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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Secluded bliss, at long last.

We had been travelling for close to 16 months and whilst culturally and spiritually invigorated, we were physically spent! I am usually into "doing" something rather than simply laying about, but I cannot begin to tell you how tantalising the whole idea of lying around on a secluded beach was steadfastly becoming. We had talked about what our last few weeks would look like, and now that time had come, we were ready. We wanted a couple of weeks on a spectacular beach doing absolutely nothing, before coming back to Bangkok, to fit in some shopping (and a few other things).But where in Thailand would we go? To what beach or area? Needless to say, the likes of Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui did not even make the top 100. Glitz, glam and sleaze were not on the agenda! (By this stage I was precariously close to wanting to do battle with anyone who even remotely looked like they were trying to crack onto the local delicacies).

As usual, our next destination lay only a few days ahead of us. That's to say, that we usually only decided on "what's next" from one place to the next. We did a bit of on-line investigating, whilst also flipping through our guide book, and the general consensus seemed to be that if we wanted to elude the masses, we needed to go somewhere along the Gulf of Thailand, close to the Cambodian border. Ko Chang looked like a good option, so in the days after Pong and Link's wedding we were off. One of Bangkok's bus terminals, the Eastern Bus Terminal, was within walking distance, and luckily for us it was the place where we needed to go to, to reach our next destination, Trat, from where we would then have to catch a ferry on to Ko Chang. Bec and Birdie saw us off, and before we knew it, along with Megs, we were on our way. I wondered where I would see Bec next, as she and Birdie were off to Cambodia in the next few days.

The ride was only some six hours, but we would have to spend the night in Trat, as it was too late to catch a ferry. Once there, we figured that we may as well stay a couple of days. At the bus station, we were met by the owner of Pop Guest House, who told us that she had some accommodation available. We all figured that we may as well go check it out. It was at the bus station that we also met the lovely Maya, from France. So, off we went to take a look at Pop. As usual, we did the usual check a few places out, but ended up back at Pop, which was very clean and comfortable. Unfortunately, despite being listed in the Lonely Planet guide book, we most certainly did not find that "staying at this homely place is like visiting your -mum. The owner will pamper you silly". The husband and owner duo were a mean-spirited couple who only cared to pamper you silly if you ate at their restaurant and used all of their services. In true Ombi form, I did none of that. They were NOT happy campers, and on realising that they could not milk us, they were quite rude. The straw that broke the camel's back was when I was accused, inadvertently of course, that I had stolen a pair of thongs! As if! Not having wounded me too deeply or personally, I was still able to enjoy Trat, especially its central market. Thailand is a foodie's dream come true, and this market did not disappoint. But...........how much can one try? Speaking for Alex, Maya and Megs too, I would say....quite a lot actually!

Whilst in Trat, we chatted to a few people who had been to Ko Chang, and it appeared that it was no longer the idyllic haven it had once been. We had heard that one guy who had been going for the past 20 years, recently spent a night there, and returned, disillusioned! Why? It was quickly moving towards glitz, glam and sleaze alley. No thanks! A bit more research (again via internet and people who had recently been there), and we decided on Ko Mak. This place seemed small (only 16 square kilometres), with supposedly few tourists, and lots of stretches of sparkling golden sand and azure seas. I think we'd found what we were looking for. We caught a ferry out there, and I was blown away as we started to approach the island. Be careful of what you ask for though, as you may just get it! We arrived at sunset, and despite the throngs of mozzies(they say dog is a man's best friend, well, mozzies are mine!), the view was spectacular. The secluded island we had dreamed about was.......real! We ended up at a place called Sunset Resort. It was bungalow style accommodation, and whilst passable, not what we were really looking for. Whilst we did not want the Hilton, we wanted our last weeks to be relaxing and comfortable. We had earned this! Thanks to Jo and Will, a Belgian couple we met at Sunrise, we ended up moving to Pano Resort the next day (please, please, please click on the link). It was really, really beautiful....and deserted....that's the place not just the beach. So, we really did have it to ourselves.

What can I say? We spent a week at Pano, and did..........nothing except for sun bake, laze around, sleep, eat, and Megs and I would go for walks. The young couple who managed Pano, Bow and Boy, were sweet and friendly, and many a night was held sitting in the outdoor/restaurant area, eating food, which they often gave us to "try". Of course we also bought food there, as on an island you have few options: the resort/ hotel food, a few local restaurants and a couple of grocery shops. Jane was the front-of-house person, who was also our means of transportation. As the island is so small, there are no taxis, and transport is via the vehicle the hotel provides. Having said that, most places were no more than 10 minutes away. Jane was also a keen soccer player, who seemed to be able to fit in this activity several times a week. Definitely the tom boy I once was, and whom many would argue, still am. Then there was the cook, O, and her little baby, Aum, who would smile cheekily on the several occasions we came back and gave her a bar of chocolate.

