy, and a couple of cheap rooms if you feel like hanging around.

If you’re staying on Western Haad Noppharat Thara, eat and drink options are confined to the five small resorts. All serve standard Thai dishes and most offer barbecue in high season; we’ve heard good things about the food at J2B, Long Beach Villa and Sand Bungalows.

Khlong Muang
Many of Khlong Muang’s restaurants were closed when we passed through around noon on a hot March afternoon, perhaps hinting that there aren’t enough customers to go around for most of the year.

One spot called Bai Tong Cuisine was open to offer an exclusively Thai menu. The steep 295 baht price tag deterred us from trying an advertised massaman curry (better be some massaman!), but we did have luck with a tasty green curry and spicy salmon salad. Most dishes go for 150 baht or less, portions are large and the owners will make you want to become a regular.

At least one local expat claims that Royal Clay Restaurant, along the main drag through Khlong Muang, serves the best Indian food in Krabi province, which is saying a lot given the stacks of Indian eateries in Ao Nang. There’s also Paddy’s Pub, an Irish-owned bar that serves Guinness on draft and Sunday roasts with all of the trimmings. For something healthier, head to Elephant’s End for homemade salmon pate and king mackerel with tamarind sauce.

If you’re after a cheap and simple meal during the day, a few locals set up carts towards the far southern end of Khlong Muang beach, near the turnoff to Ao Siew. One place will whip up just about any common Thai dish to be enjoyed at a table set up right on the sand. This is also the spot to grab a grilled squid or fresh coconut to bring back to your beach lounger.

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