The little Thai island of Koh Phayam floats just south of Burma’s last blue-grey outrider islands, seemingly in the waters of amnesia. Our speedboat skitters towards it across a windless, swell-less sea.
If most Thais have forgotten this 35-square-kilometre dot in the Andaman Sea it is because they’ve never even heard of it. Koh Phayam (pronounced ‘pie-am’) has no cars or roads, few bars, no spas and no karaoke yowls… well, not yet. But, please, never call it paradise because, as Marcel Proust gloomily put it, “The only paradise is paradise lost.”
The speedboat zips us to Phayam, some 40 minutes and 30 kilometres from the Thai port of Ranong. This morning’s passengers include half a dozen European backpackers, the last Rajneeshi (still sporting his faded red threads), a young German family and seven Thais – island residents – loaded with groceries. A fair sampling of the Koh Phayam populace.
The jungle-covered island comes into view. As our speedboat carves an arc into Aow Mae Mai bay on its east coast, I see no condo towers or shrieking paragliders snagging the skyline. A good start. “We have nothing like that yet,” one of the Thais tells me. “And I hope we don’t get.”
As a traveller, you may know the feeling: returning to an island you loved not too long ago for its tranquility, you find it now paved with ravers and internet cafes – the victim of its own beauty.
Koh Phayam is nothing like that. We land at its only town, a T-junction near the pier from which radiates a collection of stalls, eateries, small bars and dive shops. My hotel transfer turns out to be a Thai girl named Lemon, who balances me and my bag on the back of her motorbike. We’re soon wobbling west across the sandy island on a narrow concrete path that’s shaded by cashew trees. I love the place already.
And of course there is no ‘hotel’, Phayam’s accommodation consisting of only bungalow resorts. The one I’ve booked is perhaps the best known, Bamboo Bungalows, run by a mellow, 40-ish Israeli, Yuli, and his Thai wife, Nute.
“It was a Robinson Crusoe place back then,” says Yuli over a coffee in the Bamboo’s open-air, beachfront restaurant. He paints a picture of the island when he arrived in 1997. “Foreigners were as rare as hornbills. There were only five resorts, now there are 35. We had the place almost to ourselves until about six years ago.”
Their garden resort – a scattering of some twenty bungalows and cottages of four types – looks out from beneath a fringe of palms, cashew trees, pandanus and casuarinas. The Andaman Sea stares spectacularly back. Three kilometres of wide, clean sand arcs to the north and south. I spot fifteen or twenty people along it, a high season crowd on Aow Yai Beach.
My mid-range bungalow has a double bed, outdoor shower and loo, light, two chairs, table and a roof. All I need. I grab a surf kayak and paddle out into the lazy blue swell. A small closeout wave breaks there all day long – hardly classic surf, but still it’s a wave, a wake-up and fun. Bamboo’s guests periodically wander down the beach with the resort’s boogie boards or kayaks and plunge in, even if only to snap themselves awake from a siesta.
Phayam’s like that: big on naps, long walks, longer reads, a bit of exploration, a trip to town for cinnamon buns at the Multi Kulti Bakery or a few beers at Oscars Bar. A major event might be an offshore fishing or snorkeling excursion, or a daytrip down to the magical Surin Islands. Extreme mobility here is a visit to neighbouring Koh Chang or a visa run to nearby Victoria Point in Burma.
If Phayam has a history, no one recalls it much. Its name supposedly came from the Thai word phayayam (‘try again’) perhaps from the days of sail when small vessels had to attempt the crossing more than once if the wind was against them. At the lower end of Kao Kwai Bay on the west coast is a small settlement of sea gypsies, also known as Moken or chao lay (people of the sea), but the majority of the island’s 600 permanent inhabitants are recently arrived mainland Thais employed in tourism.
Before farang visitors came in any numbers, the islanders worked (and still do) at cashew nut farming, rubber cultivation and fishing. Long before that it was home mostly to monkeys, wild boar, squirrels, hawks, sea otters and the elusive Oriental Pied Hornbill. The only ones I spot are squirrels and hawks.
I hire a motorbike for 200 baht (A$7) and explore the island, all ten-by-six kilometres of it. Phayam’s ‘roads’ amount to just 2.5 kilometres of two-metre wide concrete ribbon that runs over hill and scrubby dale, one path going across the island, and the other, even shorter, running north. Branching from these, unsealed sidetracks cut through the bush to the beaches at Aow Yai (Big Bay) and its northern counterpart Aow Kao Kwai (Buffalo Bay). I overtake some Dutch travellers sweating along these sandy paths on 80-baht pushbikes. Virtuous as they may be (not to mention fitter and 120-baht-a-day richer than me), I pat my trusty little Suzuki gratefully.
I head for the isolated northern beach of Aow Kwang Peeb, navigating a precipitous track recently carved into the jungle hillside. It drops me down to a perfect emerald bay with a fingernail of sandy shoreline, where I dive straight in for a swim. (At less than ten degrees north of the equator, the water here is never cold.) This being ever-enterprising Thailand, I am not surprised that there is already a small resort and drinks bar here, and thus the newly carved road in the wilderness.
