Up for navigating a 100-meter-long pitch-black tunnel in the sea? The reward will be a pristine jungle and white sand beach at one of Thailand’s best hidden gems: Trang’s Koh Mook and its emerald cave.
by Dave Stamboulis
While Thailand has many beautiful islands, most of them fall short in at least one department. Some have white sand beaches, others nice resorts; several have strong local communities with village-based tourism, some have jungle, and some picturesque bays—but rarely does the whole package come all together. And then there is Koh Mook.
Koh Mook is a small island not far off the mainland in Trang province, along Thailand’s southern Andaman coast. From December through April, the sea is the color of turquoise, calm for swimming and, at least in February, the temperature is balmy. While Koh Mook may be small, it has a great mix of towering karst cliffs covered in jungle on its northwestern side and beautiful shallow bays toward the south. The eastern side of the island is made up of several small fishing villages, where a mostly Muslim and “chao leh” sea gypsy population makes its living from squid fishing and rubber tapping. Despite abundant enough tourism on the island, wandering around in these villages one does not see most of the tourists, which gives an excellent feel for low-key island life.
The top beaches on Koh Mook are to be found on its southwest and southeastern sides, which are just a 10-minute bicycle or motorbike ride from each other. Hat Farang, or “Foreigner’s Beach,” is probably the prettiest of the bunch, with gorgeous sunsets, a long expanse of white sand, and some very turquoise water looking out toward neighboring Koh Kradan. Two inexpensive places to stay there are Charlie Beach Resort (●164 Moo 2, 084 305 9867, www.kohmookcharlieresort.com) and Mook Rubber Tree (●Had Farang Beach, 087 299 1327, www.mookrubbertree.com). On the eastern side, a small peninsula known as “the wing” juts out into the sea, with brilliant white sand, great swimming, and views of Koh Libong. The peninsula is also home to the rare giant dugong (sea cow). The place I called home on Koh Mook was the Riviera Beach Resort (●087 885 7815, 081 8946936, www.riviera-resorts.com), where energy-efficient lighting, heat-resistant roofing, and extra large windows keep the white sea villas cool. The ocean blue decorative concept also creates a calm atmosphere in the tropical environment. The resort is also actively involved in the Lifelong Learning Association (●www.lifelong-learning.org), which provides sustainable living and post-tsunami assistance to rural island communities. The resort owners have a policy of drawing from the local chao leh population for staff, as well as providing funding to village projects.
Sunning, water sports, and relaxation aside, Koh Mook is also home to one of Thailand’s premier sights: Tham Morakot, more commonly known as the “Emerald Cave.” The cave is featured in the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) “Unseen Thailand” campaign, which seeks to explore and promote lesser-known wonders of the kingdom. The Emerald Cave is actually a sinkhole where the roof of an underwater cave collapsed, allowing skylight to flood in and a jungle environment to encroach on it. The only access to the cave is via a pitch-black 100-meter long tunnel in the sea, reachable only at low tide. The opening is wide enough for a kayak or tiny dinghy to paddle in, but most of the tours bring people out on longtail boats and have them swim in from there using flashlights and buoys provided by the tour company.
Once inside, the cave opens up to reveal a pristine jungle, towering walls, and a white sand beach fronted by emerald water. Most visitors opt for the convenience of a tour to get in, but wanting to experience the cave in silence and solitude—and equally keen to avoid swimming among all the fish and jellyfish I spotted in the sea outside the cave—I hired a dinghy and boatman and set out just after first light to enjoy the cave as an explorer stumbling upon it for the first time. After we navigated the dark tunnel with a flashlight, the rays of the sinkhole opened up, and the Emerald Cave really lived up to its billing. It looked like something right out of an Indiana Jones flick. Alone on the beach, I smiled and realized I’d probably be coming back to Koh Mook sooner than expected.
Nok Air (●www.nokair.com) and Air Asia (●www.airasia.com) provide multiple daily flights from Bangkok to Trang. Trang also has a rail station, with overnight trains from Bangkok taking some 14 to 15 hours. Once in town, the Wunderbar (●26 Sathanee Rd, 087 624 8728, www.wunderbar-trang.com) travel agency is recommended to arrange all boat and minivan connections. There are daily departures by minivan, and then a longtail boat out to Koh Mook at 11 a.m.