An Andaman Coast Island Hopping Retrospctive

Andaman Coast Island Hopping Map

I realise now that we’re on our last Thai island that my plan for blogging about each island as we travelled down the coast was somewhat flawed. I kept putting off writing about the island we were on, not sure I could give a rounded view until the end of our four or five day stay… but then we’d be moving on and I’d be too busy packing up, making last-minute travel arrangements and squashing our entire family into whatever combination of longtails, ferries, buses, taxis or other transportation we invariably had too many bags to fit comfortably into. Then, at the end of the journey, we’d arrive somewhere new and there would be no time in the excitement of moving in, unpacking and exploring to write about the place we’d left behind.

Now we’re in Koh Lipe, our ninth island, and I haven’t written anything describing the island we’re on since Koh Chang (our first). So, while we’re still in Thailand, here’s a quick rundown of the impressions left upon me by the islands we’ve visited:

Koh Chang
Tucked away at the very northern end of the cost, within sight of Burma’s forbidden islands, Koh Chang has a ramshackle, laid-back charm. The sand is kind of muddy and the sea is both so salty it sometimes makes your skin sting a when you swim and too murky for snorkelling. And yet, with nothing much to do but wander the enormous beach or clamber in the rocks, stopping occasionally for a fruit shake to cool us down in a homemade-looking beach café, we really liked it here. No pretension. No pace. Just long-term, laid-back beach living.

Koh Payam (Ao Kwai)
Chang’s glamorous little sister. The beaches here are whiter, the resorts smarter, the sea clearer, he crowd younger, there’s even a road. But it felt shallower and less likeable than the island we’d just left. And it was noticeably more expensive. Still, we had some fun days out here, especially sea canoeing out into the bay to explore its rocky islets.

The Similans
I visited these islands alone, on a live-aboard dive trip visited while everyone else stayed in Khao Lak on the mainland. Ten dives in three days was exhausting but there was no denying the beauty of these remote, National Park Authority controlled islands, both above and below the water level. I swam with sharks, saw astonishingly-enormous manta rays, moray eels, stingrays, sea anenomes incredible coral and, of course, a technicolour spectrum of tropical reef fish. I did miss the whale shark that was everyone else on the boat’s highlight (I was in the toilet at the time) but that aside, it was brilliant. In retrospect, I think we should have gone back there as a family and camped on one of the open islands as it was too nice here not to have shared it with my family.

Khao Lak
Not strictly an island but we did spend quite a while here, and Janet and the girls loved it. Not sure if that was Khao Lak or the swimming pool in our resort, though, where the girls happily splashed about for up to six hours a day while Janet chilled out reading and surfing the web.

Koh Jum (Andaman Beach)
Reminiscent of Koh Chang, this was our favourite place on either coast at the time. The wide beach stretched for kilometres in both directions and, like Koh Chang, everything was built back behind the tree line, giving the illusion of strolling along the shore of a desert island. The food in our bungalows was excellent and the owners were lovely. It was a sad day when we left.

Koh Mook (Had Farang)
We’d been looking forward to this one; Koh Mook was one of Janet and my favourite places last time we were backpacking. At first we weren’t sure we should have returned. The quiet, open coconut plantation behind the beach had been swept away to be replaced by a brash package resort and the bay was now so crowded with longtails that you could only swim in a tiny roped-off area. It was upsetting. But the view was the same, and we spent much of our time at the edge of the bay, away from the Charie’s Resort. We also, found a really cheap, delicious place to eat a little inland and within days had settled into a happy routine of eating, beach time, homeschool and watching hermit crabs. Plus we had some great days out sea canoeing, wandering rubber plantations and visiting Emerald Cave.

Koh Kradan (Paradise Beach)
What an experience this island could have been! The sand is blisteringly white, the sea a magnificent turquoise, there are impressive coral reefs swimmable distances from shore; there can’t be many more picturesque places on Earth… and yet the resorts here spoiled it for us. Even though this island is supposedly part of the national park, the authority has sold off a strip along the coast, and the operations squashed into their narrow parcels of land seemed determined to make back every baht they had paid. The food was uninspired and overpriced everywhere, often twice the price it had been on Koh Mook, which we could see a few kilometres away. The bungalows were tightly packed and although it is undeniably beautiful, the beach is also narrow, meaning the holidaymakers were equally tightly packed along it. The best times we had here were trekking over the island through the jungle to as-yet-undeveloped Sunset Beach where locals have cleared the rubbish that washes up there and made it into strange sculptures along the shoreline.

