In 2011

A Paradise They Forgot to Pave

March 27, The Age, Australia

The idyllic Thailand of 10 years ago still exists on a remote island — but hurry, it won’t last, writes Julie Miller.

WHEN I stumble across the mythical “road less travelled”, it’s in the last place I expect. Yet here it lies before me – brand new and smooth, without a car or motorcycle in sight. All hopes of hailing a taxi immediately dissolve; seems I have no choice but to hoof it to my destination five kilometres away.

This surely must be a first for Thailand – a road with no traffic. But Koh Kood is no ordinary Thai destination; it’s an island defined by its resistance to the trappings of 21st-century tourism. Imagine – no airport, very few vehicles, no ATMs, no 7-Elevens and no McDonald’s. Thanks to the efforts of enlightened locals with an eye on sustainability, Thailand’s fourth-largest island remains paradise found.

In the far eastern reaches of the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border, Koh Kood’s remoteness has been its saviour. Just getting here requires time and effort; it’s at least a one-hour speedboat ride from the closest mainland port of Trat, while the public ferry takes about three hours.

Like most visitors to the island, however, I arrive via Koh Kood’s larger and more popular sister island, Koh Chang, a two-hour journey by speedboat. Though I haven’t booked any accommodation, I’ve had to nominate where I’ll be dropped off; on a fellow traveller’s recommendation, I choose Koh Kood Resort.

From the moment I arrive at the long wooden pier with its rustic welcome sign, I know I’m in for a treat. This mid-range resort is tucked into a corner of glorious Bang Bao Bay, a large crescent with a blinding white-powder beach flanked by coconut palms. Through the cracks in the wharf I can see right to the bottom of the sandy sea bed, schools of fish meandering in water so clear it could have come from a tap.

Peak season means beachfront accommodation is out of my price range at 2300 baht ($75) a night but I’m more than satisfied with my spacious and stylish 1200-baht, fan-cooled garden bungalow with en suite bathroom, king-size bed, front deck and free Wi-Fi. Out of peak, I’d pay half that rate and probably have the beach to myself to boot.

There are two other resorts on the bay, connected by a sandy path, and a stroll along the length of the crescent becomes part of my daily ritual. The neighbouring resort, the Beach Natural Resort, is popular with European families but occupies the rockiest part of the bay. The best beach frontage has been snaffled by Siam Beach Resort, its simple bungalows possessing views to die for. Siam Beach takes the cake in terms of location, though I’m assured the facilities, restaurant and quality of the rooms at my resort are far superior.

To compensate for Koh Kood Resort’s lack of beach, a wooden deck has been built to the water’s edge, day beds under umbrellas creating a poolside ambience, complete with “cabana boys” scooping leaves out of our tranquil natural swimming pool. From the deck it’s just a few steps down a ladder into the warm azure water, so clear you can see your toes.

I swim languidly out to the pier; even at high tide, the water is only waist deep. Back at shore, there’s mayhem and laughter as the pool boys, bored with removing leaves, pursue a squid, dashing up and down the length of the deck with nets poised. Persistence pays off – the hapless mollusc will be joining other freshly caught seafood in tonight’s barbecue spread.

Koh Kood has clearly captured the couples demographic – I seem to be the only solo traveller, though in such an idyllic environment I’m more than happy with my own company and a good book, interspersed with quick dips, strolls on the beach, a gymnastic Thai massage in the beachfront sala and an obligatory sunset cocktail, either at the resort’s chillout bar or in the funky cushion bar at Siam Beach Resort.

Two days into this groove, it occurs to me that I should, for journalistic purposes, shift my lazy butt and explore beyond the resort. Having arrived by boat, I have no perspective of where I am or what lies beyond – and, frankly, I hardly care. But word is there’s a spectacular waterfall just down the road – wherever that may be.

“Where exactly is the road?” I ask my waiter over breakfast. He seems shocked that I’m asking – very few guests show any interest in the outside world.

Assuming that when I do find “civilisation” it will be as chaotic as the rest of Thailand, I turn down the offer of scooter hire and set off on foot, happy to take on the challenge of a half-day excursion. I walk for at least a kilometre along a dirt track before I even hit the road and, when I see just how quiet the island is, I soon regret my decision not to take the scooter.

Committed, I begin the hot trudge down the road. It’s a good five minutes before a vehicle appears, a van carrying a couple of backpackers. Assuming it’s a songthaew taxi, I flag it down and ask how much to the waterfall. The driver just laughs and tells me to jump in the back.

The ride in the privately owned vehicle (there are no taxis on the island, I discover) allows me to scope out other beaches, other resorts, other seductive nooks that leave me swooning. If there’s a rundown, ugly or even utilitarian side to Koh Kood, it didn’t reveal itself during my brief sojourn – I’m convinced there’s nothing but beauty to be found.

Deep in the heart of the island, another kilometre’s walk along a rainforest track after the paved road ends, the three-tiered Klong Chao waterfall tinkles over a moss-covered cliff into a large, inky pool where happy hikers strip to their underwear to swim, the more rambunctious entering with a splash via a rope swing.

The waterfall’s claim to fame is a visit by King Rama VI in 1911, an occasion apparently marked by royal graffiti somewhere on the rock platform. As I cool my toes in the icy shallows, I can’t help but wonder how the adventurous monarch got here a century ago – I doubt he had the option then of thumbing a ride along Thailand’s quietest road.

For those who lament the passing of Thailand’s glory days, when dirt-cheap accommodation on deserted beaches was the norm, Koh Kood is a revelation. The island, however, is ripe for exploitation, its stunning coves and beaches surely the dream of any money-grabbing developer. Clog up its coastline with upmarket resorts, whack in an airport and introduce a car ferry and Koh Kood could easily become the next Samui.

The opening of the ultra-luxurious Soneva Kiri by Six Senses may indicate the winds of change are approaching; surely it’s just a matter of time before other tourism bigwigs move in.

So hurry, while paradise lasts.

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