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Koh Kood, Koh Cool

by JOHN BORTHWICK

 

Jungle-clad Koh Kood is the last, brave frontier of Thai tourism. How so? Because this, the nation’s fourth largest island, doesn’t have a single ATM. Even more extraordinary in the land of a million mini-marts, there’s not one Seven-Eleven. Well, not yet.

As you read, Thai experts no doubt are working to rectify this virginal oversight. Meantime, Koh Kood, tucked way in the far southeastern corner Trat province on the Gulf of Thailand, not far from Cambodia, does already have good resorts, great diving and plenty to do for visitors who don’t want to do very much.

“There’s no success like excess,” quipped Oscar Wilde. Koh Kood has jungles, beaches, serenity and even luxury in excess. And so far tourism there is a success. At about 25 km long by 12 km wide, much of this hilly, densely forested island is a Royal Thai Navy reserve — a possible, although not guaranteed, defence against being gnawed away by resort developers and land-grabbers.

Reefs and smaller isles surround Koh Kood, the second largest island in the Koh Chang Archipelago. Longtime resident and dive master, Mike Misic of Paradise Divers drives me and my friend Ree to his boat. Along with two Dutch girls who are learning to dive, we chug easily down the west coast to Analay Reef where the bottom is sandy and the gin-clear water is only 10 metres deep. Overboard we go, Ree and I snorkeling and the others, plus their instructor, descending with scuba tanks. It’s a couple of hours of liquid delight, with fish flitting through fan corals and bommies. Further off, says Mike, are more challenging dive sites like the rock pinnacles of Koh Chang and the corals of Koh Maak and Koh Rang National Park.

We head back to shore and hop on a motorbike to the river at Khlong Chao where Ree has a sea-kayak. We paddle — well, mostly I do — upriver for half an hour, along a pristine, mangrove-walled channel that opens out to tumbled rocks and a waterfall. Nam Tok Khlong Chao falls in a beautiful three-tiered cascade to a large pond that after wet season, I am assured, is excellent for swimming. I, of course, have arrived in the dry season.

Back on the bike, we head to Ao Salad, an inlet where octopus boats, creaking piers, geranium pots, lobster pots, nets, drying squid and all the vital detritus of a fishing village are evidence of local lives not yet over-run by tourism. Even so, the village name, Ao Salad, which means Pirate Bay — for this is where Gulf pirates long ago took shelter — has inspired the names of a chain of good, mid-range hotels elsewhere on the island: the Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell resorts. Twee but true.

Jack Sparrow is nowhere to be seen today, and you wouldn’t even call the place a café, but we sit on the old pier of Ao Salad, drinking cold beer and wolfing down fresh crab and grilled squid. As they say in the advert clichés — priceless.

This aromatic island, of casuarinas, woodsmoke, fireflies and mangroves, has around 40 guesthouses, small hotels and a few luxury resorts, all well spread out, and mostly along the west coast’s white sand beaches. Koh Kood’s 2000 permanent residents traditionally work in fishing, rubber and coconut plantations, and increasingly in tourism.

The newest luxury resort here is Cham’s House at Haad Takien beach on the southwest coast. My Ocean View Villa looks out (as the name promises) onto a Gulf beach where the original Man Friday — OK, Person Friday — would feel right at home. Clear waters, crisp waves. No picket line of condos overshadowing the shore. No jet-skis, go-gos or beer bar bogans. Not yet.

Cham’s charms include rooms and villas, a beachfront restaurant with WiFi and a massage table beneath a shade tree on the lawn. This is a place for romantics, singles or families; in fact, anybody who craves a tropical shore without a karaoke or head-banger bar next door.

Koh Kood’s Six Senses Soneva Kiri resort is about as upmarket as you can go without needing oxygen. The classic speedboat transfer, the electric golf buggy that’s yours for the duration, the Hill Villa that, at 448 sq metres area, is about the size of a hill village. Those are the basics. My villa is equipped with an iPod loaded with a redundancy of 18,000 songs, but I don’t know how to work it. Do I call my butler for help? Hell, no. By missing out on 18,000 tunes, instead I hear birdsong sonatas and jungle cricket overtures.

Soneva Kiri’s architecture is a designer riot of sun-bleached woodwork, pavilions, aeries and decks that let you overlook heaven, or at least its shores. Then comes food to the power of truly wicked. But the absolute gob-stopper is the Chocolate Room where the whole pantheon of dusky, cocoa-born devils — mousses, truffles, cookies, etc — demand that you just say “yes” every time.

I flee to the yoga pavilion where a gorgeous instructress distracts me for an hour. Temporarily detoxed and de-choxed, I soon undo it all by dining on delicious stir-fried bass and red curry prawns at the resort’s over-lagoon restaurant, Benz — so named after its much-valued Thai chef, Khun Benz. (Her father, she explains, had the first Merc in his town and named her after it. So, why not Mercedes? And, a good thing he didn’t buy a Hummer.)

Steamy, undeveloped, bit-hard-to-get-to Koh Kood is a bounteous place, but might its excesses also spell its doom, a la Koh Chang? Not yet. The sands, so far, haven’t been hived off to beach umbrella bosses, the waters to the jet-ski mafia and transport to taxi extortionists — problems that plague many other Thai beach destinations. If you’re after Patong-Patpong-style electric ladyland nightlife with bar fines, bells and wolf-whistles, this is not the place for you.

Unlike its large neighbour, Koh Chang, whose once-beautiful west coast has been mercilessly strip-mined for mass tourism, Koh Kood still has a chance to get it right — as long as we care.


Getting There: Bangkok Airways fly Bangkok-Trat direct, daily. (www.bangkokair.com.) The one-hour flight is followed by a 50-km drive to Trat pier and then a one-hour fast ferry trip to Koh Kood, from where most resorts will transfer you if you’ve made reservations.

Information: www.kohkood.com. Cham’s House: www.chamshouse.com. Six Senses Soneva Kiri: reservations-kiri@sixsenses.com