Here is the next chapter in my Southeast Asian adventure, as published in the Gold Coast Gazette !
I awoke at sunrise and walked out of my bungalow directly on to the golden sands of the Hornbill Bungalows’ private beach. CoCo, the family’s golden retriever, was the only other creature stirring; we sat in the sand together, my feet buried in the gold and his paws on my legs. Looking out across the pristine Andaman Sea, I found the Thailand I was searching for: a deserted, unspoiled island without Wi-Fi, modern plumbing, air conditioning and, most importantly, tourists. Electricity is only run on generators for a few hours each night. For me, this is paradise.
I was spoiled by Vietnam and Laos, both of which I visited during the low season for tourism. The Thai islands have long been vacation destinations for an array of travelers, especially popular among Europeans, Russians, and Chinese tourists. It only takes one step on those white sand beaches to understand what has made Thailand so loved by visitors, but many of the country’s more beautiful islands have turned into overcrowded tourist traps or been spoiled by an excess of partying Farang (Thai slang for western tourists).
Despite my initially vitriolic attitude, I came to find that a more authentic trip to Thailand is still attainable. There is no need to waste your precious vacation time following the crowd, and who better to advise on the unblemished islands left to explore than the locals. I took advice from two expat restaurateurs in Bangkok who have lived in Thailand for over ten years. The owner of the café Chomp – the name catching my attention for obvious reasons – drew me a map of the best islands from her twelve years of experience in the country.
This map led me on an overnight barge journey, on which I slept in a cargo hold full of bunk beds and had my most comfortable sleep in weeks. After traveling across the peninsula, I took a small commuter boat which dropped me directly on to the golden sands of Koh Chang Noi (little Chang island) and the Hornbill Bungalows. Not to be confused with the larger Koh Chang on the Gulf, this infinitesimal, elephant-shaped island is home to a tiny population of Thai locals and resident expats.
The sand truly is gold – not the yellow beaches of the Hamptons or the white sands of Mexico and most of Thailand’s tainted islands. On the private beach of the Hornbill Bungalows, I paid ten dollars a night for golden sand and crisp blue water the temperature of a warm bath. After one afternoon, I understood why the lovely owners, Mr. Ao and Mrs. Jib, said they never wanted to return to Bangkok.
Prior to my stint in utopia, I spent a week on Koh Tao, the diving capital of the world. I was warned by my Chomp counterpart that, while it is teeming with Farang, the island is still worth a visit for the price and ease of getting certified; with more dive shops than any other island, it only takes one week to achieve an advanced 30m (98ft) diving certification. Apart from the lure of diving, the small island still maintains its beauty and laid-back atmosphere despite its touristic charm. It is a running joke/truth in the expat community that the island is impossible to leave, and I certainly began to feel that way in my final days there. Those who do stay are some of the craziest, funniest people I’ve ever met, truly a welcoming and kind family of stowaways.
A week after pulling myself away from Koh Tao, lazily sitting by the sea on Koh Chang Noi, I watched a dive boat glide off the water and onto the shore. Mr. Ao acted as my tour guide for the day and drove me around the tiny island where we swam in the reservoir and shared a beer with the general store owners. As we sat on Ao Yai, the main beach, and watched the ship anchor, I sensed my ephemeral trip to paradise was coming to an end. Mr. Ao called out in greeting to the men disembarking the boat, who had just returned from a dive trip to the Similan Islands. My recently developed interest in diving sparked up a conversation; the next morning, I was picked up by the same boat, now headed for the near shores of Myanmar and a seven day dive trip to the country’s beautifully preserved reef. I waved at my Hornbill hosts until the last glimpse of gold was out of sight, then looked out at the horizon of the Andaman; from this moment onward, I realized, diving was about to become a focal point of my trip to the east.
More to come on my dive trip in Burma at Chomp Around the World