Getting Away From the Crowds and Finding Serenity: A Guide to Some Off the Beaten Path Paradises in Thailand
With 15-million plus visitors a year, tourists and locals have had to face some very hard truths, that their lovely slice of paradise is slowly being eroded away. Koh Samui has come a long way from being an island with no electricity and a handful of thatched-roof bungalows in the not-so-distant 1970s to a packed party all night affair with an international airport. But c’mon, do you really need that many McDonalds, 7-11s, and Starbucks to fill every remaining inch of available sand? While the big beach players like Samui, Phuket, and Koh Chang might be heading for stripmall status, fortunately there remain some lesser sisters lurking just in their shadows, yet still offering a glimpse of what paradise was like before it was found.
Located just off the coast of Cambodia, Koh Kood has been known to Bangkok Thais for its pristine beaches and as a quiet place not overrun with foreigners, backpackers, or partiers due to its distance and difficulty to reach from the mainland. More recently, it has become known more as something like a “boutique” island, famed for having some upscale peaceful family style resorts, with speedboat transfers connecting to flights coming into nearby Trat city. While these conveniences have made Koh Kood more easily accessible, the island still remains sleepy and untouched (it still doesn’t have an ATM or fast food outlet), with plenty of rain forest canopy and waterfalls in the interior, along with some crystal clear bays, perfect for snorkeling, sunning, and kayaking. Elegant and tranquil resorts like Shantaa, a small private bit of personal heaven with only a handful of villas, or the hidden Captain Cook, where crystal clear turquoise water flows right into the resort are spots where one could easily spend days, if not a lifetime, luxuriating in what a real tropical beach paradise should be. Koh Kood is one of the few places left in the country where one can kayak up onto a white sand beach and have it all to oneself.
Sitting just a short ride away from the southern flank of Koh Chang, Koh Mak has managed to escape the massive development that has made her neighbor almost unrecognizable from its previous days. Changes on Koh Chang have been fast and furious but on Koh Mak, the vibe is still lazy and carefree. The island has no taxis or tuk tuks, and the resorts still send out their own pickup trucks to meet the incoming ferry each afternoon. The beaches are long, white, and sandy, and most of the visitors here seem to be returnees who have been coming back for years. While the island did receive accolades being named one of the “top 10 secret beaches in the world” by the Sunday Times in the UK, and although there has been a spate of resort building since then, it still manages to keep its soul. Perhaps it is the lack of bars, jet skis, or anything that might resemble fast, instant, and all else that is the complete contrast to what a lazy stint in the tropics ought to be. Nevertheless, if you must do something, there is some excellent walking around the small island, as well as a superb short kayak paddle out to the islet of Koh Kham, where a sandy beach and one small resort front a bay that has some of the most emerald sparkling sea to be found this side of the Maldives.
Koh Tao, which means “Turtle Island,” has always played second or even third fiddle to its nearby Gulf of Thailand neighbors Samui and Koh Phangan. Samui’s jet set popularity and Phangan’s full moon party fame have wrought unchecked development to both isles, but Koh Tao has been spared, partly due to its mountainous topography; small bays separated by precipitous jungle clad terrain, completely unsuitable for building on. The west coast of Koh Tao contains most of the resort and nightlife scene, while the north and east coasts remain the terrain of nature lovers, with secluded bays beckoning, and beaches lying hidden off of every plunge from the steep mountain roads. Koh Tao is renowned for its diving, home to some of the best underwater life in Thailand, and there are plenty of PADI certificate courses to choose from for those who want to get certified. Best of all, Koh Tao is also home to Koh Nang Yuan, a tiny islet all to itself, which sits just off of Koh Tao’s northeast tip. Nang Yuan is comprised of two forest covered limestone peaks separated by a most beautiful strip of pure white sand with inviting swimming bays on both sides. There is one resort on Nang Yuan, should you feel the need to extend your stay in paradise.
Mu Koh Surin
While several Thai islands have national park status, this doesn’t preclude their being developed to the point of wondering just what is national or park about them, other than the Bt400 entry fee to get in. Not on Koh Surin. The Surin Islands (which are an archipelago of five islands with human habitation and park service facilities on two of them) are about as beautiful as it gets in Thailand, in terms of turquoise water, abundant marine life, and beautiful untrammeled beaches. While the more outlying Similan Islands might have better diving, they are marred by hundreds of daytrippers and live aboard boats coming out from Phuket, while the islands of Koh Surin stay blissfully ignored. You only have a few choices of accommodation on Surin, either camping (bring your own tent or bed down in the decently outfitted ones set up by the park service) or grabbing one of the few park bungalows that are usually booked by groups. Food on the island is limited to the park service restaurant, which does an admirable job given its being the only provider. But if you think you’re roughing it on Surin, it is well worth the effort. The coral reefs just offshore rise to a very shallow depth, making them possible to see here while snorkeling what most other places offer only via diving. The national park service provides inexpensive twice-daily boat trips out to see the reefs, and rents snorkel equipment as well. Additionally, Koh Surin is home to the largest population of Mokken sea gypsies in Thailand, who still live a fairly traditional life on a quiet bay on Surin Tai (South Island), and the park runs tours out to their village, or else one can just hire a kayak and paddle through the protected bay from the north isle. There are also hiking paths on the islands, along with opportunities for wildlife spotting. Rare birds such as the Nicobar pigeon and beach thick-knee call the islands home, and Malayan flying lemurs are sometime seen. You won’t be complaining about overrun, overdeveloped, or over-touristed on this strip of sand.
Koh Mak and Koh Kood can be reached by both speedboat and ferry service from Trat, which is accessible via bus as well as a daily flight on Bangkok Airways. Koh Tao is best reached from Surat Thani, which has an airport and then via boat from town . The nearest air access to Koh Surin is Ranong (and then Phuket), and ferry service runs from the town of Khuraburi.
Some of the best beach hideaways in Thailand are found on Koh Kood. The Shantaa Resort is a quaint private hideaway, with a handful of villas tucked into a 30 rai verdant property fronting beautiful Ao Tapao beach. Shantaa comes from the Hindi word for tranquility, and this small family run gem of a resort blends in seamlessly with the gorgeous surroundings.
Tel: 081 817 9648, 081 444 1648
The Captain Hook Resort is another Koh Kood beauty that beckons. Located on a secluded cape between a meandering stream and the beach, Captain Hook offers a boutique escape into nature. The resort is surrounded by emerald water and feels like a fantasy island paradise. Management here also run the Peter Pan and Tinkerbell resorts on the island.
Tel: 02-966-1800/2, 081-826-1188
The National Park Service runs all operations on Koh Surin. If you want one of the few bungalows available, it is best to book in advance.
Tel: 076 472-145, 076 472-146
Koh Tao has excellent diving, although the ideal season is not December-February but March-May when the water is ultra calm and with highest visibility. There are dozens of operators to choose from, but Scuba Junction gets rave reviews in guidebooks and Trip Advisor reports, and seems to please just about everyone who sets foot in their door. They offer open water, advanced, rescue, instructor and all other possible PADI courses from beginner through expert.