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Unspoiled Thai Islands (Just Don’t Call then ‘Paradise’)

By John Borthwick

Koh for it among these Thai islands that haven’t been hammered by “discovery”.

Thailand has 2700 km of shoreline and miles of isles. Try skipping the major moshpits like Phuket and head for a few of these islands where taxis and bucket booze don’t yet define “paradise”. Because — as they say — “Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

Phang Nga Bay Marine Park. One hundred ancient limestone islands jut like sleeping mammoths from the waters east of Phuket. (Local creations myths tell of them as a herd of elephants that were trapped by the incoming tide.) Prowling amid this insular Jurassic parking lot you find gems like donut-shaped Koh Hong — “room island” — that is best explored, inside and out, via a sea kayaking expedition.

Further north is Koh Phing Kan aka “James Bond Island” which, since its bit part in the 1974 Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun”, has been a tourist magnet. A yacht skipper once cautioned me, “James Bond Island is crap, a tourist trap.” I went anyhow. And half of what he said is true. Not so much an island as a frenzied T-shirt stall.

So, still in Phang Nga Bay, chug your way down south, past Koh Lanta to another koh hong, Koh Muk, deep in Hat Chao Marine Park. Here you can swim into Tham Morakot, “the Emerald Cave,” where a winding, dark, 50-metre tunnel opens out into an interior grotto whose roof has collapsed, leaving a ceiling of sky above a sunlit beach. The sideshow on a busy day here might be encountering a conga-line of 50 dog-paddling Thais tourists, wearing lifejackets (many can’t swim), roped together and being drawn along through the darkness, happily thrashing and chattering, by a guide with a flashlight.

Phang Nga’s last offering is Koh Rok Nok where we go ashore on an untouched, unnamed beach to find a banyan tree bedecked with ribbons, spirit altars and dozens of carved wooden phalluses, some of impressive dimension — it’s a local fertility shrine. Snorkeling here happens amid what my friend calls not schools but “clouds” of fish. Info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phang_Nga_Bay

Koh Si Chang, Gulf of Thailand. Along with Koh Samet, this is Pattaya’s closest resort island but, unlike Samet, Si Chang (30 km north of Pattaya) is hardly on the radar. Popular with weekend Bangkok escapees, it is now marketed as the Island of Eternal Love, despite its name meaning something closer to “hate” than “love” in Thai. See Atsadang Bridge, built by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and the remnants Hat Tha Wang summer palace, which he abandoned it in 1893. Koh Si Chang is 12 km by ferry from Siracha and offers bungalows and eateries. Info: www.kohsichang.net

Koh Ang Thong, Gulf of Thailand. Ang Thong (“Golden Jar”) was the setting for the cult novel, The Beach. Thirty km northwest of Koh Samui, this Marine National Park of 42 islands has spectacular limestone formations and lagoons but very limited accommodation. There is diving, snorkeling and kayaking for day-trippers on the long excursion out of Koh Samui. Highlights include Koh Mae Ko and the beautiful Emerald Lake. Info: www.angthongmarinepark.com

Koh Kret, Chao Phraya River, Bangkok. No tropical paradise-gone-purgatory here. No cars, no sand, no sea. Just north of Bangkok in a kink in the Chao Phraya River, this island of villages, potteries and concrete pathways was created in 1722 by digging a channel across an ox-bow bend in the river. Koh Kret is famous for the terracotta and earthenware pottery made by its ethnic Mon inhabitants. Catch the Chao Phraya Express boat from Saphan Taksin pier to Pak Kret, Nonthaburi, and then the ferry from Wat Sanam Neua. 

Koh Laoliang, Andaman Coast. Just off the coast and right off the grid. “Laoliang is that rare thing in Thailand: a gorgeous beach that isn’t overrun with tourists, longtail boats and shacks selling fruit shakes and fried rice.” So wrote my friend Lou on her first visit. And it’s true. Laoliang, a small island in Koh Petra Marine Park, sits 20 km off the Trang shore. Only 40 pre-booked visitors allowed at a time, in quality tents along the beachfront. (Price: 1700 baht per person per night, which includes basic meals). Instead of day-trippers, phone and WiFi you get snorkeling, rock climbing, sea eagles and kayaking. Open November to April. Transfer from Trang’s Hat Samran pier by longtail boat. Info: www.laoliangisland.com

Koh Tachai, Andaman Coast. North of the Similan Islands and south of the Surins (or 130 km north of Phuket), this low-key, day trip island offers no accommodation. Forty-seat speedboats depart from Khao Lak for the one-hour journey, with the farang price (including lunch) at about 3000 baht a head. There’s a small lagoon and walking trails. Open mid-Oct to mid-May. Info: www.tachaiisland.com

Koh Phra Thong. Andaman Coast. While you’re in the area check out Koh Phra Thong about 10 km off the port of Khuraburi. In the middle in a group of three islands, Phra Thong is flat, with long empty beaches fringed by palms and no crowds. Limited accommodation. This is the closest island to the famous Richelieu Rock dive site, (which is best enjoyed via a liveaboard boat). Info: www.kohphrathong.com