Although there was a tiny stretch of sand in front of Pano Resort, and certainly enough to read and sun bake on, we went in search of deeper waters (and wider stretches of sand). We found and were taken to a several beautiful spots, which I had thought only "lived" on glossy travel mag covers, or in a movie. Beautiful, tranquil, and relaxing! Alex tells me that all of the seafood he had was scrumptious. We also found a local restaurant, Pa Toom, that we visited a lot. Although the owner, naming the restaurant after herself, spoke little English, and we non-existent Thai, we were somehow able to communicate. It was usually more hit than miss and the food cheap and tasty. "Pet, pet" (hot, hot) I would ask for...remember what I said about being careful for what you asked for. Talk about shaving a layer or two off my palate! We kept coming back though. Not many internet choices on the island, except for one expensive one close to the pier, which we only used briefly on a couple of occasions. That's island life, where most things are more expensive due to the isolation. Oh, but so very worth it!

Ko Mak is a relatively small island, covering an area of 16 square kilometres. It truly has a tropical island feel to it, and you are never too far from a palm-fringed beach (stereotypes are so adequate in creating the image, aren't they?). The scenery mainly comprises of rubber and coconut plantations (yes, we sat on the beach munching on some hand-picked coconuts). Transportation is by foot, motorbike, bicycle or hotel vehicles. Cars are virtually non-existent, as there are so few roads. There is electricity, but it has not been around for all that long. In late 2006, it was rated as one of the "World's Top 10 Secret Beaches". By Aussie standards, that's quite a tall order, but it is truly justified. The secret is out! So, if you visit, leave only your footsteps! We do not want another Pattaya!

We also managed to scuba dive on the island. There are only three schools and we chose Ploy Scuba Diving. Realistically, how bad can diving off a non-mainstream, and secluded island be? We took a speed boat out, and did two wonderful dives, and the conditions were brilliant. As I have mentioned before, it's another world down there. Each place we have visited (diving) has been different; like its on-land counterparts, the sea also has a variety of different species and plant life. There is however something unnerving about "breathing" underwater. It's this amazing sensation, which at the same time is juxtaposed with this bizarre feeling of something somewhat unnatural. It's not for everybody, but say I: You have to try everything in life at least once, and if you like it, keep going back for more!
After a week or so of lazing, eating, diving, sun baking, eating, sleeping, lazing, relaxing......oh, sorry, got carried away.....we decided to move onto another small and secluded island. Have I mentioned what a hard life this is? We were on a roll. Decisions, decisions. Ko Kood, here we come. Again, we took an inter-island speedboat. Getting there was half the fun, as we flew past a crystalline sea, scattered with a multitude of islands, some tiny and with only a solitary palm tree. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, it could, and it did! Stuff that movies are made of!

We were on Ko Kood (or Ko Kut) in what appeared to be no time at all. Covering 105 square kilometres, although obviously bigger than Ko Mak, being further south, it also seemed more isolated. There were very few people on our speedboat, and the few that were on it, seemed to have resort-style accommodation organised. We checked out a la-de-dah style place at first, but soon found Mark House Bungalows. What a place, tranquil, relaxing and only minutes away from the beach. Will I go on ad nauseum about the beach? Why not! More golden stretches of sand, confronting a sea whose beautiful clear waters were remarkably pristine, all amongst a backdrop of drooping coconut palms. Ah, la isla bonita! Talk about unleashing the romantic (or the very tired and weary traveller) within. The kind of place where stereotypes really do the whole set up justice.

I probably shouldn't be letting the cat out of the bag here, but Ko Kood's remote location has ensured that it hasn't attracted the masses of people or developers looking to make a few quick bucks, oops,baht. This makes it yet another idyllic island get away. But, take heed! Same rule applies as Ko Mak, if you come visit, leave your footprints and nothing else! We noticed almost immediately that whilst bigger, there were certainly less people. Mark House Bungalows were actually Balinese style bungalows, which were both right on the Klong-Jao River and only 100 metres away from the Klong-Jao beach. A simple and clean wooden bungalow, with ceiling fan and outdoor shower, we could vividly see the spectacular blue sea, and the white sand beaches lined with coconut trees from our porch. I truly sigh deeply as I recall that view. I remember thinking, at this point, how very close we were to returning home. What would await us and how would we cope? What would be in the jungle that awaited us?

