Get away from it all and experience some real island life in some of Thailand’s best island paradises: Koh Kood, Koh Mak, Mu Koh Surin, and Ang Thong Marine Park.
by Dave Stamboulis
Many visitors are often disappointed with the crowds and endless development that plagues places such as Phuket, Koh Samui, or Koh Chan. But they shouldn’t despair because just a stone’s throw from each of these spots lie some of Thailand’s best-preserved island beauties.
The Andaman’s Mu Koh Surin and the Gulf of Thailand’s Ang Thong are both fully protected national marine parks, blessed with natural beauty, marine life, and a chance to get away from it all and experience Thailand’s real island life, and while Koh Kood and Koh Mak have recently been named by foreign publications as some of the best islands in the world, their development has been at a snail’s pace compared to elsewhere and are still the perfect spot for Robin Crusoe fantasies in style.
Ang Thong lies just off of the Samui coast, and yet is a world apart. Meaning “golden bowl” in Thai, Ang Thong consists of a group of forty-two islands, the majority of which are covered in steep limestone and deep jungle, and as they are designated with national park status, there is no development allowed.
The islands used to be quite difficult to visit, unless one had one’s own boat, but several outfitters now run trips out to them, affording one the chance to do some kayaking, hiking, and soaking up the natural beauty. As there are hundreds of limestone overhangs, white sand beaches, and hidden lagoons throughout the islands where big boats cannot fit, a kayak is the ideal way to explore Ang Thong. The islands are set in somewhat of an oval shape, allowing protection of the many secluded bays from the Gulf of Thailand’s often fierce seas. Thus, even during the rainy season, paddling is feasible.
There is a considerable amount of wildlife inhabiting Ang Thong including the Asian long tailed monkey (langur), hair nosed otters, pacific reef egrets, sea turtles, and pythons, and the absence of development and undue noise gives visitors a decent chance of spotting the various birds, reptiles, and mammals during a visit.
Koh Wua Talap, the park’s largest island, has one set of very basic bungalows operated by the national park plus a camping site for those intent on living a Robinson Crusoe fantasy. There is a gorgeous white sand beach here along with an hour-long trail going to a viewpoint atop Wua Talap that gives astounding views over the entire archipelago.
Nearby is Koh Mae Ko (Mother Island), boasting a brilliant beach that anywhere else in the Kingdom would have had scores of bungalows and other buildup, but here in Ang Thong, there are only a few kayaks, some birds, and a few dusky langurs lurking in the nearby foliage. On the northeast side of Mae Ko, one can find the gem of Ang Thong, the talay nai, or inland sea, a sinkhole lagoon formed by the land collapsing into underground tunnels and cave systems. It’s a steep climb up from the beach through sharp and spiny limestone crags, but the park service has built a series of ladders and walkways to help navigate through the karst, and the effort to reach the top is well rewarded.
Limestone walls surround the lake, and the water is a perfect emerald green, looking almost like a glacier lake from an alpine environment. The lake remains completely untouched, as there is no fishing or swimming allowed by the park, and like the rest of Ang Thong, a great example of preserving one of Thailand’s natural treasures for future generations.
Across the peninsula on the Andaman coast is Koh Surin, also a protected marine park, with a slightly different twist. The Surin Islands (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 splendid beaches. Yet Koh Surin also features a bit of culture, as it 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). The Park Service runs tours out to their village, or else one can just hire a kayak and paddle through the protected bay from the north isle.
Koh Surin also has coral reefs just offshore that rise to a very shallow depth, making the underwater wonders, offered in mosst other places via diving only, accessible even by snorkeling. The national park provides inexpensive daily boat trips out to see the reefs, and rents snorkel equipment as well. 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-touristy on this strip of sand.
There are only a few choices of accommodation on Surin, either camping (bringing your own tent or bed down in the decently outfitted campsites 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 that it’s the only provider.
At the other extreme is Koh Kood, a large island south of Koh Chang near Cambodia. Bangkok Thais have known about Koh Kood for years, and it has been referred to as the “boutique island” due to its collection of mainly upscale resorts. While the ultra chic Soneva Kiri has set up one of Thailand’s most exclusive resorts here, there have also been a few more affordable guesthouses setting up shop, along with speed boats and catamaran ferry service making Koh Kood far more easier to reach than ever. While these conveniences have made Koh Kood more accessible, the island still remains sleepy and untrammeled (it still doesn’t have an ATM or fastfood outlets), with plenty of rain forest canopy and waterfalls in the interior, along with some crystal clear bays and we kid you not, some completely deserted beaches that might make you think you are in Thailand several decades ago.
Koh Mak is somewhat like a cousin to Koh Kood, just slightly smaller and closer to Koh Chang and the mainland. For years, as neighboring Koh Chang grew by leaps and bounds, Koh Mak remained a well-kept secret. While that did change several years ago when its sands were named one of the “Top 10 secret beaches in the world” by the Sunday Times in the UK, Koh Mak has managed to keep its soul, and is the perfect spot for a relaxing tropical holiday, as 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. Other than the marvelous beaches to laze on, there is some good walking to be offered around the small island, and you absolutely must make the superb short kayak paddle or even faster long-tail ride 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.
Whether it is an undeveloped marine park, or a more pampering resort vacation on a less developed beach, be it in the Andaman or Gulf of Thailand, you can’t go wrong with any of these island beauties. They showcase some of the best of the Kingdom’s natural beauty, laid back hospitality, and all the components of just what a chilled out stint in the tropics should be about.
SeaTran Discovery runs all inclusive day trips out to the islands, with several hours of kayaking, a visit to the inland sea, and a buffet lunch part of the package. SeaTran Ferry: call center: 077-246-086, www.seatranferry.com
The National Park Service runs all services 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 www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/asp/style1/default.asp
From various piers around Trat, speedboats and catamaran ferries go daily to both islands, and they can also be reached by speedboat from Koh Chang. Many of the resorts on Koh Kood run their own private boats for clients.