Going Up The Andaman Coast – An Island Odyssey
Ah, the Andaman. Whether you come for blinding-white beaches and glimpses of isles where James Bond once stood, or just hedonistic nights on buckets between the pearly blue bays, you sure not to leave disappointed…
From Krabi To Jum
"Koh Jum," I repeat, my best Thai accent more of a cacophony of peaks and troughs. I'm faced with a puzzled face.
"Name. John?" It's the hopeful reply, a culmination of all our efforts of cross-lingo chatter.
"Kooo Jummm", I try, again. I'm dragging out all the vowels now. For some reason, I think the secret lies in the vowels.
"Ah, Koh Jum." Woo. We made it.
The smiling lady prints a ticket, scrawls some name – not really mine but close enough – on the top and hands it over. It looks like I'm heading to Koh Jum.
The boat purrs out from the ramshackle towers and crooked piers of Krabi Town early next morning. Stacks of rucksacks shake as the waves slosh against the bow, breaking in colors of turquoise and green against the paint-peeling ferry.
As we leave the bay, a wide arc of karst mountains rises in the distance. It's the sort of jaw-dropping coastline you can expect all around south-western Thailand; a land carved by rain, spiked by towers of rock and draped in wild jungle, all descending with a flurry of caves and headlands and – most importantly of all – beaches, straight into the Andaman Sea.
It's the beaches that put little Koh Jum on my map. Whispers of some of the few remaining Robinson Crusoe sands, palm-topped and empty, in the bustling region brought the little dash of land midway down the edge of Phang Nga Bay to the forefront of my mind. I heard tales of white-yellow powder and see-through shore waters where schools of fish dart this way and that. It wasn't hard to sell it to me and I was fast to the boat booth to bag a ticket.
It's not long before I hear the call – "Koh Jum!". It's yelled by a buff sailor in a Man United top. He's busy tying the ferry to a timber longboat that's sailed across from a beach in the distance. Tethered and as stable as can be, I'm soon hopping gaps in the water and dragging my backpack onto a second ship. I pull away from the ferry and leave crowds of other travelers en route to better-known kohs wondering where I'm headed.
A sigh from the sand and a lap of the waves later and I'm hopping over a flapping Thai flag on a longboat bow to a beach of postcard standard. Palms and softly swaying casuarina trees loom overhead, casting their leafy outlines across the water. I stand in wonder for a moment. No deckchairs. No beach bars. No clumps of red-faced weekenders from Bangkok. No sleazy expat bars. No thumping Full Moon Party joints. It's just me, the sands, the trees, the departing longboat and the slow breathing of the Andaman Sea. Paradise.
I find myself a hidden bungalow in the forest. It's a 5-minute stroll from the long beachfront I've just been dropped at. Owned by a perpetually smiling local whose menu of homecooked coconut curries and stir-fried rice is already beckoning, it's also got a garden with swinging hammocks and shaded bowers, all set to the sound of chirping geckos and mooing cows – Jum is about as rustic as they come down here.
My trio of days are spent wandering, castaway-like, along the gorgeous western shores of the isle. I discover a clutch of small and tasteful resorts where families recline in the shade. I see hulking mountains a little to the north, dressed in jungles and ringed with salt-washed karst stones. I find earthy little street-food shacks selling soy-doused morning glory and the best ginger-tofu mishmash I've ever had.
From Koh Jum to Koh Lanta
Time to leave Koh Jum island is never time to celebrate. Nonetheless, I can't help but smile satisfactorily as my reggae-singing longboat man dips the propeller and takes me out to meet the ferry bound for Koh Lanta. The sun's beating down on deck and the happy nostalgia of that secret isle in the Andaman has already kicked-in.
Two hours later, I'm hopping onto the pier of another island. 'Welcome to Koh Lanta' proclaims the sign overhead. It's no Jum, that's for sure. There are street stalls sizzling up spring rolls and juice joints touting stacks of mangos and orange. There are tuk-tuks sitting in the shade and, most noticeably, streams of people leaving or heading for the docks.
I bounce dust plumes and hop potholes on a side-cart rickshaw to a place called Relax Beach – a cracking name, eh? I arrive and find a wide arc of palm-lined sand peppered with bamboo-built bars. There's oodles of room – again, it's no Krabi or Ao Nang. The Andaman's waves wash across black-stone rocks on both sides of the bay and a couple of fishermen twiddle with their nets behind longboats speckled with crustaceans.
I've lucked out again. Relax Beach really is, well…relaxing. I bed down in a nearby shack from where the rolling of the waves is just about audible. At night, I hit reggae bars to pay homage to Lanta's long rep for Marley-esque off beats and half-ska tunes. I glug beers down in Klong Khong, where the neon-painted backpackers coalesce after dark. I dance to dub and reggae and chat about the local veggie eateries and animal welfare center. Koh Lanta's that sort of place.