Both of Phayam’s two main west coast bays, Aow Yai and Aow Khao Kwai, have long beaches backed by low, forested hills, while the east coast is mostly tidal mangrove shore. I check some of the other accommodation, the most upmarket being the new Payam Cottage Resort (boasting 24-hour electricity) and nearby Buffalo Bay Vacation Club. The other end of the scale seems occupied by the Smile Hut, a less-than-tidy, long-stay, low-rent place where the pathway borders are formed by thousands of empty beer bottles.
I cruise home on a path fragrant with the fermenting musk of windfall cashew fruit, seeing an island whose appeal is defined by what it lacks: discos, ATMs, watch-floggers, beer bars and taxi mafia. Please, Buddha, may no one hex Phayam with the P-word. As the Eagles once cautioned, “You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
Back at Bamboo Bungalows I lap up the creature comforts including cold beer and Nute’s delicious tiger prawns and squid. (Like most places on Phayam, the power is from generator and solar sources, and runs from 10am to 2pm, and 6pm to 11pm). There is even a good internet connection. Yuli jokes, “guests complained when there was no internet, so I got it. Soon they complained it was too slow, so I installed free wireless. What’s next?”
My fellow guests are what you might call mature backpackers, mainly Europeans either with or without kids, plus travelling couples and singles. Predominantly they are German, Swedish, Australian and Dutch (in that order). Three polite young Israeli guys seem determined to be the opposite of their national backpacker stereotype. The only person I avoid is a German who sits himself at my table and lights up a rank cigar.
“The younger backpackers go to the ‘bar islands’,” says Yuli, referring to places like Phi Phi, Tao, Phangan, Phuket and Samui, islands now awash with mandatory full moon parties, tattoo shops and pizza parlours. Phayam is frequently described as “Like Koh Samui or Phuket 30 years ago” – a cliché freighted with troubling prophecy. Hopefully, ‘success’ will be as blind to Phayam as the 2004 tsunami and flow right past it.
Come late afternoon, Koh Phayam gets truly gorgeous. At around 4.30pm, the cicadas crank up the volume (as they also do at dawn), the beach is cool enough for a few games of volleyball and then the lightshow begins. Off to the north above the ghost islands of Burma, thunder clouds stack themselves thousand of metres high, grey on grey phantoms of vapour twitching with lightning. The sky behind them washes slowly from purple haze down to darkness while along the beach the first bonfire flames lick up and a conga drummer kicks in. Not paradise, but not far off.
Beyond Koh Phayam
Koh Surin Islands
Try a daytrip from Koh Phayam to this Andaman Sea archipelago, a Thai Marine National Park that offers some of the best diving and snorkelling anywhere. The waters around the two islands offer dramatic swim-throughs, superb corals, a huge variety of fish and stunning visibility. The forested islands are also home to several Moken ‘sea gypsy’ communities.
Koh Chang (Elephant Island)
About four kilometres north of Koh Phayam, this is even quieter than Phayam and far less developed. (Note that this is not the large island of the same name in the eastern Gulf of Thailand.) There are small lodges and restaurants, some 45 homes and a Buddhist monastery. No motor vehicles, just walking paths. There is no direct service from Koh Phayam to Koh Chang, but boats can be chartered from Ranong pier or via your booked lodge.
Capital of the wettest province in Thailand, snoozy Ranong is a quite Thai-Chinese town best known among visitors for its hot springs. Jansom Ranong Hotel pipes water from the springs into its public spa. The hotel is in a state of gothic decrepitude (although being refurbished) but the spa is fine and the water so hot (around 60ºC) that it might boil the nuts off a brass monkey. Eat at Saphon’s Hideaway (Ruangrat Rd) or the Kiwi Guesthouse adjacent to Ranong bus station.
Victoria Point (Koh Song)
This Burma/Myanmar island is a fifteen-minute boat trip from Ranong pier. Before embarking on a daytrip, visitors must obtain a boarding card from the Thai Immigration Office in Pak Nam Ranong. You’ll find duty-free shopping, Burmese handicrafts and gems (caveat emptor), and the Andaman Club Island Resort casino.
To Thailand: Thai Airways flies from Australia for around US$775.
Thai AirAsia flies from Bangkok to Surat Thani from US$55 return.
From Surat Thani, catch a bus for US$4.50 to Ranong (three hours). From Ranong take a motorcycle taxi or songthaew (pick-up) to the Koh Phayam speedboat pier (Saphon Pla).
During high season, speedboats leave Saphon Pla pier for the 40-minute trip, which costs US$8.50. Alternatively, coaches to Ranong leave from Bangkok’s southern bus station (nine hours, approximately US$14).
Bamboo Bungalows offer four accommodation options, from basic cabins to luxurious cottages.
High season rates range from US$14 to US$56 per night. There is a restaurant and bar, plus a variety of water sport equipment.