Even during the chaos of Songkran, Graeme Green finds a cluster of Thai islands where calm prevails and the living is easy
We’re being followed. Fifteen metres below the ocean’s surface, off the Thai island of Koh Kradan, a remora won’t leave us alone. It resembles a tiny upside-down shark, and I first notice it circling my head, body and legs at the start of our dive. As I swim on, sunlight brings out the autumnal colours – yellow, green, brown, orange, red, even purple – of ornate fan corals. Then our aquatic friend is back, vying for attention as we check out a moray eel peeking from a hole. I haven’t seen this kind of persistence from a fish before. Towards the end of the dive, it even gives me a nip.
“Remora fish, or sucker fish, usually attach to sharks or whales or very big fish,” dive instructor Suriya Hadden, who goes by the name Yad, tells me when we’re back on the longtail boat, explaining it’s a symbiotic relationship. “Maybe it thought we were big fish.”
Whatever the explanation, this kind of nuisance behaviour is entirely out of character for Trang, a sprawl of about 44 islands off southern Thailand’s west coast. Normally, on land and in the sea, peace and calm reign. Other Thai islands, from Phuket to Koh Samui and Koh Tao, sometimes feel overrun with the 30 million international visitors who hit Thailand each year, but fewer than 200,000 foreigners come to the little known, sparsely populated Trang Islands. Their residents are largely Muslim and I’d heard the region was more like the Thailand of old, the country as it was 30 or 40 years ago. There are no big chain hotels, no drunken Full Mooners, no stalls selling ‘same same but different’ t-shirts, no sleazy bars. Instead there are just beautiful beaches, forested hills and clear blue seas, as well as one of the world’s largest populations of the endangered dugong. Here, the pace is slower, the prices are (generally) lower and, most appealing of all, there are no crowds.
Unless, that is, you accidentally arrive, like me, slap bang on Songkran. Thai New Year is celebrated across the country from 13 to 15 April each year, and many of the locals take the opportunity to hit the beach. “The Trang Islands are usually very quiet, compared to Phuket or Samui,” local tour operator Ekkachai Binwaha tells me, as, at Pakmeng Pier, we board a boat heaving with celebrating Thais. “We have beautiful islands, but people focus on other places. Many don’t know about Trang.”
One reason Trang isn’t famous, Ekkachai suggests, is because the islands and mainland coastline are a protected part of Hat Chao Mai National Park, meaning it’s difficult to build hotels and resorts. “People come to Trang looking for a quiet place – they don’t like Phuket and crowded places,” he says. “They’re explorers. It’s more adventurous here.”
It’s easy to see the charm of these islands as our boat chugs slowly across the rolling blue Andaman Sea and past longtail fishing boats and limestone karsts jutting from the water. The first stop is one of the area’s most popular day trips: Morakot Cave (also called Emerald Cave) on Koh Mook. There’s a logjam of boats at the entrance, and the cave is suffering the Songkran effect. Tourists form long lines in the water, clutching the life jacket of the person in front, each guide then pulling the human chains of 40 or 50 people through the 80-metre tunnel. It’s dark, crowded and chaotic inside. We reach daylight on the other side, where there’s a small greenish pool walled in by steep cliffs. “Local people come here first for the birds’ nests, which are used for soup,” Ekkachai tells me. “They’re very valuable.”
We rejoin the boat and motor on, stopping to snorkel off Koh Kradan, where the coral swarms with bright yellow, blue and silver fish. But the Songkran effect is here, too, with up to 150 people overloading the small stretch of water.
It’s only when the boat drops me at Koh Ngai for the night and the day-trippers head back to the mainland that the islands start to work their magic. I take a walk along the quiet beach in the evening. Resting longtail boats bob in the shallow water. Local men take kayaks out to fish. As the heat and light of the day fade, the sky turns soft pink. A beach bar’s sign reads, “Kick back, relax!” As if you could do anything else.
In the morning, I board a pink speedboat from the beach and race at 30 knots across the ocean to Koh Rok, an island split into two tree-covered sides, with a whole lot of beach on both. “I love this place,” Ekkachai says, smiling. “The water’s so green and so clear.”
We don snorkels on the Koh Rok Noi side of the island and take a leisurely swim over the coral along with fat parrotfish and yellow snapper. Foot-long sea cucumbers rest on the sand far below. The long tentacles of bushy anemones sway on the current.
After lunch onshore at Koh Rok Nok, the other side of the island, I walk the length of the beach. It, too, is popular with Songkran day-trippers, but, with its white sand and warm ocean, it is impossible not to like anyway.
Days here begin to take on a rhythm. Each morning we head out to explore, coming back in the evening to gather with locals and the few other tourists to watch colourful, calming Trang sunsets. A longtail ‘taxi’ takes me across the silvery water to Koh Mook, where I’m met by guide Taord Bangjak, nicknamed Ood. We ride a motorbike taxi across the little island to Farang Beach, pick up a pair of kayaks and head straight out on the open choppy water. “Yesterday we had very big waves: boom, boom, boom,” says Ood. “Today is better.”
Waves bash against barnacle-encrusted rocks as we paddle along the island. We pass the entrance to the Emerald Cave and, further along, empty Sabai Beach. Sun beats down on the island’s limestone crags and forests. Ood seems to know all the local boatmen, stopping often to chew the fat and ‘borrow’ cigarettes.
