What makes Krabi so unique, so special, so intense and dramatic upon first glance? Is it the people, the food, the beaches? Sometimes it’s the landscape of a region that gives us perspective on our position in this planet, its history and our significance.
The limestone karsts of Krabi were formed 260 million years ago when a shallow sea, running the entire length of South Asia, slowly built up deep deposits of coral and shells which were later buried under large amounts of sediment that washed in from the land.
Compressed deep in the Earth, these calcium carbonate remains formed limestone, the basis of these majestic karsts. This limestone was thrust up above the surface when the Indian subcontinent collided with mainland Asia some 30 million years ago. From Gualin in China, to Sarawak in Borneo, the limestone created craggy islands on land and in water. In the South of Thailand, the provinces of Surat Thani, Phang Nga, Krabi and Trang have the most spectacular examples of this type of scenery.
Limestone habitats have special characters. Rain water can easily carve through limestone which is a rock that dissolves and drains readily. Limestone-based soils tend to be drier than other soils and support a unique flora and fauna. The limestone rock supports little soil and vegetation is limited. So plants that colonise the karst must exploit every nook and cranny in which moisture is trapped.
Limestone is also cave country (in Thai “tham”, although sea chambers may be referred to with the same word as a room – a “hong”). When the roofs of islands or other coastal caves collapse, the prized, blissfully private beach and secret garden of an island “doughnut” may be created.
Caves are usually associated with bats, and Thailand is home to what is believed to be the world’s smallest: Kitti’s hog-nose bat (found exclusively in a cave in Kanchanaburi province in the west of Thailand).
Among the many plants which colonise the nooks and crannies of the karst environment are tiny bonsai-like palms and cycads (tree-ferns). There are even some species of figs which can colonise karsts, providing a favourite food source for primates and birds.
Even the spectacular karst environment is under threat from rapid development. The karsts of southern and other parts of Thailand are in demand for cement production. The rapid growth of Bangkok and other urban areas, as well as large-scale tourism developments has led to the destruction of many karst formations. Whole mountains are eaten away inexorably as they are devoured in limestone concessions. Some of these concessions have even been given away in national parks.
One can only hope that more benign uses of these magnificent limestone features, and a slowing in the pace of development will allow time for a change in attitude and a growth in appreciation of the stunning karst environment.