Koh Libong (Had Thungyaka)
Phew! Arriving at Libong, it felt like I could breathe again. There was space on the beach, and between the bungalows. There were actually Thai people living there not just harried two week package tourists reading management books on sunloungers. And the food at Libong Beach Resort where we stayed was some of the best I’ve had in Thailand. Sure, the sea was very shallow, so you could hardly swim at low tide, but this quickly took over as our favourite island. And we saw dolphins.

Koh Tarutao(Ao Pante Malakka)
This was Janet and my dream island last time we travelled. We loved it so much here that when our cash ran out, we went back to the mainland, stayed just long enough to cash loads of travellers cheques and jumped back on the boat for another long stay. Tarutao is another national park island, this time is operated by the Park Authority itself. In the bay where we stayed (Ao Pante Malakka), there’s just one restaurant and you can either camp right on the beachfront or rent a neat little bungalow in the shady grounds behind. In the end we did both as our bungalow turned out to have bedbugs – Janet and the girls had over 300 bites between them after just one night. Elsewhere, getting eaten alive like that would have put us off but this was Tarutao so we switched to tents and stayed on. After all, unlike anywhere else we had been in Thailand, Tarutao hadn’t changed. How an island with a white-sand beach as wide as a football pitch and over three kilometres long (with another equally large a short rocky clamber south) has remained off the radar, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because there is nothing really to do there other than beachcomb, lie in hammocks, watch sunsets, swim, play frisby and occasionally wander away from the beach to eat, get a book from the library or climb the cliffs along an exciting jungle path for even more stunning sunset views. If you can muster enough energy, there are mountain bikes to rent (but be sure to check your brakes – the hills are steep), sea kayaks to rent and an old prison on the far side of the island to explore. But there’s no Western food, no wifi, no beach bars or dive schools, no beach furniture or touts trying to sell to the tourists. In fact, most of the tourists were Thai and judging by the crates of food, drinks, fish sauce and other supplies they brought, far too canny to buy overpriced tat from beach sellers. We spent ten days here; twice what we spent on most islands. We could happily have stayed much, much longer.

Koh Lipe (Had Pattaya)
I realise now we should never have returned to Lipe. Thirteen years ago it was an undiscovered jewel, known only to travellers who managed to get this far off the beaten track. It has one short road, a few scattered bamboo bungalow resorts and the clearest, brightest waters of anywhere I’ve ever been. Now the islanders have, after having the fishing rights restricted, been allowed to turn to tourism. They have sold off all the beachfronts, which are packed with bars, cafes and resorts. Music pumps out until the early hours, replaced during the day with the rumble of JCBs and pneumatic drills as yet more resorts are thrown up. The locals have that shrewd, hard look I’ve seen in other places where farangs outnumber the locals by a large margin. The sea is so crowded with longtails you can’t swim on our beach at all (apparently that’s where the first profits always go – they’re the ultimate status symbol for the Cho Lay people who live here). You can still see the beauty of the isand underneath. But that makes it sadder if anything.

And there you have it. Our Andaman coast island hop. After two solid month of beach bumming, tomorrow we head off to Malaysia… to another island: Langkawi.

(If you’re interested, you can click on the island names, above, to see all the posts we did manage to write while there.)

Squid Island

Sunset at Had Farang

It’s a little while since we moved on from Koh Mook (which translates as Squid Island in Thai), but it we were all rather sad to leave it behind – until we got here to Koh Libong, it was definitely our favourite island.

We stayed on Had Farang, the same beach where Janet and I spent several weeks last time we were backpacking. At that time – in 2000 – the wide, curving, white-sand beach ended with a stack of boulders to the south and an impressive sea cliff to the north; behind, it was backed by a large, empty coconut plantation; and all the bungalows were hidden behind the tree line at the very edges. It really felt like a desert island. Apart from a single longtail that was generally moored in the harbour, you could easily imagine that you had the whole island to yourself.

This time around, although the beach remains the same, the coconut plantation has been cut down and replaced with the brash, new “Charlie’s Resort” with its swimming pool, beach umbrellas and a cocktail bar pumping out Ibiza dance hits. And there are now so many longtails at the water’s edge that a section has had to be cordoned off for swimming.

