KOH HABITATIONS: TRY THESE ANDAMAN ALTERNATIVES
By John Borthwick
Two Andaman isles, Koh Phayam and its snoozy neighbour, Koh Chang — the other Koh Chang — haven’t yet been washed away by the tides of tourism. To visit them you go via a coastal town (with a confusing name) that is worth a good look-see.
Visitors ask: “I get to Koh Phayam and Koh Chang via Ra-nong or Ray-ong?” The two names might sound similar but the towns are asalike as soap and som-tam. One, not far from Pattaya, is best known for its controversial petrochemical plant. The other one, a little gem, is hardly known at all.
Ranong-on-Pakchan, aka Ranong-Below-Radar, is an Andaman Sea port town tucked in under the southernmost tip of Burma. Few foreigners come here for its own sake — as opposed to passing through en route to two low-key Thai holiday islands that float just offshore. As alternatives to Phuket, the “Acapulco of the Andamans”, on neither island do you find yourself entangled with a mob of moon-raving tripsters or massed tour groups.
This Koh Chang — not the one “with same-same name” in the eastern Gulf of Thailand — is just 18 sq km in area and has some 20 small resorts with bungalow-style accommodation. Low, sandy and therapeutically uneventful, this is where you retreat for slow beers, long reads and longer walks. But, not all is soporific. My friend Ree once saw 30 horn bills there in a single tree. Beat that, Walking Street.
Meanwhile, south of Koh Chang, Koh Phayam has more elaborate but still unpretentious lodges, such as the friendly Bamboo Bungalows, plus a mere handful of bars and no cars — so far. You get around on motorbikes along narrow concrete paths. Come late afternoon, Phayam’s west coast beaches like Aow Yai get truly gorgeous when the cicadas and the Andaman sunset crank up the volume together.
If somnolent, insular life like this isn’t your cup of sand for too long, then Ranong town is also a launch-pad for more energetic Andaman excursions on live-aboard dive boats to legendary spots like Richelieu Rock or Black Rock and encounters there with whale sharks and manta rays.
It’s a 20-minute, 500-baht long tail trip across the Pakchan River from Ranong to Kawthaung (formerly Victoria Point), Burma’s most southerly town, for either a visit to its casino island (if that’s your thing) or a revolving door visa run for another 15 days in Thailand. Burma (Myanmar) visa costs are currently US$10 for Kawthaung area only, but check first. If you’re cashed-up, a yacht cruise to Burma’s unplundered Mergui Archipelago, departing from Kawthaung, is a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to what has been called, accurately, “a marine Shangri-La”.
Ranong town, capital of the province of the same name, sits 570 km southwest Bangkok and is a slice of authentic Thailand — or, perhaps Chinese-Thai land. Settled and developed by Hoklo immigrants from the Fujian region, Ranong’s streets are lined with traditional shop houses that sell everything from washing machines to gold. The town of around 25,000 people is clearly prosperous (going by the size of its banks) and yet it lacks the dubious Siamese (or anywhere) twins of HiSo vanity and LoSo disadvantage. Evidence: I spot just one BMW and no beggars.
It’s a seemingly egalitarian town whose main tourist attraction is free: the public hot springs. And, believe me, they are hot. At the open-air Raksawarin baths I (the only farang in sight) first try the 40-degree Centigrade pool. Four minutes of allegedly medicinal scalding in this lobster pot has me fleeing to cool off in the 35-degree pool.
True, Ranong isn’t picture postcard-pretty or nostalgia soaked (in fact, parts of it are quite drab). Its ace is simply that it is real. I stroll up the main drag, Ruengrat Road — no touts, no come-ons — pass the gold shops (not today, or tomorrow), check out the markets (which never much thrill me, anywhere), consider a Chinese temple or two and a new-old wooden palace, and then look for a watering hole. There’s beer or coffee at Pons Place (plus travel bookings and WiFi) and then a fine feed of fresh garlic prawns at the Hideaway.
Amid the demands of 21st century tourism — that every town or island should brag a flash-bang festival, galactic resort or trawl mall of déjà-vu franchise shops — Ranong and its satellite islands offer the perfect antidote: good ol’ down-home Thailand.
Getting there. Ranong is a four-hour drive north from Phuket. Nok Air flies daily from Bangkok (Don Mueang); the airport is 23 km south of Ranong. The nearest train station is Chumphon, 120 km east.
– Koh Chang: www.wikitravel.org/en/Ko_Chang
– Koh Phayam: Bamboo Bungalows right on the beach and the sunset. www.bamboo-bungalows.com
– Ranong: Numsai Khaosuay Resort is a four-star haven of calm with swimming pool. www.numsaikhaosuay.com
– BurmaBoating, luxury yacht cruises. www.burmaboating.com
– Kawthaung: Victoria Cliff Hotel. Bungalows with a view of the Andaman Sea. www.victoriacliff.com