Days turn into a week and the call of the Andaman is soon pressing once again. It's back to the pier, a jaw-jittering ride from Relax Beach to the bobbing boats.
Koh Lanta to Koh Phi Phi Don
Phi Phi's place in the legend of the Andaman is well-known. The packed ferries that hop over from Phuket and Lanta and Krabi and elsewhere are a testimony to the sort of mythic reputation it's managed to garner.
As I break the waves on a boat heading across in the early morning, it's easy to see why. It is pure drama from head to toe. Great spires of stone shoot straight from waters that glow green-blue and moss color below. There are inlets that tantalize with just a flash of white-hued sand. There are pockets of wild jungle draped on the peaks.
And that's not even mentioning Koh Phi Phi Leh, the near neighbour. That was catapulted into the travel brochures way back when Leo DiCaprio headed there on his own coming of age odyssey in The Beach. Take just one glimpse at the famous Maya Bay, its pearly lagoon, its blinding beach, its palms and spindly sea grape trees – you'll instantly see why it's such a prime locale to set a film about escaping from the Rat Race.
Back on Phi Phi Don and I'm strutting through a heady maze of pizzerias and muay Thai arenas, of soy-scented noodle stalls and bars that look ravaged from the exploits of the night before. I find my bed and throw the windows open to reveal a landscape of chiselled mountains and jungle and beachfront; the quintessential Andaman, only busy. Like, super busy and fizzing with energy.
Cue the night time on Phi Phi: The province of partiers. I find that out as I hit an Irish bar and knock back a bucket. I see the blaze of fire shows is starting to illuminate the beach on the far side of the island. I head there for an evening of thumping tunes, dancing under the stars and mingling with other backpackers on the Andaman trail.
Koh Phi Phi Don to Phuket
I must admit, I'm not looking forward to Phuket so much. Tales of downtrodden expat bars and sleazy "massage" joints have bolstered stories of unmanageable traffic and crowds to create an image of somewhere un-Andaman-like in the extreme.
Rassada Pier is my first intro and I'm dreading what's to come as I'm herded from an overpacked boat and into a stuffy minivan. The streets are gritty and grimy as I honk and horn through the red lights en route to the prettier western coast. I'm hoping there's somewhere there I might like, somewhere calmer and worthier of the Andaman tag than what I've seen so far.
I pull up between the resorts of Surin. Pools splash and sundecks unfold all around – this is clearly the honeymoon capital of Phuket. I manage to find somewhere not bursting with 5 stars and degustation restaurants to check-in and then head straight through the cafes and trees towards Surin Beach.
My heart's hoping for a Jum-esque stretch of sand. Hoping for somewhere light, powdery and preferably empty. I get about half of what I'm after because Surin is undeniably beautiful. It's shaded by rows of palm trees and it's got water that glows a perfect turquoise tone as the sun starts to arc overhead. It's just the peppering of little cocktail joints and bars that keep me from transporting myself back to a real desert paradise, but I lay my towel, close my eyes and hear the lapping of the Andaman nonetheless.
For my next day in Phuket, I decide to strike out and see if I can discover somewhere more hidden on this much-trodden isle. According to my hotel staff, it is doable. Cue Laem Singh, a small inlet of daffodil-tinted sand that hides to the south. I'll need to walk some patches of jungle and hop some rocks to get there, they say. The payoff? Think fewer people and stunning views of Phuket's rugged headlands on either side.
It takes a couple of hours but I'm soon there, pulling off the trail shoes to leave my footprints in the un-footprinted sands of Laem Singh. I've got my secrecy, even if a few tanning bodies have also joined me on my quest. And the water in this little cove of tropical handsomeness is perfect; crystal-clear and blue as the sky.
Phuket to the Ao Phang Nga
En route from Phuket back to Krabi, I see an opportunity to make another detour in this enclave of the Andaman. It comes courtesy of the Ao Phang Nga National Park, which sits fragmenting into islets and bays midway between the two destinations.
I get there by water: Another bumping longboat ride from a nearby pier. It's worth the side-to-side of the waves, though, because soon the breathtaking outline of Ko Khao Phing Kan – otherwise known as James Bond Island – comes into view.
Limestone karsts command the horizon there and the surrounding arena of vine-clad spires and tree-topped cliffs draws gasps and sighs of wonder from the crowds. The main beach on the island is quickly revealed to be a tacky mass of unwanted souvenir stalls and touts, but I opt to go beyond that on a kayak. I'm then in a world of overhanging rock faces and little inlets and bays that no one else can see. The Ha Long of Thailand, if you will.
We make stops in the fabled Phi Phi islands and the rugged coves of Railay and pretty Ao Nang beach as part of our Western Islands and Jungle tour. If you'd like to see what the wonders of the gorgeous Andaman are all about, we'd love to have you on board in 2018. Alternatively, we've also got oodles of other itineraries on offer for the Land of Smiles…