Yet, despite the changes, we all still loved Had Farang. Crowded as it is, the beach remains beautiful and is big enough to accommodate the increased numbers. The views re still stunning, the water still clear (and unlike Koh Jum, actually cooler than the air so it feels refreshing when you jump in after baking in the tropical sun). Watching the sunsets in the evenings at Chill Out Bar (far enough along not to hear Charlie’s cheesy music), it was easy to see why we’d loved it here before.

Plus there were new discoveries. We passed a small massage hut on the way to and from our little bungalows. In the day we would stop there to admire the grimacing faces of farangs on the painful end of a joint-wrenching Thai massage, and in the evenings, we would duck down underneath and marvel at the hundreds of hermit crabs which congregated there. They were charming, each with its different scavenged shell; clumsy, hairy legs protruding from underneath like Jim Henson glove puppets.

We also had several fun activity days. We wandered across the island through rubber plantations, touching and stretching the rubber as it oozed from the trunks. We hired sea canoes and explored the cliffs to the north. And, best of all, we hired a longtail and guide to take us into Emerald Cave, a hidden cove only reachable at low tide by swimming through pitch-black tunnels. Emerald Cave was only rediscovered using satellite imagery but had once been the home of pirates and smugglers. It was also one of the main inspirations for The Beach. Check out the girls’ reports of the trip here, here and here.

As I finished writing, I asked Evie what her opinion of the island was. Her reply was simple: “I absolutely loved Koh Mook!”

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Move with the Times

“There are place I remember,
All my life, though some have changed,
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone, and some remain”
The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

It’s a strange thing to be revisiting places where Fergus and I travelled 13 years ago.  This time, instead of it being my first trip out of Europe, I came from 3 months in Nepal.  As a result, rather than finding Thailand a dangerous, thrilling and alien land, I find it has a comforting, European, ‘second home’ feel to it.

And Thailand really has moved up in the world.   The evidence is everywhere. Sleek, air-conditioned bungalows have replaced almost all of the bamboo huts we stayed in last time around.  Where there were ramshackle beach bars, there are smart resorts with swimming pools.  Where there were longtail ferries, there are speedboats.  Where there were squatty pottys, there are flushing western style toilets.  You can buy good quality western food, cheese and wine are available everywhere, the mobile phone signal, the wifi and the transport connections are better than the UK, and all in all it feels a whole lot safer, more modern and a lot less remote than it used to.

You can still find the old Thai style places, but you have to look harder.  And I wonder how much longer they will last.  Thailand is on the move and has no sentimentality when it comes to growing their economy and extracting dollars from tourists.

Our last island was Ko Mook, stood out for us as a favorite from our last backpacking trip.  However, the coconut plantation we strolled though hand in hand all those years ago has been sold to a huge resort.  Much of it has been cut down to accommodate the swimming pool, and the rest has upmarket bungalows built in rows through the trees.  You can’t expect places to stay the same, and bringing our own tourist dollars here is obviously accelerating the rate of change.  But it did make us feel a bit sad.

So it is with some trepidation that we approach what we have always dreamed will be the highlight of our time in Thailand.  Our absolute favorite no 1 place was a tiny island in the deep south called Ko Turatao.  As part of a National Park, it is protected from development, although this hasn’t stopped some of its neighbours (also under National Park protection) from developing at a pace.  However, from what we can gather, there is still only 1 restaurant on the island, and all the accommodation (mostly tents) is owned by the National Park.  You can now get to it much faster in a speedboat (it used to take almost a full day on a boat) and there’s a mobile phone signal, which will make it seem a lot less remote.  But apart from that, it sounds as though it hasn’t changed a bit.

And I can’t wait to see it again.

Our Andaman Sea Island-Hopping Route

Andaman Coast Island Hopping Map

It’s occurred to me that all the little islands we’ve been visiting on Thailand’s west coast are probably so much gobbledegook to most people, so I knocked up this map to illustrate our route. Hopefully it will make it easier to see where we are as we travel.

We started at the top of the Andaman Coast, arriving on Ko Chang on the 29th of January, and since then we’ve headed south, moving on every 4-5 days. If we stick to our itinerary, we should hit Langkawi (and Malaysia) on the 20th of March, for nearly 2 long, idle months of island life. Maybe it’ll even be long enough for Janet to start getting a tan.

