You’ve probably never heard of Koh Laoliang. I hadn’t, until a fellow traveller recommended it to me as an idyllic place to spend a few days. It's The Beach, he’d said, minus the hand-drawn map, the suicidal Scot, the despotic Tilda Swinton and, as I would soon discover, the hordes of sun-seeking day-trippers who daily descend on Koh Phi Phi (in Krabi province), where the movie was shot.
Laoliang is that rare thing in Thailand: a remote island national park with a gorgeous beach that isn’t overrun with longtail boats or people – only 40 can stay at a time, in tents, no day-trippers allowed. There are no bungalows or resorts either. The island, which is in Trang province (just south of Krabi), is open for only five months of the year, November-April. Even then, just getting there is an adventure.
|Beautiful Koh Laoliang|
It started with a longtail boat ride from Railay to Krabi town, where an American guy, Richard (hmm, same name as Leo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach), picked me up – on his motorbike – and gave me a lift to Krabi bus station (it was decent of him to let me use his only helmet).
There I boarded a double-decker public bus for a two-hour road trip to Trang, where I met Pon, a ponytailed metal-head (we listened to Metallica-like tunes in his ute), who drove me and two Swiss climbers (who’d just arrived on the train from Bangkok) to Hat Samran pier. From there, we got into a longtail that pointed its raised bow towards the open ocean. Our destination: two karst islands rising out of the Andaman Sea 20 kilometres away.
An hour after leaving the coast – having seen flying fish and diving seabirds on the way – we stepped ashore on Laoliang. I could hardly believe my eyes: clear, turquoise water, a dazzling white beach book-ended by high limestone walls, eagles soaring overhead, a thatched open-air dining "room" and a row of green and yellow tents. It was sublimely simple.
The tents are right on the beach and more comfortable than I’d expected. Each has two rooms: a bedroom with two single bed mattresses on the floor, made up with sheets and blankets, and a roomy vestibule with a fan and a light (the generator comes on at about 4pm every day).
|Absolute beachfront accommodation|
|Tents with mattresses on the floor|
Two kinds of people come to Laoliang: non-climbers (mostly couples and families with young, free-range children) and climbers (who arrive with their own gear, though you can rent harnesses, shoes and ropes on the island). The climbing here is legendary, with bolted climbs of varying levels starting right on the beach or from rope ladders that dangle into the water; there are even multi-pitch climbs to the top of the almost-100-metre walls.
|Norwegian climbers Ingrid and Chris, escaping winter in Oslo|
The best part of Laoliang is its peacefulness. There are no longtails speeding past day and night. There's no wifi or mobile reception. You can walk everywhere barefoot. The sun is your alarm clock, rising at a civilised hour – just before 7am when I was there. There’s a small bar with a bamboo platform and cushions, that plays music at night, but never loud enough to disturb anyone in the tents.
|The bar at Laoliang Resort|
It’s the kind of place where people do yoga on the beach every morning and get up early for a swim before breakfast. After breakfast, you can go snorkelling (there's a small reef you can swim out to from the beach), rent a kayak, go deep-water soloing (climbing low sea cliffs without ropes and falling safely into deep water) or just lie in a hammock with a book. Afternoons are for climbing, if you’re so inclined – when the east-facing walls are in the shade (it’s too hot to climb in the morning sun). After dinner, there’s a nightly star-show overhead.
Laoliang isn’t for everyone. It's a little pricey, for a tent, in Thailand: 1500 baht (about $A42) per person per night, although that includes all your meals. But five-star, it ain’t: you have to sleep on the floor (albeit on a comfortable mattress), there are communal bathrooms (men’s and women’s), there’s no hot water (and almost no water pressure in the cold-water showers) and the food is basic and occasionally downright unappetising. (Which is surprising given that a daily longtail from the mainland brings new guests and supplies and well, this is Thailand.)
But if you love places where nature, not what’s on the menu, is the main event, you’ll love Laoliang. Sure, there's a diesel generator, and drinking water and all supplies must come from the mainland. But in a country where "eco" is almost a dirty (or at least misunderstood) word, Laoliang is a shining beacon of hope. May it stay just as it is, undeveloped and un-fancy, for a long time yet.
|The simple life at Laoliang. Pics: Louise Southerden|
How to get there: Laoliang Island is 20 km off the coast of Trang province (which is south of Krabi province) in Koh Petra Marine Park and is open only during the dry season, from November 1 to April 30.
To get there, contact Laoliang Island Resort to arrange a transfer from Krabi town or Trang, for 1000 baht ($A32) each way, which includes the one-hour longtail boat trip from the mainland.
Two-person tents cost 1500 baht ($A50) per person per night (1900 baht in peak season, December 24 – January 14), including all meals, tea, coffee and water, and use of kayaks and snorkeling gear.
Follow Louise’s travels at No Impact Girl or on Twitter @noimpactgirl