Most people who say they’ve been Krabi have actually only been to Ao Nang, Railay or perhaps Koh Phi Phi or somewhere further afield. And while those spots offer stunning beachfront and mountain scenery (though Ao Nang is less my cup of tea, just for being so heavily touristed), if you don’t make at least a short stopover in Krabi town you are missing out – and more deprived than all will be your stomach, for this is under-appreciated foodie paradise as its best.
Much of the fare you’ll find on Railay, including the slightly more subdued beach at Ao Tonsai, is heavily targeted towards foreign tourists, and the flavours noticeably tempered. You should also prepare yourself to pay through the nose, whatever you order – a combination of a captive market, along with the relatively higher cost of transporting goods to more isolated locations like Ao Tonsai, means that prices are sky-high. Expect to have to fork out almost 200 baht for a curry and rice that in Bangkok or elsewhere would cost 50 baht at most. The usual 30 baht fruit shakes come in at twice the price and bottled water, 6 baht in a 7/11 store on the mainland, will set you back as much as 30 baht. Thankfully, back in Krabi’s main town, it’s a completely different story.
As with just about anywhere in Thailand, your first stop for unbeatable food should always be the local fresh market – and it’s the lack of such markets in tourism-centred beachfront destinations like Railay that prevents the development of cheaper, tastier alternatives there. At Krabi’s market, located in the centre of town on Maharaj Soi 10, and just across the street from the town’s only shopping centre, it’s all about curry.
Don’t miss the chance of some genuine southern cuisine in the guise of the likes of gaeng neua (beef curry), gaeng massuman (massuman curry), gaeng luang (southern-style yellow curry) and gaeng som pla (sour orange curry with fish). The gaeng neua deserves a double mention for its creamy, coconutty consistency yet pungent and fiery chilli paste base, chunks of tender beef and small, flavoursome pea aubergines that float in the curry soup. It’s a dish I had been itching to try months, even years, before our recent trip to Krabi, having seen Mark Wiens’ mouthwatering photos of this very special curry at Abdulloh Restaurant, just a few steps across the road from the market (more on that place later).
Though much of the market is made up of fruit and vegetable stalls, one or two simple restaurants offer an impressively wide if largely similar array of curries and stir fried goodies to eat in or take away. You won’t go far wrong at either, though Ibrahim – the home of the particularly impressive gaeng neua – has a nice touch in making a point of etching on the wall that it doesn’t charge foreigners any more than Thais for its ‘good Muslim food’.
Other Krabi specialities on offer at the town’s main fresh market include a spectacular dish of incredibly sweet squid cooked in a sugary chilli paste to the point that it has a sticky, almost-chewy-yet-pleasantly-so flavour and texture. The result is a bowl of the sea that is every bit addictive.
Another satisfying side to southern cuisine more generally, and definitely in evidence at refuelling spots across Krabi town, is the abundance of fresh leafy green vegetables on your dinner table – ready for grabbing, dunking in piquant nam prik chilli dipping sauce and chowing down as a way to mildly quell the burning sensation from your last dish, while masochistically giving it a little extra power to punish you some more.
You’ll want to note in advance that the ‘other’ night market, which sets up each evening along the riverside and in slightly closer proximity to most of Krabi’s guest house accommodation, is worth a miss. What looks from the street like it should be great – and indeed a certain well-respected guidebook labels it as ‘authentic’ – is in fact a concoction of identical stalls with rather grimy food hygiene standards and disappointingly samey menus targeted at foreign tourists who want no more adventure than ‘green curry, red curry, pad thai, fried rice’. When a restaurant has no real specialism, and every stall has its own attached fruit shake stand, you want to question it (unless, of course it’s an aharn tum sang cook-anything-on-request kind of stall, of which you find one or two at almost all markets – though normally still no shakes made by the same folks!)
The original spark for me to come to Krabi at all was that awesome, mouth-watering post by Mark Wiens, southern food maniac and khao mok gai obsessive extraordinaire, in which he raves about Abdulloh Restaurant. So with my trip planned a long way in advance (taking advantage of an AirAsia ‘free seats’ sale meant a one-way ticket cost around 200 baht), it came as a bitter disappointment when a friend went a few months before and reported that Abdulloh was no more – it had gone out of business. In fact, just to rub salt in the wound she even sent me a photo of its closed-up shopfront, with a sign I didn’t understand but which she assured me said that it was gone forever.