Lazy Island Days

Another week, another island. This week: Koh Jum, our third island since we started island hopping down the Andaman Coast.

Our first two were at the north end of the coast (Koh Chang and Koh Payam), then after a stop on the mainland so I could go diving*, we missed out quite a lot of the coast to get where we are now. We’ve been to Samui and Pattaya and know for sure that it’s not overdeveloped resorts like Phuket and Koh Phi Phi we’re after.

It’s very relaxed here. Most of the farangs are older than us, and the pace of life is possibly the slowest of anywhere we’ve yet visited. There’s nothing to do but swim, walk up the 2km beach and eat. But, just as we’re settling in here, enjoying the stunning sunsets, friendly bungalows, huge, empty beach and bathtub-warm sea water, tomorrow we’re off again!

Sixty days on our visas doesn’t go far when there’s so many islands to visit. So tomorrow we head south again, getting up early to catch a longtail to a ferry, then a ferry to the Krabi on the mainland, a taxi into Krabi town, then a bus to Trang 100km down the road. We’ll spend the night there, stocking up on essentials like peanut M&Ms and red wine, before taking minibuses, ferries and longtails out to Koh Mook, one of our favourite places from our backpacking trip 13 years ago where we will slow right down for another five days.

All very exciting. But right now, sitting in a beach hut watching my girls play on the sand as the sun dips slowly towards the crystal seas, it all seems rather daunting. Island life has slowed me down so much that just walking to the sea to cool off or to the restaurant for a fruit shake can take half the day for me to muster enough energy.

Still, frenetic bursts of travelilng interspersing the lazy weeks of beach bumming makes this part of our trip seem like a series of one week Summer holidays, a new one starting every time the last one ends. And how can that be a bad thing?

* That implies I went diving on land, I didn’t. I just left Janet and the girls there and headed of to the Similan Islands.

Moving On from Koh Chang

Our bungalow on stilts

Our bungalow on its tall stilts

And already, after just four days, we’re packing up. It’s beautiful here on Koh Chang but it wouldn’t be island hopping without some hopping. So, tomorrow, we’re getting on a speedboat and heading off to Koh Phayam, just a few miles to the south of here.

It’s hard uprooting ourselves. Not least because within moments of arriving anywhere, our rucksacks are empty and our room is suddenly stuffed with clothes, sarongs, hats, a kettle, tea cups, tea (Earl Gray and redbush – thanks, Mum!), sun lotion, a medical bag, a wash bag, a dirty washing bag, packing cubes, games, cards, diaries, pens and pencils, school books, various electrical gizmos, cameras, a multitude of chargers for the gizmos and cameras, inflatable mattresses, sheets, snacks, bottled water and all the other paraphernalia apparently essential to travelling light. It’s surprisingly easy to unpack all that stuff. And surprisingly daunting to somehow fit it back into our bags.

Whenever we stay still too long in any place where there’s not much more to do than wander the same jungle paths or strip of beach, a Groundhog Day effect comes into play, each day blending with the one before. The later days offer diminishing returns of experience.

And, I’m pretty sure there’s something psychologically beneficial to moving on like this. It’s not the house that makes a family. And it’s comforting knowing that we can survive in relative comfort with just what we carry. Or maybe not. Maybe it makes us feel rootless and unconnected and we’ll return to the UK psychologically shattered. I don’t know.

Whatever. We’ve decided to island hop, so it’s time to move on.

Most importantly, though, even more so than the impending mega-pack and possible psychological implications of abandoning the comforting familiarity of our resort, I have a very practical reason for wanting to move on. Our bungalow is one of the most dramatically-located we’ve yet inhabited. It’s perched atop stilts over a rocky outcrop jutting out to sea, directly facing the amazing sunsets you get here. As you sit on the decking, the waves lap the rocks below, crabs shuffling among rock pools. It’s stunning.

But it also scares me. We’re just recovering from one disastrous five-metre fall, and the balcony rail here is so low that every time my girls stand near it I find myself tensing to sprung and catch them should they fall. Even with strict warnings about acting sensibly near the edge (together with constant reminders), I just cannot quite relax. The rocks below are sharp, and of course, very hard.

I really don’t want any more accidents. And Koh Phayam looks like it has very soft beaches.