Justin Frishberg, a former British paralympian athlete and coach, reports on his recent holiday in Krabi and how the area is learning to accommodate disabled travellers
To many, paradise is a remote island lagoon and the white coral sands of a postcard beach all to yourself. To me, a tetraplegic wheelchair user, this sort of paradise just seems inaccessible and out of reach. However, Krabi, in the south of Thailand surprised me. For two weeks I enjoyed an accessible paradise. On the first night I arrived, three of us ate at a simple but sumptuous Thai restaurant for less than the price of one takeaway pizza.
After dinner, we went for a drink at The Last Fisherman in Ao Nang. It’s just a bar on a beach; with moonlight bouncing off the waves, sounds of jungle crickets filtering through the palm trees and cocktails on demand. It was well past midnight and there was a pleasant mix of locals, westerners who were half way to becoming locals and me fresh off the plane. It never gets cold here and shorts and a T-shirt was sufficient for the whole night. Then the ‘DJ’ began to play Thai music, which is his laid back way of telling us it was late. Less than 12 hours after landing in Krabi airport I was already smitten.
There’s two parts to accessibility when you’re ‘confined to a wheelchair’. The first is the physical environment; the second is the attitude of you and the people around you. One of the side effects of living in paradise seems to be that everyone is friendly and helpful. There are not many people in chairs out there, and I sometimes felt I was seen as an alien, but everyone was always keen to help.
My main adventure was scuba diving. I’m an uncomfortable swimmer at best, and refuse to go into a pool without a large float, so this was a leap of faith for me. Kon-Tiki, a diving company aiming to provide accessible diving in the area, guided me through. First of all was the boring technical bit, sitting in a classroom learning all the practical and safety aspects of diving. I rewarded myself that evening with a Thai massage and another heavenly meal.
The second day was spent in the pool. I got used to the equipment and confronted many fears about being underwater. It was also a chance to work out with Kon-Tiki how to get me on and off various types of boat. It was certainly going to be more of an art than a science, but they listened well and together we worked out a way. One of the instructors – Hilton – has lost a leg, and there is a strong sense of ‘can do’ among all of them.
The day of the dive I had a couple of guys lift me and my chair down a flight of stone steps to the beach. Then they lifted me out of the chair and into a wooden longtail boat – they park up on the beach like taxis waiting to take people to the island of their choice. The wooden seat wasn’t particularly comfortable but this was an adventure. Getting from this boat to the dive boat was almost a level transfer, even if it was a bit wobbly. Then I got back into my chair and looked out to the open sea.
In about an hour we had approached and passed half a dozen islands, outcrops of rock hurled into the sea. They were, according to local legend, once guests of the wedding of local beauty Nang. When the wedding was ruined by the groom fighting, all the guests and the wedding fair were turned to stone and thrown into sea. Now they stand covered in trees making strange shapes, many of which are quite rude.
We arrived at Koh See, one of the smaller outcrops near Chicken Island. Nobody else was there. It was time to dive. I climbed out of the chair, onto the lower deck of the boat from which I would ‘step off’. I sat on the edge where my dive instructor fitted the jacket and air tank to my back. I suddenly felt completely without balance and tightened my grip on the safety rail. A few more checks and then I was ready to fall into the sea. I took a large deep breath, and then a few more. Then I simply leant over until there was no going back.
The first few seconds in the water are completely disorientating – probably not helped by having my eyes closed – but soon I was upright at the surface and still breathing. I was happy. As soon as I put my mask underwater (keeping my eyes open this time) I was swimming in the most amazing aquarium. In the blink of an eye a clown fish popped just inches from my mask, trumpet fish looked even more awkward than me, and there was a strange sound of someone wrinkling foil in my ears. Apparently this is the sound of thousands of fish feeding from the coral. My first dive lasted 45 minutes but seemed to last for just 5. Staring at fish has a mesmerising effect.
Back at the surface we managed the 3ft transfer up to the boat without much fuss. I got back into my chair and was mentally exhausted. This was eased by a bowl of rice and curry and a plate of pineapple slices. I contemplated the beauty of Koh See and the treasures that lay below it. I know that I have seen things that most people will never see. I felt blessed – chair or no chair.
I would recommend Krabi to anyone, especially as an alternative to the over-developed Phuket. But I would give it a special plug if you’ve got a disability. I found my hotel, Tipa Resort, through this website. It’s one of several accessible and reasonably priced hotels. It’s also just a few hundred yards from the beach and less than a ten minute push from dozens of shops, bars, restaurants and tour operators. Your Krabi is building its expertise in this area and proved a helpful source of information. I’m tetraplegic, and there was nothing major stopping me going on my own. But it is easier with someone else and besides, the experience is too good not to share.
As well as scuba diving, the area offers sitting on beaches, sitting on beaches on islands, eating amazing food, snorkeling, canoeing, jungle trips (a lot of fun), endless massages, shopping and a nightlife to suit a variety of tastes. High season is 1 Nov – 30 April but it never gets cold!