Paradise by a speedboat
The crunch of an eggshell cracking on a hot wok is followed by the sizzling of hot noodles and the swishing of waves.
The background music of the ocean lapping against the hulls of the boats moored on the beach is a soothing melody.
Although the chef at our hotel, Aonang Cliff Beach Resort, has packed us gourmet lunch boxes, the aroma of fried garlic, onions and chilli wafting from the local restaurant boat is too hard to resist.
It's anchored on the beach of Koh Poda, one of the many islands near Krabi in Thailand.
The boat restaurant has no set schedule. It cruises the islands. The skipper throws anchor wherever there's a beach with potential customers. On board are two cooks and two delivery boys, who deliver orders right to your boat or beach towel.
The food is simple and inexpensive, the menu surprisingly varied, from western-style baguettes and sandwiches to local dishes like pad thai, fried rice and every type of curry you can think of. Nothing costs more than 80 Baht (NZ$2.85) a plate.
Food seems to taste better with a beautiful view - translucent emerald ocean; sand that is soft and golden; palm trees framing a bright blue sky.
It's as close as you can get to paradise, but not quite undiscovered. Our boat is one of an armada of long-tail boats and speed boats crewed by enterprising locals who earn their living by ferrying visitors to the islands each day.
The beach is a moving postcard of G-strings and suntans, straw hats and bandannas. It could be California, the Caribbean or Copacabana.
An Elle Macpherson doppelganger in a black bikini sashays past; a woman stands in knee-deep water, shielding herself from the sun with an umbrella; two teenage girls in bikinis are mesmerised by a school of black and yellow sergeant major fish; honeymooners in matching T-shirts and patterned shorts splash in the shallows.
A crowd gathers in the distance, pointing and gesturing. Someone famous? But the "star" turns out to be a languor monkey.
Unfazed by the attention, the monkey scoops fleshy chunks of fresh coconut from a husk. The sight makes me thirsty, so I join my boating buddies for a cold beer at the beach bar.
Koh Poda is one of a trio of islands off Thailand's west coast. Koh Poda, Koh Mo and Koh Thap, known as Chicken Island for its geographical structure that resembles a chicken's neck and head, are the most popular islands for day trippers staying in Krabi.
We're staying at Aonang Cliff Beach Resort, on a forested hillside in Krabi and one of several Thai-owned properties striving to deliver luxury holiday experiences at affordable prices.
My ocean view room can be described as comfortable but not plush. It has a balcony with a jacuzzi and distant views of the Andaman Sea. It has satellite TV, a DVD player, minibar and tea and coffee-making facilities. And there are nice touches such as slippers, bathrobes, a beach bag, a beach mat and free Wi-Fi. There's plenty to do at the resort. The daily activity calendar ranges from Muay Thai to yoga classes.
The resort's general manager, Wolfgang Grimm, who spent a large part of his career working in five star hotels in Sydney and overseas, is using his experience to create a luxury holiday experience without the high price tag.
"My aim is to bring some of the benefits you can only get in a five-star hotel to a four-star hotel," says Grimm.
While the standard of the rooms and facilities can't be described as five star (I'd give three and half stars), Grimm is attempting to offer guests a five-star experience by tapping into the hidden gems of the region and tailoring activities that offer insights into the destination.
On the activity menu is the island cruise, a tuk-tuk ride through a local village, kayaking to caves to see 3000-year-old rock art and soaking in hot springs.
The region is picturesque and has soaring limestone karsts.
On our boat trip, our skipper takes us to calm snorkelling spots where the water is so clear you can photograph the fish from the boat. However, the best view is under the water.
I plunge into the ocean from the back of the boat. Even though I'm not wearing flippers - just a mask and snorkel - the salt content is so high I find myself floating buoyantly.
Surrounded by a school of yellow and black-striped sergeant major fish, I spread my arms and revel in the sensation of weightlessness. As I hover in the sea, for an instant, all my worries seem to drift away.
The writer was a guest of Aonang Cliff Beach Resort, Crown Lanta Resort & Spa and Thai Airways.
FIVE THAI ISLAND GETAWAYS
KOH LANTA Less than an hour's boat ride from Krabi, Koh Lanta has nature reserves and beautiful beaches, plenty of accommodation and is a great choice for a family holiday. You can kayak through a mangrove forest or visit the gypsy village.
PHUKET The biggest and busiest island in Thailand, Phuket is a cosmopolitan destination with a choice of boutiques, restaurants and international resorts. Jetstar offers direct flights from Sydney but for some travellers, Phuket's glorious beaches are overrun with sun loungers and sleek beach bars.
KOH SAMUI Another top spot to holiday with the family, Koh Samui offers peace of mind. There are international hospitals (with English-speaking doctors) and hotels offering childcare. There is plenty to keep the kids busy, including walks to waterfalls, butterfly gardens, elephant trekking and go-karting.
KOH PHI PHI A popular island for solo travellers, Koh Phi Phi offers fun times and activities such as diving, snorkelling and cliff-jumping. A great boat trip takes travellers to the location of movie The Beach.
KOH TAO Koh Tao (or Turtle Island) is a divers' paradise and one of the world's top places - and cheapest - to learn diving. Getting a PADI or SSI Open Water certification usually takes four days.
GETTING THERE Thai Airways has fares to Bangkok, with connections to Krabi. See thaiairways.com.au.
STAYING THERE Four nights at Aonang Cliff Beach Resort starts from $179 a person twin share and includes breakfast; See aonangcliffbeach.com.
Crown Lanta Resort & Spa on Koh Lanta has 70 villas. A four-night package starts from $237 a person twin share; see crownlanta.com.
MORE INFORMATION tourismthailand.org