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Published: January 9th 2015
Exotic, yet safe and easy; cheap, yet equipped with every modern amenity you might ever need, there is something for every interest, demographic and price bracket in Thailand. Yet despite the heavy flow of tourist traffic, the story goes, Thailand still manages to retain that quintessential Thai-ness, even in the most touristed of areas. Thais are known for their stereotypically carefree attitude, where everything is sanook and sabai (fun and easygoing) and the tourist industry is keen to adopt the mantle “Land of Smiles.”
Rightly or wrongly, Thailand seems more than happy to accommodate every tourist idiosyncrasy. Yet as anyone familiar with the culture will tell you, just because a Thai smiles, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happy; they are just as likely to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, regret, confusion and even anger…and you’re likely to engender some of those emotions in cross-cultural interactions. Which means you’re gonna induce a lot of smiles, and may even return home believing this to be the friendliest place you’ve ever visited!
We crossed over from Cambodia after faffing around at the border in the heat for a lot longer than any of us would have liked,
after which we travelled up to Trat in a minibus, planning to meet friends from Germany who were currently heading down from Bangkok to meet us. However, the planned rendezvous point, a popular backpacker-type hotel, turned us away whilst checking in…after confirming they had a room and we had offloaded all of our stuff from the taxi. The manager caught wind of our kids, and the deal was off! I guess they didn’t want us ruining their reputation or anyone’s holiday, a fate I accepted, though not without some annoyance. The owner gave me a rather tepid “sorry for the inconvenience,” smile. Me replying with a departing shrug of the shoulders and a “you’ve put me right in it,” smile -- irritated not because we’d come here to get ‘down’ with the backpackers and were being treated like the ‘wrong’ type of guest, but that this had royally screwed up our meeting plan.
Fortunately the next hotel we visited decided to take a risk on us. I then trotted back to the previous place where I was met with a welcoming, “I hope you’re not back here to cause any trouble”
smile. Which I neutralized with an exaggerated “friendly” smile, before asking if they could be kind enough to tell the German family with small children who would later attempt to check in here that they were similarly barred entry… and that their friends were staying at the hotel down the road. Then I flashed the owner what, to any casual observer, would have looked like a “Thank you,” smile, but both he and I knew was the “F*** you
” smile. The Islands
The decidedly rural island of Koh Mak was our destination of choice the next day, just a few kilometres south of Koh Chang but worlds apart in terms of development. We visited Koh Chang some ten years back, when it wasThailand's "next big thing," yet the little Koh Mak of today is still light-years from reaching the level of development seen there, even then. As such, it is suited to those who prefer the quieter things in life, and taking advantage of this, sleepy Koh Mak specifically aims to cater to families.
I understand that referring to Koh Mak as 'Thailand's Family Island' may see
many coil in disgust, however, if you’re still interested, the secret is it ticks many of those same boxes I may have been searching for in Thailand a decade ago – beautiful, unspoilt, untrammeled and undeveloped. Facets that, these days, wherever you are in Thailand come at an increasingly inflating price, driven by a seemingly exponentially increasing demand.
Whatever you attribute it to, Thailand is a popular destination for myriad types of tourists and the trend doesn’t seem to be abating. Thailand still conjures up dreams of the exotic… paradisiacal islands inhabited by happy locals living in a society of near perfect qualities, providing an antidote to our contemporary angst. Or at least it was like that, perhaps…once. Though the bittersweet irony of our escapist quest is that we are ultimately products of our own culture, and in seeking to create something anew; we inevitably corrupt the sanctuary we seek, creating little nightmarish niches. Or at least this is how they appear to those on the outside, looking in.
What would you do if you could start all over again at ‘Year Zero”? What would you do if there were no rules, no laws?
What would you do if nobody was looking, if you wouldn’t be judged or indeed wouldn’t get caught? An escape from reality to Thailand is often seen manifest in a multiplicity of utopian dreams, from perfect societies set around paradisiacal beaches to chicks-with-dicks and Patpong Pussies™ Koh Kham
Our own motivations were slightly less lofty and mildly less depraved. The primary reason we chose to stay on Koh Mak was actually not for Koh Mak itself, but to visit a little island just a kilometer off its north shore which goes by the name of Koh Kham. From what I’d seen in the virtual world beforehand, it provided the aesthetic backdrop of western paradise. You see, my own kinks are fundamentally superficial at heart. I’m not here ‘travelling’- I’m on vacation; and as such I want it to look nice when I’m sipping on my umbrella decorated cocktail!
