12 January 1997
(From The Independent, UK, one of the first mentions in a newspaper of Koh Chang as a tourist destination in Thailand.)
Legendary habitat of Sultans and spices, pirates and traders, Conrad and Maugham, there are 17,000 islands in the world’s largest archipelago in Indonesia – many of them in beautiful backwaters longing to welcome Western tourists.
Recovering from its violent earthquake and tidal wave in 1992, Flores rivals Bali in the beauty of its forests and ravines, though tourism has barely scratched the surface. Ask for accommodation in its remote and idyllic fishing villages, and you’ll be directed to a bamboo hut with a beaten earth floor, platform bed and a spade instead of a WC.
Sumbawa is strongly Muslim, but rosy Dutch pantiles top stilt houses of bamboo rattan. Its north-eastern port, Bima, has an air of South Seas piracy; great wooden pinisis, the famous sailing boats of Sulawesi, loaded with seaweed and soy beans are tied up at its quayside. In villages such as Panalung, young lads crash like charioteers through mud and rice paddies on wooden sledges behind thundering beasts during the water buffalo races.
You could be the one of first Western tourists the locals have ever seen, as I myself was, on the tiny pearl diver’s island of Adonara, where our boatload was presented with fruit, palm wine and a live chicken. The children laughed delightedly at our pale skin and hair.
The adventurous have already reached the much larger Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes, though it is still not on the main track for independent travellers in Indonesia. With some of the most remote jungles in the country, active volcanoes and unusual flora and fauna, Sulawesi is not a place to visit in a hurry.
Heading further East, and as an alternative to the increasing commercialism of Koh Samui and Koh Pangang, the 10-by-two mile Koh Chang is one of the least developed of Thailand’s tropical islands. Like Koh Samui of 20 years ago, Koh Chang offers the simple life, commuting between more or less empty sandy beaches, jungly virgin rain forests and a scattering of fishing villages.
Still in the Indian Ocean, many travellers make the jour-ney to Zanzibar, but few continue 25 miles north to Pemba, the island of cloves, which is quiet, scenic and with interesting ruins dating from the Shirazi migration from Persia.
James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming believed that pirates had left treasure behind on Fregate, the three-square-kilometre private island in the Seychelles. The island’s 30 or so inhabitants are greatly outnumbered by 50 species of birds. Six stupendous beaches including Anse Victorin, rated among the world’s most beautiful, mangoes, passion fruit, bananas and other tropical fruits that grow like weeds, are other natural ingredients which add up to a spectacular island for holidaymakers. A strictly limited number (no more than 40) will be able to stay in 16 new luxury villas to be opened this summer, promising an unspoilt refuge for environmentally conscious travellers. Who knows, you might find the buried treasure.
Despite outstanding diving, talcum-powder beaches, mountains and jungle scenery, Palawan still remains one of the Phillipines’ best kept secrets. Described as its last frontier, the long narrow island off Borneo has probably been saved from the hordes by its poor roads and limited accommodation, though it’s understandably a favourite hideout for backpackers on a budget.
Also reached via Manila, independent and youth travel specialist STA’s top tip for divers is Truk in the Federal States of Micronesia, where travellers can discover some of the most spectacular underwater scenery that exists anywhere in the world.