It was 6:45pm when my plane to Krabi was taxiing toward the gate. I kept glancing at my phone—6:46, 6:47, 6:48—until the flight crew finally shepherded us off the aircraft and onto a small bus. 6:50.
My destination, Hogwarts Hostel, was located right in the heart of Krabi Town. Here was the problem: the front desk at Hogwarts closed at 8PM, and I still had to get from the airport to the town.
I dashed through the terminal to the baggage area where I found a small line of people in front of a transportation service desk. 6:55, 6:56. New dilemma: I could take a taxi straight to the hostel for 600 Baht ($17) or a bus to who-knows-where in Krabi Town for 100 ($2.80). So I did what any reasonable, time-crunched, anxiety-stricken foreigner would do.
I took the bus.
“What time does it leave?” I asked. “Seven!” the information lady exclaimed, pointing frantically at a clock. 6:59. I was outside like a seeker on a golden snitch. A minute later, air brakes wheezed and we were off.
A week earlier in Chiang Mai, a hostelmate had told me about Maps.Me, an app that allows you to download maps from anywhere around the world and use your phone’s GPS without using data or wifi. I eyed Hogwarts on the map. It seemed so far away.
7:10. (Thunder). I had been in Thailand for two weeks already, and there hadn’t been a lick of rain. 7:15. The rain started. I looked at my phone. We were about five miles from the hostel. We seemed to be trending west of it. I could feel my heartbeat thudding away in my throat. 7:20. Traffic. The bus inched along. The rain began coming down hard. What awful luck, I complained under my breath. At this point, it wouldn’t have surprised me if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was waiting at the bus stop. 7:45. We made it to the bus stop. According to the app, my hostel was over a mile away. At the station, I asked if I could get a ride. “Where?” they asked. “Hogwarts.” “500 Baht,” they replied.
Lightning cracked around me while I ran through Krabi Town, duffle bag in hand, daypack thumping against my back. When I tried to glance at my phone, one of my flip-flops slipped off and began floating down the rain-washed street. I recovered the shoe and took one more turn down the homestretch.
At 7:58, I burst through the doors of Hogwarts, the boy who lived.
(cue Hedwig’s Theme)
After I checked in, I plopped down in the lobby to catch my breath. A girl approached. “Hi, I’m Fabienne. We’re about to go to another hostel to drink. Would you like to come?” The introvert in me said: You’ve had a stressful night. Why don’t you stay in? But adrenaline was still coursing through my veins. “Yeah, I’d love to.”
Soon thereafter, I was introducing myself to a new posse of backpackers: a lass from England, a gent from the US, a slew of Canadians, a girl from Germany, an ever-sanguine fellow from Mexico, and, of course, Fabienne (of Switzerland). We each went through a bottle of Chang or Leo (Thai beers) and swapped stories. Some of us were new to international travel. Others, like Manolo (the Mexican), hadn’t seen home in a long time. A feeling of instant camaraderie grew amongst us. There’s something about the spirit of backpacking—that deep-seated impulse to lose (and maybe find) one’s self in the the unfamiliar—that transcends boundaries of culture, language, and personality. You’ll never make better friends so easily in any other context.
The group of us met in the Hogwarts lobby the next morning. We had decided to take a trip together to Railay Beach, a small peninsula known for its limestone cliffs. After a quick stop at a 7-Eleven, we found the longboats that would bear us onward.
Railay is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The limestone shoots straight out of the ground, naked and chalky, making gargantuan walls that are capped in green trees. Rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking await the adventurous. For food, locals have outfitted longboats with all the essentials to cook meals and blend smoothies. (And I can attest: the coconut smoothies from those boats will give you religion.)
One of the strangest things I’ve seen on my trip to Thailand is located in the mouth of a cave on Railay Beach. From a distance, what appears to be a colorful assortment of pegs crowded together turns out to be a hoard of wooden penises:
Aggrandized by a handful of fascinating legends, this is the shrine of Phra Nang, the feminine spirit of fertility. The shrine draws the presence and veneration of locals year round. Some fishermen even believe that the offering of a phallus to the goddess will bring them fish.
Though the beaches were beautiful, I discovered my favorite spot on the island at a much higher altitude in the company of a Swiss teacher named Simon. Our trek to the overlook was steep and unsteady. At certain points, the only thing that kept us from plunging many feet into unforgiving rocks below was a rope that had been secured directly into the limestone. But the dangerous path was well worth the spectacle to which it led.
By the time we all made it back to Krabi, it began raining, but the rain couldn’t dampen our spirits, and it certainly couldn’t diminish our appetites. So we showered, put on fresh clothes, and made our way to the night market directly behind Hogwarts.
It was here, at this lovely market, that I discovered Massaman. This savory-sweet curry is made with spices that aren’t standard to other curries. It reminded me a bit of beef stew, but richer and with a mild kick. Massaman is a must-try if you’re a non-vegetarian visitor.
For the table, I picked up what looked like a batch of dough balls (chocolate and vanilla) coated in coconut, and I washed it all down with a bag of sweet corn. We ended the night eating off of each other’s plates and talking about home—so far away, but somehow, on that night, so very near.
Photo credit for the Shrine of Phra Nang belongs to Fabienne Waldmeier-Hughes.