As always with places chosen as potential ‘highlights’, my expectation builds to an obsessional fever pitch. Everything needs to be perfect for that first meeting. In this case, the time of day, the tide and the weather were all that was
needed to converge. The unpredictability all adding to the thrill of the hunt, the magic - the zing! For without those elements aligning, I’m all too familiar with the reality that paradise itself will be rendered drab to the touch.
The afternoon beforehand I had taken a solitary walk across the island, scaled an old lighthouse at the top of a hill and spied over to Koh Kham for a first glimpse. The sun was shining, the sea was blue; conditions right now were perfecto. I walked down the hill to the water’s edge and looked out across the sea the kilometer or so to Koh Kham. Though it was late afternoon the tide was still out and the sun still high in the sky. The temptation to arrange a meeting with Koh Kham right there and then was strong. But tomorrow it would be.
The next morning after a late breakfast, we set out together down the hill and along the beach. We planned to hire a couple of kayaks to paddle over there, just the eight of us. However on the way, little Gustav was bitten by a dog. Nothing too serious,
but it broke the skin and this being Thailand, rabies is a reality. After washing the bite and calming him down it was decided we’d press on with the daily plan. Injections would come later (and often).
We paddled over to Koh Kham, and it was all that and then some. The simplicity of that snow white sand, the black volcanic rock and the naturalness of the aquamarine sea subtly combined to make my toes curl. I’m not one for lying on beaches, but I’m more than happy to let the powdery white sand embrace those curling toes, to float in the warm gin-coloured sea and soak up the exquisite scene with a stupefied grin of bliss plastered across my face. That beach was Zen, man! Koh Kood
Literally the last, or outermost of Thailand’s south eastern coast islands, Koh Kood is geographically furthest from the centrifugal flow of tourism. And, to an even greater extent than Koh Mak, it isn’t backpackers who flock here, it’s families. The backpacker has clearly been priced out of the market, with people here willing to pay a premium to escape Thailand’s other facets: the
sex tourism, the backpacker scene, and the full-moon parties. Pick your poison. This would be price discrimination if the product on offer was the same as on some of the other islands, but the truth is, it isn’t. Koh Kood is the middle-aged family man’s version of The Beach, where nightlife consists of watching the sunset, enjoying a sea view meal and some wine as the children bounce around on a trampoline down at the playground.
If your idea of beauty looks like ancient tropical rainforest and untrammeled tropical beaches, this may be the most beautiful of all Thailand’s islands. The west coast has some breath-taking stretches of sand, many of which are fronted by a single resort or undeveloped plots of land, connected to main concrete road by a few rutted mud and sand paths leaving the beaches themselves essentially empty.“If Koh Kood is so beautiful, where are all the beautiful pics?” I do hear you ask. Well, to answer that question we need to rewind a couple of months…
I’m standing on the roof of the Roosevelt Hotel, Shanghai, at night, with Dancing Dave. As we look across the Huangpu River at
the daily light show put on by the skyscrapers so symbolic of China’s recent economic development. A garishly lit boat drifts through the scene seeing David reach for his camera. I pull out my little point and shoot from inside my coat, and David smiles. He doesn’t smile at me, he smiles at my camera – I can only hazard a guess at the exact translation of that smile… It was a moment they shared. Anyway, the very next day I appeared with the very same camera as Dancing Dave, mine silver, his black. But that smile was back again, though this time it was directed at my lens. His lens easily a foot greater than mine. Fast forward Thailand - and I’m loving the new camera until the it got stuck in “Continuous Advance” mode, and began to resemble an unruly machine gun. I fired off an email to expert Dancing Dave to see if he could help me out. His smile was back again when I read his advice, and I was stuck in rapid fire for the remainder of the holiday.
So you’ll just have to take my word for it…the answer to the
definitive question, that is. What is the best island in Thailand? Which is number one? The best evv-errr? Truth is, it’s not so much a case of finding the best
island in Thailand, but more accurately finding the best island for you
What makes you smile?
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