Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Islands Less Trampled

Regular contributor John Borthwick goes island hopping through a treasure trove of lesser-known Thai islands.

Forget the mega-mosh islands like Phuket and their party-land cousins such as Khos Phi Phi, Phangan and Tao. Thailand still has shores aplenty where tattoos, bucket booze and jet skis don’t define your time. Consider a few of these koh:

Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai

The fantastic limestone isles of Phang Nga Bay jut from the sea like sleeping dragons. Amid these zoomorphic snoozers you’ll find the twins of Koh Yao Noi ("Little Long Island") and Koh Yao Yai ("Big Long Island"). They sit east of Phuket and west of Krabi (and a world apart from both), still run mostly on slow-boat time and boast few beer bars and day spas. Neither island is a Robinson Crusoe wilderness — in fact there are good resorts on both, such Koh Yao Yai Village — but the beaches aren't jammed with hawkers and hire chairs. Your resort’s lawn mower might be a buffalo and the nightlife a cricket's chirp.

Getting there: One hour by ferry from Bang Rong pier, northeast Phuket.

Old Thai Canoe

Mu Koh Ang Thong

Travellers used to escape to Koh Samui. Then they escaped from it to Koh Phangan. With the proliferation of beach parties, roads and resorts, some are escaping from there, too. To its northwest are the 42 islands of Koh Ang Thong National Park. With excellent scuba diving, snorkelling and kayaking, they are good for a very long day-trip by speedboat or a more leisurely live-aboard boat excursion. Expect both crowds and seclusion, depending on which island and what time of day.

Snorkelling at Koh Ang Thong

Koh Tarutao and Koh Lipe

The Tarutao/Adang-Rawi archipelagos are as far south as you go on the west coast of Thailand before hitting Malaysia. Here, the towering rock formations and crystal waters of Koh Tarutao National Marine Park, a 51-island group around 30 km from the mainland, are still off the radar for large tour groups and day-trippers.

Following a bizarre history of prison camps and piracy during the 1930s and ‘40s, the Koh Tarutao archipelago became in 1974 a National Park. The only accommodation is at the park facilities — you’ll need to reserve a room or campsite in advance (www.dnp.go.th). Meanwhile, nearby Koh Lipe — not part of the park — has many resorts ranging from dive lodges to luxury bungalows.

The reward for getting to Koh Tarutao is the pure simplicity and isolation of it all; then throw in jungle, sea eagles, monkeys and empty beaches. If you need aircon, WiFi, ATM and 7-11, then Koh Lipe is the place.

Getting there: By speedboat or ferry from Pak Bara to Tarutao. Then speedboat to Lipe. National Park entrance fee for foreigners, 400 baht; accommodation reservations are strongly recommended. National Park islands are closed April—November.

Koh Laoliang. While you’re down this way, consider Koh Laoliang, a small island in Koh Petra Marine Park, 20 km off the Trang coast. Remote, peaceful, good for climbing and camping.

Koh Adang in the Adang-Rawi archipelago

Mu Koh Similan and Mu Koh Surin

Divers rave about these two Andaman Sea clusters, both national marine parks, well northwest of Phuket. The waters around the nine Similan Islands offer dramatic swim-through reefs, superb corals, a huge variety of tropical fish and stunning visibility. Morays, mantas, lionfish, giant grouper and leopard sharks are on the visual menu. Further north, the densely forested Surin Islands are home to several sea gypsy communities, but their real drawcard is underwater, even for snorkelers. At nearby Richelieu Rock divers frequently see whale sharks, rays and hammerheads.

Accommodation is limited mostly to tents, on the Similan island of Koh Miang and at the Surin park headquarters. Avoid Thai holidays. Advance booking recommended, through www.dnp.go.th.

Getting there: Speedboats depart from Khao Lak for the Similan Islands and from Khuraburi for Koh Surin. The crossing takes about one hour. The islands are open from November to May.

Koh Phra Thong. If you’re in the area consider Koh Phra Thong about 10 km southwest the mainland port of Khuraburi. In the middle in a group of three islands, Phra Thong is flat, has long empty beaches fringed by palms and no crowds.

Mu Koh Similan

Koh Surin

Koh Kood

Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand has been rapidly and unsympathetically developed down its west coast. Its beaches are still fine for a seafood-eating, happy hour/happy ending sort of holiday but if you want somewhere more pristine head to Koh Kood in the same eastern archipelago, not far from Cambodia. Spacious Koh Kood has good resorts like Cham’s House at Haad Takien beach and Six Senses Soneva Kiri (about as upmarket as you can go without needing oxygen), but also plenty of space and jungle. There’s great diving and lots to do for visitors who don’t want to do too much. The sands haven’t been hived off to beach umbrella bosses and transport to taxi extortionists — problems that turn some beach “paradises” to purgatories.

Getting there: one hour by fast ferry from Trat.

Haad Takien beach, Koh Kood

Koh Phayam

Little Koh Phayam (pronounced “pie-am”) floats just south of Burma’s last outrider islands. No cars or real roads, few bars, no spas and no karaoke yowls — well, not yet. There are many small resorts, like the very friendly Bamboo Bungalows, and a handful of more upmarket ones. You get around on motorbikes on narrow paths. Come late afternoon, Phayam gets truly gorgeous. The cicadas crank up and the lightshow begins. Above the ghost islands of Burma the thunderclouds stack, twitching with lightning. Paradise “unimproved.”

Getting there: one hour by speedboat from Rayong.

Koh Phayam

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