So, how did we spend our days? I began my day with a run along the beach (and if it wasn't in the morning it was just before dusk) as I dragged myself out of sun bake mode. Mark House included free coffee, tea, and bread, so we would start our day with this as well as some fresh pineapple and yogurt. Pineapples from tropical locations and which have not been cold stored are phenomenal! Instead of being tart and tasteless, they are sweet and succulent. Yum! After a lazy lunch we would either go to the beach right in front of us, or take a walk in either direction, to find an even more secluded and tucked away beach. This was supposed to be their high season, and whilst the locals were not too excited about a lack of people, Alex and I felt like we had hit the jackpot. During the day, we would munch on a little something to tie us over, and once home, showered and rested, we would hit one of the local restaurants for dinner. One in particular, had such an amazing vegetarian green curry, that we were ordering it almost every night. "Pet, pet", please! Hot, but amazing, we beaded liked we'd done an hour in the sauna!

Mark House also included free kayaks and we kayaked on both the river and beach on several occasions. Whilst their concept of safety is completely different to ours, we had lots of fun. Life jackets? What are they? Get in and she'll be right mate! Well, I am a water baby, and I used to be a life guard and swimming teacher, so I was undeterred. As day turned into night, the views from the kayak were particularly amazing. This island had an ethereal, almost surreal quality. Is this where people in utopia live? We also visited the Klong Chao Waterfall, which was a relatively short walk from where we were staying. By world standards, I must say that it was rather average, and the surroundings not very clean, which did nothing to entice me into the water, despite the fact that it was an extremely hot day. Alex was a better person than I was, and hopped in for a quick splash. On the walk back, we befriended some Thai people, that were returning from a picnic at the falls, who kept offering us beer. They had limited English, and well, what can I say about my Thai, but somehow, we made ourselves understood. Through sign language I tried to explain that I just did not like beer. Surely Alex liked beer? He obliged and they were stoked. It was a brilliant exercise in camaraderie, and it's amazing how others can be so genuine if you show even the slightest bit of interest.

A quick note on this island: Several small resorts on the island cater to mostly Thai tourists who prefer a quiet and family-friendly atmosphere. So far, thankfully, there aren't the ridiculously over-the-top style resorts that many westerners seem to prefer. Thus, there aren't that many foreigners on the island, and those of us that do find this little haven, are more than happy with it the way it is, thank you very much. We had spent nearly a week on Ko Kood, and we had not seen a solitary vendor selling tacky t-shirts, souvenir wood carvings or henna tattoos. Let's just hope it stays this way!

You know what they say about good things? Utopia had come to an end, and before we knew it, we were on a small speedboat, making our way back to Trat. As the sun sparkled in our eyes and danced on the water, the wind whipped through our hair, and as we looked back the coconut trees got smaller and smaller as Ko Kut's utopian golden beach faded into oblivion. I felt both euphoric and sad at the same time. In my mind's eye, I blew the island a kiss and told it that I would one day see it again!


Ombi

"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing." - John Powell

















(Photos: 1.- Bangkok skyline. It's come a long way from the backwaters of only a few years ago. 2.- On the ferry from Trat to Ko Mak (Mak Island). 3.- Ombi and Megs on the ferry from Trat to Ko Mak - what can I say about how difficult life is! 4.- The morning view from Sunset Resort, Ko Mak. No silicone, no airbrushing and no colour enhancements. This is it! 5.- The crew at Pano Resort, Ko Mak. 6.- Megs and Alex on one of Ko Mak's spectacular beaches.....doing an ad for Toyota! 7.- Another un-airbrushed un-siliconed Ko Mak beach...secluded, of course. 8.- Ombi with the dive instructor of Ploy Scuba Diving. Between "dive breaks", there was some lunch and a rest on yet another secluded island! 9.- Who remembers Bo Derek? Well, that's Bo Ombi...sunset in Ko Kood (Kood Island). 10.- More idyllic bliss, Ko Kood. 11.- Alex with a plethora of fine Thai food on Ko Kood.....happier than a pig in the proverbial! 12.- Kayaking whilst watching the sunset, Ko Kood. 13.- Alex with a group of happy Thais, walking back from the Klong Chao Waterfall, Ko Kood. 14.- A secluded Ko Kood Beach (I know I am bashing the word secluded to death.....but I am truly telling it as it is). 15.- Goodbye Ko Kood! On the ferry back to Trat. 16.- Sunset on Ko Kood. 17.- These hiking shoes were new when I bought them in Australia just before we left. They had been worn to death, and it was time to lay them down to rest!)

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