After two hours of paddling, we reach Koh Mook pier and stop for lunch in the little village, which is busy with locals running errands on motorbikes. The women and girls wear headscarves, and the men are in white taqiyah (prayer hats). As we tuck into spicy prawn curry and rice, one of the daily calls to prayer sounds out.
The next day I get a longtail with Yad to Koh Kradan. In the afternoon this is a popular snorkelling spot, but in the morning there are no other boats to be seen. This is no-frills diving; we’ve got a couple of tanks each and just roll into the water, warm enough for a short wetsuit, off the side of the longtail. Long rope-like sea plumes rise up from the ocean floor. We swim over vase corals and fans, startling a stingray that zooms off along the sandy ocean floor. As well as the pesky remora, the water is teeming with colourful residents – there are bannerfish, parrotfish, pufferfish and thousands of small silver fish that look like drops from a heavy rain shower. Yad points out a big stonefish camouflaged against the coral.
Afterwards, we motor across to Hin Nok, the calm ocean mirroring the pale blue of the cloudless sky. Seabirds bob up and down on fishermen’s buoys. Now and then, we pass a longtail boat, but there’s no tourist traffic out here.
We put in the anchor at a cluster of black rocks poking just above the ocean surface, the summit of a coral bommie. Fishermen with multiple rods each sit in a boat nearby, a good sign there’s plenty of fish below. Under the water, a pair of moray eels stares at us from a crack in the coral. I see two big pufferfish and big schools of bannerfish and clownfish (this is definitely the place to find Nemo). Yad points to a large squid hovering in the water – it seems a shame to make fried food from such an elegant creature.
There are no sharks, or any mantas, turtles, octopuses or the other big stuff divers like to tick off. Instead, underwater exploration here is, like the islands, gentle and laid back. There are no other divers at either site – not something you could often say of Koh Tao or many other Thai islands. There’s just a whole lot of fish. The numbers are incredible. Seemingly never-ending shoals of thousands of yellow snapper move along the coral.
It’s mesmerising to watch. And maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems in these waters, where divers are a rarity, the fish are less shy than usual and happy to swim closer. A pair of pufferfish, for example, comes within a metre, almost eyeballing me. “Krabi and Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao… Places like that are much busier,” Yad agrees, back on the boat. “This is normal here. Very quiet.”
Yad drops me at a small resort of beachfront bungalows on Koh Libong, Trang’s biggest island, where I spend an afternoon reading before joining other travellers and local families on the beach to watch the sun go down over the ocean.
The following morning we hire a couple of motorbikes and set off around Libong, turning off the main road onto a dirt track, following signs for Point Dugong. It’s quite an adventure to get to the top of White Rock (or Batu Puteh). First we hike along a forest trail then through a cave system where the rock walls have turned green with moss, before climbing stairs and ladders up rocky cliffs. “Be very careful. This part is dangerous,” Yad warns me, pointing to the jagged volcanic rock we clamber over on the final section before reaching the wooden viewing platform, 150 metres above the ocean.
From up here, we have a wide view of the sea, the forests covering the island, the pier at Ban Na village jutting into the water, and the surrounding islands like Koh Lao Liang and Koh Petra.
We scour the surface below us. From up here, a lot of dark shapes and shadows on the water seem as though they could be dugongs. “We’re looking for a brown colour, like this,” says Yad, patting the wood of the platform.
The waters of Thailand’s west coast, especially those around the Trang Islands, are one of the best areas in the world to see endangered dugongs. Here, the seagrass on which they feed is plentiful. “There are about 100 dugongs around Libong and the Trang Islands,” Yad says.
Swifts flutter and swoop around the limestone cliffs as we wait patiently at the lookout for about half an hour with no luck. It’s only a minor disappointment; the fun climb and the outstanding view make it time well spent. And like so many parts of Trang, we have the place to ourselves.
We hike down and, unexpectedly, from a ledge at one of the cave openings, Yad spots a dugong far below. From up here, it’s just a brown speck – not exactly the world’s greatest wildlife experience, but a sighting nonetheless.
Yad shows me around the rest of the island, riding into the village, with its stilted houses close to the waterfront and local mosque. At the pier, women in headscarves sit shelling tubs of crabs. A thin trail leads through the forest to a ‘secret’ beach. There are a handful of fishing boats out on the water, but the sand itself? Deserted.
The call to prayer goes out in the evening. There’s usually a small gathering of tourists and locals on the beach for sunset, but tonight it’s almost empty. With a nearly full moon out above me, the sky turns pink and red. It’s hard to think of another Thai island I’ve seen this quiet. Tomorrow, I’ll catch a longtail back to the mainland, but I’m going to miss these little islands, where life’s as simple as a cold beer, a good fish curry and the sound of waves breaking softly on the beach. Just like Thailand in the old days.
AirAsia flies from Australian cities to Krabi via Kuala Lumpur. From Krabi, it’s about a two-hour drive to Trang. airasia.com
Most resorts on the islands are rustic but beautiful, and often just metres from the sand. Koh Hai Fantasy Resort has standard double rooms from about US$50. On Koh Mook, Charlie Beach Resort has simple bamboo chalets, with fan and mosquito net, for about US$35 a night. On Koh Libong, Libong Beach Resort’s hill rooms with sea views cost about US$25 a night. haifantasy.com kohmook.com libong-beach.com