My trip came around all the same, and it was only with extra glee that I stumbled across Abdulloh Restaurant, on Maharaj Road just across from soi 10 (which also houses the fresh market I raved about above) – and Abdulloh was very much open for business, the same cabinet of food trays out on the pavement just in front of the restaurant as I had seen in Mark’s photos. So I made a beeline for it, and wasn’t disappointed – well, not entirely. The many months of anticipation after Mark’s fanatic raving about it clearly gave the place a heck of a lot to live up to, and it did fall just a tiny bit short. The food was good, but not mind-blowing as I had expected. The khao mok gai, a Thai style chicken biryani on flavoursome infused yellow rice, was a tad dry – no match for the plates of heaven dished up at Areesaa Rote Dee just a stone’s throw from Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. That was a bit of a disappointment; you expect to find the absolute best of a region’s food when you are in that very region – and most of the time you do – but this was a reminder that the top taste of a region’s cuisine can also often be found on the streets of the capital, testament to the swathes of humble provincial culinary experts who have moved to the big city and taken their talents with them.
Abdulloh’s gaeng neua was more impressive, and a steal when I returned on my last morning in Krabi town to have it for breakfast served over rice lat kao style – a measly 30 baht. It still can’t trump the same dish served up in prize form at the town’s market (which will need some very stiff competition if it is going to be toppled from my ‘best in the whole of Thailand’ podium), but they still serve up a mean curry, and the addition of mini parcels of haw mok talay soufflé-style seafood curries, wrapped up in banana leaves, makes for a winning combination. I wasn’t sure what these treats were, three or four of them left mysteriously on the table alongside my main dish – but I didn’t let that stop me tucking in, opting to wait until after I had devoured them to ask what they actually were. I have had haw mok several times in restaurant settings – the first on Koh Samet back in 2008, served out of a coconut shell – but, as is always to be expected, this far more grounded version beat the rest hands down. And at 10 baht a pop, you really can’t go wrong even if you do eat all four (yes, I did, and in a matter of moments).
Despite an inland location a good half an hour from the seafront at Ao Nang, Krabi town has a deserved reputation for good seafood at reasonable prices – presumably in no small part thanks to its riverside setting. Locals recommend eating after around 6pm in order to get the best of the day’s fresh catch, and there are far worse places to do so than at Lomlay restaurant on Uttrakit Road. Favourites here include the somtum puu maa, papaya salad made with marinated raw blue horseshoe crab, the flash-boiled hoy kaeng clams still swimming in their own blood inside their shells, and the especially tasty – and large – raw oysters in their shells. Oysters turned out this way can be difficult to find in Thailand, where the inclination always seems to be to scoop them out for you and serve on a bowl of ice, having lost all the flavour in the process (and become a lot more likely to give you food poisoning, as another experience on Koh Samet taught me).
When evening comes, another must is to try the town’s famous roti grob, or crispy pancakes. This sweet dessert, big enough for at least two people to share, is essentially a giant plate of the roti pancakes that can be found all around Thailand, from Bangkok’s Khaosan Road to Koh Phi Phi, and every village, town and city in between. Except this is the crunchy version, largely in broken pieces, drenched of course in ultra-sweet condensed milk.
Order a plate to share and a mug of hot cha nom lawn, Thai tea with – you guessed it – just a bit more condensed milk. Despite the relatively high temperatures that still persist into the evening, sipping hot, milky tea and chowing down pancakes makes for a surprisingly pleasant way to pass the time. It is certainly the pastime of choice for the predominantly Muslim Krabi locals, for whom it replaces the bars and whisky drinkers of other Thai cities – you’ll see people lining the streets at small tables across town, tucking into pancakes and tea.
Thai Airways and AirAsia fly to Krabi from Bangkok in around an hour, and the airport is connected to Krabi town by a 90-baht shuttle bus, while larger intercity buses from the capital’s southern Sai Tai Mai terminal take around 12 hours and cost in the region of 900 baht for a first-class or VIP seat. Krabi has no railway station (though a travel agency in town does have a cutesy, if somewhat twee, replica ‘Krabi’ railway station sign outside, which might just fool you). The nearest mainline station is in Surat Thani, far enough away to make it not worth coming by train.
In town, by far the best budget accommodation option is Chan Cha Lay Guesthouse (075 620 952; www.chanchalay-krabi.com), where a high-season room will cost you between 250 and 650 baht depending on whether you go for a fan-cooled room with shared facilities or an air-con private room (or something in between). Staff are friendly, and the place is decorated in pleasant coastal blues and whites and oozes charm.